I'm trying to keep this in line with some knowledge of players the Steelers have talked to at the Combine, that they've scheduled for visits, or that they showed interest in at the Combine. In the shifting sands of draft board values, I've included the most recent NFLDS ratings, a computerized mock site's ratings (Draft Tek), and some notes.1.32 - Eric Wood, C, Louisville.
(NFLDS #46, round 2; Draft Tek #51, round 2.)
Combine Invite: Yes
40 Yrd Dash: 5.19
20 Yrd Dash: 2.84
10 Yrd Dash: 1.68
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 30
Vertical Jump: 30 1/2
Broad Jump: 08'03"
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.51
3-Cone Drill: 7.56
Justin Hartwig is a serviceable center and notable upgrade from Sean Mahan, but he was signed in 2008 to a two-year deal. While he could be retained next year, a more likely scenario would see a top center/guard prospect drafted early this year, and possibly get his feet wet at one of the guard positions, before sliding over to snapping duties next year. Alex Mack and Wood are the 1a and 1b in some order, and the Steelers would get a solid starter with either. Some mocks have Mack off the board even earlier than 1.32, but even if it were a true toss-up between the two, I've started to buy into the recent buzz over Wood. Wood had a solid workout at Indy, but there seem to be some details that put him ahead of Mack in my book.
Both were solid in blocking grades, according to NFLDS. However, this encapsulates why I think Wood will go higher than most mocks predict:
Called by many the "most prepared player in the nation," Wood has been known to be found in the wee hours of the morning still examining game tapes in the film room, preparing for his upcoming opponent. He not only brings incredible knowledge and instincts to the field, but plays with the true nastiness that has scouts comparing him to the NFL's old time centers like Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tim Grunhard of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Webster name-check is cool enough, but it's his preparation and nastiness that we'll see on the field. The Bengals are also very interested, and won't let him slip past their second round pick (2.38).
He started 49 consecutive games at center. In the last two seasons, coaches stats credit Wood with 27 blocks that resulted in touchdowns and 164 knockdowns. On his last 992 pass plays he allowed only two quarterback pressures.
That's a pretty sobering statistic: two QB pressures in 992 pass plays. Wood made all the line calls, and has lined up at OG, OT, and even TE for a few snaps. He's a guy whose only downsides seem to be that he's a center, a position devalued in mock drafts, and that he'll need to get a little more physical to match up with NFL nose guards. Frankly, I see him as much better than Max Unger, who as a jack of all trades doesn't have the same muscle and is too reminiscent of Ryan Cook. Wood would contribute now and for years to come.
Wood is a quiet team leader who plays with true aggression. He is an "old school" no-nonsense type who will not hesitate to get in a teammate's face, yet when he speaks, the team listens. He has no known off-field issues and the coaches say he is a pleasure to work with... Wood is alert to twists and games and while he is stiff in his hips, he does fire off the snap quickly to attack his opponent. He needs to develop better leg strength and a hand punch to do a better job of matching up with physical nose guards, but he does show good slide agility to mirror and does a nice job of keeping his head on a swivel to excel on short pulls and screens.
Jonathan Luigs and Antoine Caldwell are other center/guard prospects worth looking at, and both have round 3 grades, which means we would need to select them at 2.64. I actually slightly prefer A.Q. Shipley, who is unlikely to be anything but a center at the next level. Although he's rated as a round 5 prospect, I believe teams like him better than do the mock sites, and he won't get past round 4, which means we would need to draft Shipley in round 3. Beyond those centers are less reliable project-types who won't be ready to help us next year if we decide to let Hartwig go.2.64. Fili Moala, DT/DE, USC. (NFLDS #76, round 2/3; Draft Tek #59, round 2.)
Combine Invite: Yes
40 Yrd Dash: 5.07
20 Yrd Dash: 2.90
10 Yrd Dash: 1.71
225 Lb. Bench Reps: 25
Vertical Jump: 30 1/2
Broad Jump: 08'04"
20 Yrd Shuttle:
No shuttles/cones, left groin strain
Moala is, by rumor, the defensive lineman the Steelers like fourth best (B.J. Raji, Tyson Jackson, Ron Brace, Moala, Jarron Gilbert). Of those, Raji and Brace are more likely suited to the NT in the 3-4, and Raji is considered a top-10 pick. Jackson could be a natural 3-4 DE, but likely will also be gone by 1.32. Brace may not be a dominating enough NT to draft at 1.32, and might not have the lateral movement to transition to end. Gilbert has the athleticism, but level of competition is a big question. Moala has been tested against top programs, and looks about Aaron Smith-sized right now; whether he could add enough size and strength to move to nose tackle is debatable, but his Combine lifts argue no.
He is, however, a solid run-stopper, and his ability to occupy double teams shows a good functional strength. Projecting 3-4 ends is always tricky business, but usually it is the tweener defensive tackles who fit the system. Moala is already about 25 pounds heavier than the usual draft weight of Steeler ends, but with the accelerated draft interest in 3-4 ends, there are fewer prospects available. And with the ages of the defensive line players the Steelers are starting, having a rookie who is already at starter's weight means not having to spend a couple of years developing him in strength and conditioning.
A more valuable contributor than his yearly average production (26 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks) would indicate, Moala isn't going to fill the stat sheet, but his presence inside forced opponents to double-team him often, opening up opportunities for his playmaking teammates.
If Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews are all projected to go in the first round, that indirectly speaks well of the defensive linemen who took the pressure off all of them. Moala's duties in the 3-4 would be somewhat different, but the knock on Moala was that he wasn't much of a pass-rusher. That's not really what we ask of our ends anyway.
Rare size for the position with the frame to add mass. ... Measures in at nearly 300 pounds, but considering his height, Moala almost has a lanky build. ... Good initial quickness off the snap. ... Powerful hands to slap away the offensive linemen trying to control him. ... Quick to recognize the play and work his way toward the action. ... Good size and strength to collapse the interior running lanes. ... High-effort player who will pursue laterally and down the field. ... Durable performer who has seen starting action every year of his career. ... Good bloodlines. Cousin, Haloti Ngata, was a first-round pick and is a standout defensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens.
There are certainly 3-4 ends to be found throughout this draft, but again, the timing of their development is critical. Moala could likely start as a rookie, or at least rotate in, and be ready to start full time next year. Later round prospects would not. It would still behoove the Steelers to bring in another end in a late round or as an undrafted prospect to develop for depth, since both starters (Smith and Keisel) have age and injury issues.