Steelers look for versatility in first round
By Scott Brown
Sunday, April 22, 2007
The last time the Steelers had the 15th pick in the NFL Draft, they took a pass-rushing outside linebacker who tormented opposing quarterbacks in college.
As for Huey Richardson working out in Pittsburgh, well, not so much.
He lasted about as long as a "Huey Lewis & the News" concert, and the Steelers haven't used their top draft pick on a linebacker since they made that colossal mistake with Richardson in 1991.
It would be heresy to Steelers fans to suggest that history will repeat itself Saturday. The Steelers taking a player like Richardson -- with the emphasis being on player -- at No. 15 overall would make sense, since they could use a pass-rushing, outside linebacker in the wake of Joey Porter's release.
What may take precedence for the Steelers is getting a versatile playmaker, outside linebacker or not, that will allow them to transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense.
That is why the Steelers have been linked with players such as Florida State linebacker Lawrence Timmons and Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker, to name a few, in mock drafts.
Timmons appears capable of playing outside linebacker in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, and draft analysts have said the 6-foot-1, 234-pounder could also line up at defensive end in a 4-3 alignment.
Carriker, meanwhile, could line up at tackle in a 4-3 and end in a 3-4. He could possibly play outside linebacker in a 4-3, though speed would be a concern.
"He's big, he comes hard every play and to me, any defensive structure you want, Adam Carriker is going to fit into it," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said.
What structure the Steelers will have is nothing more than an educated guess at this point.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a 4-3 disciple, has said the Steelers will stick with the 3-4 at least through next season because their personnel is best suited for it.
Tomlin has dismissed the importance of base formations -- he also hasn't ruled out using both a 3-4 and a 4-3 as situations dictate -- but who the Steelers draft, particularly in the first round, could give more than a glimpse into what shape the defense will take in future years.
"I think they'll be a team like New England where x-amount of time they're 3-4 and x-amount of time they're 4-3," said Gil Brandt, NFL.com analyst and former Dallas Cowboys director of player personnel. "I think you're going to see more and more of that where (teams) have multiple fronts, so that instead of spending an hour practicing against the 3-4, you've got to spend your time against both of them, and either have a longer practice or not be as thorough as you were if you were just (preparing) for one."
Using both formations is easier said than done since certain types of linebackers are needed to play in a 4-3 than in a 3-4 and vice versa.
"Outside (line)backers are so much different," Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "A 4-3, he's not a rush guy and in a 3-4, he is. That's a big difference."
It is one that Phillips knows well since he used a 4-3 formation when he was the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator and a 3-4 alignment with various other teams.
Phillips favors the 3-4 defense that he employed so successfully in San Diego -- he was the Chargers' defensive coordinator before getting the Cowboys' head coaching job -- in part because of supply and demand.
Linebackers are easier to find than defensive tackles and ends, Phillips said, and don't command as much on the free-agent market.
If the latter is something that's of no small consideration to the Steelers, who don't exactly throw money around to keep their own players or lure others to Pittsburgh, then neither is Tomlin's background.
He learned the "Tampa 2" defense as a secondary coach for the Buccaneers, which is derivative if not a replica of the 4-3 defense the Steelers played while winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
Tomlin's background is perhaps why NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Ole Miss inside linebacker Patrick Willis would be an ideal addition for the Steelers (if he is still available when they pick in the first round) and why some mock drafts have Penn State's Paul Posluszny returning to his hometown.
Willis and Posluszny, the Hopewell High graduate, would be good fits in a 4-3 defense, though, at different positions and could probably play inside in a 3-4.
If the Steelers eventually switch from as 3-4 to a 4-3 -- or if they have designs on using both as more teams in the NFL move in that direction -- players such as Timmons and Carriker would give them options.
Kiper has the Steelers taking Timmons with the 15th overall pick because he would address their glaring need for an edge pass rusher. It is also worth noting that Tomlin was the only NFL head coach to attend Timmons' Pro Day workout at Florida State. Steelers' director of football operations Kevin Colbert also was there.
Carriker might be gone before the Steelers pick in the first round, but Kiper is also high on Anthony Spencer, another versatile defensive end.
Kiper said the 6-3, 261-pounder could challenge for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors next season and also has the versatility that would appeal to the Steelers. Kiper compared Spencer with another Purdue product, Shaun Phillips.
Phillips played defensive end in college and has excelled as a 3-4 outside linebacker for the San Diego Chargers.
If history is any guide, the Steelers will steer clear of a linebacker in the first round.
In addition to Richardson, they have taken only one other linebacker (Robin Cole in 1977) with their top pick in the modern era and have a track record of unearthing eventual Pro Bowl linebackers after the first round.
Mayock, for his part, has identified a "back seven" player on defense as the most likely direction the Steelers will go with their first pick.
And, if Willis is off the board, as expected, by the time the Steelers pick, he said they would do well to take Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis.
"I think he would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh," Mayock said.