No. 1 and beyond: The Post-Gazette counts down to the NFL draft

The first pick gets the headlines. But the Steelers have nine picks in next weekend's draft, so those other eight are equally important

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Kevin Colbert declared the Steelers had no holes to fill in their starting lineup a few years ago. It looked that way last year, as well. After all, they had just won the Super Bowl and lost no starters in free agency.

What a difference 8-8 makes. There still are few obvious holes in the team's lineup, but the increasing age of their starters, their contract status, their diminishing talent level and the depth behind them could present major problems for the Steelers in 2008 if they do not get a handle on it now.

It's not so much holes they need to fill but rather replenish. The Steelers can use help at virtually every position but quarterback. They have nine draft choices -- one in each round plus compensatory picks in rounds four and five -- to do it, barring trades that could add or subtract picks.

Colbert, the team's director of football operations, has a new partner in coach Mike Tomlin, whose draft philosophy may not be known but likely won't differ in its basic form from his predecessor, Bill Cowher.

"I'll take help in all three phases, really,'' Tomlin said. "We've got to put together a great football team and that requires men who are capable of making plays in all three phases, and not just on offense and defense, but special teams is a big part of that, so we're evaluating all men in all areas."

Tomlin does not believe his first draft will hold any symbolism or make a statement by him.

"No, this is the Pittsburgh Steelers looking for good football players and it will always be that,'' he said.

Thus, a closer look at where the Steelers stand and what they might do to help themselves in the draft:


Backfield: The Steelers won't draft a quarterback, unless they plan to convert someone such as Troy Smith to another position the way they did with Antwaan Randle El. They also likely won't draft a fullback, but they would like to have a young one on their practice squad to possibly groom to replace Dan Kreider, who turned 30 last month and enters the final year of his contract.

Somewhere, they should draft a halfback. Tomlin wants to use two. He has Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport was re-signed. John Kuhn remains on the roster. Verron Haynes was released but continues to rehab his injured knee as he tries to make a comeback with the Steelers.

Receivers: For a team that drafted one in the first round last year (Santonio Holmes), signed one in free agency the year before (Cedrick Wilson) and has the Super Bowl MVP once removed (Hines Ward), the Steelers would seem to be set at this position. They had a lot of second-tier receivers visit them in the past three weeks, though, and they'll probably dip into the deepest position in the draft and grab one. Preferably, they'll find a receiver with speed.

It's also possible for them to draft a tight end, although the group of prospects is weak and they may plan to pull away from using two and three tight ends at the same time.

Line: What has been a strength the past several years and, for the most part, since Bill Cowher arrived in 1992 has the potential to dissolve quickly. Six-time Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca enters the final year of his contract, as does starting right guard Kendall Simmons. Two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings retired. The coaches have said they will try Simmons at center, even though they signed free agent Sean Mahan from Tampa to play there. Right tackle Max Starks is a restricted free agent. The Steelers have a couple of young backups as possible future starters in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Willie Colon. They need more. They need to draft a tackle and a guard, at the least, and if Levi Brown somehow slips to them, they could take him and eventually move Marvel Smith to the right side.


Line: What is likely the best three-man line in the NFL does not have the depth behind it, nor can it morph easily into a 4-3 unless the Steelers add a big tackle or end. Tomlin said he will stick with the 3-4, at least for now. He'll have to because there's little choice because of the personnel. A high draft pick could change that, someone such as Nebraska's Adam Carriker or Louisville's Amobi Okoye, both of whom visited the Steelers Tuesday. If not them, an end or tackle or both will be taken in this draft by the Steelers.

Linebackers: Whether they stay with a 3-4 or move to a 4-3, the Steelers need outside linebackers in the worst way. James Harrison was a wonderful backup the past several seasons but he's now a starter and they have no real experience behind him and Clark Haggans. Outside linebacker has been the backbone of the defense for years and they've always had good, young players ready to move up when the veterans move on. It's their top need in this draft, which is not thick with prospects.

Secondary: No position has gotten more attention at the top of the draft than this one over the past four years. Of their first two picks in each of the last four years, half were cornerbacks or safeties. That does not include cornerback Ike Taylor, drafted in the fourth round in 2003 and given a fat new contract extension last summer. But Taylor lost his job last November for poor play and Ricardo Colclough, their second-round pick in 2004, has done little. That's why many mock drafts have the Steelers taking Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis with their first-round pick. They also still have not signed strong safety Troy Polamalu, who has one year left on his contract.

Kicking game: While they are set with kicker Jeff Reed, they are unsettled at punter. Chris Gardocki, 37, no longer seems to be in their plans. He did not have a good season and they signed a restricted free agent in March, Andy Lee, who went back to San Francisco when the 49ers matched the deal. Mike Barr is on their summer roster for the fourth consecutive year and he could get the job. They could draft a punter, but at the least will sign a rookie free agent. As for their return game, rookies will get chances on punts and/or kickoffs. They lost their best special teams player, Sean Morey, in free agency and need to stock up on players dedicated to this part of the game. Also, Tomlin said he will use starters as needed here, something Cowher was loathe to do.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
The departure of Joey Porter left a glaring void on the depth chart at outside linebacker.
Click photo for larger image.

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