‘Tis the season.
See, this is my Christmas. The time of year that we begin to speculate on the draft. Really, it’s a year round phenomenon and has grown into an international spectacle. Every year, the draft instills hope into fanbases across the country, hoping that they may have finally hit on the piece that is going to change their franchise around. This year is no different, with the potential of three quarterbacks being selected in the top 7 picks of the draft.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, a quarterback is the last thing this team needs to address in a timely fashion. Under Ben Roethlisberger, the offense is poised to be historically great in 2016 against a weak schedule.
The defense, however, needs work.
There are going to be two scenarios here, both very different and address two very different needs on this football team.
WITH THE 25TH OVERALL SELECTION, THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS SELECT …
Noah Spence, Defensive End/Linebacker, Eastern Kentucky University
There are going to be red flags immediately among Steelers fans with this pick, because there are red flags with defensive end/linebacker Noah Spence off the field. Spence has battled issues with addiction and it eventually cost him his spot on the national championship Ohio State football team. Spence has used this as motivation to turn his life around and readjust his focus back onto football.
Spence’s dominance during the Senior Bowl practices was well documented.
Noah Spence vs LeRaven Clark vs JAX coach https://t.co/vXmcC1WctL
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 28, 2016
South team OL has no answer for Noah Spence.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 28, 2016
Another practice, another fun day watching drills. Edge pass rusher? Noah Spence. Noah Spence. NOAH SPENCE. He's the goods @seniorbowl
— Charles Davis (@CFD22) January 28, 2016
It's actually comical now, every time a QB turns his back on play action, Noah Spence is there for the sack#SeniorBowl
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 28, 2016
Can Noah Spence play every rep? They can't block him
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 27, 2016
These are just a few of the Tweets from members of the NFL draft media that were in Mobile, Alabama for the practices. Spence was simply unblockable. His explosiveness off of the edge, coupled with bend and array of pass rush moves were off the charts. As Matt Miller from Bleacher Report points out, the South offensive line simply did not have an answer for him. In the vine above via Josh Norris of Rotoworld, Spence is being held right from the very start but uses his immense strength and exceptional use of hands to fight through the tackle and actually lay a pretty significant hit on Jacksonville Associate Equipment Manager Geoff DeLuca.
This is simply a small glimpse into the edge rusher that Spence is.
There are concerns with his frame, however. His arms measured in at 31″ and came in at over 6 feet 2 inches. The cause for concern here lies with the length of his arms. According to James Cobern of NFLSpinZone.com, every pass rusher who has been elected to multiple Pro Bowls had arms 32 inches or longer. On top of this, every pass rusher who achieved All-Pro status five or more times was 6 feet 4 inches or taller.
This should not be used as reason to pass on Spence should he be there at the 25th pick. I have my own issues with analytics, and far be it from me to use this as a platform to begin hammering against them, but there are concerns with Spence on paper. On tape, Spence eliminated those concerns during the Senior Bowl practices.
The main question burning in everyone’s mind right now is “Another first round linebacker?!”, and yes, this would make Spence the fourth consecutive linebacker drafted in the first round for the Steelers. While not optimal, the front office needs to begin to try and fix the Jarvis Jones selection three years ago. Spence would likely be used as a rotational and situational pass rusher in his first season behind Jones. This team can no longer depend on 37 year old James Harrison to be a consistent force on the edge. Harrison had the most snaps of any outside linebacker on the team this season after outside linebackers coach Joey Porter was insistent on putting him on a pitch count.
That needs to change. Immediately.
Spence needs to improve his ability to stack and shed in the run game, as well as improve his consistency setting the edge, but these can be greatly improved in practice and his rookie season. Spence can be a weapon off of the edge for a team that desperately needs an edge presence next to Heyward and Tuitt along the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler managed to get 48 sacks out of a defense that had Jones and rookie Bud Dupree at outside linebacker. The damage and destruction that Spence could do in this scheme next to two future perennial Pro Bowl defensive linemen should excite Steelers fans. Spence is that player.
I don’t advocate to trade in drafts often, either up or down. The “draft science” behind both stipulates that it’s likely a bad idea to do so. That being said, if Noah Spence is on the board between 15 – 20, the Steelers should move up to get him. They have the assets to move up the board and get a true playmaking linebacker this time around. They cannot squander this opportunity.
WITH THE 58TH OVERALL SELECTION, THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS SELECT …
Christian Hackenberg, Quarterback, Pennsylvania State
Put down the pitchforks and torches. Bear with me.
The Steelers, perhaps better than any other team this season, showed the need for a good second-string quarterback to be on the roster. Michael Vick and Landry Jones are not those quarterbacks. Jones is not the future of the franchise and Vick has likely played his last down of professional football. Bruce Gradkowski is a UFA this season and is a viable back-up to Roethlisberger, but a long term solution is required at the position.
Enter: Christian Hackenberg.
The scouting reports and pro player comparisons for Hackenberg have already varied wildly. Hackenberg has been compared to Troy Aikman, Jay Cutler, Ryan Nassib and everything in between. When comparisons vary that wildly, it is typically buyer beware. There are a number of things to take into account here, however.
One, his poor play the last two years wasn’t that poor. His decision making at times was questionable, but there were times where he also looked the part of a starting NFL quarterback.
Two, his offensive line was absolutely horrendous. It may, in fact, be the worst offensive line in the country. The fact that Hackenberg on most plays had to make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what was part of the issue. Which leads me into my final point.
Three, the coaching and offensive scheme was deeply flawed. Despite having one of the worst offensive lines in the country, the Penn State offensive scheme did not mesh with the type of player Hackenberg is and forced him to make miracles happen.
Football fans have seen the sharp decline in play of Peyton Manning over the last two seasons. The velocity on his passes is nil, and his downfield passing attack is non-existent. While most of this can be masked in Gary Kubiak’s scheme, Roethlisberger may soon suffer a similar fate.
The wear and tear on Roethlisberger’s body will eventually cause a decline in play. How far away the Steelers are from this happening is currently unclear, but I can not see the Steelers giving Roethlisberger another contract after this current one expires. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Roethlisberger doesn’t play the final year on his contract. This would mean that Hackenberg would be handed the reins at age 24 with a plethora of weapons at his disposal. The Steelers’ offense will likely be composed of receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates with running back Le’Veon Bell in the backfield and perhaps former Nittany Lion teammate tight end Jesse James. This would enable a simple, easy transition for Hackenberg and simply allow the weapons at his disposal to make plays for him in his “rookie” season.
The bigger plus here for Hackenberg would be a transition into the NFL under coaches Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley. This should wipe away a large part of the stink that he unfortunately suffered in his final two seasons at Penn State. For comparison’s sake, this would also be a Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers type of deal at quarterback for the Steelers as well. Roethlisberger is on his way out, and the potential new face of the franchise can take over when necessary. Hackenberg will likely never be Rodgers, but he does have solid starting quarterback potential.
This particular scenario gives the Steelers a solid boost to their edge rush and a quarterback who will eventually have the opportunity to become the new face of the franchise. This scenario also addresses both the future and present for the franchise, giving the defense a much needed shot in the arm. This mock draft does not address the glaring need at cornerback, but I reiterate, the front office should not simply reach for a corner in this draft because there is a need at the position. When an organization begins drafting for need instead of filling their roster with the best player available at the time of their selection, the organization begins to fail in the draft. This is seen every season as teams continually pick in the top-10 and reach for players who do not merit such a selection. The cornerback position can be fixed by re-signing Brandon Boykin and starting him opposite cornerback Ross Cockrell and playing Senquez Golson in the slot. This has the potential to be the long term solution in the Steelers defensive backfield. Reaching for a cornerback like Eli Apple or Kendall Fuller is simply not the answer.