Like many NFL teams, the Steelers have gone to the top end of the draft to build their offensive line.
When they opened the 2013 regular season, four of their five starters on the offensive line were taken in the first two rounds of the draft. Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro were first-round picks; tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert were second-round selections.
That has been the blueprint for many NFL teams in the past six years, especially in 2013 when a record nine offensive linemen (five tackles, three guards, one center) were taken in the first round. And teams have not been reluctant to play their young linemen right away, either, despite the notion that many coaches and general managers think it is the toughest position to learn for NFL rookies.
Of the 22 offensive linemen selected in the first two rounds since 2012, 18 are starters heading into this weekend. That does not include two starters -- rookie guard Jonathan Cooper in Arizona and guard Amini Silatolu in Carolina -- who are on injured reserve.
It also does not include Adams, who lost his starting job at left tackle after a horrid performance against the Minnesota Vikings in which he allowed three sacks, two additional quarterback hurries and prevented another sack with a holding penalty. He has been replaced for the game today against the New York Jets (3-2) by Kelvin Beachum or newly acquired Levi Brown, who had been a starter in Arizona since his rookie season in 2007, right up until the time he was traded.
"Offensive linemen have become a priority," said former Dallas Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt.
The case of Adams, the 56th overall pick of the 2012 draft, is not anything new. He has struggled in pass protection, both at right and left tackle, forcing the Steelers to bench him and execute a rare midseason trade to acquire Brown, who has never lived up to the expectation that goes with being the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft.
It remains to be seen, though, if Adams will go the path of tackles such as Tony Ugoh of Indianapolis and Jeff Otah of Carolina or guard Danny Watkins of Philadelphia -- linemen who were selected in the first two rounds but were quickly discarded by their teams. Or if he will be like tackle William Beatty of the New York Giants, the 60th overall pick in 2009 who didn't become a starter until 2011. Beatty has started 30 of the past 31 games for the Giants.
"Honestly, every individual is different," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, a studio analyst for CBS Sports who will be in the broadcast booth today at MetLife Stadium to watch his former team. "It takes some players longer than others to mature, some longer than others to understand what's expected of them. You don't want to give up on players."
Then speaking more specifically about Adams, Cowher added: "Some need to be pushed, prodded; others need a pat on the back. I don't know where he falls. There's talent there and you just find a way to get it out of him on a regular basis."
Make no mistake, NFL teams look to the top end of the draft when trying to find linemen, especially tackles, to protect their million-dollar quarterbacks.
According to a study compiled by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 75 linemen have been drafted in the first two rounds since 2007 -- 52 tackles, 15 guards and eight centers. Of the 75, 62 are full-time starters, including three players who have been placed on IR this season -- Cooper, Silatolu and Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, a first-round pick in 2010.
That number, though, doesn't include Brown, who started 79 of 81 games in Arizona, or former Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe, the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft who was traded two weeks ago to the Baltimore Ravens.
That means the success rate for offensive linemen selected in the first two rounds -- those who are starting -- is 82.6 percent, a number that resonates favorably with NFL personnel.
Of course, not all those top picks have panned out. In that seven-year period, 10 of those top picks have moved to new teams, four have been traded and three were cut by their drafted team. One -- tackle Menelik Watson of the Oakland Raiders, a second-round pick this year -- has yet to play.
The Steelers are hoping Adams is not one of those.
"In two years, you know what you have," said former Steelers running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge. "As long as they haven't been hurt, you know what you have in two years and, often times, you know immediately what you have.
"Now with the political dynamics in the NFL, if you're drafted high, I mean, you can stink and you're still going to be there for two years, period, because you were drafted in the first round and nobody is going to admit we screwed up, we made a mistake.
"Guess what, the free agent that came in is better than him. However, we drafted him in the first round, we don't want to look stupid. You look dumber when you keep a guy in that position just because he was drafted in the first round when he can't play."
A roll of the dice
It is not uncommon for teams to start more than one rookie on the offensive line.
The Chicago Bears start two -- first-round pick guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills -- the first time they have done that in 30 years. The previous time was in 1983 when tackle Jimbo Covert and guard Rob Fada, two former Pitt players, lined up side by side to start the season.
In 2006, the Jets drafted two offensive linemen in the first round -- left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson with the fourth overall pick and center Nick Mangold with the 29th pick -- and started them in the season opener. Since then, Ferguson has started 117 consecutive games -- most among active tackles -- and missed only one snap. Mangold has missed two games, both in the 2011 season.
Today, the Jets start another rookie, Brian Winters, a third-round choice, at left guard. He replaced Vladmir Ducasse, a second-round pick in 2010, who struggled with protection and penalties.
"We have some guys that have come in and had some success as rookies and then there are others that struggle," said Jets coach Rex Ryan. "I'd still say that's probably the toughest position to come in because the speed of the game. You're seeing so many different fronts and techniques. It's tough. We're fortunate that we drafted Brian Winters. We feel really good about him."
Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com, has charted the number of offensive linemen selected in the first two rounds from 2001-10.
In that 10-year cycle, NFL teams drafted 56 tackles, 22 guards and 20 centers. Add in the past three seasons and the numbers grow significantly, especially at tackle -- 79 tackles, 30 guards, 24 centers.
"What's happened is, we used to take players and develop them," Brandt said. "For example, Pat Donovan was one of our Pro Bowl left tackles [with the Cowboys]. He was a defensive end in college. Tom Rafferty was a defensive lineman in college and we moved him to the offensive line.
"What we tried to do was find athletic guys that were maybe a little small or a little slow on defense, but because of their athleticism and long arms, they were able to convert to offensive linemen."
Former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian said he doesn't understand why any team would take an interior offensive lineman -- guard or center -- in the top 20 picks. And, for the most part, NFL teams don't.
Even DeCastro, considered the top guard in the 2012 draft, lasted until the 24th pick when the Steelers selected him.
This year, though, Arizona took Cooper seventh overall and Tennessee drafted Alabama guard Chance Warmack 10th overall.
In 2010, San Francisco took guard Mike Iupati 17th overall -- the first time they had drafted an interior offensive lineman in the first round since 1968 -- and the Steelers selected Pouncey with the next pick. Each was an instant starter. Each has already been named All-Pro.
Polian also said teams can't rely solely on scouting reports to determine a lineman's value. For example, because the Colts offense was always centered around Peyton Manning, he said he based his evaluations more heavily on a lineman's pass-blocking ability rather than his run-blocking skills.
"The draft is still a little bit of a crapshoot," Cowher said. "Some guys are ready and more mature to step right in, others are not as ready. It's not a reflection of a poor choice or reflection that a guy is not as motivated as someone else. It's getting acclimated, and some are more mature than others. It takes some time to understand that you're a professional, the level of expectation and that it's your job, not a game. It's different for different players."
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM