By Christopher DiMarino
The NFL combine is coming up so I figured I might as well throw my thoughts out there now. The combine will have a drastic effect on not only the prediction of where players will fall, but also the justification for their selection. Before I get into the actual picks, I will review each of the big 5 positions and address who I like in what rounds to justify my choices. Keep in mind that the Pittsburgh Steelers need help in at least 5 major positions but prefer the best player available. An obvious disclaimer would be that these picks are speculatory and by no means a guarantee or a bold claim.
Outside Linebacker: The Steelers are in a cap situation that I will assume relieves them of James Harrison. That leaves us with LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson. I don\’t have enough confidence in a 5th round pick and undrafted free agent to justify any false feeling of safety at this position. Even if Worilds is a superstar, the injury bug has a fondness for Woodley that could thrust others into the gauntlet. I think that selecting a high profile OLB is a safe play because they should be able to rotate in to keep pass rushers fresh adding to their value if they don\’t become a star.
The only OLBs that I would use a 1st round pick on are Jarvis Jones, Damontre Moore, Barkevious Mingo and Bjoern Werner. The chances of one of these players dropping is decent, but the Steelers are picky. Mingo will have to do well at the bench to show potential for his lack of weight. Werner would need to interview well and I\’m not sure he drops that far given he should be off the board at 17. Jones is a no brainer at 17 if he falls, but Moore is a consolation prize that could end up being the best of the group.
I know that selection an OLB in the first might be dangerous, but it might be more dangerous to wait. This player should be one who can be groomed to be better than the players currently on the roster. A role player with upside like Jamie Collins, Brandon Jenkins or Chase Thomas should all be available in the 3rd, and might be worth a gamble that they might drop to the 4th. Either way, I can\’t see any of those players ever being more than average playing in the spot where the stars on the defense need to be.
Inside Linebacker: The Steelers have some questions to ask themselves. While Lawrence Timmons has locked up 1 of the 2 spots, the other is a mystery. Can they afford to bring back Larry Foote? Was Sean Spence chosen to start eventually? Is Stevenson Sylvester only a special teams player? I would very easily pick an ILB in the 1st because I don\’t think you can value a leader of the defense enough. But being that we\’re only one season removed from a 3rd round pick at the position makes it a hard sell.
I don\’t like Manti Te\’o, but Kevin Minter might be worth a 1st round pick if they choose to go that route. He\’s not going to be as perfect of a fit as Dont\’a Hightower, who could also blitz, but he does have more on the coverage and speed side. If they don\’t spend a first, they might not spend a pick at all on this position. There are some options in the 4th round if they want to bolster the position with the possibility of a surprise. Jon Bostic and Nico Johnson were both part of big school programs and A.J. Klein is a versatile player. I\’m just not sold that there aren\’t more pressing values in the 4th/5th round.
Safety: The Steelers are playing with a time bomb on the back end as both safeties have seen better days. Neither has declined in performance enough to deserve the boot, but it\’s at the point where any season could be their last. There is also some decent cap being taken up at the position and they are large contributors to the low interception totals the past 2 years. Robert Golden and Damon Cromartie-Smith will never be more than stand-ins so the draft will need to provide at least one starter in the near future.
Kenny Vaccaro is the only safety worth a look at 17th, but he deserves a good look. He would have the benefit of a full year to learn from Ryan Clark during the last year of his contract. From there, the Steelers could elect to do the same next offseason for Troy\’s last year, or settle for a cheaper replacement for the time being. The problem that I have with Vaccaro in the 1st is that I\’m not sold on him as a star. He plays a game more similar to Troy\’s, but doesn\’t possess the speed or ball skills. 1st round safeties are typically lightning quick ball hogs, but if no better players are available, he is a strong option.
If they hold off in the 1st, there are a few options in each of the next few rounds. I\’ve been impressed by Eric Reid at LSU and he would be a value pick in the 2nd with upside. I have a suspicion that he will creep into the 1st round after the combine, but right now he\’s pegged as a 2nd rounder. D.J. Swearinger is a big hitter who might be available as late as the 4th. Shawn Williams is a decent option as a hitter in the 3rd and Robert Lester could be a sleeper pick in the 4th. Overall, there are plenty of options in the draft and several different options for the Steelers to pursue.
Wide Receiver: The Steelers are going to be in an interesting spot next season at wide receiver. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will be solid starters and David Gilreath should be able to contribute. Steelers fans have been calling for a big bodied receiver who could man the flank and let Sanders return to his comfort zone in the slot. The offense was the weak point of the Steelers in 2012, so that should warrant some early picks, but the Steelers have had success with later picks at this position.
The only 1st round worthy player is Keenan Allen, and while he is solid, I won\’t get into it with him. I\’d rather take Vaccaro than him at that spot. This is a deep draft for receivers and there are a few options in the 2nd. Justin Hunter could have big upside in the 2nd and Quinton Patton is another solid option. Cobi Hamilton and Aaron Dobson might be steals in the 4th. Later in the draft, guys like Marquess Wilson, Aaron Mellette and Brandon Kaufman are big men with upside. More than any other position in the draft, opinions on wide receivers will change based on the combine. Any guess right now is volatile at best.
Running Back: The Steelers can\’t afford another season rushing the ball like they just had. I don\’t think that the problem is purely on the running backs and I think they could have a decent year even without any new backs if the offensive line stays healthy. The concern about Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman is that neither has the ability to become a premier back, but the NFL has transformed most teams into committee approaches anyways. I think a speedy, 3rd down type back with the upside to possibly earn a lion\’s share of the carries is exactly what the Steelers need.
There are not a lot of elite backs in this draft. The first one off the board could be Giovani Bernard and he could go in the middle of the 2nd round. He\’s an easy fit, but I would like to see some straight line speed to accompany his agility. I love his vision and ability to grab the best hole even for a minimal gain. Stepfan Taylor in the 3rd could be a safe bet because of his ability in passing situations. Joseph Randle could be a great value in the 3rd and Jawan Jamison could be the Ray Rice clone the AFC North needs. Andre Ellington would add speed, but is too raw in the passing game and injury concerns will likely eliminate Marcus Lattimore. If Pitt Panther Ray Graham can show he\’s fully recovered from his ACL, he might be a great late value for the Steelers.
Now that all of that analysis is out of the way, I\’m going to suggest who I would like at this moment in time. Keep in mind that this could go many ways, but I had to chose one.
1) OLB – Damontre Moore
Yes, there is a good chance that he\’s not available here. However, if you add it up, there are about 30 players who should be gone before 17 and math dictates that someone needs to drop. This is more a positional pick and I like OLB in the 1st. Each of the other positions has potential later on and this spot should go to the player that needs to make the biggest impact long term. I think one of the 1st round valued edge rushers will drop and the Steelers will take a chance on him but the question is who. Let\’s keep in mind that the Steelers love to mold defensive players, especially linebackers. Any of the top edge rushers have the potential to become sack machines after they put some work in. I\’m a defensive enthusiast and even though the offense is a more pressing need, this defense could fall apart quickly without the right pieces.
2) S – Eric Reid
Another dream pick that might not be available. However, based on the numbers I\’m seeing there is an decent chance that he\’s available in the mid 2nd round. If he is, the Steelers take him without hesitation. He is the type of player that could develop into a star and with the ability to take a season to learn under Clark and Troy Polamalu would mean that he has a great chance for success. The other heavy alternative here was to look at wide receiver, but I think there are decent options later, and I also will wait for the combine. There is a good chance that the 2nd round caliber receivers will get scooped up in the beginning of the 2nd round.
3) RB – Stepfan Taylor
I think that Taylor is a safe and appropriate pick for the Steelers in the 3rd. He will add some excitement to backfield and provide a good option as a 3rd down back. He has the potential to claim the bulk of the load but won\’t be a waste if Dwyer or Redman have a strong year. He would make a reunion with David DeCastro and they will have long careers as Steelers together. The key for the Steelers running game is the offensive line. Their health and comfort level with each other could help them return the Steelers running game to its past success with a strong set of backs.
4) WR – Cobi Hamilton
The Steelers should get someone of value to drop to them in the 4th round. I think Hamilton is a player who could get taken in the 3rd, but if his combine is underwhelming he might easily slip to the 4th. The Steelers don\’t need a track athlete, they need a tall, aggressive receiver who can bail out Ben Roethlisberger on some passes and demand some attention in the red zone. Hamilton fits this bill, but will need to continue to work on his hands and focus to be a regular contributor for the Steelers.
5) ILB – A.J. Klein
The Steelers, by not drafting an ILB in the first round will either take one late in the draft or not at all. If Klein is available in the 5th round, he offers strong special teams play and versatility with some upside. While he would not be the kind of guy who would push for a starting role, he might develop into a good backup plan to Spence if injuries or size become an issue. His special teams contributions will make him a 5th round pick that can contribute and should be an easy guy to justify on the 53 man roster.
6) TE – Ryan Otten
The health of Heath Miller has put the tight end position in question for the first time in close to a decade. I liked the move in the 7th round last year when the Steelers drafted David Paulson even though he isn\’t the blocking type tight end that the Steelers prefer. In passing situations, Paulson looked like Heath, and he has a chance to bridge the gap while Heath recovers. It would be safe to add some help and Otten is the type of player that could help early, but also stick with the Steelers. He\’s not as athletic as Paulson but has a much better blocking game. The Steelers love multiple tight ends and Otten could certainly be an asset.
7) WR – Ace Sanders
After going with a bigger receiver earlier in the draft, the Steelers might use a late pick to add more depth. Sanders has the upside to add value on special teams. He was an electrifying punt returner and could provide a cheap plug to fill the void left by Chris Rainey. He wasn\’t a slouch as a receiver either and could work his way in as a 2nd option slot type receiver. While the Steelers have plenty of small receiver prospects, they do like finding value late, and Sanders could be their Ace in the hole.