After more than a decade of ridiculous success, I have come to regard the first round of the NFL Draft as something of a second Christmas. Every year I wait for Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert to select the next star for the Black & Gold, and I am almost never disappointed. My annual victory dance, performed with gusto after every one of Pittsburgh's recent first-round selections, has become so sacred that I can't believe I am about to say this: The Steelers should trade out of the first round.
Hear me out.
For a conference champion, the Steelers have a lot of needs. Everyone knows that offensive line is still a problem area for the Steelers. I don't know a single fan who is anxious to watch another season of Jonathan Scott getting blown up, no matter how many injuries we have to deal with. The tackle position is of particular concern, as the Steelers have only Max Starks (coming off of a serious injury in 2010), Willie Colon (contract and injury problems), and Flozell Adams (older than both of your grandfathers combined) as serious contenders to start.
Pittsburgh has had to deal with similar injury problems on the defensive front. Defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are still elite players when they are on the field, but injuries have made them tough to count on. To make matters worse, Casey Hampton, 33, could use an heir.
Finally, the Steelers could really use a corner. The Saints, Patriots, and Packers taught us a valuable lesson: the Steelers are vulnerable to teams that like to spread the field. A young corner or two might be just what the doctor ordered.
Thankfully, there is reason to believe that the Steelers can address all of those need in this year's draft.
Though we should always be suspicious of what information coaches and GMs are willing to give away before the draft, it is worth mentioning that Colbert has twice stated publicly that this year's draft class is rich in talent at positions that the Steelers probably covet.
At the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, Colbert singled out the tackle position as being particularly deep in this year's draft. In the months that followed, Colbert at least behaved like a man who means what he says, scheduling a few mid- to late-round tackle prospects - James Carpenter, Jarriel King, and Marcus Gilbert - for pre-draft visits. Pitt standout Jason Pinkston has also paid a visit to the Black & Gold front office recently. In another interview at the NFL owners' meetings, Colbert again extolled the virtues of this year's tackle crop, but he also made sure to highlight the depth at cornerback and wide receiver and on the defensive line. It is, of course, unclear whether Colbert is tipping his hand or blowing smoke, but the fact that he seems excited about nearly every position of need in this year's draft should come as welcome news to Steeler Nation.
But if the Steelers are right about the depth and quality of the players they could take this year, it only makes sense to try to acquire as many picks as possible. Unfortunately, the Steelers did not receive any compensatory picks from the league, meaning that they will have to get by with their original seven picks alone. According to the NFL trade chart that all teams supposedly reference, moving down from the No. 31 overall pick to say, No. 36 could net the Steelers an extra fourth-rounder, if not more.
In fact, the Steelers might find lots of suitors for such a trade. I think the most likely trade partners are those teams who possess early second rounders and gaping holes at the quarterback position, such as the Cardinals, Bills, Titans, or even the Broncos. All of these teams could end up fearing that an organization above them, such as the Patriots or the Bengals, are taking a signal caller in the second. If the Panthers take a player not named Blaine Gabbert with the first overall pick, then you can expect lots of quality QB talent to slip down draft boards, making it even more tempting for one of these teams to give the Steelers a call.
If the Steelers do trade down, they are likely to find lots of quality talent left to choose from. There are a number of corners, for instance, that could still be around in the second, including Texas' Aaron Williams, Virginia's Ras-I Dowling, Utah State stud Curtis Marsh, and - my personal favorite - Texas corner Curtis Brown. (Some sites consider Marsh and Brown to be middle-round talents, but I don't think either of them will last through the second round.) OLs like Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana or Baylor's Danny Watkins could be available in the early second as well. Finally, the Steelers could easily grab a great five-technique defensive lineman like Baylor's Phil Taylor or Muhammad Wilkerson of Temple if the conditions are right.
In the end, it seems difficult to second-guess Colbert when it comes to first-round strategy. If the Steelers pick somebody at No. 31, it probably means that they did their homework and absolutely had to take him in the first. On the other hand, the Steelers have never ducked out of the first in the Colbert era; perhaps this is the year to give it a shot.
Waiting around that much longer to see who the Steelers pick is hardly an attractive proposition for most fans, but hey, at least we can still laugh at whomever Cleveland chooses. And the Steelers might get a few extra contributors too.