It’s tough deciding what went worse for the Pittsburgh Steelers: The late-season swoon that started soon after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was injured or the lengthy list of offseason departures and sordid tales of locker room woes.
The Steelers ended the 2012 campaign with five losses in their final seven games. Then, valuable contributor Mike Wallace left via free agency. Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison quickly followed. In a continuing, but nonetheless peculiar trend, Pittsburgh brought back more aging former Steelers in William Gay and Matt Spaeth.
Stories of locker room discord also circulated, and the leadership qualities of Roethlisberger came into question yet again.
It all makes the 2013 NFL Draft an extremely important event for the franchise.
The Steelers have holes, lots of them, and need to start addressing them.
This draft won’t fill all their needs, but it will prove crucial in providing depth and continuing the process of replacing an aging yet statistically effective defense.
And, let’s be honest, the AFC North no longer belongs to Pittsburgh. Baltimore is the reigning Super Bowl champion and Cincinnati, for all its issues, has qualified for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. As for Cleveland, well, the Browns are improving.
On paper, Pittsburgh enters the upcoming season as the third-best team in the division, at best.
Does it mean Pittsburgh has no chance at making another postseason run? No.
When Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers always have a chance.
But it’s time to find him help, but it won’t start tonight with the first round round the draft. Offensive help will come during Day 2.
There are pressing needs at multiple positions: Running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back. Some might argue offensive line is a position of need considering the consistent pressure Roethlisberger faces, but the Steelers have dumped too much money into the front five to spend another first-round pick there.
If the Steelers decide to go running back, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is the pick, but there’s not first-round worthy talent at the position.
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is an outstanding prospect at tight end, but chances are he’s not available when the Steelers make the 17th selection. If Eifert is, the Steelers will be tempted to draft Heath Miller’s replacement.
Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee owns the physical attributes – speed – to replace Wallace and give Roethisberger a down-field threat. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin may be the best skill-position player available. Don’t expect him to fall below the Jets’ second pick at No. 13.
Georgia linebackers Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones have been linked to the Steelers. Both are talented and played in the SEC. Ogletree, however, has off-field questions and Jones, who was once pegged as a top-five selection, has spinal stenosis. Both players could provide immediate help to a defense in desperate need of an outside pass rush.
Ogletree and Florida State’s Bjoern Werner are tempting, but passable.
Jones is a different story.
He can play defensive end or outside linebacker, the type of versatility the Steelers covet. And considering the Steelers won’t trade up to land the best defensive player in the draft – Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd – landing a player of Jones’ caliber despite poor workouts for scouts is what has made the Steelers a landmark franchise.
The guess here is several teams will be tempted to select Jones, but will backoff and the Steelers will jump at the chance to fill their biggest need, which is improving the pass rush.
Mike Kovak is sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.