Last year, the Steelers got lucky when guard David DeCastro fell to them in Round 1. Who will they select this year?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, as well as a number of positional needs that could be met with that selection. The fact that this year's first round, in particular, appears to be more unpredictable than in drafts past also means the Steelers could find themselves in the fortunate position of being able to choose from a wide array of top-rated players.
Let's take a look at five prospects who have been linked to the Steelers in the weeks and months leading up to the draft and the associated pros and cons of the team using their first-round pick on each of them.
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to keep wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had received an offer sheet from the New England Patriots, that doesn't mean they are in great shape at the position.
Alongside Sanders, the Steelers have Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress and a cadre of younger and untested receivers who will have to put in a lot of work just to make the final roster. A boost of youth is just what the Steelers need—perhaps Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson.
Patterson meets a significant need on the Steelers' offense while also potentially being the best player available when the Steelers pick 17th-overall, which is the ideal confluence of events. Patterson is considered by many to be the top receiver in the draft, with the perfect combination of size, speed, athleticism and good hands.
The Steelers need to add youth and explosiveness to their receiving corps and both are certainly apparent when watching Patterson play.
The Steelers aren't known for being very aggressive in the first round of the draft—the last skill position player they selected there was Rashard Mendenhall in 2008. Other, more "Steelers-appropriate" players should also be available at 17th overall, lowering the likelihood that Patterson is their pick.
There's also the issue of rookie wide receivers generally not making a major impact in their first season. Patterson, therefore, may not break out until 2014, which is good, but it would be better if he was more NFL-ready immediately.
Patterson may ultimately not be the best overall Tennessee wide receiver in the draft—teammate Justin Hunter is gaining momentum, especially as he's looking fully recovered from his 2011 ACL tear.
Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro is the highest-ranked player at his position heading into the draft. He had 92 tackles (4.5 for a loss), five passes defensed, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2012.
Though the Steelers still have both free safety Ryan Clark and strong safety Troy Polamalu safely on their roster, both are on the wrong side of 30 years old. At some point, the Steelers will need to find a workable replacement for one or either of the two, and Vaccaro would be a great jumping-off point.
While he'd be a better free safety, he can also play strong safety, which would give the Steelers some injury insurance at the very least in 2013 and a starter, should either be released or move on, in 2014.
Vaccaro can be a major special-teams contributor in his rookie season—a must for any defensive back drafted by the Steelers, regardless of round. Should Clark or Polamalu hang up his cleats or be released in 2014, the Steelers have a starter available in Vaccaro.
If he's still there at 17, he could very well be best player available, and the Steelers won't really want to pass that up. He can play free or strong safety—he's great against the run as well as in coverage.
Other, more immediate needs may see the Steelers take a pass on Vaccaro if he's still on the board. In a sense, safety is a luxury pick in the first round with both Clark and Polamalu still around, even if there are injury and age concerns associated with the two veterans.
Even if Vaccaro is among the players the Steelers are giving heavy consideration to in the first round, the St. Louis Rams pick at 16, right before Pittsburgh, and they need a safety badly.
Though the Steelers have adequate depth in the linebacking corps to help mitigate for the departure of longtime starter James Harrison—Chris Carter and Jason Worilds—that doesn't mean the option of the Steelers taking a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the first round is off the table, especially if Georgia's Jarvis Jones takes a tumble and is still on the board when the Steelers make their first-round pick.
Jones had 85 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for a loss, seven forced fumbles and an interception in 2012, but he also had a disappointing 40-yard dash time at his pro day of around five seconds.
Though Jones has been entirely medically cleared after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, that still might not be enough for health-wary general managers to want to pick him.
Jones has proven pass-rush skills and is more dynamic than the Steelers' other two options to replace Harrison. He meets an immediate need, adds depth and should make the Steelers defense yet again one of the most vicious in the league as long as he contributes in his rookie season. He's also excellent against the run.
Medical clearance aside, Jones' neck issues might turn the Steelers off considering how many injuries they've dealt with over the years. Also, while Jones looks great on the field, his work ethic off of it may be a problem.
Though added pass-rushers would certainly help the Steelers out this year, it may not be as big of a need for them to address it in Round 1, especially if other players with a better draft grade are still on the board.
Like in 2012, the Steelers may just find themselves staring down the prospect of being able to draft the class' top offensive guard. Last year, it was David DeCastro, and this year it's Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina.
The Steelers are in a state of near-constant need for additional offensive linemen. Injuries seem inevitable every year, and their depth on the line is often stretched to its breaking point. It would make a lot of sense that they take Cooper at 17th-overall if he's still on the board. Like DeCastro last year, it may be an opportunity they cannot pass up.
Cooper is the best offensive guard in a great offensive line class, and for the Steelers to get him at 17th overall is the equivalent of a first-round robbery. He's extraordinarily fast and athletic for his size, which makes him well-suited for both pass protection duties and especially in run blocking.
His versatility as a guard and as an offensive lineman in general—he can also play center—gives him significant upside for the Steelers, who are on the constant lookout for solid depth on their line.
The Steelers took two offensive linemen in the first two rounds last year and three in the entirety of the draft, and while that doesn't preclude them from taking Cooper this year in the first round, it still would be quite a lot of linemen.
While Cooper would provide them with another potential starter—or, at least, much-needed depth—their other more immediate needs could push addressing their offensive line to a later round. In terms of Cooper's talent, however, there are no drawbacks.
As recently as last week, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner was considered a top-10 pick in this year's draft; it was also a possibility that he'd be off the board in the top five. But then, NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock dropped him down to his second-ranked cornerback behind D.J. Hayden while noting that it's possible neither corner is selected within the first 10 picks.
That, combined with the fact that Milliner may not be recovered enough from shoulder surgery to take part in training camps from the first day, has resulted in a last-minute slide. Now, it's possible he'll still be on the board when the Steelers pick 17th overall.
Milliner had 54 tackles in 2012, along with 22 passes defensed, 20 pass breakups and two interceptions. If the Steelers do draft him, he'd be in direct competition with Cortez Allen to start on the outside in the position held by departed free agent Keenan Lewis.
Milliner is a dynamic man-coverage corner when healthy. His combination of size and speed make him well-suited for taking on the NFL's best receivers.
The Steelers would also be smart to find someone to help push Allen, who is presently their best option to take over for Lewis but doesn't need to be. Ike Taylor isn't getting any younger, either, so an Allen-Milliner duo in 2014 would be a solid backup plan for Pittsburgh.
Perfecting the cornerback game in the NFL takes some work, and Milliner's shoulder surgery—which could have him sidelined for at least a portion of training camp—doesn't particularly build confidence that he'll be as ready for work that he would be otherwise.
The Steelers may also feel settled enough at cornerback to pass on Milliner in Round 1 if he's still there. The value might just not be there for the Steelers.