Back to the future? Signs point to the Pittsburgh Steelers taking a center in Round 1
The Pittsburgh Steelers had high hopes before the 2009 season.
Fresh off their win over Arizona in the Super Bowl, Mike Tomlin was entering his third season as head coach, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was going into his fifth season and entering the prime of his career. Together, they led Pittsburgh to a 22-10 regular season record the previous two seasons.
But things did not go as planned in 2009.
Safety Troy Polamalu missed most of the season due to injuries. Roethlisberger missed an important divisional game. Starters Chris Kemoeatu (guard), Travis Kirschke (edge) and Aaron Smith (edge) combined to miss 19 games.
And Pittsburgh lost five games after leading in the fourth quarter.
So even though the team’s 9-7 record that year would have been deemed successful by many franchises, it came as a big disappointment for the Steelers.
Changes were needed.
First and foremost among those changes? Pittsburgh needed to do a better job of protecting Roethlisberger.
The Steelers gave up 51 sacks that year, the second-most in the league.
So Pittsburgh made a bold move in the 2010 draft: The Steelers drafted a center with their first-round pick, Maurkice Pouncey of Florida, who was drafted No. 18 overall.
Just how rare was the Pouncey pick? The Steelers had drafted a center with their first pick only two other times in franchise history – the last time coming in 1941 when Chet Gladchuk of Boston College was taken with the 12th overall pick. Prior to that, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Mike Basrak of Duquesne with the fifth-overall pick in the 1937 draft.
Of course, the Pouncey pick paid off big time for the Steelers. Pouncey would go on to play 10 seasons in the NFL, all for Pittsburgh. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and made First-team All-Pro three times and the Second-team two times. Overall, Pouncey started all 134 games he played.
He finally retired alongside his twin brother Mike in February 2021.
All signs point to Pittsburgh re-racking the center position and taking another one in the first round.
Currently, 2021 third-rounder Kendrick Green is penciled in as the starter – the operative word being “penciled,” because Green struggled at the position as a rookie. He finished with a PFF grade of 52.4, prompting Michael Beck of SB Nation’s Behind the Steel Curtain to say the team has “no excuse” for not bringing in at least one new starter at either center or guard.
From Beck: “The 2021 Interior offensive line was nothing short of terrible. Kendrick Green offered nothing at the center position, and might’ve been the worst starting center in the NFL last season.”
To be clear – and to Beck’s point – the entire interior line needs to be rehauled. Right guard Trai Turner, arguably the team’s best interior linemen, will be an unrestricted free agent. Left guard Kevin Dotson suffered a high ankle sprain and missed much of last season, plus he’s reportedly “not on good terms with some of the Steelers coaches,” according to Behind the Steel Curtain.
Given Turner’s injury history and age (he’ll be 29 by next season), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Steelers let Turner walk in free agency and stick with its youth movement along its offensive line, with Green moving to one of the guard spots. Keep in mind, Green spent the bulk of his time as a guard at Illinois.
So, assuming Pittsburgh keeps Dotson, a 2020 fourth-rounder, at left guard, that would open up a starter’s spot at center.
Currently, there are three interior offensive linemen who are viewed by most evaluators as potential first-round prospects: Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum (ranked No. 5 in the Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board), Texas A&M guard/tackle Kenyon Green (No. 31) and Boston College guard/center Zion Johnson (No. 33).
Before the Combine started, Linderbaum was seen as the least likely of the trio to still be available when the Steelers go on the clock with the No. 20 pick. However, Linderbaum raised some eyebrows after he measured 6-foot-2, 296-pounds with 31-inch arms at the Combine. Most teams prefer an arm length of at least 33-inches.
To put Linderbaum’s measurements into perspective, Marcus Mosher of The Raiders Wire and host of the Locked On Cowboys podcast reports that only five offensive linemen since 2000 have measured with shorter arms. Linderbaum’s measurements are part of the reason why he’s seen as a center-only at the next level, Walter Football reports.
So it’s possible that the Rimington Trophy winner is still available when the Steelers draft on Day 1.
Green and Johnson, though, have more positional flexibility – especially Green. The 6-foot-3, 323-pound junior’s arm length measured 34 1/8-inches at the Combine, while his wingspan was measured at an impressive 83 3/8-inches. Green was used all over Texas A&M’s line last season, as he started at every position but center. He also played 23 games at Texas A&M with Pittsburgh’s 2021 fourth-round pick, left tackle Dan Moore.
Johnson is another potential Steelers target. The 6-foot-2, 314 pound senior measured 33 7/8-inch arms with an 82 7/8-inch wingspan at the Combine. Johnson mostly played guard for Boston College but also started at offensive tackle. He then received snaps at center during Senior Bowl week and excelled at the position.
The Steelers have met with all three players.
Linderbaum reportedly had a formal meeting with Tomlin on Thursday. Green also had a formal meeting with the team and has already said he loves the “family atmosphere” in Pittsburgh.
And Johnson was one of 13 offensive linemen to report having a formal or informal meeting with the Steelers, FanNation’s All Steelers reports. Johnson’s meeting was said to be informal, as teams are only allowed 45 formal meetings during the Combine. One potential reason? Johnson said he talked to the team five times over the course of the Senior Bowl week.
Here's a video of Boston College OL Zion Johnson casually benching 225 for 32 reps….barefoot
So, what will the rest of the Pittsburgh draft look like? Click here to see Fanspeak’s latest mock draft for the Steelers.
Want more NFL Draft content? Subscribe here to the Fanspeak Network for weekly NFL Draft shows!