Draft offers Steelers options to shore offensive line
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A sense of obligation drives Willie Colon, as the Steelers right tackle again works his way back from injury.
"In my heart of hearts, I feel like I'm in debt to my two coaches, (Mike) Tomlin and (offensive line coach Sean) Kugler, and I feel like I'm in debt to this team," said Colon, who missed last season after tearing his triceps in the first game and sat out 2010 because of a ruptured Achilles.
"My mindset right now is just getting back out on that field and trying to be a cowbell for that line and get things rolling."
The larger question for the Steelers -- even if Colon returns better than ever -- is how much they will address a perceived deficit on their offensive line.
Free agency started last week, but the Steelers, per their history and salary cap restrictions, are not expected to be players.
The draft in late April offers a more realistic option to upgrade a line that is often blamed when the offense sputters.
It also may be appealing for other reasons: The 2012 class is considered deep and talented at guard, and the Steelers' interior-line needs may only be rivaled by those at inside linebacker.
The team's top two guards in 2011 were undrafted free agents Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, and the latter's best position may be center. The team recently released Chris Kemoeatu, who started 47 games at left guard.
The Steelers also have concerns at tackle, even though Colon's return allows them to move second-year man Marcus Gilbert from the right to the left side.
Max Starks, who started the final 13 games at left tackle last season, is an unrestricted free agent. Starks likely will remain unsigned until he works his way back from a torn ACL he sustained in January.
That leaves Jonathan Scott as the only other experienced tackle on the roster.
"They've got to continue to get younger and more athletic, protect the quarterback," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said of the Steelers' offensive line. "I think that's first and foremost."
Is OL a high draft priority?
Since 2000, the year Kevin Colbert took charge of the player personnel department, the Steelers have taken just two offensive linemen with their top pick.
Colbert, however, bristles at the suggestion that the team has overlooked the offensive line by pointing out recent draft history.
The Steelers used their first pick in 2010 (No. 18 overall) on eventual All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey. They took Gilbert, like Pouncey from Florida, in the second round last year.
They also used a third-round pick in 2009 on Wisconsin guard Kraig Urbik.
Urbik lasted one season, though the Steelers made up for that mistake with Foster, who signed in 2009 and has made 29 starts at guard.
"No team has five first-rounders on the offensive line that I know of," said Colbert, the Steelers' general manager. "No team has five Pro Bowlers. It's always going to be a collection of different players."
Colbert can make a good argument why the Steelers shouldn't use their first-round pick this year (No. 24 overall) on an interior offensive linemen.
"Guard," he said, "it's deeper than it ever has been."
Analysts agree. Mayock said quality guards can be found through the first three rounds.
San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke, who helped rebuild the 49ers by drafting two linemen early in the same draft, also gives the offensive line class high marks.
"I think there's depth at the high end," said Baalke, who picked tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati in the first round in 2010. "I think there's depth through the middle of it, and there's depth at the low end of it. It's a quality group."
In his latest mock draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has the Steelers taking Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower with their first pick.
The Steelers have also been linked with Georgia offensive linemen Cordy Glenn in various mock drafts.
Glenn, a 6-foot-5 1⁄2, 345-pounder with nimble feet, excelled at left tackle in the SEC, and he could play guard or tackle in the NFL.
His versatility is something that would add to Glenn's appeal for the Steelers.
"If Glenn were there, he would be interesting to look at," Kiper said.
The health factor
Colon isn't pondering how the Steelers' draft will shake out -- or how it will impact the line.
A fourth-round pick in 2006, Colon has been around long enough that criticism of the offensive line makes him roll his eyes.
"I've heard it since I stepped through the door," Colon said. "I think we have gotten better."
Kugler has earned praise for drilling a physical mindset into his linemen. He also has developed a dynamic similar to what assistant head coach John Mitchell has long had with the defensive linemen: The players will do anything not to let him down.
The team, however, could do nothing to avoid injuries. The Steelers last season used 11 different starting line combinations.
"That's really the ultimate question: If we can keep at least five solid guys consistently out there, how good can this line get• We all know the talent we have in that room," Colon said. "It's about us staying healthy, no doubt, and secondly, it's about having enough time together where we can work together (as one) without thought."Additional Information:
Breaking it down
Here is a look at how the Steelers have used draft picks since 2007, the first year general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin worked together. First-round picks are in parentheses:
RB: 4 (Rashard Mendenhall, 2008)
OL: 8 (Maurkice Pouncey, 2010)
DL: 5 (Ziggy Hood, 2009; Cameron Heyward, 2011)
LB: 8 (Lawrence Timmons, 2007)
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