NFL Draft: It's time for Steelers to address the line
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The most important positions on a football team after the quarterback? The offensive line. At least that's the old football coach's tale.
The Steelers, though, treated their offensive line as if it were an afterthought for too many years. They picked an offensive lineman with a high pick in 2002, but didn't do so again until the past two years, drafting linemen with one of their top two picks: center Maurkice Pouncey No. 1 in '10 and tackle Marcus Gilbert No. 2 in '11.
Once the Steelers had a pretty good offensive line that included three Pro Bowl players -- center Jeff Hartings, guard Alan Faneca and tackle Marvel Smith. The two other starters were guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Max Starks. They drafted Faneca and Simmons in the first round. Hartings was a free agent signing and former No. 1 draft pick. They drafted Smith in the second round and Starks in the third.
The trouble began when virtually their entire offensive line grew old or lame at the same time. They lost Hartings, Smith and Simmons to age and retirement, and Faneca as a free agent they deemed too old for the money he commanded. Starks was the only one who hung around from that crew, and the more the coaches ignored him, the more the front office paid him.
The ultimate Starks story occurred last year when they cut him before camp, then recalled him after four games when no one else could cut it at left tackle. He started the rest of the season there. He is rehabbing from a torn ACL and remains a free agent but the Steelers may have to call him again to bring his life preserver to their offensive line.
That is, unless they can hit it big in this draft. The Steelers have Pouncey, who has made two Pro Bowls in two years. They believe Gilbert can make the transition from starting right tackle to the left side. They have Willie Colon returning after missing all but one game over the past two seasons because of injuries. They have two undrafted players as their starting guards, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. Their veteran backups are Trai Essex and Jonathan Scott.
"I never thought their offensive line was good enough," said Tom Modrak, former president of the Eagles and personnel man with the Steelers and Bills.
But Modrak said teams don't need great offensive lines to be successful, especially if they have great quarterbacks. And the Steelers have been proof of that theory.
"Everyone wants five [linemen], you don't need to have five," Modrak said. "You have a couple and you can play pretty well. If you get your left tackle and your center, and you're lucky enough to have a decent right tackle, and you can be workmanlike inside, you have a chance to be good.
"Teams get away with it. New England gets away with it because of the quarterback; they're not all that loaded up there, they move people during the year. If Matt Light retires, they'll still get away with it. Indianapolis, [Peyton Manning] threw so fast that they got away with it. You just need a couple, especially with Big Ben [Roethlisberger]."
Pittsburgh agent Ralph Cindrich, who has represented plenty of offensive linemen in his day -- including Steelers Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson -- agrees.
"You have to have a dominant couple of guys on your offensive line if you're going to be successful. The other ones you can put in and you can get by. You need the dominant ones."
The Steelers have at least one in Pouncey and hope Gilbert can fall into that category, but there's no one else close to dominant at the other three positions.
Perhaps this will be the third consecutive year they try to draft one in the first or second round. Available to them in the first round may be guards Cordy Glenn of Georgia and Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin, perhaps tackle Mike Adams of Ohio State and Bobby Massie of Mississippi.
They could find their guard in the second round too, but there's not likely to be a dominant tackle there.
"At least three and possibly four or five of those big tackle types will go in the first round," predicted Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. "Guard is a good crop. It's a solid class, just not an elite class."
The Steelers will draft some linemen this week, although whether they go for them in the first two rounds again is not a given.
"It's hard, really, with those guys to predict who's going to be able to do it and who isn't," said Tom Donahoe, former president of the Bills and personnel man with the Steelers. "But you keep trying because you never have enough; they get injured, it's a physically demanding position so you're always trying to make sure if you do get two or four injured a year, you have enough depth to fill in."
The Steelers were swamped by injuries last season in their line, starting when Colon left the opener with a torn triceps. They used nine starting offensive lines in 16 games last season.
And while they may not have paid attention to linemen in the first two rounds very often since they drafted Simmons No. 1 in 2002, neither have they ignored it. They drafted guard Kraig Urbik in the third round in '09, cut him, and he's starting in Buffalo. Tackle Tony Hills was drafted in the fourth round in '08 but didn't pan out, nor did guard Cam Stephenson (5th, '07). Tackle Chris Scott (fifth, '10) remains on the roster.
NOTE -- Dawson will announce the team's draft picks in the second and third rounds in New York Friday night.
First Published April 24, 2012 7:08 pm