Friday, April 28, 2006

I've been annoyed about the timing of finals this year, because they're really cutting into my obsessing about the NFL draft time. OK that's a lie, it's actually vice versa. Priorities, people.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the single biggest reason the Steelers are world champs is the way they've drafted since 2000. Here's a list of their first rounders over that period: Plaxico Burress, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller. All have been major contributors, and all but Plax were major contributors to the Super Bowl team. The only one who hasn't fully lived up to first-round status is Simmons, who's had weird health issues. All the other guys, though, would probably be picked much higher if you redrafted their year based on subsequent performance. Over the same period, these solid contributors have been drafted on day one in the 2nd and 3rd rounds: Marvel Smith, Kendrick Clancy, Kendrell Bell, Antwaan Randle El, Chris Hope, Ricardo Colclough, Max Starks, Bryant McFadden. The only first-day picks to have washed out over that time are Alonzo Jackson and Hank Poteat. I'm not going to categorize Trai Essex, on whom the jury is still way out.

Sitting at #32 with no immediate needs to reach for, the Steelers are in the classic "best available player" position. They've said they could go anywhere but QB; leaving aside the obvious positions no one will take in round 1 (P, K, LS, FB), I think it's also a safe bet they won't take a strong safety or a tight end, and probably not a nose tackle. The tight end prospects would be there if they wanted to run even more 2 TE sets, and Leonard Pope in particular has the size to be a real mauler. But I just don't see it.

That leaves these possibilities for round 1: running back, wideout, O-line, defensive end, linebacker, free safety, corner. It sounds like there are a lot of corners out there for the end of the first round, but after all the high picks spent on DBs in the last three years (Colclough, McFadden, Polamalu, Hope, plus Ike Taylor with their 4th rounder in 2003), I'd think they'll go somewhere else unless they see someone who they expect to start at free safety by the playoffs. Still, if they're going to let Ike walk after this year and they have any questions about Colclough or McFadden, I guess corner's a possibility here, but I'd think round 2 is more likely.

Wide receiver would seem to be a waste. No one thinks this is a good draft for round 1 receivers, and the 2 that might be worth taking (Holmes and Jackson) should be long gone. I've seen a few people project Sinorice Moss here, but that makes absolutely no sense since he's wee, and Steeler wideouts have to block to get on the field. I'd much rather see a trade down into round 2 or trade up with the round 2 pick to get Derek Hagan, or to stay put in round 2 or round 3 and get a Maurice Stovall or Jason Avant.

As for linemen, the only OL I've seen projected with this pick is center Nick Mangold, who's supposed to be one of the best center prospects in years. To me, that suggests he probably won't be there. More to the point, Chukky Okobi has been the heir apparent for years, and has gotten paid like someone they expect to step in and start down the road. So I don't really see it, unless Mangold or Okobi are going to move to guard. On defensive, the strangest guy I've seen projected here is Rodrique Wright, who sounds from that scouting report like the antithesis of a Steeler-type: underachieving, looks better on paper than on film, sounds like a 4-3 DT, etc. Since Casey Hampton is entrenched and still young (even by nose tackle standards), and because DE isn't really a first-round position in the 3-4, I'd be surprised to see a DL here. I'd also be surprised, though, if we get through round 4 without picking up a serviceable end.

The strangest thing for me in looking at recent draft history is that they've only drafted two first-day LBs since 2000: Kendrell Bell and Alonzo Jackson. Neither has really panned out, although Bell was good enough for 2 years not to call him a bust. Over the past 10 years the team has taken a much better LB crew on day 2 (Earl Holmes, Carlos Emmons, Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, maybe Rian Wallace) than day 1 (Steven Conley, Steeler version of Mike Vrabel, Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell, Alonzo Jackson). This either means that we're due to take a first-round LB, or it's something we just don't do. I'm leaning toward the latter, because here's a list of first-round LBs the Steelers have drafted in my lifetime: Robin Cole, Huey Richardson. That's it, that's the list.

After all that, I am left with what I consider the dream scenario--I am positively giddy about this. I don't pretend to understand it, but for some reason many drafts are projecting LenDale White to fall to the Steelers at #32. I'm no Mel Kiper, but I don't know how he isn't a top-10 pick. You could make a serious argument that he had a more productive career at USC than his backfield-mate Reggie Bush--and I for one am not convinced that won't be true on the next level as well. He's a touchdown machine. I keep reading about how he may have character issues, but the only specifics I've seen cited are that he gained exactly 6 pounds between the UCLA game and the Rose Bowl (where he rushed for well over 100 yards), and that he didn't have good workouts (where, oh by the way, he had a torn hamstring). Also, I've watched a ton of his games over the past 3 years, and he plays faster and quicker than you'd think.

The only downside that I can see to drafting LenDale is that I have no idea how I will get to opening day without exploding out of giddy excitement. Fortunately, we start the season 3 days early, so that'll help a little.

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