Friday, April 24, 2009

Offensive linemen the Steelers might draft

Guest post by Nick Beckwith ...

Last year’s offensive line performance was, as the Emperor Chaz might put it, “want.” Offensive line is not the Steelers’ only need, of course, and in fairness the line did play significantly better as the season went on. But for the Steelers to defend their Super Bowl title or build and maintain a foundation for success over the next few years the O-line must improve. Dramatically.

My analysis will focus on players the Steelers can get at #32 (or in later rounds). Left tackles Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe would be too expensive to trade up for, and will be long gone before the end of the first round. Many have wondered where Ole Miss LT Michael Oher, [subject of the book "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis] will go? I would guess somewhere between #12 and #20, probably out of range to trade up for even if the Steelers wanted him. Like many of the professional scouts, I admire Oher and consider his story to be quite moving, but I am not crazy about his game (too much finesse). James Harrison (who uses a low, leveraged, bull rush) is the kind of player that would give Oher fits on the next level.

The only first round tackle Pittsburgh could reasonably hope to acquire is Eben Britton (Arizona). Britton is a better football player than athlete with a great work ethic and competitiveness. Nonetheless, he has reasonably quick feet and a year in the Steelers’ weight room would improve his already good hand punch. He might start ahead of Willie Colon right now and has the potential to start at right tackle for ten years. Philadelphia’s trade for tackle Jason Peters earlier this week makes Britton’s acquisition by the Steelers at least plausible, if not likely.

Many draft guides regard this as a terrible year for offensive guards. In my opinion, the prognosticators are wrong. There are a number of good guard prospects, it’s just that many of them played center or tackle in college. The one that I have rated most highly (and could start in place of RG Darnell Stapleton) is Alex Mack, a center from the University of California. Mack has great intensity, good footwork, a good hand punch and a killer instinct. What he doesn't have is ideal core strength, so he struggles against large nose tackles if he does not get a good initial ‘fit’ on his man at the snap. He also winds up on the ground occasionally because he whiffs at second level defenders in an effort to deliver a kill shot. Nonetheless, I view him as the best prospects at his position and with his work ethic and commitment, one of the safest selections in the draft.

Another late first round guard-center prospect is Eric Wood (Louisville). He had some success blocking nose tackle prospects B.J. Raji and Ron Brace at the Senior Bowl (Raji is compared by many to the Chargers' Jamal Williams and our own Casey Hampton). This illustrates the difference between he and Mack. Wood has a bit more core strength, and is better able to straight ahead block powerful defensive lineman. However, he is not as mobile and less able to pull and pick off downfield defenders.

Penn State center A.Q. Shipley is another notable player, and will be available on the second day of the draft. This is because he has limited versatility, center being the only O-line position he is likely to be able to play at the NFL level. Shipley (6-1, 301, 5.2) is smart and makes all the line calls. He has good technique, athleticism, and fantastic upper body strength (39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the Combine). So what's the problem? He is too small. There is concern that big defensive tackles will be able to ‘walk him back’ in pass protection and that his short arms will leave him unable to fend off pass rushers. But so-called overachievers like Shipley have traditionally done well in the NFL, particularly on the offensive line. He is worth a fourth round pick. Unfortunately, Kevin Colbert has made no secret of how much he likes this kid, so that might force the Steelers to spend a higher pick than they would like. (Honesty is the greatest sin an NFL personnel man can commit.) And it’s uncharacteristic of Colbert, who is usually wonderfully tight lipped and noncommittal.

An interesting big school ‘sleeper’ is Xavier Fulton (6-4, 302, 4.91) out of Illinois. A tremendous athlete with exceptional speed for the position, Xavier played left tackle for little more than a year; previously he was a defensive end. He’s not yet strong or experienced enough to start; in fact he is at least two years of good coaching and weight room work before being able to start. But he has athletic ability rarely found at his size and could be a prototypical left tackle if he works and studies hard and is diligent in the weight room. A boom or bust pick, I expect another team may grab him higher than the Steelers would be willing to, but he is intriguing and if he can translate his potential into production he could be a regular at the Pro Bowl. A third- to fifth-round pick perhaps.

T. J. Lang (6-5, 305, 5.21) of Eastern Michigan lacks Fulton’s inherent athleticism, and has only faced small school competition, but he brings the heat and leaves everything he has on the field. Lang has the height and arm length to play right tackle, but not the feet to play on the left side. While it is unclear how high his ceiling is, his dedication makes him the kind of player one wants on the roster, both for his character and his ability to play multiple O-line positions. He’s believed to be a fourth- to sixth-round pick.

Meanwhile, Andy Levitre (6-3, 305, 5.29) of Oregon State is a left tackle who has everything but power. He makes line calls, has excellent technique in pass blocking and in run blocking, has short area quickness and setup, and is adept at pulling and nailing second level defenders. Moreover, most evaluators feel he is versatile and athletic enough to play all five offensive line positions. Yet he doesn’t bring a lot of thump, something that is more critical in the AFC North than in some other divisions. A fine football player, but the Steelers’ offensive line coaches will have to make the final determination on whether his skills suit Pittsburgh’s scheme or if he would be better off in a zone (read finesse) scheme. A second- or third-round prospect, but in what system does he fit?

Fianlly, Dallas Reynolds (6-4, 314, 5.4) of BYU is unlikely to become a starter, but a will be a good contributor, the kind of guy a shrewd scout wants to acquire. He's intense, smart, and has good size. But he has slow hands and feet and can be walked back by a bull rush. Yet he has played every position on the offensive line; we are talking about the ultimate sixth lineman or ‘swing man.’ Depth is hard to come by in the modern NFL and players like Reynolds demonstrate how good decision making matters, even in the later rounds and free agency. Reynolds should go in either the sixth- or seventh-round or be a priority free agent.

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