This is the fifth in a 20-part series examining some possibilities for the Browns in the 2013 NFL Draft, including extensive looks at the most likely prospects for the No. 6 overall selection, potential targets later in the draft, trade-down scenarios, what the other teams in the AFC North might do and the top players coming out of Ohio State and the Mid-American Conference.
Each morning will bring a new, daily posting leading up the NFL Scouting Combine on Feb 20. And each Monday, we'll take a look at another team in the AFC North.
Today, we travel down the turnpike to Pittsburgh.
Overview: A tumultuous season for the Steelers ended with a record of 8-8 (3-3 in the AFC North) and a year without playoff football, as Pittsburgh watched Baltimore and Cincinnati play on into mid-January and then the Ravens hoist the Lombardi Trophy last night. The Steelers' losses, of course, included the Browns’ 20-14 win over a Ben Roethlisberger-less team in Week 12, as was the story of the 2012 season in Pittsburgh. Injuries piled up for several key players, including Roethlisberger, the offensive line and two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners -- outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. After a 6-3 start, the injuries caught up and Pittsburgh limped to the finish.
Suddenly, one of the most rock-solid rosters in the NFL the last half-decade has serious question marks about both age and balancing the salary cap. The Steelers are projected to be about $10.8 million over the salary cap by some reports and will now have decisions to make on who to keep and where they can nip and tuck.
The biggest cap casualty looks like it could be wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Steelers’ top-tier speedster. Wallace missed time in training camp last year after refusing to sign a one-year, $2.7 million tender offer. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown signed a six-year, $42 million contract and assumed the role as the No. 1 receiver. Based on what Wallace has been seeking in a deal and where the Steelers stand financially, it seems as though the unrestricted free agent will be playing elsewhere in 2013.
Roethlisberger and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons could all have their contracts restructured to create some breathing room.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall lost much of his 2012 season to injuries and will be an unrestricted free agent, though reports say he and the team will try to work out a new deal. Jonathan Dwyer filled in his absence and Isaac Redman found some carries as others dealt with injuries or had trouble holding onto the ball. Still, Mendenhall and Redman could both be elsewhere next season.
Pittsburgh had what many thought to be the best value-pick in the first round of last year’s draft in Stanford guard David DeCastro, who then injured his knee before the season and missed most of the year. His return should form a stronger interior to the line and while the tackles didn’t play at a high level, second-round pick Mike Adams from last year will still be progressing.
One the other side of the ball, the Steelers will have to make a decision to make on one of the best linebackers in the game in Harrison, who missed serious time with lingering knee issues. He’ll be turning 35 in May and reportedly will cost the team $10 million in 2013.
At inside linebacker, Larry Foote is nearing retirement and Sean Spence tore up his knee, so question marks loom there as well. Casey Hampton, the team’s longtime nose tackle in the middle of Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense, has also showed signs of slowing down. And Jason La Canfora of CBSsports.com has reported that it’s likely Polamalu won’t be with the Steelers past the 2013 season.
Where the Steelers fall with these decisions will determine their biggest draft needs. That being said, age on the defensive side of the ball might force action when they draft 17th overall.
Biggest draft needs: OLB, ILB, WR, S, NT, RB.
Targets to watch: Ezekiel Ansah, DE/OLB, BYU – Ansah is a big-time athlete, a 270-pound wrecking ball with elite top-end speed for a linebacker. Ansah is raw and won’t be looked at as a plug-and-play rookie, but is a freakish athlete for his size who can rush the passer and corralled ballcarriers with the agility of linebackers 40 pounds lighter. Should Harrison’s playing days in Pittsburgh be over, this could be his replacement.
Alec Ogletree, ILB, Georgia — Ogletree is a sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker who at times was the best player on the field, even with Jarvis Jones lined up next to him. He’s known as and explosive playmaker and racked up 99 tackles last season despite missing the fist couple of games. Considering Foote’s possible absence, Ogletree makes sense at No. 17.
Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia — This is when things could get interesting. Jones is thought of as perhaps the best all-around talent in the entire draft class, a true force on film. However, he’s also perhaps the biggest wild card. Jones was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2009, a condition that team doctors will certainly look at. Should he not be cleared or just viewed as too much of a risk, Jones could fall into the waiting hands of the Steelers at No. 17 (which, by the way, is precisely what Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com has happening in his latest mock draft).
Johnathan Jenkins, NT, Georgia — Why not one more from Georgia? Jenkins is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle to fill in for Casey Hampton, a 363-pound behemoth to eat up space. The words “tree trunks” are often used to describe his limbs.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee — Patterson is gaining momentum after being thought of as the No. 2 receiver in Tennessee for much of the season behind Justin Hunter, and he has as high of a ceiling as any receiver in the draft. Should leading Wallace leave, Patterson would fill a need unless Pittsburgh believes Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can handle the load. Many believe Patterson will be taken off the board with the No. 12 pick by the Miami Dolphins, but we’ll have to see if the Dolphins strike a deal with any of the receivers set to enter free agency (Wallace, Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe). If he falls to No. 17, the Steelers might snatch him up to replace Wallace.