This is a continuing series on the NFL draft.
The Steelers went into the 2013 season optimistic about the possibility of what their offensive line could become.
With a pair of former first-round draft picks in center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro, along with former second-round picks Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at tackle, the Steelers had addressed their offensive line early and often in recent drafts.
But Pouncey suffered a torn ACL just eight plays into the opening game of the season, and Adams was replaced at left tackle after four games by former seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum as the Steelers again struggled to protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or generate a rushing attack.
But Roethlisberger was sacked only seven times in the final seven games, and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell gained 578 yards on the ground in the last eight games, giving some hope for 2014.
None of that was enough to save the job of offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. He was fired at the end of the season and replaced by NFL Hall of Fame lineman and former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak.
The Steelers return all five starters on their line, including Pouncey, who is on schedule to be ready when the season begins. The Steelers also resigned two key reserves, Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace in the offseason, meaning they are reasonably set on the offensive line heading into this year’s draft, which will be held May 8-10.
Pittsburgh has at least one pick in all seven rounds, including the 15th selection of the first round.
Last year, offensive tackle Eric Fisher of Central Michigan was selected by Kansas City with the first pick in the draft and Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel went second to Jacksonville.
This year’s offensive tackle group is considered even better.
“The top three left tackles this year – (Auburn’s) Greg Robinson, (Michigan’s) Taylor Lewan and (Texas A&M’s) Jake Matthews – all will have a higher grade than the three we talked about from last year who went at the top of the board,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said in a conference call.
“That tells you this draft is certainly much stronger than last year’s.”
How much deeper is this year’s draft?
Despite being rated higher than Fisher and Joeckel, Robinson (6-5, 332) and Matthews (6-6, 308) aren’t likely to be selected with the first two picks, though both could be taken in the first 10 selections. Lewan (6-7, 309) also is expected to go in the first 20 picks, and Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (6-7, 322) could be a first-round pick.
Notre Dame’s Zack Martin (6-4, 308) also is consided a first-round selection, though many teams view him more as a guard prospect than at tackle, where he played for the Fighting Irish. Martin does not have classic tackle size.
UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo (6-4, 307) is the second-rated guard prospect and could be selected late in the first round.
There are no centers considered first-round prospects, though Colorado State’s Weston Richburg and Marcus Martin of USC could each be selected in the second round.
The Steelers brought two offensive linemen, Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson and South Florida guard Lawrence Martin, to Pittsburgh for visits.
Henderson (6-7, 331) is considered a mid-round prospect. Martin (6-3, 319) lined up at guard, tight end and fullback for South Florida last year.
Locally, Penn State guard John Urschel is considered a late-round prospect.