Steelers invest in protection plan for Big Ben


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OK, we get it. The Steelers are serious about keeping franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy for a long time. It makes sense, right? He's 30 now. You invest $102 million in a guy, you want him to be able to play every down, every game. The Steelers saw what happened to their team last season after Roethlisberger's ankle injury in early December and they didn't like it one bit. As a result, they haven't just asked Roethlisberger to "tweak" his game by taking fewer hits and sacks next season. For the third consecutive year, they have used a high draft choice on an offensive lineman.

Now, that is serious.

At 10:20 p.m. Thursday night, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the Steelers selected Stanford guard David DeCastro with the 24th pick of the 2012 NFL draft. By 10:30, Roethlisberger undoubtedly contacted DeCastro via telephone call or text to welcome him to the team. Roethlisberger would have done that if the Steelers had taken Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who went to the New England Patriots with the next selection. He does it with all of the draft picks. But he must have loved reaching out to DeCastro. It sounds as if he's going to be one of Roethlisberger's closest friends for many years to come.

"A great player," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert called DeCastro.

I know what you're thinking:

We've heard that before, right?

What else is Colbert going to say after he drafts the guy?

It's true, Colbert has said the same thing about every No. 1 pick he has made with the Steelers, from Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress in 2000 to Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward last spring. This time, though, Colbert continued to gush and gush.

"David was one of the guys we had targeted to move up to get. ... Excellent intangibles. Character. Tough. Leader. Smart. Everything you can ask for in a football player, this kid encompasses it."

Colbert said earlier in the week he doubted that anyone the Steelers selected No. 1 would come in and make an immediate impact. But that was before he knew the team was going to get DeCastro. Center Maurkice Pouncey, whom the Steelers picked in the first round in 2010, was something of a football freak, starting every game as a rookie and making the Pro Bowl. Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, whom the team took with its second-round pick last spring, became the regular starter at right tackle in the second game after Willie Colon was injured. Now, it seems as if DeCastro could be the third consecutive rookie lineman to start in his first season. Veteran right guard and incumbent starter Ramon Foster is going to have to play great to hold him off.

"You watch [Stanford] run the football, 80 percent of the time David DeCastro was leading the way," Colbert said. "He can pull. He can trap. He's a solid pass protector. The kid is good."

And you probably thought Andrew Luck was the only great player at Stanford last season.

"This kid is all business and no-nonsense," Colbert said, finally starting to slow down. "That was very attractive to us."

The selection of DeCastro made for a great start to the '12 draft. The Steelers have nine more picks tonight and Saturday. Their work has only just begun.

The team still has a need -- or rather "a want," to use Colbert terminology -- at inside linebacker after the release of veteran James Farrior. In any other draft, Hightower would have been the perfect solution to that problem. He should have a great career with the Patriots.

The Steelers also want to add to their defensive line. Defensive end Aaron Smith has retired. Nose tackle Casey Hampton will be 35 in September, is coming off knee surgery and might have just one year left. Defensive end Brett Keisel was very productive last season but he will be 34 next season. The Steelers had no chance of adding Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 11 selection.

Running back has to be a third position of want for the Steelers. Rashard Mendenhall is coming off major knee surgery, might not contribute much next season and will be in the final year of his contract. Isaac Redman had huge day in the playoff loss to the Denver Broncos -- 17 carries for 121 yards -- but has to show he can do it week in and week out. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay are the top backups as of the moment.

The Steelers will begin filling those holes when the draft resumes with the second round tonight. It's certain Colbert will be excited again when the draft ends Saturday afternoon. If he gushes half as much as he did about DeCastro, you'll know the Steelers did really well.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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