Risky business: Steelers need to find an impact outside linebacker

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Two well-documented facts could work against the Steelers trying to fill their biggest need in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, that of outside linebacker.

One, they last chose an outside linebacker in the first round in 1991, and they last drafted one in the first round who did not turn into a bust 36 years ago.

Two, no rookie has become a full-time starter at outside linebacker since at least back to when they converted to a 3-4 defense 31 years ago.

So, if they're looking for someone to become the next James Harrison in this draft, their own experience will tell them they must be patient for more than a year and they should avoid drafting one in the first round at all costs. Yet they might need to thumb their noses at both.

Highlights of the PG's coverage of the NFL draft


Two or three WRs in the draft have piqued the Steelers' interest. Enough, though, to make them pull the trigger at No. 17?


The Steelers need help at OLB, yet haven't selected one with their first pick since Huey Richardson -- a name that still sends shivers.


West Virginia could have two players selected in the first round Thursday night in New York. Also: A look at Pitt and Penn State.


The Class of 2013 is deep, but not laden with top talent beyond pick Nos.6 or 7. ALSO: A look at Ed Bouchette's draft board.


With an eye on the future, is it time for the Steelers to draft another QB? And if so, what would that mean for Charlie Batch?


Like WR ... and OLB ... the Steelers need a running back. Problem is, their track record at the position in the draft is checkered.


In their final days of draft preparation, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert offer their final pre-draft thoughts and assessments.


Draft day is here, which means it's time for Ed Bouchette's first-round mock draft including his prediction for the Steelers at No. 17.

No position on defense requires the kind of nurturing that takes place with 3-4 outside linebackers. The road to starting that position in the Steelers defense became all too familiar to everyone: Draft an undersized 4-3 college defensive end in the middle to late rounds and teach him the ropes of converting to 3-4 outside linebacker.

The names of such players roll off the tongue: Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans and more. It was a golden era for the Steelers because as one of the few teams playing the 3-4 in the 1990s, they found those "tweeners" everywhere who did not fit as 4-3 ends or linebackers.

Said Tom Donahoe, who was their director of football operations then and works now as senior football adviser for the Philadelphia Eagles, "That was one of the advantages we had playing that defense, not a lot of other teams played it, so we could always find those defensive ends later, find an outside linebacker who played down in college."

Not any more. Fourteen NFL teams plan to play the 3-4 defense in 2013, and they're all looking for the same thing in outside linebackers. It has made those "tweeners" more valuable in the draft, pushing their selection higher.

"Everybody's looking for that guy now," said Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel man working as NFL.com senior analyst. "We draft 3-4 linebackers now a round or two higher than we used to."

That means the Steelers won't have the luxury of waiting as long in this draft to get one, and by all means they need to get at least one. Outside linebackers have driven their pass rush for 30 years, and they may be as thin at the position as they've been since they converted to the 3-4 in 1982. LaMarr Woodley returns on the left side after an injury-marred season.

Fourth-year pro Jason Worilds is projected to replace James Harrison, who refused to take the Steelers' offer of a cut in salary and was released. Behind them are Chris Carter, a fifth-round 2011 pick who had two solo tackles in three starts for the injured Harrison last season, and Adrian Robinson, an undrafted rookie last season from Temple.

They not only need to replenish the position for the future, but there's also an opportunity for a rookie to step into the starting lineup for the first time in more than 30 years. That would be evident if they snag someone such as Jarvis Jones of Georgia on the first round.

Jones played outside linebacker in college, where he was a dominant pass rusher, so the learning curve in the pros might not be as long as a college defensive end making the switch. The Steelers also could take Barkevious Mingo of LSU in the first round, but he likely won't slip to No. 17 and he played end in college.

Jones recorded a reported poor 4.9 in the 40 at Georgia's pro day, and that will scare off some teams.

"He's a good college player, but he's a 4.92 guy," Brandt said. "A 4.92 guy comes close to making a play in the NFL, but Mingo, a 4.55 guy, he makes the play. That's the difference in two or three hundredths of a second."

Another problem the Steelers must confront in their search for outside linebackers is that this draft is not deep in them. That will add pressure for them and competing 3-4 teams to draft them earlier than usual. And draft them they must.

Arthur Brown of Kansas State might be a possibility after the first round, but he might not last until their second-round pick. Georgia's Alec Ogletree might be off their board because he has been arrested twice in three years, including for a DUI in February, and they've had too much experience with that lately.

"I don't see any linebackers," Brandt said, assessing the strength of the class. "They have their work cut out for them.''

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published April 19, 2013 4:00 AM


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