I was thinking today about who the Pittsburgh Steelers might take with their first-round pick, the 31st in the 2011 NFL Draft. (I try not to trouble myself with speculation beyond the first round, since so much beyond that point is dictated by exciting draft day trades, where teams shoot up or down the board to snatch players they covet or to extract maximum value out of their draft position. That, and I'm not particularly well-versed in fifth-round long snapper prospects, as there are so many hours in the day.)
Most NFL Draft prognosticators have Pittsburgh selecting a big man of some stripe at the end of the first round, and this makes plenty of sense. The 2010 season was characterized in part by injury after injury to the Steelers' offensive line and often-dubious line play; they lost their two starting tackles for the season, and right guard remains perhaps the weakest starting position on the roster. On the other side of the football, Pittsburgh's 3-4 defensive line is excellent but old - and not particularly deep.
The selections of defensive end Ziggy Hood in 2009 and center Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 have already signaled the organization's commitment to replenishing their talent up front, so the assumption that the trend will continue in 2011 is far from a foolish one.
Bear in mind that the Steelers' front office is renowned for keeping its palm off the panic button and selecting based on perceived need, especially when there's excellent talent and value at another, less obvious position staring them in the face. Now here's a question for you to ponder: What positions can we really rule out?
The answer, as I gave it more thought, turns out to be "not too many." Besides quarterback, running back, center, and wide receiver - where Pittsburgh has either quality starters, tremendous depth, or both - and positions that should never go in the first round (unless you're the Oakland Raiders), like kicker, punter, and fullback, the Steelers could surprise those of us who merely assume they'll snag a big man on Day One.
Don't get me wrong - at this pre-NFL-Combine juncture, I think it's likely that head coach Mike Tomlin, Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, and the rest of their staff will select one of the following big guys:
- Mike Pouncey, G - Florida
- Rodney Hudson, G - Florida State
- Nate Solder, T - Colorado
- Gabe Carimi, T - Wisconsin
- Derek Sherrod, T - Mississippi State
- Phil Taylor, DT - Baylor
- Stephen Paea, DT - Oregon State
- Cameron Heyward, DE - Ohio State
It's possible that the Steelers will view a couple of these guys, like Hudson, as second-round talents, and proceed accordingly.
Granted, conventional wisdom has produced quite a list of potentially valuable guys at positions of need, any of whom could be ripe for the picking at selection No. 31. But don't be surprised if the Steelers go with a cornerback (Brandon Harris - Miami; Jimmy Smith - Colorado; Aaron Williams - Texas) or a linebacker (Akeem Ayers - UCLA). Tomlin said recently that there's "no question" his organization will be examining this year's crop of cornerbacks carefully, given the impending free agent status of Ike Taylor and William Gay.
If a great talent begins to fall into the early or mid-20s, Pittsburgh won't be shy about pulling the trigger and trading up, as they did for wide receiver Santonio Holmes a few years ago. Alternatively, if the Steelers have a willing trade partner and think they'll be able to acquire more potential starters in the later rounds, Pittsburgh could trade down and target more positions during the second day of the draft. (This wouldn't be a bad strategy if they're particularly fond of the draft class, since so many of Pittsburgh's starters are entering the twilights of their careers.) A second-round safety would definitely be a possibility in such a scenario.
The front office has surprised even the most attentive fans before (hello, Rashard Mendenhall), and typically, Pittsburgh's picks have panned out. Sure, Colbert may use his first-round selection on a behemoth for his offensive or defensive line, and mock drafts are fun, don't get me wrong - but just don't pretend you know what he's thinking. (I sure don't.) Otherwise, you'd be the GM, wouldn't you?
We'll know more following this week's NFL Combine, when collegiate prospects showcase their raw skills, giving scouts (and fans) some hard data to sink their teeth into. Be sure to check back with SB Nation Pittsburgh for updates.