Running! Jumping! Throwing! Catching! The Scouting Combine is nearly here.
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers' preparations for the 2013 NFL draft have been going on since at least last summer, the draft season's biggest league-wide event, the NFL Scouting Combine, will give them their first long, in-depth look at the players currently on their depth chart or just on its bubble.
Here are five positions that should be getting the Steelers' attention later this month and a few players who could prove themselves perfect fits to wear the Black and Gold come April's draft.
Is Le'Veon Bell the total package running back the Steelers need?
Rashard Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are unrestricted free agents and Baron Batch is an exclusive-rights free agent. Though it's insane to think that all four of these running backs will be leaving Pittsburgh this offseason, the situation warrants the team taking a close look at the crop of backs available in this year's draft.
Considering how the Steelers running backs performed in 2012, it would behoove them to bring in some new blood—someone fast and elusive enough to slip tackles, but one durable and tough enough to run well in short-yardage situations. In summation, the Steelers simply need to look for someone with the potential to be an every-down back—once Mendenhall leaves, none of the three remaining running backs project to be up to that task.
While the Steelers don't need to take a running back in the first three rounds, it doesn't mean it's not a priority position. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has the Steelers addressing the position in the fourth round, taking Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, and Bell is certainly someone they'll be watching at the combine.
Though Bell isn't the quickest prospect, he has every-down traits that could be appealing to the Steelers. Beyond being a tough runner who is difficult to tackle, he's also a good blocker as well as a receiver. This kind of complete package is necessary to the Steelers' Todd Haley offense.
Notre Dame's Cierre Wood is also an intriguing mid-round prospect for the Steelers. He's shifty, fast, can run well inside or on the edge but has a few personality-related red flags (he was suspended briefly in 2012) that the Steelers will need to investigate during the interview process. With two character-related draft missteps last year—fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'Amu and fifth-rounder Chris Rainey—they cannot waste another pick on a player who may not pan out when it comes to off-field behavior.
Change is ahead for the Steelers' offensive line, which means they'll again need to bolster their depth.
Though the Steelers used their first two picks in last year's draft to bolster their offensive line, taking guard David DeCastro in the first round and tackle Mike Adams in the second, their issues with the line have not yet been solved.
Further muddying the waters is the hiring of Jack Bicknell, Jr., to be the team's new offensive line coach, which likely means a shift from a power-running man blocking scheme to zone blocking, and the fact that tackle Max Starks and guard Ramon Foster are unrestricted free agents could result in the two not being re-signed considering the team's salary cap situation.
Additionally, Willie Colon, who moved from tackle to left guard in 2012, may also be released in order to free up cap room.
Whether or not the Steelers change their offensive line from man to zone, it's clear that they desire to get lighter and faster at both guard and tackle. Though Adams will probably start at right tackle and Marcus Gilbert on the left, with DeCastro and 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum rounding out the guard positions and, of course, Maurkice Pouncey as their center, this upheaval on the line will require the Steelers to bolster their depth.
At the Scouting Combine, the Steelers will likely be looking at guards and tackles that run the spectrum of early-round picks to day three prospects. Names to keep an eye on include Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh, who would be a second-round target for the Steelers, and guard David Quessenberry from San Jose State, whom the Steelers could get in the third or fourth rounds.
Pugh has good all-around skills in both pass protection and run blocking. He has good size and mobility and can pick up the blitz well. Quessenberry has experience at guard, center and tackle, providing the Steelers with all-around offensive line depth, and his Senior Bowl practices have him rising up draft boards.
What the Steelers will need to see from any potential early-to-mid-round offensive linemen in the combine is mobility. Any guard or tackle that rates well in speed while not losing a step in terms of aggressiveness will be firmly in their draft sights.
Pittsburgh's pass rush could use a draft-day boost.
With James Harrison potentially facing his release in order to get the Steelers in compliance with the salary cap and LaMarr Woodley having dealt with injuries that have limited his effectiveness over the past season and a half, the Steelers need to add some pass rushing talent to their defense.
Considering how strong the 2013 draft class projects to be when it comes to pass rushers, the Steelers will be spending a lot of time checking out potential outside linebackers at the Scouting Combine. This is an area of their defense that the Steelers may very well address with more than one of their seven picks.
Aside from the usual suspects—Barkevious Mingo, and Bjoern Werner among them, who could circumstantially fall to the Steelers with their 17th-overall pick depending on what other teams do before them—there are also other second-day talents like LSU's Sam Montgomery and Texas' Alex Okafor and later-round prospects like Stanford's Chase Thomas who could be on the Steelers' radar depending on their combine performances.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller also suggests the Steelers could go with a 3-4 defensive end in the first round, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, who would play in the five technique that presently belongs to fellow Missouri product Ziggy Hood. His pass-rushing skills are strong and could result in him being a hybrid-style defensive end-outside backer along the lines of Terrell Suggs.
Basically, the Steelers need to find themselves their new Mike Wallace.
Technically speaking, the only non-free-agent wide receivers the Steelers presently have on their roster are Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery. Though restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders will likely stay on in 2013, there's no guarantee that Plaxico Burress gets another year as a depth-boosting veteran, and of course Mike Wallace is already all but gone.
Therefore, the performances of any and all receivers at the Scouting Combine will be of great interest to the Steelers this year. And considering that this is a major piece that they need filling, it probably won't be left to the final two rounds of the draft. They'll need an instant impact player.
With Sanders useful as both a slot and possession receiver, the Steelers would be best off trying to find someone who basically fits the Wallace profile—good hands, great speed—but who is also less raw when it comes to route-running. After all, the Todd Haley Steelers offense is less about the deep shot and more about precision and middle-of-the-field passing.
If the Steelers want to make the move in the second round, then Baylor's Terrance Williams could be firmly on their radar. Williams has speed in the Wallace mold, but can work the entire field and get good separation. His 6'3" height is also something that should make Ben Roethlisberger happy.
Tennessee's Justin Hunter could also be of some interest to the Steelers. He has great height at 6'4" as well as excellent speed. He did have a knee injury in 2011, so the combine should be very important to Hunter's draft stock.
This year's receiving class is a bit all over the place, but it should settle after everyone participates in their combine drills. It should help the Steelers whittle down their short list and gain them some focus, regardless of whether or not Williams or Hunter ultimately interest them.
The time for Ben Roethlisberger to be backed up by players older than him is passing.
Though not an early-round priority for the Steelers this year, 2013 projects to be the year they finally use a draft pick on a quarterback. Both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are unrestricted free agents and Ben Roethlisberger is about to turn 31 years old; it's time for the Steelers to add some developmental youth at the position.
This isn't the quarterback class of 2012, which produced the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. However, players of their caliber aren't a necessity for the Steelers this year. If they do draft someone who develops into a talent like any of those three, that's a huge plus, but they basically need a serviceable backup for Roethlisberger who is able to step in should the veteran suffer yet another injury.
I've already sung the praises of Florida State's E.J. Manuel as a Steelers draft option, and his performance at the Scouting Combine could either cement this belief or dash it. Though the Steelers don't need a Roethlisberger clone by any means, someone large, physical and strong-armed makes the potential transition—whether it be in a few seasons when Roethlisberger retires, or in 2013 should he fall injured—a bit less jarring. His running ability doesn't hurt matters either.
What the Steelers will be looking for when it comes to combine quarterbacks is someone who can be had without using a high draft pick but who can still potentially take significant regular-season snaps if need be. This will be a more nuanced sort of quarterback evaluation than will be taking place for teams that want to use a first- or second-round pick on someone who could start right away.
If the Steelers are more interested in a marginal, seventh-round-type quarterback, then keep an eye on Vanderbilt's Jordan Rodgers or Western Michigan's Alex Carder.