One of the crucial talent-evaluation stops for an NFL team looking to add young pieces to the roster in the draft is the annual East-West Shrine Game. For the Pittsburgh Steelers and the league's 31 other teams, this is a great opportunity to see some of college football's best talent in action one more time.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a ton of roster holes to fill, and will likely stay quiet in free agency as they try to get out from under the weight of salary cap issues. Here's a look at five players they'll be scouting in the game on January 19th.
Pittsburgh will need to completely rebuild the running back position this offseason. Rashard Mendenhall is a sure bet to sign elsewhere. The team has already parted ways with Chris Rainey. Isaac Redman is a restricted free agent, but the team can spend money better on other players.
Only Jonathan Dwyer appears to be a holdover candidate for 2013. That means at least one running back will have to come in through the draft.
High-round running backs are becoming a thing of the past as teams move toward mobile quarterbacks and pass-first offenses. Running backs also have a short shelf life these days as well.
Graham is a powerful back, who despite some health issues in his career with the Pitt Panthers, is a great fit with the Steelers. Pittsburgh needs a back that can punch holes in a defense. Graham is that player.
While it is not out of the question for the Steelers to draft a pair of running backs, one of them must be a guy like Graham, whose performance in this weekend's game will dictate a lot about his draft stock.
Questions abound with Collin Klein, a Heisman finalist, who is vexing professional scouts and analysts. Klein is a run-first quarterback with a decent arm and a good ability to read defenses. He does make mistakes and didn't have the best stretch run performance in 2012, but he has a chance in the Shrine Game to make a statement.
Pittsburgh should be interested. The Steelers need to revitalize the quarterback position after discovering just how deep the drop is from Ben Roethlisberger to Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. Neither backup is likely to return in 2013.
Klein could be a potential backup that can be groomed behind Ben Roethlisberger. His athleticism fits well with what the Pittsburgh's starter can do, and nothing in his game appears to be something that cannot be coached out of him.
Of the quarterbacks participating this weekend, Klein is the best prospect. He also is the most polished at the position. Pittsburgh will be watching to see if he's someone worth a middle-round selection.
Pittsburgh absolutely must use the next few seasons to get younger and stronger on the defensive side of the football. This is bound to be a painful process filled with tearful goodbyes to old favorites and growing pains as young players take over.
One position where there's currently a lot of uncertainty is at outside linebacker. James Harrison, with a fat contract that looks more like an albatross than a smart pact, is well into his 30s now and clearly playing with diminished skill.
Hodges is a dark horse candidate in the draft, but he could pick up his stock with a good performance in this game. Pittsburgh will have an eye on him. They have a good history with Penn State linebackers, (Jack Ham, anyone?) and the school is known for the talent at the position.
Hodges would do good to sit and learn for a year or two while either Harrison or Jason Worilds starts. Then he could take over, and hopefully bloom into the kind of star the Steelers churn out at that position.
One defensive position where the Pittsburgh Steelers seem poised to have some turnover is at the two safety positions. While the play of guys like Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed have changed the way that safeties are evaluated, teams more and more invest in two solid players at the positions.
Tight ends are gaining prominence in passing attacks, thanks to teams like New England. Pittsburgh employs one of the best safety tandems in the league when both Ryan Clark and Polamalu are healthy.
Unfortunately, both players are aging. Polamalu is probably a year or two at most from the end of the line. Clark is maybe three or four years away.
Williams is a mid-round prospect who has a lot of upside as a play-making safety with good instincts and athleticism. Even if the Steelers select a player like Florida safety Matt Elam in the first round, Williams would be a good addition later.
With Mike Wallace expected to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers behind (not that the Steelers seem upset after his performance in 2012), the team will have to decide whether to spend a middle or late-round choice on a wide receiver.
If they elect to do so, Emory Blake is a good player to keep an eye on. Throw out the statistics from this season. The quarterback play in Auburn was laughable at best. Blake looks much better in the lead-up to this weekend's contest working with competent quarterbacks.
Blake is a good route-runner, and he has good hands as well. He can make big plays and certainly would fit well in a corps that features Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
While there are only so many draft picks to go around for each team, Blake is worth one for Pittsburgh.