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Tomlin Report - NFL Draft Edition

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Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert met with the media on Monday to discuss the team's direction and options in the upcoming NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night and runs through Saturday evening.

76TH Annual NFL Draft
First Round – Thursday, April 28 at 8:00 PM
Second and Third Rounds – Friday, April 29 at 6:00 PM
Rounds Four through Seven – Saturday, April 30 at Noon

*All three days of the draft will be broadcast on ESPN and NFL Network
 
OFFSEASON FREEZE
Pittsburgh, as well as the other 31 franchises in the National Football League, is currently under a roster freeze as a result of the NFL lockout. No players may be signed or traded by the club at this time, meaning that any potential free agents or future draftees will have to wait until the lockout ends in order to negotiate contracts with the team.

OFFSEASON NEWS

  • Pittsburgh made one change to its coaching staff in the offseason, bringing in former defensive back Carnell Lake to replace the departed Ray Horton as the team’s defensive backs coach. Lake served as a Steeler from 1989-98, earning four trips to the Pro Bowl as well as a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990’s. Lake previously coached defensive backs at UCLA.
  • Horton left to join Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, adding another body to what is jokingly referred to as Pittsburgh-West.
  • Pittsburgh’s final roster act before the lockout was to designate LB LaMarr Woodley as its franchise player, keeping him with the team for at least another season and possibly opening the door for a long-term extension when the 2011 NFL season officially resumes.
  • The Steelers announced that they have renewed their partnership with radio station WDVE for another five seasons, keeping gameday broadcasts on the dial at 102.5 FM and 970 AM.

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Franchise Player

LB LaMarr Woodley – The general thought going into the offseason was that the Steelers might have to choose between keeping Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor unless one, or both, would agree to “hometown discounts.” Woodley earned the franchise tag and, as such, will remain with the team for at least one more season (unless he is traded).

Restricted Free Agents - Tendered
RT Willie Colon*
– Colon endured a lost season in 2010, suffering a major injury before the team even took the field for training camp. The team slapped the tackle with a first-round tender meaning that it will receive a first round draft pick should another team sign him. His spot on the team remains unclear, however. Flozell Adams is expected to return for another season creating the possibility that Colon could switch to guard.
QB Dennis Dixon – Dixon earned the starting job at quarterback at the beginning of the season thanks to Big Ben’s suspension and an untimely injury to Byron Leftwich. Dixon quarterbacked the team to two wins before an injury forced him out of the lineup and on to Injured Reserve.
CB William Gay* – Gay has generally served as the team’s third option at the corner position, taking the field in situations that warrant an extra defensive back. However, he has failed to recapture the level of play he exhibited in 2008 – one of the reasons that cornerback is a top-three need for the Steelers this year.
OT Tony Hills – Hills looked like a steal for Pittsburgh in the 2008 draft, but he has yet to live up to those expectations. Even with a battered rotation on the offensive line, Hills failed to secure significant playing time. While he may remain with the team for another season, the clock is running out on Hills.
TE Matt Spaeth* - Spaeth is a decent blocking tight end who doesn’t offer much in the passing game. The team has tendered him at the lowest level.
*These players are restricted free agents according to current labor laws, which determines that fourth and fifth year players are restricted. It is expected that, under a new CBA, such players will be unrestricted free agents going forward. The team has tendered each player in the event that’s not the case.

Restricted Free Agents - Untendered
P Jeremy Kapinos
– Kapinos is an Exclusive-Rights Free Agent meaning other teams will be unable to match any offer by the Steelers. His return is dependent on the health of starter Daniel Sepulveda.
OG/C Doug Legursky – Legursky is an Exclusive-Rights Free Agent meaning other teams will be unable to match any offer by the Steelers. Considering his versatility and the “above the line” performance he put in filling in for Maurkice Pouncey, it’s almost a certainty that Pittsburgh will bring him back.
S Ryan Mundy – Mundy was the first up to replace starters Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in injury situations and also logged time as an extra defensive back in nickel situations. He has developed into a quality backup at this point in his career and will likely remain with the team.

Unrestricted Free Agents
DE Nick Eason
– Eason performed admirably in a starting role thanks to injuries to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. Pittsburgh will try to bring him back as a primary backup.
OL Trai Essex – Essex lost his starting right guard job around midseason but saw playing time filling in for injured starters at multiple positions along the line. With a possible logjam on the offensive line looming in 2011, Essex could be on his way out unless his versatility earns him a backup role.
NT Chris Hoke – Hoke plays a decent number of snaps behind starter Casey Hampton and, like his other brethren on the defensive line, he continues to play despite being “old” in football terms. His return is dependent on whether or not the team addresses the position with a draftee in the first few rounds.
LB Keyaron Fox – Fox took a few crucial (and head-scratching penalties) in the playoffs but he remains a valued asset as captain of the special teams. He could return in that role unless someone steps up to claim the captaincy.
CB Anthony Madison – Madison could be that man as he is also a valuable contributor on special teams. Madison will likely be back unless the team brings in a number of fresh faces at the corner position.
RB Mewelde Moore – Moore just completed his third season serving as the team’s third-down back and primary backup to bell-cow Rashard Mendenhall. Moore’s abilities in the passing game make him a valuable asset, but the progress of young runners in Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer could force Mewelde out of town.
P Daniel Sepulveda – Sepulveda may not be the most important free agent the Steelers have, but he could be their biggest question mark. His 2010 season ended with an ACL tear, the third of his career, leaving his future in doubt. The Pittsburgh brass will only re-sign him if they are certain he can return to 100%. If he does return to full health, he’s one of the better punters in the league. Unfortunately, his long-term outlook is not positive.
OT Jonathan Scott – Scott logged time at left tackle after starter Max Starks went down with an injury. Long-term, Scott projects as a backup tackle for this team and has a decent chance of returning.
K Shaun Suisham – Suisham replaced longtime kicker Jeff Reed at midseason and was 14-of-15 on the season but just 3-of-5 in the playoffs. Suisham will likely remain with the team unless they can dig up another option through the draft or free agency.
CB Ike Taylor – Perhaps the most important free agent the Steelers must deal with this offseason. Taylor has cemented himself as a number-one corner and should have a few good years left in the tank. Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to develop corners nearly as well as it does with front-seven talent, which makes Taylor that much more valuable to the defense. Ultimately, Taylor’s price tag will be the deal-breaker when it comes time to re-sign him.
LS Greg Warren – Warren remained healthy for the entirety of the 2010 season and went completely unnoticed, which is a good thing for a long snapper. The snapping job is his to lose at this point.

DRAFT NEEDS
Cornerback –
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary was exposed without a healthy Troy Polamalu, particularly in a tough loss in the Super Bowl. The team has one true option at the position, Ike Taylor, who is currently a free agent. Bryant McFadden and William Gay have both taken a step back from a stellar showing back in 2008’s championship season. Pittsburgh could and should address this need early in the draft, perhaps by bringing in Miami’s Brandon Harris or Texas’ Aaron Williams with its first-round selection.

Offensive Line – Last year’s group was all quantity and not as much quality. Outside of Pro Bowl rookie Maurkice Pouncey, no one on the line looks like an upper-echelon starter at their position. The team does have valuable depth and a slew of versatile backups, but would be best served adding some talent to the top of the lineup. Possible first-round options include Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod, and Colorado’s Nate Solder– all of whom play offensive tackle.

Defensive Line – Even with the emergence of Ziggy Hood at defensive end, the Steelers need to inject more youth into a rapidly-aging line, especially considering Aaron Smith’s injury woes in recent seasons. If Pittsburgh wants to address this need early, it would be at the defensive end spot, likely with Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward. Pittsburgh could find some value at nose tackle in later rounds.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES
A Look Around the AFC North

Baltimore (12-4) owns the 26th overall pick of the draft and also enters the weekend with a major need at cornerback. All of their top four corners are either free agents or recently injured and all lack size at the position. All the same, Baltimore remains one of the teams that could possibly trade down with another team looking to move up for a second first-round pick.

Cleveland (5-11) owns the 6th overall pick in the draft and has a myriad of needs on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, as most teams picking in the top-ten often do. On defense, Cleveland could be interested in the top corner in the draft, LSU’s Patrick Peterson, to pair with last year’s selection, Joe Haden. Another possibility is picking up one of the top defensive lineman, as such players currently litter the top of the draft board. Offensively, the team could prioritize bringing in a wide receiver such as A.J. Green for QB Colt McCoy.

Cincinnati (4-12) owns the 4th overall pick, which they could use to select one of the top QB’s in the draft. Carson Palmer has not backed off on his vow to retire instead of playing for the team in 2011, leaving the Bengals with a huge hole at the position. Offensive Line is also another huge need as former top-ten pick Andre Smith continues to struggle with consistency and injury. Later needs include wide receiver and safety.

2011 SCHEDULE
Steelers 2011 Preseason Schedule

Friday, Aug. 12.................. at Washington.......................... 7:30 p.m. (KDKA-TV)
Thursday, Aug. 18............. PHILADELPHIA.......................... 8 p.m. (FOX/WPGH-TV)        
Saturday, Aug. 27 ............. ATLANTA................................. 7:30 p.m. (KDKA-TV)
Thursday, Sept. 1............... at Carolina.............................. 8 p.m. (KDKA-TV)

Steelers 2011 Regular-Season Schedule
Sunday, Sept. 11............... at Baltimore............................. 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Sept. 18............... SEATTLE.................................. 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Sept. 25............... at Indianapolis.......................... 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Oct. 2................... at Houston............................... 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 9.................. TENNESSEE.............................. 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 16................. JACKSONVILLE.......................... 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 23................. at Arizona................................ 4:05 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Oct. 30................. NEW ENGLAND.......................... 4:15 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Nov. 6.................. BALTIMORE............................... 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Nov. 13................ at Cincinnati.............................. 1 p.m. (CBS)
Sunday, Nov. 20................ Bye
Sunday, Nov. 27*............... at Kansas City........................... 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday, Dec. 4*................. CINCINNATI.............................. 1 p.m. (CBS)
Thursday, Dec. 8............... CLEVELAND.................................. 8:20 p.m. (NFL Network/KDKA)
Monday, Dec. 19................ at San Francisco........................... 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, Dec. 24*............. ST. LOUIS................................... 1 p.m. (FOX)
Sunday, Jan. 1*.................. at Cleveland............................... 1 p.m. (CBS)
*Time and TV Network may change due to flexible scheduling.
**All times are Eastern (EST).


ACCORDING TO TOMLIN
“No. [The first pick] is as far as I’m concerned.” –
When asked if picking 31st (the spot inhabited by the team that loses the Super Bowl) is the worst spot to pick in the draft.

“Just in general for me it’s an attractive endeavor. As Kevin mentioned, almost in all cases those guys are ready from a football standpoint. And they are probably not ready from any other way you look at it. Personally as a coach, and someone that is involved with young people, you like to be a part of that growth and maturation process in all the other areas. I think it just strengthens the upside that they have as football players.” – On picking draft-eligible juniors as opposed to college seniors. Both coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert acknowledged that most juniors (listing Maurkice Pouncey as an exception) are not mature and mentally prepared coming out of the draft, but that it is nice to have a part of said players becoming more mature individuals.

ACCORDING TO COLBERT
“Pretty much we started out with about 1,000 names, we probably have roughly 400 more detailed, cumulative-type reports that include several scouts and coaches. You narrow that down to probably about a 200-player draft pool.  Narrow that down a little further there is probably about 160 that really fit the Pittsburgh S
teelers. What I say by that is we probably eliminated 40 or so guys based on character, medical or not really fitting our defense. More specifically guys that are a better fit for a four-three defense rather and a three-four. And really when you look at the 160, there is probably 100 that we think could improve our team and they are all at different levels throughout the draft.” – Discussing the process of whittling draft possibilities down as the process wears on. The process generally starts around May with the 1000 players and ends, of course, with the completion of the NFL Draft.

“When we really break it down we probably see about 20 special players that are going to be we think unusual players in the league. But again, I think we can get a make-it type player, a player that can make our roster and help contribute really all the way thru the sixth round if these numbers came off clean, which they never do.” – Discussing the incoming draft class, which Colbert says features a good amount of talent at running back, wide receiver, tackle, guard, defensive tackle, quarterback, and linebacker.

“We are going to draft for our team as we know it today.” – On how he and his staff will approach the draft with a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the team’s free agents. Colbert did acknowledge that the team as he knows it does not include players who are free agents.

“We always balance the talent versus the need and if it is close, if two or more players are close we will always take the player of need. But what we don’t do is to reach for a specific position. That is where the biggest mistakes have been made and I think will continue to be made.” – Discussing how the team approaches the term “best player available.”

“The philosophy that this organization follows was developed long before myself or my scouts got in. Art Rooney Sr. set a standard, and he and Coach Noll put together a philosophy that the organization believes in. We just fall in line with that.” – On the team’s reputation of building successfully through the draft.

LOOK FOR…
The Steelers to surprise both fans and draftniks alike with picks that seem a little odd at the time. Pittsburgh has made a career out of making the smart decision, rather than the popular one, and their wise way of drafting earned them two rings in the past decade.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…
If Pittsburgh uses this year’s first-round pick on an offensive lineman, it will be only the second time since the merger that the team used first-round picks on the same position in back-to-back drafts. The only previous instance was when the Steelers doubled-up on wide receivers in 1999 (Troy Edwards) and 2000 (Plaxico Burress).

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