In our annual 32 picks in 32 days CSNPhilly.com mock draft, we select one player each day until the start of the NFL draft on April 26.
24. Steelers: Donta Hightower, LB, Alabama, 6-2265
Its a changing of the guard in Pittsburgh. Multiple Pro Bowlers and a Super Bowl MVP have been shown the door. As franchise mainstays Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior depart, a wealth of experience and production leaves with them. But in recent seasons the level of play from these former stars subsided.
The franchise leader in receptions, Ward, had been passed on the depth chart by younger receivers in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emanuel Sanders. Smith was underrated at defensive end in Dick Lebeaus 3-4 scheme, but injuries caught up with his production and recent high picks, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, have already looked comfortable in his stead.
Farrior was a force at inside linebacker for the black and gold since joining the team as a free agent in 2002. The Jets' castoff found more than a new home in Pittsburgh, spending a decade as the heart of a defense that raised the Lombardi Trophy twice. He continued the Steelers' tradition at linebacker forged by names like Lambert and Ham, and progressed by the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Joey Porter. But, now with Lamaar Woodley, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons entrenched at the other three spots, this pick can solidify Farriors former home for another decade.
Donta Hightower looks like he was born to be a Steeler. The rugged Alabama linebacker stops ball carriers in their tracks and delivers a thud when he hits. Hightower diagnoses plays quickly, making up for a lack of elite top-end speed. Hes powerful and has a nose for the football. As versatile as Hightower was at the college level, playing inside, outside and even lining up as an edge rusher, hell be at his best as a 3-4 inside backer.
Sidelined by a knee injury in 2009 when the Crimson Tide won the BCS title, Hightower came back with a vengeance. In 2010, he stepped in for current Oakland Raider Rolando McClain in the middle and captained the No. 1 defense in the country. In is final season in Tuscaloosa, Hightower received consensus All-American honors as the Crimson Tide raised another crystal football.
Offensive line, defensive line and cornerback are all needs for the cash-strapped Steelers. But with their first selection, the Steelers and Hightower can combine to continue their recipes for success.
Rob Michel is a news producer at Comcast SportsNet. E-mail him at email@example.com.