Every week from now until the N.F.L. Draft in late-April, Fansided.com’s writers will be coming out with new and updated versions of their own 2013 N.F.L. Mock Drafts. During this period, I will be writing up weekly break-downs and providing analysis of every projected Pittsburgh selection in the installments (last week’s is here). Each team-themed Fansided site will be participating in this activity, and I must say that this project has the potential to be a fun and interesting experience for all of you Draft-loving readers. But enough of me babbling, let’s get to my analysis of who Fansided’s Josh Hill believes will be taken by the Steelers (with pick #18 of 32 in the 1st Round) in his latest Mock Draft:
Alec Ogletree, Inside Linebacker, University of Georgia
The Steelers are going to look to upgrade at linebacker and Ogletree is one of the best in the class. Next to Manti Te’o he’s the best interior linebacker in the draft and boosted his stock by being the best player on the field in the SEC championship game. With Troy Polamalu injury prone and aging, don’t count out Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro or a quarterback here.
Because I discussed Ogletree at length so much last week, I will not delve into too much detail into why I believe selecting Ogletree (or Alabama’s C.J. Mosley) in Round 1 would be a terrific move by Colbert & Co.. If you would like the full version of why I consider Inside Linebacker to be a weakness the Steelers must address this offseason, just take a gander at my analysis from last week and my discussion of Draft prospects from The S.E.C. Championship Game from last week. What I will mention again this week however is that Ogletree has been a tremendously productive player for the Bulldogs during his career, and really burst on the scene during his 9-games this season (99 Tackles, 2.0 Sacks, 4 Passes Defended, 1 Interception).
The Junior Linebacker has the size (6’3″ 232. lbs.) and athleticism (he came to Georgia as a Safety prospect), to be a fantastic fit with the Steelers who will likely need an upgrade at the “Mack/Weakside” Inside Linebacker position over the coming years once Larry Foote moves on and Lawrence Timmons eventually shifts to the “Buck/Strongside” spot. With his Safety background, Ogletree should also be able to help out in pass coverage, an area in which Pittsburgh’s Linebackers have struggled with over the last few seasons.
Discussing Safety Prospects & Who Pittsburgh Could Target
Because I have already provided my thoughts on the prospects (or lacktherof) of the Steelers taking a Quarterback in Round 1 of April’s Draft, I thought that today would be a prime opportunity to discuss the other positional area Hill mentioned that Pittsburgh could look for in Round 1: Safety.
It is no big secret that the Steelers need help at Safety, both spots actually, and it is something I have mentioned almost ad nauseaum this year. Future Hall of Fame Strong Safety Troy Polamalu has missed 9 games with calf issues, will be entering his 10th season in 2013, and is having difficulty staying on the field at this point in his career. To his credit, Free Safety Ryan Clark has had a productive year so far and ranks 2nd on the team in Tackles (83) and Tied for 2nd in Interceptions (2). Unfortunately, Clark will not only turn 34 next season, but will also enter the final year of the 4 year contract he signed after the 2009 campaign.
As bleak as the Steelers starting situations appear to be post-2013, the backup situations are nothing to write home about either, and could even be described completely “non-existent” looking towards the future. Ryan Mundy has underachieved this season in his limited opportunities, and will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this year. Will Allen, who like Clark has chipped in this year with some effective play in a spot starting role (31 Tackles, 1 FF), will also be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the season ends like Mundy. Behind Mundy and Allen, the only depth that currently exists is Rookie UDFA Robert Golden who has logged almost zero time outside of Special Teams and on the Defensive side of the ball this year.
Although Hill was spot on when he mentioned that Pittsburgh could go Safety in Round 1, I however see a better fit for the team than Kenny Vaccaro (who plays Free Safety) if the Steelers do decide to look for Troy’s replacement that early: Matt Elam of Florida.
Elam sort of fits the mold of what the Steelers would look for to fill their upcoming void at Strong Safety. Although he is considered to be a bit small (5’10” 202 lbs.), Elam has been a physical and effective player against the run (78 Tackles in 2011, 65 already this season with 10.0 Tackles for Loss), against the pass (5 PBU’s in 2011, 5 already this season), and even rushing the passer (4.0 career Sacks) during his three year career with Florida. In addition to his versatile skill-set, Elam also has forced a fair amount of Takeaways as a Gator to boot. After spot-duty as a Freshman in which he made 22 Tackles, 1.0 Sack, and logged 1 Fumble Recovery, Elam recorded 2 Interceptions during his Sophomore season in 2011. This year, Elam has already picked off 4 passes for Florida and forced a huge fumble to knock off then-undefeated Louisiana State (10:20ish mark).
If the Steelers do select a Safety like Elam early, it would not shock me if they tried to double-dip at the position later in the draft and try to find a down-the-road replacement for Ryan Clark at Free Safety. While I do like Vaccaro, multiple talented and productive players like Bacarri Rambo of Georgia (who I discussed in the S.E.C. Championship post) and Tony Jefferson of Oklahoma (113 Tackles and 2 Interceptions in 12 Games this season to go with 8.0 career Sacks and 18.0 Tackles for Loss during his three years with the Sooners) should also be available on Day 2 of the Draft. But when I think of who a solid replacement for Clark would be, one prospect in particular comes to mind: D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina.
Although Swearinger has been a bit overshadowed during his career by the stellar play of S.E.C. Safeties like Elam, Rambo, Georgia’s Shawn Wiliams, L.S.U.’s Eric Reid, and Alabama’s Mark Barron and Robert Lester, he has nevertheless built a successful career for himself at South Carolina. A two and a half year starter with the Gamecocks (32 starts so far), D.J. has shown a nice ability to support against the run (150 Tackles over the last two seasons), and force Turnovers and big plays (3 Forced Fumbles, 2 Fumble Recoveries with 1 Touchdown, 6 Interceptions with 2 Touchdowns during the last three seasons).
The part of Swearinger’s game that I like the most however is his physical play on the back-end and his ability to deliver vicious hits to the opposition if they come anywhere in his area, just like Mr. Clark. The Gamecock Safety was actually suspended for one game for this hit right here against U.A.B. this past season (he also took a fumble back 65 Yards for a TD in the game too), and delivered a huge blow to Clemson’s Andre Ellington in the S.C./Clemson rivalry game. Probably the best Swearinger moment I can remember from this past season happened against Arkansas. After he was penalized on a horse-collar call, and a ticky-tack “hit on a defenseless Receiver” penalty on consecutive plays, Swearinger picked off a pass on the very next play and took it back 70 Yards for a Touchdown and gave a befitting “Eff You” to the refs when he threw the ball into the stands after he scored!
Sooner or later, the Steelers will need a physical and hard-hitting Free Safety to replace Clark when he eventually moves on into retirement or elsewhere. At least to me, Swearinger could maintain that forceful presence at Free Safety, and might be a mid-Round selection worth taking a chance on and developing.
The Steelers need help on the Defensive side of the ball and must find a way to accumulate depth and find long-term starters at numerous positions as the veteran-laden unit continues to age.
Safety is a huge need, as is Inside Linebacker as well as Outside Linebacker. Plus, I am not particularly thrilled with Pittsburgh’s depth at Cornerback now. With Ike Taylor set to turn 33 and the average Keenan Lewis set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent after the season, I hope that the Steelers are able to find some competition for Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. The Defensive Line could also use an infusion of youth as well to make up for the future losses of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton, and push Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward as well.
I guess I will close this analysis by saying that whether it is Ogletree, Elam, etc., the Steelers just need to find play-makers and difference-makers on the Defensive side of the ball. Thus, with their current needs in mind, I am sure that this will be a “Defense Heavy” Draft for Pittsburgh no matter who they inevitably select next April.