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Labriola on goals for this draft

Posted May 8, 2014

The Steelers need a Pro Bowl player with their No. 1 pick, then get better when the ball is in the air

With the 15th overall pick in the first round, definitely a Pro Bowl player. With the sum total of their three days of work, a roster that’s more dynamic – offensively and defensively – during those phases in each game when the football is in the air.

Those are what should be the goals for the Pittsburgh Steelers on this first day of the 2014 NFL Draft. One can be accomplished today during a first round set to begin at 8 p.m., while the other six rounds of the proceedings can be used to take care of the broader directive. If they find a way to pull it off – if the Steelers add a Pro Bowl caliber player today and then use their other picks in this draft to become more dynamic when the ball is in the air – they can put themselves into position to compete for a championship in 2014. If they do not pull it off, there is the real possibility that two playoffless seasons could become three.

During the team’s annual pre-draft tap-dance with the media on Monday, May 5, General Manager Kevin Colbert reiterated what he had said on the first day of the Scouting Combine about the pool of talent available in this class.

“I was quoted at the combine as saying that this is the best group that I’ve seen in my 30 years in doing this,” said Colbert. “I still believe that. We lost a few guys along the way, maybe with some character issues or medical issues, or just a reevaluation or a closer look, but I think we probably gained just as many guys on the flipside of that with guys whose character may have been a little bit better than we thought or their medical may have checked out, or maybe they were players we had under-evaluated. So really, this draft is still very strong in our opinion.”

Based on that, and the fact the Steelers will choose 15th overall, mean the team must take advantage.

“There are easily 15 players available we will be very happy with if we are able to pick them,” said Colbert. “I think you can go and say there are probably at least 19 that you could say you’d be happy to get at pick No. 15. It’s unique.”

The issue then becomes getting the proper player to add to this particular assemblage, and getting the proper player shouldn’t be taken to mean picking a specific position. The Steelers cannot view themselves as being one player away, and in fact every team in NFL history that made a draft pick or a trade based on the assumption of being one player away has discovered its assessment of itself was incorrect.

And really, where do the Steelers not need an addition of a Pro Bowl caliber player? Except for quarterback because of Ben Roethlisberger, at center because of Maurkice Pouncey, and at running back because of Le’Veon Bell and the fact there are no players at the position deserving of being the No. 15 pick of the first round.

It’s evident what adding a Pro Bowl receiver would do to help the offense, or a tight end, or even an offensive tackle, as boring as some fans might find such a pick. Imagine the No. 1 pick being a Pro Bowl linebacker, or cornerback, or another Troy Polamalu caliber talent at safety. The Steelers last Pro Bowl defensive end was Aaron Smith, and he certainly added a lot to the winning that took place during his time as a starter. Even a nose tackle, if he’s Pro Bowl caliber, could be a difference-maker, and that’s because to make the Pro Bowl these days as an interior defensive lineman the guy is going to have to have some pass-rush skills and then some production in that area.

“I think that there’s a premium on pass rush capabilities and probably interior pass rush capabilities,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “Probably a stronger case for that than there has been in other years, simply because of then number of snaps that we’re playing in sub-package football, and by sub-package football I mean (the times when) the offense has three or more receivers on the field, we have three or more cornerback-like bodies on the field.”

Some of the names being bandied about as being Pro Bowl caliber players in the near future are Mike Evans at wide receiver, Justin Gilbert at cornerback, maybe even a guy such as Anthony Barr (pictured above), who posted 23.5 sacks in 2012-13 despite those being the first seasons he ever really spent any time playing defense.

Sub-package football is where the Steelers defense must improve, and preferably the improvement comes markedly and quickly. In 2013, the Steelers had 20 takeaways to rank tied-for-28th in the NFL; their 10 interceptions was tied-for-29th; and their 34 sacks was tied-for-25th. None of those totals and/or rankings is good enough, and defensive units that post those kinds of totals and rankings ultimately are proven to be not good enough.

On offense, the Steelers’ deficiencies in 2013 were not so clearly traceable to sub-package football. If that unit’s problems were to be categorized, the category would be situational football, as in red zone efficiency, third-down conversions, goal-to-go situations. The Steelers were 17th in the NFL in red zone efficiency in 2013, and it turned out to be a season where two fewer red zone failures against the Vikings would have been the difference in winning that game and the 9-7 record that would have been good enough to qualify for a spot in the playoffs.

In the final analysis, the 2013 Steelers weren’t good enough to qualify for the playoffs, and starting today, through Saturday, they get their best chance to address that issue. One way or another, what they end up doing this weekend will be a turning point.

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