When it comes to the NFL draft, it's not hard to find information about the top prospects. What was once very much a cottage industry in the world of sports information, is now a huge network of bloggers and writers who spend countless hours studying games and using their own set of metrics and standards to grade out prospects.
However, even with all this information out there, the focus of it centers on the top players. It makes perfect sense. Information on them is far and away the most abundant, and aside from a handful of draft pundits, many of the very best do this in addition to other employment commitments.
This means there are always those sleeper prospects that the public might not be as informed about, but trust when I say the NFL knows exactly who they are. Here are six players the casual fan might not know a ton about, but the Steelers should be looking at very closely for the 2014 NFL draft.
If you haven't heard of Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, there's probably a good reason. As only a redshirt sophomore, he wasn't on the radar of most draft pundits. Time being what it is, one has to budget it to account for those most likely to be in the draft, starting with the seniors and working backwards.
However, with Auburn having such an impressive season, it has brought Robinson's talents firmly to the forefront. Against Alabama, Robinson was masterful, dealing with everything the Crimson Tide threw at him. It was reminiscent of the performance Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan had against the multiple fronts of Alabama in 2012.
Robinson is a former high school guard who has grown into a more natural left tackle in college very quickly. He has an athletic frame without being too bulky, and shows a very good mix of power and athleticism. If the Steelers should target an offensive tackle in the first round, Robinson, should he declare, would be an excellent choice.
The Steelers secondary is getting old. Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are on the back sides of their respective careers, and other than safety Shamarko Thomas, there is no true heir-apparent on the other side.
North Carolina safety Tre Boston is an interesting prospect because with his size (6'1" 205 pounds), you might think of him as more of a run-stuffing box safety. However, his strength is in zone coverage. Boston is a smart player with solid instincts and very good ball skills. There may be no more skill in all of the NFL more lacking than a defensive back who can turn and find the football while in the air.
A plus for Boston is that in a safety class that is very spread out as far as opinions go, he could slip a little and end up a nice value pick for the Steelers. While the Steelers don't have a third-round pick now, they are almost assured one as a compensatory pick. They could do worse with that selection than to take a shot on Boston.
Sometimes great players fall in the draft by no fault of their own. This is likely the fate of Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum. Going into the season, Exum's size and speed were as fascinating as any prospect in the country.
Unfortunately, injuries have essentially squashed Exum's season without ever letting it get started. Exum is a senior, and doesn't appear to be a candidate for a medical redshirt, so even with very little to go on this year, he is headed to the draft.
Nevertheless,, from a Steelers perspective this isn't all bad news. Assuming that the prognosis for Exum is a full recovery, he could be a real steal in the middle rounds. Exum has tremendous physical gifts. He is an imposing 6'1" and 224 pounds with impressive speed. Obviously, his health will be the main concern going forward, but in a limited sample size, Exum looks like a risk worth taking.
There are so many teams who are utilizing some sort of base 3-4 defense that finding players who can be effective in it from the get-go are a boon to NFL teams. Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro absolutely fits the bill.
At 6'6" and around 285 pounds, he's got that physical stature to play that 5-technique end in a base 3-4. He's experienced in it, and has shown a ton of growth this year. Even as tall as he is, Mauro does a nice job with his leverage. He understands how to get lower than his opponent and rarely finds himself losing at the point of attack because he got too upright.
There is a real chance that the Steelers could lose defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood this offseason. That would leave a significant hole opposite young star defensive end Cameron Heyward, which Mauro could fill.
When we start talking about prospects from Furman, you know we've crossed over into the deep sleeper range. Nevertheless, offensive tackle Dakota Dozier certainly fits the bill.
Dozier is currently playing left tackle for Furman, but at 6'4" and what looks like about 290 pounds is a bit undersized and could find his future as a pulling guard on either side. He's an athletic kid with nice feet, but it's hard to say if he can pile on much more weight, which could limit him to some teams.
If Dozier is still on the board in the late fifth, into the sixth round, he would certainly be worth a flyer to a team like Pittsburgh that struggled with offensive line injuries.
There is a real chance that the Steelers could choose not to re-sign wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery at the end of the season. Should that be the case, there will certainly be a need for the another wide receiver on the roster.
But, with the other needs on this roster, the Steelers need to be studious and try to get a player who can contribute, while not costing a high pick.
Saginaw Valley State wide receiver Jeff Janis might have as much upside as any wide receiver in this draft, but playing for a DII school there will be questions about the level of competition and how Janis' game will translate to the NFL.
Janis certainly passes the eyeball test. Standing 6'3" and weighing in at 218 pounds, he has a real deal NFL body. His timed speed is deceiving for a player his size. It won't be a shock if he runs a sub 4.4 in the offseason.
Watching Janis play, his game is very complete. He runs strong inside routes, shrugging off contact and making catches in traffic. Janis also loves the go. He uses his strength to beat the jam at the line of scrimmage and can get behind defensive backs.
It's hard to say how much Janis will rise as his name gets out there, but if he ends up a fourth or fifth round pick next May, no one should be surprised.