If Emmanuel Sanders moves on, then wide receiver becomes even more of an important draft priority for the Steelers.
The Steelers have a number of positions they need to address in the draft, to varying degrees. They'll likely seek to improve their pass rush with one of their first two picks, but in the middle rounds they will need to add more than just depth. They must find some bargains at certain positions who can prove capable of starting in their rookie seasons.
Here are a few players the Steelers may give close consideration to in Rounds 3 through 5 of this year's draft.
RB Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
Right now, all of the running backs on the Steelers' roster fit the same profile—big, strong, not particularly fast—which means they need to find someone a little bit different. UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, in particular, has a very complete set of skills that could translate into being the Steelers' featured back from day one.
Franklin is fast, yes, but he's also tough. He had 1,734 rushing yards in 2012 and 13 rushing touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also caught 33 passes for 323 yards and two more touchdowns. He can pick up blitzes and certainly has the capacity to be an every-down running back in the NFL.
The Steelers don't need niche stopgaps to take command of their running duties—they need someone who is strong and fast enough to make the position his own. Franklin can supply the Steelers with just that, right when they need it most.
WR Aaron Mellette, Elon
This isn't the first time that I've suggested an AFC North team take a mid-round look at Elon wide receiver Aaron Mellette—the Ravens could certainly use a receiver with his skill set to replace Anquan Boldin. However, the Steelers pick before the Ravens in every round this year, which puts them in a better position to pick up Mellette if he catches their eye.
Mellette is a very physical receiver but not incredibly fast, which is quite different from the receivers the Steelers have fielded over the past few seasons. However, Mellette would add a new dimension to the Steelers' passing game, especially with the deep ball being de-emphasized by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He had an excellent 2012 season, with 97 catches for 1,398 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Depending on what happens with Emmanuel Sanders—who hasn't yet received an offer sheet from the New England Patriots, but could very well get one between now and the April 19 deadline for him to sign his tender—receiver could become a higher priority position for the Steelers at draft time. That would make Mellette an even better fit in Pittsburgh without the Steelers having to use a first-round pick on the position.
NT Montori Hughes, Tennessee-Martin
The Steelers certainly need a bit of depth at nose tackle this year. Tennessee-Martin's Montori Hughes is a bit of a character risk, but if the Steelers think his on-field rewards outweigh that factor he could land with the team in Round 5.
A combination of academic violations and failed drug tests saw Hughes kicked off of Tennessee's team, leading to his transfer to Tennessee-Martin. He had 42 tackles in 2012, including 8.5 for a loss and four sacks. Hughes looked good at both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, but his off-field issues are more the concern than how well he can play nose tackle in the NFL.
The Steelers swung and missed with a character-risk nose tackle last year when they drafted Alameda Ta'Amu. That could shy them away from Hughes, but if he's convincingly a changed man, his football talent could win them over.
CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
In the Steelers' favor, this year's draft class is deep at cornerback. As such, they should be able to get someone with considerable talent even in the middle rounds. One potential pickup is Oregon State's Jordan Poyer, who could spend a year learning the ropes and then perhaps take over a starting job next year depending on Ike Taylor's future in Pittsburgh.
Poyer had 51 tackles in 2012, a forced fumble, a sack, broke up seven passes and tied for second in the country with seven interceptions. He's an excellent coverage corner who needs to improve against the run. Developmental time in his rookie season could afford him the time to strengthen this area of his game and be a more complete player for the future.