By Jeremy Hritz
Free agency will arrive this coming week, and the muddy waters that are 2013 NFL rosters will begin to clear. The moves made in free agency will provide a better indication of which direction teams will go in the draft, though it seems that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to keep their gun in holster. While the combine is complete, and it does provide quality measurables about many of the prospects eligible for the NFL Draft, a smart football organization, especially the Steelers, are not going to become infatuated with a workout warrior and choose a player solely based on his combine numbers.
With serious deficiencies at wide receiver, running back, and inside linebacker, the Steelers must make an effort to address these positions at some point in time during the draft. Will it be in the first round? That has yet to be seen.
The Steelers first round pick in this year’s draft is an enigma, as there are many different directions that the team could go. Todd McShay in his most recent mock draft had the Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones falling to the Steelers at #17. While his production with double digit sacks the past two seasons are intriguing, are his off the field issues and spinal stenosis worth taking the chance? And what about the inside linebacker position if Alec Ogletree happens to fall to the Steelers? Here is another player with boom or bust potential that could potentially step in first year opposite Lawrence Timmons. However, his character issues, marked by his recent DUI, make the likelihood of the Steelers selecting him slim. Eddie Lacy is another player that the Steelers could select at 17, but would they be scared away by their recent draft experience with Rashard Mendenhall? And then there is the possibility of selecting one of the upper echelon guards, Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper. There is no question that either of these players would immediately upgrade what already seems to be a young and emerging line, but with reports of the team making an offer to Ramon Foster, would this selection even be necessary?
There are so many if/then scenarios to consider in this year’s draft for the Steelers, and without any further hesitation, here is my second mock of the Steelers draft.
Round 1: Jonathan Cooper – Guard – North Carolina: 6’2, 311
As of right now, the pick that makes the most sense for the Steelers is either Cooper or Warmack, and I am agreeing with Mr. Dave Bryan here that Cooper is more attractive to the Steelers since he has the versatility to play multiple positions on the offensive line, a requirement for a Steelers offensive lineman. Selecting Cooper here makes a potential strength a potential elite offensive line, something that could ensure the health of Ben Roethlisberger and extend his career. Additionally, as poor as the running game has been over the past couple of seasons, bringing in another stud guard can help to open more lanes for whoever is carrying the ball for the Steelers. I am not 100% sold on this pick because the Steelers may still bring back Foster or feel comfortable enough inserting Kelvin Beachum in the starting lineup. If they do so, all bets are off. Selecting Cooper would provide the team with a player that can step in right away and make a contribution to the team on day one. I also would not be surprised if the Steelers traded down or out of the first round to collect more picks, as they may be able to get the value they desire later. If Foster is resigned or if they have confidence in Beachum, I also would not be surprised if the drafted Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas and groomed him for 2014, though I believe spending a first round pick on a safety in this year’s draft, especially with the depth at the position, is not necessary. With the off-the-field issues of Jones and Ogletree, I just can’t see the Steelers selecting them here.
Round 2: Justin Hunter – Wide Receiver – Tennessee: 6’4, 196
The Steelers need a wide receiver to compensate for the loss of Mike Wallace, and while Justin Hunter doesn’t have the speed that Wallace does, he still runs a 4.4, and his size can provide Roethlisberger with the tall target that he has been seeking since the departure of Plaxico Burress. This past season, Hunter pulled in 73 catches for 1083 yards and nine touchdowns against SEC competition. Hunter is described as having an excellent catching radius and outstanding feet, making for crisp routes. While it may be a stretch to believe that Hunter will be available when the Steelers select in second round, if he does fall to their pick, he will provide for the size component missing from the current smallish group of receivers in Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery. There are some questions related to Hunter’s durability as he tore his ACL in 2011; however, he showed no ill effects in his senior campaign. Though the nightmare of Limas Sweed in the second round in the 2008 draft is difficult to forget, don’t let that raise a red flag here on this lanky receiver from Tennessee.
Round 3: Phillip Thomas – Safety – Fresno State: 6’1, 208
A safety is a definite need in this year’s draft for the Steelers, as they more than likely will need someone to step in to start in 2014 when Ryan Clark more than likely will not be resigned. Phillip Thomas from Fresno State would be a great pick in the third round for the Steelers as he provides decent size and production. During his career at Fresno State, Thomas was responsible for 20 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. This type of splash-play production is something that the Steelers are desperate for, and Thomas can provide it. While not overly fast, running a 4.65 40, Thomas has solid straight-line speed. He is not afraid of contact and is physical against the run, something that the Steelers want from a safety. Durability may be an issue when considering that he did break his leg 2011, but he returned in 2012 to have an outstanding season, highlighted by eight interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns. His lack of speed and tendency to gamble can make him a liability, but with a year to learn from Clark and Troy Polamalu, Thomas could be a long-time starter for the Steelers. Like Hunter, the question is will he be available when they pick in the third round?
Round 4: Le’Veon Bell – Running Back – Michigan State: 6’1, 230
The Steelers need a running back, no doubt, and while they could select one earlier than round four in this year’s draft, there is enough depth at the position that they can wait before selecting one. Le’Veon Bell is a physical, big back at 6’1, 230 pounds that amassed 1793 yards on the ground to lead the Big Ten in 2012. His effort when carrying the football is unrelenting, as he fights for yards and refuses to go down upon first contact, fitting the mold of revered Steelers running backs of the past. Has excellent patience and can effectively take advantage of his blockers. No durability issues, escaping Michigan State without any serious injuries. Can catch the ball out of the backfield too, making him a versatile player that would work well in Todd Haley’s offense. Some may say his physical style is too comparable to that of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, but Bell has the potential to be the complete package.
Round 5: Nick Kasa – Tight End - Colorado: 6’6, 271
A carryover from my first mock draft, Kasa is strong and is an excellent blocker, despite being a raw pass catcher. In the fifth round, Kasa would be a project for the Steelers to develop, and he could benefit from learning from Heath Miller. Playing on a horrible Colorado football team in 2012 that finished 1-11, Kasa made 26 receptions for 399 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a 70 yard touchdown reception. Kasa has a thick build with strong hands and has great potential to develop in a quality player. Invests time in his game and puts in the extra effort to get better, something that could speed up his acclimation to the NFL.
Round 6: Denard Robinson – Athlete – Michigan: 5’11, 199
Some may question this pick, but when considering Haley’s style of offense, it makes sense. Robinson is a multi-talented athlete that is fast (4.43) and can provide the Steelers with versatility as a runner, pass catcher, return man, and even a thrower. I can see the team utilizing Robinson the way they did Antwaan Randle-El in the mid 2000s, and his addition to the team will provide an element of versatility and deception that could make game-planning for the Steelers offense challenging. While he will be a bit of a project, his experiences as the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan indicate that he is a gamer capable of making big plays on a big stage. While the pick is somewhat of a risk, Robinson has too much potential not to try and find a place for him in an offense. The potential reward of picking Robinson just can’t be ignored, and some team will take a chance on him. Hopefully, it is the Steelers.
Round 7: Bruce Taylor – Inside Linebacker - Virginia Tech: 6’2, 244
Another carryover from my first mock draft. The Steelers need to build some depth at the inside linebacker position, and if they do not select one in the first round, they will need to make an addition in the draft. Selecting Bruce Taylor in the seventh will do just that. Over his career, Taylor has recorded 226 tackles, 33.5 of them for a loss, while also collecting 16.5 sacks. Taylor is a physical and high-motor player that is strong against the run and can effectively rush the passer up the middle. Has a tendency to over pursue at times. Durability is a concern as well, as he struggled with injuries in college. If he can stay healthy, Taylor could make contributions on special teams and be a solid backup with the Steelers.
Round 7 (Compensatory): Ryan Allen – Punter – Louisiana Tech: 6’1, 229
Drew Butler was not impressive during his first year as a starter for the Steelers, and as a result of his poor punts, opponents consistently had excellent field position. This cannot happen in 2013 if the Steelers are to compete for a championship. Allen is consistent, something that Butler was not, and can hit punts with great hang time. Can repeatedly bang out 60 yarders. While he lacks a powerful leg, his ability to be consistent is needed on the Steelers special teams. If anything, he can provide for competition in camp, as something has to give at this position.