Age is more than just a number. Ask James Farrior.

Age creates holes on NFL rosters, a natural process that often happens abruptly.

Just two years ago Hines Ward was still the leader of Pittsburgh’s wide receiver corps, finishing with 1,167 receiving yards. He was cut following a 2011 season when he was buried on the depth chart by younger, more agile bodies (Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown), and he finished the year with just 381 yards, and then later a tearful retirement ceremony.

That’s the cycle of NFL life, an existence that’s fleeting, and deteriorating bodies due to age were suddenly popping up at key positions on Pittsburgh’s roster following this past season. Combined with a salary cap crunch, that led to the release of several other aging and/or ineffective players in addition to Ward, including James Farrior.

The hole left behind by Farrior is particularly concerning, as there’s little depth at inside linebacker. That’s where our discussion about the Steelers’ 2012 draft outlook with Chris from Total Steelers and Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain started. Dont’a Hightower could be very high on Mike Tomlin’s wishlist.

1. Between Farrior’s release and James Harrison’s advanced age on the outside, a linebacker seems to be the primary need, and in mock drafts so far that’s been the consensus. Do you agree? Or would you like to see Kevin Colbert use his first-round pick to go in a different direction?

Neal: I’ve never been one to assign a position to a first-round draft spot. I don’t want to see Kevin Colbert draft “the best linebacker available,” simply because they need a linebacker. It depends who’s there. For dramatic example, let’s say RB Trent Richardson is on the board at 24. Should the Steelers not draft him? I suppose it’s an opinion either way, which is why I’m ultimately a best player available guy, as long as the position is one in which the pick can conceivably contribute right away (i.e. Cam Heyward, Ziggy Hood, Maurkice Pouncey).

Chris: Harrison was actually by far the team’s best linebacker last season. The team gave a big contract extension to fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley not long ago, and while he wasn’t terrible last year, he was streaky and disappeared for long stretches. Regardless, I think they’re comfortable with that pairing at OLB for the immediate future and still believe 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds has starting potential.

Inside linebacker, however, needs to be addressed badly. Farrior was released because in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 zone blitz scheme, he was charged with covering TEs and RBs, and stuffing the run. His level of play slipped greatly in both areas as his age advanced. Meanwhile, his partner on the inside, Lawrence Timmons, has yet to demonstrate he’s anything more than an average NFL player. Their only remaining options at ILB are journeyman Larry Foote and third-year player Stevenson Sylvester, neither of whom showed much when given significant playing time last year. If they’re going to stick with the zone blitz, and every indication is they will even when/if LeBeau retires, they absolutely need to find an inside ‘backer who can stop the run and not embarrass himself in coverage.

2. If a linebacker is targeted early, will it be Dont’a Hightower? Or is there another name Pittsburgh could aggressively pursue through a trade to advance up in the first round?

Neal: I feel inside linebacker is definitely a position the team will want to address in this draft at some point. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower strikes me as a heady, multi-faceted player who could provide strong in-the-box run support in the base defense and could even provide another pass rusher in sub packages.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boston College’s Luke Kuechly fall around 24, either. He’s a bit faster than Hightower, although he’s probably a better Mike in a 4-3 defense. However, fortunately for Steelers fans, Colbert forgot more this morning about personnel and scouting than I’ll ever know. The two times Colbert has traded up in the first round worked out well for the Steelers; Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes (side note: Colbert took the Jets’ 5th round pick they traded for Holmes, and turned it into CB Bryant McFadden, and the Cardinals 6th round pick in the 2010 draft. With that, they selected the first player in NFL history to ever get 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 return yards, 2011 Pro Bowl selection Antonio Brown).

Chris: Mike Tomlin evidently met with Dont’a Hightower, and by all accounts came away extremely impressed. The last time Tomlin talked up a potential draftee, it was Maurkice Pouncey and we now know that he wasn’t just blowing smoke on that one. Hightower is generally considered the second best ILB prospect after BC’s Luke Kuechly, who is expected to go somewhere in the top 15. So if the team is looking for Farrior’s heir apparent, it’ll be Hightower.

As for moving up, the Steelers are usually loathe to do so since moving within the first round usually means sacrificing the mid-round picks which GM Kevin Colbert values. Steeler fans have been begging for a stud offensive lineman in recent drafts, but the Steelers have steadfastly refused to move into a position to snag one. Therefore, I don’t see them making a move if a Cordy Glenn or Mike Adams begin to fall. With the loss of starting CB William Gay and nothing but a bunch of unproven youngsters to pair with Ike Taylor, the only scenario where I can see the Steelers making a move is if a corner they like falls to a range where they can jump in without it costing them a significant amount. I’ve heard the names Dre Kirkpatrick and Stephon Gilmore bandied about and wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers made an aggressive push to acquire either one if they fell and the price was right.

3. What about a running back in the mid to late rounds given Rashard Mendenhall’s injury? Or are the Steelers confident rolling with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer?

Neal: One of the more understated reasons why the Steelers have been able to be successful over the last decade or so has been their ability to identify talented running backs. While other teams were throwing large sums of guaranteed money at running backs who were broken down by overuse by the time they were 27, the Steelers found guys like Willie Parker; undrafted, didn’t play much in college, but incredibly fast. There was Gary Russell, an undrafted back who produced a little bit in his time in Pittsburgh.

It’s true, they drafted Mendenhall in the first round, but Redman was undrafted as well. Dwyer was taken in the 6th round. Behind them is John Clay, another undrafted running back (who scored a touchdown in Week 16 last year).
In the 7th round of 2011, the Steelers took RB Baron Batch, who was quickly becoming the talk of training camp before tearing his ACL. Word is he’s ready to go, and I think Steelers fans are excited to see what he can bring.
While I feel the Steelers have an outstanding track record picking up productive runners without using a pick (or at most a late one), they are looking for a solid return man this year. Senior Bowl MVP, Cincinnati’s Isiah Pead recently visited the Steelers, he may be one they’re interested in taking with a mid-to-late round pick.

Chris: Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin have claimed in interviews they’re comfortable with the team’s running back situation. At the same time, Colbert has said publicly he considers the year following an ACL injury to be a lost year and privately the team is saying Mendenhall (who is an UFA after the season) may very well have taken his last snap in Black and Gold.

While the team has spent late round picks in consecutive years to bring in Jonathan Dwyer and Barron Batch and their nominal starter, Isaac Redman, has proven himself to be a capable NFL back, nothing about that group inspires confidence. Dwyer has a handful of carries on his resume, and if the team were really that high on Redman, they wouldn’t have given the lion’s share of the carries to Mendenhall, who wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire last season. Despite their protestations, I definitely think RB will be targeted in the draft, and maybe not in the mid rounds, because I can see them taking one as early as the 2nd. Miami’s Lamar Miller is the consensus #2 back in the draft, while Boise’s Doug Martin opened eyes at the combine. Both are players I can see the Steelers taking early on Day 2.

4. Any other needs you’d like to see addressed?

Neal: I’d love it if the Steelers could get the 2012 versions of Jordy Nelson, Aldon Smith, Lardarius Webb and J.J. Watt with their four 7th round picks. So yeah, address the need of the lack of those guys on the roster. That’d be swell.

Seriously, I think they’ll look into establishing some depth on the offensive line (and to start in a year or two) and they’ll need some depth at nose tackle. Mike Wallace is currently still capable of leaving town and Jerricho Cotchery can still sign elsewhere, which would give the Steelers two receivers on their roster heading into the draft (Brown and Sanders). They may want to pick up one of those as well.

Chris: The Steelers needs are, in no particular order, NT, RB, ILB, CB, and OL. Casey Hampton is nearing his last legs at NT and the Steelers would dearly love to find his replacement. I think Dontari Poe will be gone long before the Steelers pick, but I can see them trying to fill the spot with a mid-rounder like Washington’s Alameda Ta’amu. The offensive line has been an ongoing sore spot for Steeler fans (and Ben Roethlisberger’s entire body) but I don’t get the feeling the team thinks it’s as pressing a need as the fans do. They do need to find a legitimate LG after the Chris Kemoeatu experiment failed, so I could see them taking a Kevin Zeitler or perhaps a Mike Adams (due to the loss of LT Max Starks) if Hightower and all the decent corners are gone in the first round. But it’s more likely they’ll do what they usually do and try to find starting lineman in the mid-to-late rounds.

In past years, the Steelers have had the luxury of using their picks to add depth to a roster already set with starters. Due to age and free agency, the team now needs to use those picks to address holes or soon-to-be holes in the starting line-up. I’d love to take a Nick Perry or Mike Barron, but a future starting OLB or a future starting S aren’t immediate needs. If the Steelers hope to improve on their disappointing 2011, they need to address the positions listed above so we don’t see a repeat of the problems they had last year.