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Steelers ready for anything in draft

The Sports Xchange
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Pittsburgh won't change much in its long-held strategy to take the highest-rated players on the board in the early rounds. It's served the Steelers well, especially in this century in which they've not had a bust in the first round. They will not draft a quarterback in the first round, general manager Kevin Colbert stated, but all other positions are in play, although they won't draft a pure center either unless he can play guard. Since they have little depth in the offensive line, at nose tackle, at linebacker and in the secondary, they could go just about anywhere else.

Nice fits: Inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, guard Amini Silatolu, nose tackle Josh Chapman.

TEAM NEEDS

Guard: Their two starting guards, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster, were both undrafted and both in and out of the lineup. They have little behind them. They've been going through guards faster than anything since Alan Faneca left in 2008. Chris Kemoeatu was released because he just wasn't effective and had too many dumb penalties. They did re-sign Trai Essex, a versatile backup who has never been able to hold down a starting job.

Tackle: The projected starters are Marcus Gilbert, trying to make the transition from right to left tackle in his second season, and Willie Colon, who has played in only one game the past two seasons because of injuries. There's also little depth here. Jonathan Scott, their opening-day starter in 2011 at left tackle, could not hold down the job and is the only experienced backup. It was so bad they recalled Max Starks, whom they cut before training camp, after the fourth game and he started the rest of the way. Starks, a free agent, had ACL surgery in January and they will look at him again in June to possibly sign again unless they find a stud in the draft.

Nose tackle: Casey Hampton, 34, took a big pay cut in his final contractual season and had January ACL surgery. They expect him to play in 2012 but this could be it. Backup Chris Hoke retired. There's been talk of them moving end Ziggy Hood, their No. 1 pick in 2009, to nose tackle. Steve McLendon played there a little for them last season. They'd really like to find their next Hampton, who became their starter as a rookie in 2001.

Linebacker: Inside and out, there is no depth, and James Harrison, 34, and Larry Foote, 32, are not getting any younger. Starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has been their No. 1 backup on the outside and they'd like to change that, to keep him on the inside. They do have Jason Worilds, a No. 2 pick in 2010, and 2011 No. 5 pick Chris Carter on the outside. What they'd really like to do is find their next James Farrior, perhaps Dont'a Hightower.

Running back: Rashard Mendenhall is recovering from ACL surgery and the rest have little experience after Isaac Redman. Mendenhall is in the final year of his contract. Redman is the projected starter and he's performed well when given the chance. Young backs Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Barron Batch also are in the mix.

--The Steelers have finished re-signing veterans for now and it leaves a question as to who will back up Ben Roethlisberger in 2012. It becomes more important as Roethlisberger turns 30 and injuries seem to be catching up to him a little.

That job was handed to Byron Leftwich but in each of the past two seasons, injuries have prevented him from taking it. Because they did not have enough faith in backups Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon last season, they started a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger in San Francisco with a chance to get the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed.

Roethlisberger and the Steelers failed miserably in that game and they wound up a wild-card team on the road, where they lost in Denver.

This week, the Steelers signed Batch again while Leftwich remains mysteriously quiet and still unrestricted. General manager Kevin Colbert has said that Dixon will not return. They do have former Heisman winner Troy Smith on the roster, and he also has some pro experience, along with former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson.

"We have two guys we signed in the offseason, Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. We're excited to see what they can bring too," general manager Kevin Colbert said.

Batch, 37, won the only game he started in 2011, playing for Roethlisberger in a 27-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams - the game AFTER Roethlisberger played on a high ankle sprain in San Francisco. That made Batch 5-2 as a starter for Pittsburgh, where he signed in 2002 after the Detroit Lions released him.

But if they did not have enough confidence in Batch to start him in San Francisco last season, why would they have any to use him in a tough game a year later? Sources have said they would have started Leftwich against the 49ers if he were the backup and not on injured reserve.

Unless Leftwich signs soon, the Steelers could draft a quarterback in the sixth or seventh round (where they have three compensatory picks). Leftwich has always proclaimed that he wants to stay with the Steelers, that leaving them to become the "starter" in Tampa Bay in 2009 was a mistake. Colbert has said he wanted both Batch and Leftwich back and their unstated first choice would have been Leftwich.

Indianapolis and its new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians reportedly are interested in signing Leftwich to help ease rookie Andrew Luck into his new offense. If he does not sign with the Steelers, it will turn what once was a strong backup position at quarterback into a shaky proposition.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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