How much can the Pittsburgh Steelers really learn while watching professional hopefuls run in a straight line in their underwear? Plenty. But it’s more than just the 40-yard dash that determines who the team will draft in April. Teams will have to balance a prospect’s college film, combine drills, and interview skills in order to find the perfect fit for their squad.
This draft is a pivotal one for the Steelers. I hate to be melodramatic, but this franchise is at a crossroads. At the conclusion of this draft, the Steelers will have taken either a step towards regaining their spot at the top of the AFC North or a stumble towards a rebuilding phase. The Steelers cannot afford to miss on rookies this year.
I’m operating under the assumption that the Steelers stand pat and don’t trade up or down, simply because in this draft it’s tough to imagine anyone wanting to jump up badly enough to cough up valuable picks. If things get less muddy as the draft draws near, then maybe I’ll project a trade or two.
After watching the college stars lift weights, jump and go through positional drills, let’s see whose names the Steelers could be calling at the 2013 NFL Draft.
All combine statistics come directly from NFL.com.
A theme that you’re going to see a lot of in this draft is the “best player available” mantra. Tavon Austin is a fantastic football player, but this is likely an unpopular pick with Steeler Nation. Let me explain, and maybe make a convincing case for Austin.
In my opinion, many guys that the Steelers would love to take will be gone. I’ve been tooting the Jarvis Jones horn all offseason, but if he gets medical clearance he probably won’t make it past the Jets’ ninth overall pick. Chance Warmack is the best player in the draft according to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, and he will be selected within the top 10 picks. Dion Jordan impressed me at the combine, but it’s a coin flip as to whether he will be available for the Steelers at No. 17.
I’m also assuming that the Steelers will work something out with Steve Breaston. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re out of the market for a slot receiver. The Steelers should be all-in this season on offense, as Ben Roethlisberger’s window of opportunity isn’t getting any wider.
Emmanuel Sanders has extensive experience in the Hines Ward role, and could move back outside if he re-signs with Pittsburgh. He doesn’t have Mike Wallace’s speed, but he’s not exactly slow. Breaston and Jerricho Cotchery are not locks to make the team, especially if they have competition from a rookie or two.
And what a rookie Austin will be. He is electric and quick in small areas, and he is incredibly talented with the ball in his hands. He is a dynamic returner, and can even line up in the backfield from time to time. Austin fills the Chris Rainey void, and he is a true weapon. He blazed a 4.34 40-yard dash at the combine, reinforcing what many of us already knew—this kid has a gear that many receivers only dream of.
Is that something that you want a playoff team like the Patriots, Ravens, or Texans to add to their arsenal? Sure, it’s fine to take a guard or a nose tackle, and if the Steelers go that route, no one would be upset. Personally, I think it’s high time for the Steelers to land an offensive difference-maker that strikes fear into opponents. Austin will do just that in a variety of ways for Pittsburgh. He’s the pick in the first round.
Another option here is Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien, but I think he’ll sneak into the first round after his strong performance during the whole scouting process. I think some of the elite cornerback prospects will be gone as well, as Desmond Trufant, David Amerson and Xavier Rhodes turned in impressive 40-yard dash times.
Phillip Thomas is a fantastic consolation prize, even though he didn't burn up the combine with his measurables.
Both in this draft and those in recent memory, it’s much tougher to find a ball-hawk than a hard hitter at safety. Thomas is the finest in the country, racking up eight interceptions to lead all college players in 2012. He also forced five fumbles, so he can lay the wood when necessary.
The Steelers need safety depth at both positions, but landing one of the best, least-heralded prospects in the draft is a good start in round two.
Cue the “too many needs to spend two high picks on receivers” comments. They’re valid. In this case though, in a draft this deep, an exception should be made.
Rogers is the big wide receiver that Ben Roethlisberger has been coveting for much of his career. He is tough, he plays with a mean streak and he dominates the middle of the field. I’ve compared him to Julio Jones and Terrell Owens, and I haven’t seen anything to change my mind. He is the red zone target that the Steelers have been looking for.
Measuring 6’2” and 217 pounds, Rogers ran a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash. That’s great speed for a player of that size. He disappointed in the bench press, but he was an outstanding performer in the broad jump, the agility drills and especially the vertical jump, where he sprung 39.5 inches off the ground. As Coach Tomlin would say, the young man represented himself well.
Rogers does come with his share of off-field issues, but I found him believable and contrite in his comments concerning his perceived character issues. General Manager Kevin Colbert has said that he won’t be removing every player with character concerns from his draft board, and Rogers is a great candidate to stay on it.
In this case, the Steelers would fill their wide receiving cupboard for the foreseeable future. A group highlighted by Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Tavon Austin and Da’Rick Rogers would be an incredible gift to Ben Roethlisberger, as well as a great group to help Ben’s replacement ease into the role in the next few years. In my opinion, the opportunity to create a group of pass-catchers who, with Heath Miller, would rival any in the NFL is too tempting to pass up. It’s a tough call and a risk, but I see it paying off.
I issued the challenge for Le’Veon Bell, and he delivered.
Bell showed up for the combine at a svelte 230 pounds. He smoked the 40-yard dash, turning in a way-better-than-expected 4.60. He was also a star in the 3-cone drill—showing excellent agility for a tall, well-built back.
While there will never be another “Bus,” Bell’s size and light feet call Jerome Bettis to mind.
On tape, Bell is a pile-pusher with some room for improvement as a pass protector. That’s no problem. In fact, it fits right in with what the Steelers would want him to do—set the tone in the ground game.
Bell looks like the answer to the Steelers’ problems at tailback, or at least part of it. More on this later.
I’d like to apologize to everyone for my previous mock drafts. Every sleeper that I identified seemed to blow up at the combine and get all kinds of pesky attention. Cornelius Washington may have made the biggest leap of all.
Washington dominated every event in which he competed. With all due respect to Dion Jordan and current Steeler Jason Worilds, Washington looks like the guy that the Steelers should write in as James Harrison’s eventual replacement. He ran a sub-4.6 40-yard dash, tossed the barbell around 36 times, launched 39 inches into the air and destroyed the broad jump.
Washington also showed unexpected agility and flexibility, and he would be a monster as a bookend with LaMarr Woodley. He’s already done well in a supporting role opposite Jarvis Jones, and I consider him a nominee to claim some similar accolades in the near future.
I previously mocked Washington to the Steelers as late as the seventh round, but it’s safe to say that that isn’t realistic anymore. If the Steelers want Washington, they’ll have to prove it relatively early on.
With several other linebackers claiming the headlines at the combine, the Steelers claim a quality player in Nico Johnson. He missed the combine as he recovers from sports hernia surgery, but he should be ready to go at his Pro Day.
He was a three-year starter on Alabama’s defense, which is a statement on its own. Other than that, he has been stout in run support and will likely work out well at his Pro Day. He’s not incredible in coverage, but thankfully for the Steelers Lawrence Timmons counts that among his many strengths. Johnson will be free to fly to the ball in Pittsburgh’s defense, and he is a great value in the sixth round here.
I’ve said before that Caprioglio deserves a shot in the NFL, and I’m standing by that statement. He’s versatile, he’s powerful and he has a large chip on his shoulder ever since he tore his left ACL in 2011. He’s worth a flyer, and the Steelers take one here.
If this name sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve got to stick to my guns when it comes to sleepers. At 6’3”, White has the kind of size that will level the playing field against tall, athletic receivers. He could be a fit for Pittsburgh at either safety or corner.
White’s a player that could be a steal for the Steelers in the seventh as a combine snub. He’s no toss-in for this mock, as I think that he could be a find for Pittsburgh that could contribute quickly.
Welcome to the bonus section! Here are a few rookies that I think the Steelers will look to sign after the draft if they’re available.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
Graham struggled in the 40-yard dash, turning in a 4.8 that was faster only than three fullbacks. This may have pushed him out of the whole draft. I don’t think that Graham has fully returned from a knee injury that derailed a promising career at Pitt. The Steelers, if they take a chance on the local product, could find the quickness and elusiveness that their backfield has been lacking. Paired with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers could have both thunder and lightning in their running back stable.
Sean Renfree, QB, Duke
Before he was injured, Refree flashed NFL potential against good ACC competition. If his pectoral injury looks like it is healing well, he is worth a look in training camp.
Brandon Williams, NT, Missouri Southern
Williams wasn’t at his best during the combine, and with such a deep defensive tackle class, he could slip through the cracks. The Steelers would be ecstatic to get a chance at him after the draft if he slides. He put up 38 reps on the bench press, but the fact that he played for a small school and has some growing to do as a player could leave him flying under the radar as a nose tackle prospect.