mike wallace2

The Steelers lost Mike Wallace, and if a team is willing to part with a third-round pick, there’s still a chance they could also watch restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders walk too, creating a cavernous void at wide receiver. Combine that with the uncertainty at tight end due to Heath Miller’s knee injury, and suddenly there could be a troubling lack of depth among Ben Roethlisberger’s targets.

So the early-round priorities in this year’s draft are clear then, right? Of course they aren’t, but Neal Coolong from Behind The Steel Curtain tried to provide some clarity in our last draft preview.

1. With Mike Wallace gone, will a wide receiver be the early focus? And if so, how early? One of the top wide receivers (likely Tavon Austin or Keenan Allen) should still be on the board at No. 17 in the first round, but could Kevin Colbert wait on, say, Quinton Patton or Ryan Swope on Day 2?

“Focus” is really a relative word. I don’t think teams slot positions in the draft, but they have certain areas they would like to address. Of those positions, it comes down to what player is available and where. If a team, like the Steelers, wants to add a receiver, a safety, and perhaps a pass-rushing outside linebacker, they may weigh those positions more heavily than others when their pick comes due. From there, they’d have to determine, of the players available, which one best fits the spot in which they’re picking.

Just my opinion, but I see the draft working out in the first 16 picks that a player like Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Patterson will be available at 17, and the Steelers would take him.

That does not necessarily mean they’re focusing on taking a receiver with that pick, though. Maybe they feel Allen or Austin, like you mentioned, are better picks for that spot. Maybe they don’t feel any of those guys are worth the No. 17 pick in the draft.

As far as Colbert making a decision to wait, I think it’d be more accurate to say the player they take at 17 fits that pick first and foremost, and after that, fits a particular team need. It’s the classic “draft for need or best player available” argument. I feel the best teams teams do a mix of both, but a team absolutely cannot draft a player in the first round who isn’t worth that pick.

That being said, I don’t think Austin or Allen fit with them at 17. If it had to be one of those two, I’d say Austin fits with Todd Haley’s offense a little bit better than Allen does, and his special teams ability could be a boost, but how many slot receivers can you put on a field without someone outside the numbers? Then again, ask the Patriots and their 38 points a game about the need for deep receiving help.

2. The same question can be asked about the tight end position. Heath Miller’s late-season knee injury and the uncertainty surrounding his status for 2013 has complicated the Steelers’ TE depth chart. Can we assume that in the first two rounds a tight end will be targeted? Are the Steelers picking too early in the first round to go after Tyler Eifret or Zach Ertz?

True, and I think it’s a very good question. If your focus in your passing game is going to be between the numbers and shorter (like it was last season, hence Wallace’s steep dropoff in production), a tight end makes as much sense as a slot receiver due to the mismatches one could create. Plus, the loss of Wallace in the current Steelers offense is not going to be anywhere near the impact the loss of Heath Miller will be (provided he is unable to recover to 100 percent by September, which is a possibility).

Miller’s situation will be a huge story over the next year, too. He had his best season in 2012, and is a guy I felt was one of the two best players at his position. He’s owed nearly $8 million in 2014, and if he’s having lingering effects of that injury, it could influence a decision to release him. Not to suggest they wouldn’t try to sign him back, but Rashard Mendenhall is six years younger than Miller and the same thing happened to him.

That being said, even without that injury, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the Steelers look to address the future of the tight end position with this draft anyway. That doesn’t mean the team is looking to replace Miller, mind you, but bringing in some competition between the second-year David Paulson and newly signed Matt Spaeth wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Where’s they’ll do this? I think Eifret is an outstanding player, but I just can’t see the total value at 17, especially when there are very talented tight ends in this class.

3. Another likely early priority is an outside linebacker to replace James Harrison. Who’s the best fit? Jarvis Jones is a possibility with his draft stock seemingly falling, but he comes with some injury risk.

Jones is right up there with Patterson as a favorite at No. 17 according to the Blogosphere, but the fact is the Steelers don’t draft outside linebackers that high. They never have. In fact, as it’s projected now, starting LaMarr Woodley (second round 2007) and Jason Worilds (second round 2010) would be the highest drafted combination of players at the position in team history. Greg Lloyd was a sixth-round pick. Harrison was undrafted. Joey Porter was taken in the third. There are scores of players they’ve gotten outstanding production out of from the middle and late rounds, and in some cases didn’t draft at all.

The question, like everyone else, “does he fit the 17th pick?” From a collegiate production standpoint, he should be long gone by 17. Obviously, that’s not everything, but in all honesty, when I see Jones, I’m not entirely convinced I see a guy on the outside. He’s got that flash – where he suddenly explodes and makes a play – and that’s great for a pass rusher, but I almost see him making just as big an impact in a weakside linebacker role.

With the Steelers, and judging by the amount of times they had Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote rushing off the edge (oftentimes outside shade of the OLB), I honestly wouldn’t be shocked if we saw Jones filling that kind of role early in his career. I have nothing to support this, but I think the team would have taken Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower if David DeCastro hadn’t fallen to them last year, and he would have been used the same way they used Foote on passing downs and in the nickel. Move him outside and stunt guys all over the place. Foote had a big impact in his pass rush last season both inside and on the edge. Bringing in a better athlete like Jones and basically putting that third pass rusher on the field would be a very smart move.

Everyone seems to be more or less signing off on Jones’ back issues, and it didn’t seem to affect his production in college. DeCastro didn’t have a flag because of knee problems last year, and two games and one quarter into the preseason, he had a knee problem. That’s football. Sometimes you just have to deal with it.

4. When will the secondary be addressed? Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are aging (32 and 34 respectively). Ike Taylor is too (33), and Keenan Lewis is gone.

I interviewed Dick LeBeau in February, he said they want to bring in a “young safety.” He didn’t say when he was going to do that, but there were strong undertones of it coming in the draft. The fact they let both Ryan Mundy and Will Allen walk in free agency suggests, too, the plan is to find one in the draft. I think it will be in the second or third round, and I’ve heard they really like Matt Elam out of Florida. I’m by no means an expert, but I don’t really like Elam all that much. I saw too many situations in which he refused to tackle aggressively unless he was able to do it behind the line of scrimmage. To his credit, he made some plays, and I seem to be in the minority with my opinion, but I liked what I saw out of John Cyprien much more than Elam.

Steelers cornerbacks don’t need that elite level speed that separates those taken in the first round from the rest of the pack. If Keenan Lewis is such a big loss, why were they able to find him in the third round? Plus, after Cortez Allen’s performances in his starting opportunities, I can’t even clearly say Lewis would have been the second-best cornerback on the team in 2013. The decision to let him walk was purely financial, and if the Saints want to pay him $26 million over five years, more power to them. He’s not a great tackler, he’s not a playmaker, and I think Allen should be starting opposite Ike Taylor in 2013 anyway.

If they find a project kind of guy like they did with Allen in 2011, they’ll take him in the middle rounds.

5. Since 2010, the Steelers have used a first- or second-round pick on an offensive lineman four times (Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert). Injuries have been a factor — most notably with DeCastro — but the O-line has still struggled, and Adams especially looked weak at times in his rookie year. Is more depth and insurance on the way at some point again this year, or is there faith that the picks of the past three years who aren’t named Pouncey will develop?

Couple different things to look at here. First off, when a team has a quarterback who loves to extend plays, and works to get outside the pocket and go off-schedule, an offensive line of Anthony Munoz, Jonathan Ogden, Alan Faneca, Larry Allen and Mike Webster isn’t going to prevent him from being sacked. While the unit has struggled, I think that should be taken into account. What also needs to be remembered is exactly what you said; this team has added several offensive linemen over the last three seasons. Continuity is very important. They haven’t had the same line in place game-to-game, let alone season-to-season.

Above all else, though, injuries have plagued this line for several years now, and the team leads the league, world, and universe in starting offensive line combinations since 2009. It’ll be a vastly different line again in 2013.

What I see for this line in terms of scheme is going to be much more run-oriented. They did not have the athleticism at the tackle positions last year to effectively run zone, but looking at what they were able to do when Adams came in for Gilbert and Willie Colon was coming into his own a bit more as a guard is pretty outstanding. With Colon out, they’re not getting a massive upgrade athletically in Ramon Foster. Perhaps the situation didn’t get helped, but the fact is, you have two outstanding athletes in Pouncey and DeCastro. Mike Adams is also an athletic freak. The whispers that the Steelers had been sniffing around Jake Long and maybe even Sebastian Vollmer are strong indications the team is looking to implement stretch zone running much more often, and that would clearly be because of the athleticism they have in that line. None of this even mentions the fact they brought in an offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr., who had the Kansas City Chiefs running an outstanding zone scheme when he and Haley were there.

All that being said, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Steelers went after an athletic tackle in this draft. If a guy like Lane Johnson somehow fell to them at 17, it’d be tough not to pull the trigger. Not saying they will, but Marcus Gilbert is at least a step below Adams athletically, and if they could get another elite-level athlete to bookend a seriously athletic interior, this team could be running for 2,400 yards a year.

As far as pass pro goes…well, one school of thought is the best way to protect a quarterback is to protect him from himself. It’s extremely difficult to get sacked when you’re handing the ball off. Unless Troy Polamalu is on the other side of the line.