Kovacevic: This draft had better deliver
Now hear this, all you towel-waving, Tunch-loving football nuts: Your Pittsburgh Steelers — chins up, chests out! — are not a team in transition.
Nor are they rebuilding, reloading, retooling, replenishing, restocking or, really, re-anything-ing.
(OK, maybe a little re-William-Gay-ing and re-Matt-Spaeth-ing, but that's it.)
Just ask the chin-up-chest-out guy in chief …
“Our goals and mentality have not changed and will not change,” Mike Tomlin was telling us Monday on the South Side. “We desire to be a legitimate competitor for the Lombardi Trophy each and every year, and 2013 is no different than '12 or '11, or '15 or '16 for that matter.”
Then, for good measure, the coach repeated it: “That goal and that mentality and that approach will never change.”
The roster of last season's 8-8 team has lost — willingly or otherwise — a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year (James Harrison), a feature running back (Rashard Mendenhall), one of the league's top big-play receivers (Mike Wallace), a dynamic corner (Keenan Lewis) and a starting guard (Willie Colon).
Their anchor of the 3-4 defense (Casey Hampton) and the man who for years has had Ben Roethlisberger's back (Max Starks) are soon to be next.
The only newcomers have been quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and two other backups in Gay and Spaeth.
And nothing's changed?
I'm not debating the moves as a whole. In fact, I'm on record as being fine with most. The player who would have been best to keep was Lewis, but his five-year, $26 million with the Saints was out of whack. Another I'd still like to keep is Starks, but Tomlin's already decided he'll pick between Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams for left tackle. That's not ideal, but it never is.
The point, rather, is this: The Steelers, no matter what they say, are rebuilding.
It's admirable Tomlin wouldn't want to lose the edge that comes — or has come — with simply being the Steelers. I'm not knocking that. But don't let dialogue distort reality: Seven starters are out, and three backups are in. That means all answers must come from:
1. Free agents, for which there is no free cash, so scratch this off right now.
2. Players who weren't good enough to be atop the depth chart of an 8-8 team.
3. The draft.
Thus, at least seven of the 22 starters will be younger, some strikingly so.
That, my friends, is rebuilding.
One opening will be manned by a fully capable Ramon Foster, who started all 16 games last season, anyway, through attrition. That's fine.
Two others, cornerback Cortez Allen and nose tackle Steve McLendon, come with some promise.
But the other four ...
Is Jason Worilds an upgrade over even an aging Harrison?
Maybe in his burst to the backfield but nothing else.
Is Emmanuel Sanders an upgrade over Wallace?
Maybe in the short game, definitely not the long.
Can Gilbert or Adams handle Ben's blind side?
No one could be looking forward to finding out.
And is there any No. 1 running back in the house?
Not if you've heard how Tomlin has outwardly dumped on Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman this offseason.
So, no, the team won't get better with what it has. And that's logical. As Colbert repeated this week: “The talent that we had assembled was an 8-8 team.”
Which puts it all on the draft, then, doesn't it?
Oh, you know it.
It's a deep class, with particular quality at wide receiver and the secondary, and legit finds might be plentiful as late as the fourth round. There's no reason, no excuse for the Steelers not to emerge with viable impact talents.
That starts at the top.
And not to play Mel Kiper here, but I'd be delighted with Alabama running back Eddie Lacy at No. 17. He's the consensus best at his position, he came on strong late for the national champs, he's got Barry Foster legs and a between-the-tackles pedigree, and, really, there's nowhere the Steelers could benefit more from a serious shock to the system.
This much is certain: Whoever they get, they'd better not miss. Or the rebuilding will move into territory well beyond simple semantics.
I asked Colbert on Monday if all the upheaval of veterans puts more pressure on this weekend.
“No, every draft has been the same,” he answered. “We did have a few more departures than usual, but we still have eight picks. Every year, we expect ourselves to get the right 7-8 players. When we do, great. When we don't, it hurts. But it's really no more critical than any other year because I don't see anyone coming in and being immediate impact players. I think if we lined up today with what we have, we'll have a chance. We want to continue to add to that and let these players develop at their own pace.”
What, you expected something panicky?
They're the Steelers.