Steelers Hope Draft Fills Needs For Upcoming Season - By Tim Bodamer

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

The 2004 NFL Draft may be Steelers' coach Bill Cowher's most important in his 12 year reign with the team.

The Steelers, coming off a disappointing 6-10 season, will rely on this April's draft to shore up positions on the offensive line, cornerback, and quarterback. With needs as deep as the Yankees' lineup, it's the hope that the Southside war room will infuse much needed talent to the Steel City.

The signing of Duce Staley eliminated the notion that Steven Jackson or Kevin Jones would be in the Steelers' plans. Staley, at 29, will be the Steelers tailback for the near future (despite assurances to Jerome Bettis that he will still be in the running for the number one tailback spot). Nobody around the NFL expects Staley to be the savior for the Steelers, but nobody also believed that the Steelers could rejuvenate or develop a bevy of underrated backs (see Bettis, Earnest Jackson, Barry Foster, Bam Morris).

That leads us to how Staley, Bettis, Cowher, and the Steelers will return to running the football successfully. A healthy Marvell Smith is a start. Ditto for Kendall Simmons and Jeff Hartings. It's the draft that will complete their mission. A tackle should be chosen by the Steelers brass in the first day. It might be worthy to make it to their FIRST PICK. This is where the Steelers at number 11 might have rethink their efforts. The best tackle is 6 foot 7 inch Robert Gallery, an All-American from Iowa who is hands down the best tackle available. But with the accolades comes the reality that he will be gone well before the black and gold pick. That leaves them Shawn Andrews, a 360-pounder out of Arkansas who has immense talent and potential, but also has been downgraded at the position due to struggles with weight. The other option is Vernon Carey, a guard-tackle from the NFL factory of Miami (FL) University. Carey's stock has risen according to many draft experts, and he could instantly step in to help the Steelers.

Their have been rumors of trading up to get a Gallery, trading down to draft an Andrews, or staying pat on not drafting the position. Trading up is something the Steelers might shy away from, knowing that last year's choice of Troy Polamalu (a trade that included them shipping a pricey third round pick) was criticized by many in the business for Polamalu not making any noise on the field until late in the season. The Steelers can't afford wasting picks, and Gallery may come at too high of a price for the Steelers to pay. Trading down, however, could be what the Steelers may benefit from. The New England Patriots own two first-rounders, and rumors have it that they want Jackson or Jones to give them a true feature back. The Steelers could possibly get those picks if the Pats' wants are substantiated. The Steelers could then get Carey or Andrews and have another pick to fill the other needs.

Those aforementioned needs were made apparent in the 2003 playoff loss against the Tennessee Titans. Dewayne Washington, since released, and Chad Scott at the other corner, were consistently torched and have since left Pittsburgh suffering mass inflictions in the passing game. John Kitna revitalized his career with the Bengals, feasting on the Steelers' secondary. Tim Couch went into Heinz Field this past season and had the Browns' passing game route the Steelers. And at one point during the 2003 season, Marc Bulger and Tory Holt were completing 20-yard passing routes like Donald Trump fires interns.

Fortunately for the Steelers, the draft is full of quality cornerbacks. Although a Terrance Newman (Dallas Cowboys), of the shutdown garden variety isn't available, a group of quick cover men will be there at number 11. Chris Gamble (Ohio St.), DeAngelo Hall (V'Tech), Dunta Robinson (South Carolina), and Will Poole (USC) give the Steelers the opportunity to trade down and still grab their guy. If they stand pat, it's the belief that they will take Hall, whose stock has risen during recent workouts. Gamble may be intriguing, since he possesses the two-way big play talent of another Big 10 guy, Charles Woodson.

If the Steelers forego a lineman and cornerback in the first round, that leaves them with drafting a quarterback in the first round for the first time in 24 years. NC State's Philip Rivers has an unorthodox delivery and is slow on the run. But he has a cannon for an arm, and knows how to read defenses (many NFL scouts compare him to Bernie Kosar with a stronger arm). There is also potential for Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, OH) to drop in the lap of the Steelers. A 6-5 junior coming out as an early entry to the draft, he has all the tools necessary in becoming the next young gun of the NFL. The downside to Roethlisberger is his lack of experience against big time talent. Playing in the mid level major of the Mid American Conference, Roethlisberger struggled last season during an early season road trip to Purdue. The Steelers brass has been rumored to be in love with Rivers but have a dilemma if Roethlisberger is available.

So what do they do next month? The Steelers were experiencing their success in the '90s when they running the ball behind a great line. It kept the clock ticking and the defense off the field. Could they use a top notch QB? Sure, any team could. But remember, Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme played in this past year's Super Bowl at the QB position and both were late round draft picks. The Steelers might be just as served to wait for a John Navarre (Michigan) or Josh Harris (Bowling Green). Both could be there in the fourth round and they won't have the pressure to succeed much like a Rivers or Roethlisberger.

If they wait for a quarterback, that leaves them to take a cornerback or the aforementioned tackle need. Gallery won't be there and Carey nor Andrews aren't worth a number 11 pick. Plus, tackles Jacob Rogers and Kelly Butler could be in the Steelers' hands in the second round. So that leaves them to fill the need of cornerback, preferably Hall. Is the most sound of the bunch, he's heady and is talented as a kick returner.

The Steelers also might want to think about the likes of OLB Michael Boulware, WR Michael Jenkins, and TE Ben Watson during the draft's first day. Joey Porter and Clark Haggans have a lot to prove, and Plaxico Burress is in a contract year. Jay Riemersma and Jerame Tuman are serviceable but an upgrade would help.

With the draft less than a month away, the Steelers know what they need after a somewhat quiet free agency period. It could determine whether they return to AFC North supremacy, or move up the charts for the 2005 draft.