By BOB LABRIOLA
Maybe you were surprised that the Steelers didn't pick an offensive lineman until the fourth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but Larry Zierlein wasn't.
Zierlein is the team's offensive line coach, and as he watched the top of the first round unfold, he had a feeling it was going to be a while before the Steelers handed him a rookie.
"There were some of those guys (offensive linemen) who went really fast," said Zierlein, "and from that point on it became a situation where the guys still on the board were pretty good players that we had a chance to get at other positions. I've never seen eight tackles taken in the first round – that's amazing."
Seven of them – Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Chris Williams, Brandon Albert, Gosder Cherilus, Jeff Otah and Sam Baker – were picked before the Steelers had their initial opportunity in this draft. Partially as a result of that, the team was able to select a running back in Rashard Mendenhall who was ranked as high as the No. 2 player at his position.
The Steelers believe they made a similar value pick in the second round when they selected Limas Sweed, and then it became a matter of them getting what they perceived to be the proper value for each of their picks from that point forward.
In the fourth round, it's possible the Steelers were set to pick Texas A&M defensive lineman Red Bryant, but when Seattle grabbed him two turns before they went on the clock they opted instead to trade down with the New York Giants and add an extra choice in the sixth round.
It was when the Steelers finally made their No. 4 pick, 130th overall, that they added their one and only offensive lineman of this draft – Tony Hills, a left tackle from Texas.
"I think he can go both ways," said Zierlein about Hills' ability to handle both ends of the offensive line. "I think he can probably play the right, but he's been a left tackle. In college, he started out behind Jonathan Scott (of the Detroit Lions), and the guys down at Texas compare him – I have friends on that staff – and they feel that he's a better prospect than Scott was. Scott is starting for Detroit, and they think this kid has more upside than Jonathan did."
Hills indeed has a lot of upside, as well as the athletic ability NFL teams look for in left tackles. So, why was he available at the end of the fourth round?
Hills was a Parade All-American as a high school tight end in Texas, but in a state semifinal playoff game, he sustained a severe knee injury that included a torn lateral collateral ligament as well as damage to his peroneal nerve.
The nerve damage led to Hills losing all feeling in his left foot, and he actually made his recruiting visit to Texas while confined to a wheelchair. Two separate surgeries fixed Hills' case of "drop-foot," and by the time he enrolled at Texas in 2004 he had grown from a tight end into an offensive tackle.
After backing up Scott and sharing time at left tackle on the team that won the national championship, Hills broke into the starting lineup in 2006, but then his 2007 season was cut short by a broken left fibula that forced him to miss the final two games as well as the scouting combine.
"There are a lot of things that the GMs and the coaches looked at and might have put a red flag up," said Hills, "but if they followed my career and my history they would see that I have always been able to battle back from tough situations. Obviously, Pittsburgh looked at it and paid attention to that, and I am happy to be with the Steelers."
It's unrealistic to expect Hills to compete for a starting spot as a rookie, which means the Steelers figure to use training camp to pick five players to put in front of Ben Roethlisberger from the same pool they had last year, minus guard Alan Faneca and plus center Justin Hartwig.
This prospect doesn't particularly unnerve Zierlein, who has come to understand that an offensive line that grows to function as a five-man unit doesn't necessarily need to be manned by a quintet of Pro Bowl players.
The work will begin this weekend during the Steelers' only mandatory minicamp of the offseason, and they will have until Sept. 7 to get it all figured out.