Given that the Steelers don’t normally make a big splash in free agency, the draft is an important part of their team-building process each year.
But this year’s draft, which runs today through Saturday, might be the most important in several years.
Age and free agency have wreaked havoc on the Steelers’ roster. So have some poor draft choices, most notably in 2008, when the Steelers selected a group of players, none of whom is on the roster any longer.
Because of that, a team that doesn’t like to go into the draft process with any obvious needs has several that it must fill in the next three days.
Not that the Steelers will necessarily admit that.
“(This draft) is no more critical than any other year,” said general manager Kevin Colbert, the architect of the team’s drafts since 1990. “I don’t see any players coming in and being immediate impact players. I think if we lined up today with what we have, we’ll have a chance. We’ll continue to add to that and let these players develop at their own pace.”
Overall, that’s a safe philosophy to have. Teams that count on rookies for big things usually find themselves selecting early in the first round the following season.
If the Steelers hope to contend in 2013 and beyond, they need a player or two to exceed expectations and make some kind of impact, even if it is only on special teams or in a sub-package role this season.
Because of that and the way this draft’s talent is distributed, look for the Steelers to address their secondary and linebacker positions early in this draft.
Though the Steelers have starters at all four secondary and linebacker positions, their depth at both have been greatly depleted.
If linebacker Jarvis Jones of Georgia would happen to fall to the Steelers with the 17th pick in the first round, they would be happy to add him to their roster, despite the fact he has an existing neck condition that has caused some teams to place a medical red flag on him.
If Jones isn’t available, the Steelers would do just as well to wait and add a player such as Khaseem Greene of Rutgers, Jamie Collins of Southern Mississippi or Sio Moore of Connecticut in the second or third rounds.
If Jones is not available, the Steelers will likely look to add depth in their aging secondary, where three of four starters – Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu – are older than 30.
With that in mind, cornerback Xavier Rhodes of Florida State would be a solid pick for the Steelers.
At 6-1, 210-pound corner, Rhodes looks like a younger version of Taylor. Unlike Taylor, who played multiple positions in college before settling on cornerback, Rhodes played the position since his freshman year, starting three seasons for the Seminoles.
Rhodes would also have an immediate impact on the Steelers’ special teams units while possibly working his way into the nickel package.
For the same reasons, Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro would make sense, particularly given the injury histories of Clark and Polamalu. Pittsburgh lost top backup safeties Will Allen and Ryan Mundy in free agency, leaving second-year pro Robert Golden as the top backup. Golden was an undrafted rookie in 2012.
But a veteran such as William Gay, who was re-signed in the offseason, knows the defense well enough to also play safety, so the team has some flexibility there.
This draft is deep at safety, and the Steelers could do just as well taking one in the fourth or fifth round to groom for the long term.
Receiver also is a possibility for the Steelers with Emmanuel Sanders signed only to a one-year deal, but this draft also is deep at that position and Pittsburgh has had plenty of success in recent years taking players at that position in later rounds.
A running back should be added but, as history has shown, those can be found in later rounds, too.
Regardless of who the Steelers add this weekend, they have to be solid, quality players. For a team that hangs its hat on its drafts, failure this year is not an option.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org