Two well-documented facts could work against the Steelers trying to fill their biggest need in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday, that of outside linebacker.
One, they last chose an outside linebacker in the first round in 1991, and they last drafted one in the first round who did not turn into a bust 36 years ago.
Two, no rookie has become a full-time starter at outside linebacker since at least back to when they converted to a 3-4 defense 31 years ago.
So, if they're looking for someone to become the next James Harrison in this draft, their own experience will tell them they must be patient for more than a year and they should avoid drafting one in the first round at all costs. Yet they might need to thumb their noses at both.
No position on defense requires the kind of nurturing that takes place with 3-4 outside linebackers. The road to starting that position in the Steelers defense became all too familiar to everyone: Draft an undersized 4-3 college defensive end in the middle to late rounds and teach him the ropes of converting to 3-4 outside linebacker.
The names of such players roll off the tongue: Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans and more. It was a golden era for the Steelers because as one of the few teams playing the 3-4 in the 1990s, they found those "tweeners" everywhere who did not fit as 4-3 ends or linebackers.
Said Tom Donahoe, who was their director of football operations then and works now as senior football adviser for the Philadelphia Eagles, "That was one of the advantages we had playing that defense, not a lot of other teams played it, so we could always find those defensive ends later, find an outside linebacker who played down in college."
Not any more. Fourteen NFL teams plan to play the 3-4 defense in 2013, and they're all looking for the same thing in outside linebackers. It has made those "tweeners" more valuable in the draft, pushing their selection higher.
"Everybody's looking for that guy now," said Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel man working as NFL.com senior analyst. "We draft 3-4 linebackers now a round or two higher than we used to."