It's time. The Steelers have ignored their defensive line far too long in the draft. That should change today.
They last drafted a defensive lineman in the top three rounds when they selected nose tackle Casey Hampton with the 19th overall pick in 2001.
A major reason they did not take one on the first day of the draft in the past seven is the success of their defensive line.
Aaron Smith, drafted in the fourth round in 1999, has been the best 3-4 end in the NFL for years. Brett Keisel and, before him, Kimo von Oelhoffen have done a capable job at right end since 2001. And Hampton has ranked among the best nose tackles in the league since he was drafted.
That, and the play of backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, has allowed the Steelers to ignore their defensive line high in the draft, and there is no reason to believe their play will differ in 2009. There is one thing no one can ignore, however, and that is the age of those players and their contract situations.
Smith is 33, Hampton will be 32, Keisel will be 31, Hoke is 33 and No. 1 backup end Travis Kirschke will be 35 when the season starts. Hampton and Keisel are entering the final year of their contracts.
The Steelers have made lukewarm attempts to add depth and perhaps hit it big in the middle rounds as they did with Smith. They failed in each instance.
They drafted two defensive ends in the fourth round recently: Ryan McBean in 2007 and Orien Harris in '06. Neither is on their roster, nor are ends Shaun Nua or Eric Taylor, seventh-round picks in '05 and '04.
It's time to invest more in a position that means so much to their style of play.
The linebackers in the 3-4 defense get the sacks and the glory, but it's the underrated play of the line that allows those linebackers to swoop in and make the big plays.
Yes, they can use a wide receiver/kick returner, and everyone knows they need more offensive linemen. And they can draft all of those -- later.
There are enough decent wide receivers in the draft and no special ones where the Steelers pick in the first round.
For years, the Steelers found offensive linemen later in the draft. Of their starting guards, Chris Kemoeatu was drafted in the sixth round and Darnell Stapleton not at all. Starting right tackle Willie Colon came in the fourth round. Also, while many believe their offensive line is not a good one, it is a young one and all have been fitted for Super Bowl rings.
The Steelers have paid plenty of attention to the center position in the weeks leading to the draft. The best should be available to them when they pick at No. 32 -- Alex Mack of California, Eric Wood of Louisville and Max Unger of Oregon. Long a position of strength, the Steelers have had three starting centers in the past three seasons. Justin Hartwig did a nice job last season after signing as a free agent, but he will turn 31 in November and is entering the final season of his contract. The only center behind him is Stapleton, the starting right guard.
With more teams moving to a 3-4 defense, the center plays over huge nose tackles and needs the size and strength to do it. Many believe the Steelers can draft Penn State's A.Q. Shipley of Moon in the middle of the draft as their center of the future, comparing him to Mike Webster, a fifth-round choice in 1974. Shipley is smaller than the others, and his 29 Â 1/2-inch arms are said to be too small to hold off the bigger tackles in pass protection.
Perhaps, but what the Steelers need more is someone with those long arms on the other side of the ball. They need a young defensive lineman to rotate with their ends this season and be ready to perhaps take over in 2010. And they might be able to grab him on the first round and hope one of those three centers slides to them in the second.
That player is Evander "Ziggy" Hood of Missouri. He is a 6-2Â 1/2, 300-pound defensive tackle who would play end in the Steelers' 3-4. He has Aaron Smith-like qualities about him, including his drive and what scouts like to call his nonmeasurables. He has the kind of attitude that would fit in perfectly with them.
While Hood would be a good choice, the Steelers have to cross their fingers and hope they get a chance to draft him. Some mock drafts have him available at No. 32, some have him gone by then. They might be tempted to move higher in the first round to get a shot, something Kevin Colbert has been willing to do in past drafts.
If not, and Hood is selected, there likely will not be another defensive lineman worth the pick at No. 32, and they could then draft their center and perhaps go after a defensive lineman in the second round, such as Fili Moala of Southern California.
It's also not a stretch that the Steelers could draft two defensive linemen today, an end and a nose tackle. Faced with an aging linebacker corps, the Steelers made linebackers their top two picks in 2007.
It's time to replenish their defensive line, and it does not have to end with the first round.