Offensive line in play for Steelers in first round
INDIANAPOLIS — At times last year, the Steelers had four No. 1 draft picks starting at linebacker. Next year, it is possible they could have three first-rounders on the interior of their offensive line if, as general manager Kevin Colbert likes to say, the draft breaks that way.
And it well could.
The Steelers have more pressing needs like to upgrade their cornerbacks and finding a replacement for retired tight end Heath Miller, but that might not happen early in this draft. The Steelers haven't picked in a cornerback in the first round in nearly 20 years and there are slim pickings at tight ends once you get past Arkansas' Hunter Henry.
That brings the offensive line into play — especially guards — in the first round, especially with veteran left guard Ramon Foster, 30, being an unrestricted free agent and the uncertainty whether the Steelers want to sign him to a contract extension that would likely be much more significant than the bargain-basement deal he signed three years ago worth $5.5 million.
The Steelers have Cody Wallace, who started 16 games at center last year, and Chris Hubbard as potential left guards, but neither are long-term answers.
Stanford's Josh Garnett would be a long-term answer.
Garnett (6-foot-4, 312) is the most today-ready guard in the draft and is a prototypical Steelers-type offensive lineman — athletic, smart and nasty.
Actually, sometimes too nasty.
“That's something that teams are really interested in, my aggressiveness,” Garnett said. “Something I need to work on, conversely, is not being too aggressive in pass pro situations. I want to just lock on somebody and finish them.”
Garnett has a saying for that — “Run through their souls.”
“A lot guys want to get in space against smaller, quicker guys and just want to chop down on them,” Garnett said. “You've got to run through them. Just run through their soul and hopefully, if you hit them, they're going to go down.”
Garnett showed good speed on Friday running 5.30 and 5.32 in the 40-yard dash along with his strength (30 reps on the bench).
“I feel like my strengths are my ability to finish blocks and my ability to get into blocks,” Garnett said. “That was something I really prided myself in, my ability to down block, my pulling ability, my ability to get on blocks and really finish people.”
But where Garnett, the Outland Trophy winner, has a lot of his competitors beat is the systems he comes from.
Stanford runs a pro-style offense that has produced offensive linemen who can come in and play immediately. Over the past few years, the Cardinal have produced Andrus Peet, Jonathan Martin, Cameron Fleming, David Yankey and Steelers right guard David DeCastro.
“Don't think for one second we don't use that as a recruiting tool,” Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren told ESPN.com last week. “You want to come here and play real football. The kind of football guys in the National Football League know how to evaluate. That's what we do.”
There are plenty of options early in the draft if the Steelers want to address their guard position. Tackles Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva seemed entrenched as starters as well as center Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers will likely sign DeCastro to a long-term extension in the spring after picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal last April, leaving only left guard a potential issue.
Kansas State's Cody Whitehair is being projected as a guard but played both tackle positions in college. LSU's Vadal Alexander played guard as a junior but moved to tackle last year. Arizona State's Christian Westermann is also an athletic guard who could play right away.
Another top pick on the offensive line could solidify the unit for years, especially under line coach Mike Munchak.
Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard in his days with the Oilers, has been able to transform a weak spot of the team into a strength. Now, he does have a good pedigree to work with — a pair of No. 1 picks (Pouncey and DeCastro) and a second-rounder (Gilbert).
“How that offensive line has played is a real testament to Munchak,” NFL analysts and former offensive lineman Shaun O'Hara said. “He is a former player, and you love having a somebody like that in the grind with you.”