The surprising news that the Steelers intend to keep nose tackle Casey Hampton this season can't change the team's draft plans.
Pittsburgh still needs to address this position in a draft that's deep at nose tackle, whether it's taking Memphis' Dontari Poe (first round), BYU's Hebron Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) or Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round).
Hampton is coming back for this season -- general manager Kevin Colbert was quick to say Thursday Hampton would return in 2012 -- but the five-time Pro Bowl player probably won't be in Pittsburgh beyond 2012 for several reasons. He turns 35 before the season. He had his second ACL surgery on his left knee. And he had a decline in performance last season, which was reflected in the run defense. Hampton is a free agent after this season, so the Steelers need to be thinking of their future now.
Keeping Hampton is a calculated risk but he's also a safety net for this season. If the Steelers fail to draft a nose tackle who can start right away, Hampton is the best fallback option. There's little depth at this position because longtime backup Chris Hoke retired and Steve McLendon isn't a starting-caliber lineman. That's why there's speculation that defensive end Ziggy Hood could shift to nose tackle but he is considered undersized for that spot.
The biggest question is whether Hampton will be ready for the start of the season. Colbert recently said the Steelers can't count on Rashard Mendenhall for this season, and the running back had ACL surgery in January like Hampton.
But Pittsburgh believe Hampton's outlook for the upcoming season is better than the one for Mendenhall.
"It's a different position, obviously," Colbert said at the NFL combine Thursday, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You don't have to worry about speed, you don't have to worry about quick change of direction when you're talking about offensive or defensive linemen. And the one edge Casey will have on anybody is that he's been through this twice. He knows what to expect. He knows how to do this. He knows how much work he has to do and he knows how he feels."
Colbert wasn't as definitive about the future of Hines Ward, saying no decision has been made on the Steelers' wide receiver. The odds are against Ward staying because the Steelers would create almost $4 million in salary-cap rom by cutting him. That additional space would go toward using a first-round tender or the franchise tag on Mike Wallace.
"I think there's value in having any experienced player because you want someone to show [younger receivers] the way beyond their coaches," Colbert said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Ultimately, that player has to be able to help you win -- not only be a mentor, but be a contributor, as well."