Wexell: New mock, Pro Bowl, UFA gems

Wexell: New mock, Pro Bowl, UFA gems

Maurice Clarett opened the door for all college underclassmen to enter the NFL draft, and somehow we'll survive. Dan Rooney will too.<BR><BR> The Steelers chairman expressed his disappointment in the recent court decision that opened the gates, but he can now stand back and reap the windfall.

It's not known whether Clarett interests the Steelers, but a running back certainly does. In fact, the Steelers probably need two running backs to rebuild a stable that finished 31st in the league last season.

With Clarett entering the draft, the odds of landing a sleeper such as a Quincy Wilson in the fourth round, a Jason Wright in the fifth round or a Brandon Miree in the sixth round have increased for the Steelers.

The decision on Clarett will also impact the Steelers at the top of the first round. Already, Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald has been added to the deepening top 10. Don't be surprised if someone along the lines of a Mike Williams throws his name into the hat prior to the newly established deadline for sophomores, freshmen and, yes, high-school seniors.

That deadline is March 1, and if such a player wishes to work out at the Feb. 18 Indianapolis combine, the deadline is Feb. 15.

Fitzgerald is expected to be a top-10 pick, which of course thickens the list for the Steelers, who pick 11th.

Williams, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound WR, would also be considered a top-10 pick. Throw another sophomore into the top 10 mix, such as Texas DT Rodrique Wright (6-5, 320) or Oregon DT Haloti Ngota (6-4, 340), or even USC QB Matt Leinart (6-5, 215), and the Steelers' odds of landing a better player only increase.

II

For kicks, let's throw Williams into the mix and see how the top 10 unfolds:

1. San Diego - Ben Roethlisberger

2. Oakland - Eli Manning

3. Arizona -- Larry Fitzgerald

4. New England (trade) - Kellen Winslow

5. Washington - Tommie Harris

6. Detroit -- Sean Taylor

7. Cleveland -- Robert Gallery

8. Atlanta - Mike Williams

9. Jacksonville - Reggie (or Roy) Williams

10. Houston - Kenechi Udeze

So, with the 11th pick the Steelers can now take, um, Steven Jackson, the running back most had been projecting at that spot before Clarett came along.

Perhaps the benefit will be felt in the second round as the additional underclassmen allow a decent right tackle or cornerback to fall to the Steelers. We'll spare readers that experimental mock draft for another day.

III

Before last season, the Steelers thought they had quite a linebacking crew. They claimed to have three Pro Bowlers and "one who should've been." The one, of course, was James Farrior, who didn't reach the Pro Bowl in 2001 when he supposedly made 6,000 tackles for the New York Jets.

Well, Sunday's Pro Bowl won't include any of the Steelers' illustrious linebackers, even Farrior, who made 3,000 tackles this season to lead the team. In their place will be AFC starters Takeo Spikes, Keith Bulluck and Ray Lewis. The back-ups are Zach Thomas and Willie McGinest, a replacement for injured Peter Boulware.

Boulware and Lewis are the only true playmakers of the bunch. Boulware had 8.5 sacks last season and Ray Lewis had six interceptions. The latter's 2 sacks are typical of this group, however.

Bulluck and Spikes combined for 5 sacks last season while McGinest had 5.5. Thomas had 1 sack, giving Sunday's five-man AFC LB corps only 13.5 sacks for the 2003 season.

Not that any of the Steelers linebackers deserved a spot. The four -- Jason Gildon (6), Joey Porter (5), Kendrell Bell (4) and Farrior (0) -- combined for 15 sacks, and this in a defense geared to that very statistic.

It wasn't just a lack of sacks that defined the Steelers defense this past season. Here are the other combined vitals from the starting linebackers: 3 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions and 17 passes defensed.

On the bright side, there are three Steelers in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Alan Faneca will start at left guard, while the other two -- WR Hines Ward and NT Casey Hampton -- will be back-ups. And they're all young, improving and under contract.

IV

Before taking off for a week of Florida sun, I leave you with these two cents on three interesting and underrated free agents:

1. Billy Volek -- This 6-2, 214-pound quarterback filled in twice for Tennessee starter Steve McNair last season. As an in-game reserve, Volek rallied the Titans to a win over the Atlanta Falcons, and as a starter he beat the Buffalo Bills. He completed 64 percent of his 69 passes and threw 4 touchdowns and 1 interception (101.4 rating). At Fresno State, Volek was the QB who kept future No. 1 overall draft pick David Carr on the bench for three college seasons (one as a redshirt). Volek will turn 28 on April 28 and is considered by scouts to be a potential steal in the upcoming UFA period. Aside from his physical talent, scouts also like Volek's study and practice habits.

Of course, the Steelers probably won't be interested since Tommy Maddox will only be 33 years old next opening day, Charlie Batch still has a year left on his contract and Brian St. Pierre has a season on the scout team under his belt. Excuse the cynicism, but when it comes to the Steelers and the quarterback position it's a conditioned response.

2. Ian Gold -- Two years ago, when the Steelers drafted LB Larry Foote out of Michigan, they hoped he would follow in the footsteps of Gold, another smallish Michigan LB turned special-teams superstar. Gold (6-0, 223) became a starting OLB for Denver in 2002, his third season, and started 22 games until tearing an ACL covering a punt last season against the Steelers.

Now, the injury and his niche as a 4-3 linebacker are reasons the Steelers won't be looking his way. But if they want a bargain, and a player with a ton of heart, they shouldn't turn their back on a player they used to love.

3. Garrison Hearst -- Let me get this straight: Jerome Bettis is willing to take a pay cut in order to mentor the young power back the Steelers are expected to select early in the next draft. But if a power back is being used on the field, what does Bettis do? They already have a RBs coach. Hearst would be a better mentor, since he could also help as a third-down back. Recently turned 33, Hearst is expected to be let go by San Francisco in favor of Kevan Barlow. Hearst averaged 4.3 yards per rush and 8.4 per 25 catches in his 12 starts last season before succumbing to a sprained knee. Hearst averaged 43 receptions in each of his three previous seasons and would give the Steelers a cheap, usable and effective mentor for its next feature back.

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