NFL Draft: Offensive line depth a concern for Steelers

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Having taken offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft four times in the past three years, the Steelers don’t seem to have a need at the position.


But after allowing starting left tackle Max Starks and key backup Doug Legursky to become free agents, and releasing guard Willie Colon, the Steelers are painfully thin behind their starting five. And as the Steelers have seen in the past few seasons, when injuries have ravaged their offensive front, line depth is critical.


That’s why it wouldn’t be a shocking if Pittsburgh selects another offensive lineman – at least in the later rounds – at some point in this year’s draft, which will be held April 25 through 27.


The Steelers hold eight overall selections, including the 17th pick in the first round.


There is some solid talent at the position at the top of the draft, with as many as five offensive linemen expected to be selected in the top 12 picks.


Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher are in contention to be the first player selected.


An offensive tackle has been drafted first overall only three times in NFL history. Minnesota took Ron Yary in 1968, St. Louis selected Orlando Pace first in 1997, and Miami grabbed Jake Long in 2008. Yary and Pace went on to have outstanding careers, and Long has been solid but injured at times. Long left Miami this offseason in free agency for St. Louis. But Joeckel and Fisher are considered two of the safer picks in what is looking to be a draft that doesn’t have many sure-fire stars at the glamour positions.


Joeckel (6-6, 307) was a three-year starter at Texas A&M after winning the left tackle job as a true freshman. The junior did an outstanding job protecting the blind side for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is now with Miami, and last season for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.


Joeckel has been considered the top prospect in this draft for some time but Fisher closed the gap at the NFL Draft Combine, and some teams reportedly have him rated even with or ahead of Joeckel.


Fisher (6-7, 304) is every bit as big and athletic as Joeckel but played in the MAC, where he didn’t see top-notch competition each week. He alleviated some of those concerns with a solid Senior Bowl and isn’t expected to make it out of the top five picks.


A third tackle who could be selected in the top 12 picks is Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson (6-6, 303). Johnson was a high school quarterback who also played tight end and defensive end for the Sooners before shifting to offensive tackle for the past two seasons.


Those three won’t be the only linemen taken early in the first round.


Alabama Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper could both find themselves taken early, even though guards aren’t typically high-priority picks.


“Chance Warmack is probably the best football player I saw on tape this year,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “And Jonathan Cooper is just a tiny notch behind him.


“If either of those players are on the board at (pick 10), I’d jump all over them. I could care less if that’s a position of value or not.”


Though the Steelers likely won’t be in the market for an offensive lineman in the first round, they could have some interest in the later rounds. Currently, their top backups are Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round draft pick last season, and John Malecki, a former practice squad player.


San Diego State guard Nic Embernate (6-4, 304) is a powerful player who could be available in later rounds, and Florida’s Xavier Nixon (6-6, 321) could be added late to a group that already includes Gators alumni Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert.


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