6 Potential Draft Picks That Would Be Immediate Starters for Pittsburgh Steelers
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It might be time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to wipe the slate clean at running back.
The Steelers could find a new starter at the position in the 2013 NFL draft.
Rashard Mendenhall's suspension puts his future with the Steelers in doubt. Pittsburgh's running back by committee is about as useful as a Senate committee on balloon animals. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman aren't the long-term answers.
The Steelers also might need a wide receiver who can start right away if Mike Wallace leaves in free agency. They have a knack for picking receivers in the later rounds who make an immediate impact.
The Steelers have used the last three drafts to build their offensive line. Considering the unit's inability to stay healthy, that process might continue in 2013.
Rookies don't start right away in the Steelers defense. The openings for rookie starters in 2013 are on offense.
Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
Weight: 205 pounds
It's unclear whether Giovani Bernard, a redshirt sophomore, will enter the 2013 NFL draft. If he does, NFL Draft Scout ranks him as the top running back in the class.
NFL Draft Scout also notes that Bernard is the first North Carolina running back with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Natrone Means in 1991 and 1992. Bernard ran for 1,253 yards in 2011 and 1,228 yards this season for an average of 6.7 yards per carry. He rushed for 12 touchdowns in 2012.
Bernard also caught 47 passes for 490 yards and five touchdowns and also found the end zone as a punt returner.
Steve Muench of ESPN.com expressed concern about Bernard's lower-body strength.
Still, Bernard went out with a bang, gaining 163 yards in a 45-38 win over Maryland to close out the season. He also amassed 262 yards on 28 carries in a win over Virginia Tech earlier in the season, and was named CBSSports.com's ACC Player of the Year.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Weight: 220 pounds
Eddie Lacy might not quite have the size of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. He's shorter and about 10 pounds lighter than both, but he might be more athletic.
Lacy ran for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 for an average of 6.4 yards per carry. He also caught 20 passes for 172 yards.
Lacy rose to the occasion in the SEC Championship Game with 181 yards and two touchdowns in Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia.
The SEC coaches named Lacy first-team all-SEC, according to NFL Draft Scout.
As Trent Richardson's backup in 2011, Lacy gained 674 yards for 7.1 yards per carry with seven touchdowns.
Lacy isn't likely to be a first-round pick like Richardson, but he might be worth taking if he's available to the Steelers in the second round.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State
Weight: 200 pounds
Joseph Randle was named first-team All-Big 12 by both the media and coaches, according to NFL Draft Scout.
Randle, who still hasn't declared that he'll enter the draft, ran for 1,351 yards this season for an average of 5.3 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns.
Randle's high point came on Sept. 29, when he gained 199 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns in a 41-36 loss to Texas.
After that game, Randle went into a mid-season slump, averaging less than four yards a carry in four of the next five games. He then finished strong with 343 yards on 61 carries in the last three games.
Randle also can block, and he talked about it in a Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail article.
"I want to try to be helpful to the quarterback by being able to block, by being a good check-down so they know you can make something positive happen if everyone is being covered down the field and also by just being able to run the ball."
Randle, coming from a school that also produced Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, could go in the second or third round.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Weight: 215 pounds
Montee Ball was named first-team All-American by the Associated Press Tuesday for the second consecutive season, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Not even former Badger Ron Dayne could make the team two straight years.
Ball's resume seems to get longer by the day. He also won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, according to NFL Draft Scout.
Ball decided to return to Wisconsin for his senior season after rushing for 1,923 yards as a junior and tying Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record with 39 touchdowns.
He didn't quite match those numbers this year, but still had a monster season with 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns. Another year in college also allowed Ball to set NCAA records with 82 career touchdowns as well as 76 rushing touchdowns.
Ball put up 247 yards in a win over Purdue this season and amassed 202 yards with three touchdowns in the Badgers' 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ball is particularly adept at the cutback run, according to NFL.com, and is a strong blocker.
He might not have explosive speed, but according to Bucky Brooks of NFL.com, Ball's vision, quickness and physicality have improved since last season.
Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech
Weight: 195 pounds
Quinton Patton might be gone in the second round. If he's still on the board in the third round, the Steelers should snatch him up, especially if Mike Wallace hits the open market.
The Steelers' top three receivers are third-round picks Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders and sixth-round pick Antonio Brown.
If the Steelers can get a running back and a defensive player in the first two rounds, they can continue their trend of waiting until the third round to pick a receiver and possibly get a good one in Patton.
Since it can't be assumed Burress will be around for another year, Patton would bring some height to the position.
If Wallace leaves, the most likely scenario would be for Sanders to move into his starting spot alongside Brown. Given Sanders' injury history, however, a starting job could be up for grabs in camp next August.
Patton might not dazzle with measurables at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he's a good yards-after-the-catch guy, according to NFL Draft Scout.
Patton also would be a good red-zone target and he can block, as NFL.com puts it.
"Sells routes where he knows he’s not the primary target to free up the underneath or cross-field receiver. Shows fight as a run blocker, willing to hit multiple punches to keep his man at bay and works himself into the correct blocking angle. Hustles downfield to help out fellow ball-carriers. Plays with a feisty attitude."
If that's not enough to make Steelers scouts salivate over the thought of Patton in black and gold, then how about his 21-catch, 233-yard, four-touchdown performance in Louisiana Tech's 59-57 loss to Texas A&M this season.
Patton helped the Bulldogs rally from a 27-0 deficit to within two points in that game.
Patton, an all-Western Athletic Conference first-teamer, caught 104 passes this season for 1,392 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Weight: 305 pounds
If lightning struck at guard for the Steelers in the 2012 draft, why can't it strike at tackle in the 2013 draft?
Jake Matthews is ranked among the top 15 prospects in the draft class, according to NFL Draft Scout.
However, David DeCastro was expected to go in the top 15 in 2012, and he dropped to the Steelers at No. 24. The Steelers could be picking sooner than 24th in 2013, as the playoffs are far from guaranteed.
While Max Starks has performed well at left tackle this season, he's a one-year-at-a-time player. The Steelers likely envision tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams bookending their offensive line in the not-too-distant future, but both are saddled with injury histories and can be usurped by an elite rookie.
If Matthews falls to the Steelers, or the Steelers fall to Matthews by missing the playoffs, they could have a rookie right tackle in 2013.
Matthews helped protect Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel this season and top 10 pick Ryan Tannehill last season. He was named the SEC's Offensive Lineman of the Week for his role in a 58-10 win over Arkansas earlier in the season. He's the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.
If Matthews starts as a rookie, it would have to be at right tackle, but he could develop into a left tackle with enough work, according to walterfootball.com.