I will be releasing my first 2011 Steelers mock draft after the upcoming NFL combine, but have received several request to comment on some potential first found targets the Steelers might have a realistic shot at drafting should they stay at the #31 spot in round one. I have identified what I deem to be the Steelers 2011 draft needs in an earlier post right after the Super Bowl and see both offensive line and cornerback as perhaps the most pressing needs depending on how the draft and value presents itself.
It is too easy to list the higher ranked players as targets so for this article as I am pretty sure the Steelers would pick Patrick Peterson should he fall. It is more challenging to look at more realistic situations so I will look at what I deem more realistic players I think that will still be on the board when the Steelers pick. It is also fun to have an initial article out there that can be used as a reference point to look back on after the draft. Stock of players will rise and fall over the next 2 months, but below are what I deem realistic targets as we sit here in mid February.
As always add comments below in a respectful manner. Comments that do not add value to this discussion will not be approved. Do not say player X sucks without giving reasoning.
G Mike Pouncey - It is so easy to start with the obvious and perhaps the consensus favorite of Steeler Nation right now. Mike, the twin brother of Maurkice Pouncey, will certainly be drafted in the second half of the first round on bloodline alone. Mike played center this past season at Florida after playing right guard his junior year. Although he showed some flashed at center, everyone projects him to be drafted as a guard. He is strong and athletic just like brother Maurkice and does an excellent job pulling and getting out in front of backs. I have seen early mock drafts have him all over the first round and baring an injury or complete disaster at the combine, it is hard to imagine he will be on the board at #31 when the Steelers are scheduled to pick, but several have him rated as a late 1st round talent only. Realistically I think he goes anywhere from pick #20 on, but stranger things have happened and he could fall based on teams needs and blocking scheme. His bloodline alone might be enough to catapult him higher though. We have not seen the Steelers trade up in the first round in quite sometime, but you would have to think that it will certainly be something they explore considering they have the inside scoop on him from his brother on minor details not seen on film.
G Danny Watkins - Judging by the Senior Bowl practice reports, Watkins looks to be considered a left guard at the next level after playing left tackle at Baylor. Despite the fact he will turn 27 in November, South head coach Chan Gailey and several scouts in attendance do not see his age as a drawback. Watkins is deemed a high character guy, very strong and bright. His pass protection is already a plus some scouts say and he has shown he can get to second level and work in space well with great balance and agility. As far as the Steelers go, a plus with Watkins could be his position flexibility of understanding and playing the tackle spot in college. It also was reported he got some limited work at the Senior Bowl at center as well. The Steelers currently have left guard Chris Kemoeatu under contract through 2013 and 2010 was not his best season. It will be curious to see if Watkins can play on the right side or if Kemoeatu can move sides, but that is highly unlikely. Watkins is currently being mocked late first round and early in the second, but a good combine mixed with some good pre-draft visits could send him up the board a bit.
T Derek Sherrod - We talked about a few interior prospects and now will discuss a few tackle first round prospects starting with Sherrod. He has quite a bit of experience at left tackle in the SEC and it dates back to his freshman season where he played in 10 games. Scouts view him as a left tackle at the next level and moves pretty good for a man with his size. Scouts say Sherrod has all the tools and understands defenses well, along with blitz recognition. His long arms help him in pass blocking which right now appears to be better overall than his run blocking. I have watched a few highlights of him from this past season and he seems to lack some overall nastiness. He also does not finish blocks quite a bit. As far as the Steelers go, Sherrod would be groomed to be the future blind side protector of Ben Roethlisberger. He likely would backup Max Starks initially and polish off his short comings under the watchful eye of offensive line coach Sean Kugler. Sherrod is being touted as about the 5th or 6th best tackle in the draft and would need a solid combine to climb any higher. He surely could be on the board should the Steelers stay at #31 overall.
T Gabe Carimi - Carimi is a Big Ten left tackle that took over for Browns left tackle Joe Thomas when he was drafted. He had a solid Senior Bowl week and showed off his good handwork and punching technique. On tape he looks very athletic for a guy his size and gets to the edge very smooth in my opinion, but several scouts question if his footwork might not be good enough for left tackle. He looked great in run blocking from the little I have seen on him and gets low off the line. Quite a few of the draft experts have him right there with Sherrod as far as rankings go, so that would have him also around the 5th or 6th best tackle in the draft and he too certainly could be on the board when the Steelers pick. There is talk he could be kicked inside to guard or be a candidate to flip to a right tackle spot and more should come out from scouts on that after the combine. Depending how free agency plays out with Willie Colon and the expensive contract of Flozell Adams, Carimi could possibly be a future guy at right tackle.
CB Jimmy Smith - Now that we have covered the linemen likely to be on the board, it is time to look at some corners. Depending on what list you look at, Smith usually shows up at around the 4th or 5th ranked corner in the draft rankings. Smith has pedigree as four of his brothers all played college ball. Smith looks best suited on tape to play right corner in the NFL. He has good size, is strong and reportedly smart in picking up defenses. Another great trait of Smith is his tackling ability and he looks pretty fearless in press coverage. The Steelers need corner depth and with right cornerback Ike Taylor not yet under contract for 2011, Smith could be thrown right into the mix. Should Taylor be extended, Smith could probably step in instantly as a nickel corner and certainly chip in on special teams. Smith has been climbing lately in popularity and a great 40 time at the combine might drive him up to the middle of round 1.
CB Aaron Williams - Williams is another corner not shy about tackling, but probably not as good as Smith is in that part of his game. Williams came out early and on tape played both left & right corner for Texas as well as some in the slot. Based on his play, he might be better suited to play on the left side. Not as physical overall as Smith is in my opinion and he is a bit raw in technique. That is not really surprising being he is coming out a year early. Right now Williams is a late first to early second round talent and could turn more heads at the combine. He certainly would be expected to play special teams and could be the long term replacement for Bryant McFadden for the Steelers.
DT/NT - Phil Taylor - The big guy from Baylor by way of Penn State likely projects as an 3-4 nose tackle in the NFL. The Steelers extended Casey Hampton last offseason, but need to think about grooming a guy for the future. Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke is a free agent and seldom used Steve McLendon is certainly not the future. Taylor is pretty quick for a big boy and is good about getting penetration against the run. Taylor has shown he can also slide around on the line and drop into coverage or pursuit as well when called for. He will need better conditioning at the next level and might need to gain some weight without it hurting his performance if he is to be a true nose tackle. Currently he is the 4th or 5th defensive tackle on most pre-draft rankings and if he can show he might be a true nose tackle at the next level, he could be a steal late in the first round.