The NFL draft has come a long way. Access that teams, fans and writers have to prospects has grown exponentially in recent years. One factor in this growth has become the proliferation of all-star games. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in attendance at Saturday's East-West Shrine Game, and there are lots of prospects they'll have their eyes on.
These games showcase potential draft picks and give them an opportunity to perform on a national stage with the game being televised on the NFL Network. It also provides teams an up-close look at some lesser-known prospects.
None of these prospects carry a first-round grade, but that doesn't diminish their value. Being able to pull in a few of these players in rounds two through seven would really improve this team in a hurry. Being able to scout talent in the early rounds is vital, but on some level, championship teams are built with these types of players that they find and other teams miss.
Here's a closer look at some of the positions of strength at this week's game and which ones should be on the Steelers' radar.
You can get more information about the East-West Shrine Game, including rosters, here.
Having cornerback and safety as the top two needs proves just how much this secondary is in need of a re-build. Even if safety Troy Polamalu returns, his seasons are numbered.
The Steelers have a promising young safety in Shamarko Thomas, but the Steelers need someone opposite him to play that deep safety role.
Fortunately, the Shrine Game also has a few deep coverage safeties to play center field that allow their cornerbacks to play with a safety net. The East squad has a couple of very good prospects, but let's focus on one in particular:
Tre Boston, Safety, North Carolina (6'0" 198 lbs)
Boston is a pure coverage player. He's got excellent change-of-direction, is effortless in his transitions and has excellent instincts. Boston will likely slip because his triangle numbers aren't going to wow people, but in the deep middle he can be a special player.
Of all the groups at the Shrine Game, one of the strongest is the cornerbacks. The Steelers philosophy has been to reach out to slightly under-the-radar prospects that fit a physical type and can be incorporated into their scheme.
Looking at many of the Steelers' recent picks at cornerback, the best have been tall, physical corners that are less about raw speed and more about physical play and sure tackling. There are several fascinating prospects to choose from at the Shrine Game, but there's one in particular that stands out:
Pierre Desir, Cornerback, Lindenwood (6'1" 197 lbs)
Desir is one of those rare talents that rises out of a non-BCS school to stand and stay among the very top prospects for their position. Desir has elite NFL size and surprising speed for a young man his size.
Pierre Desir has the longest arms of any Shrine Game CB. NFL teams will be focusing on long corners that can match length at the catch point— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 14, 2014
In many ways, Desir's game is like former Steelers cornerback and current New Orleans Saints starter Keenan Lewis. Being able to find his replacement in the third round would be a tremendous get for the Steelers.
With potential losses of Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood along the defense line, the Steelers almost certainly will be in the market for a new five-technique end in that 3-4 defense.
When an NFL team runs a 3-4 defense, they are often forced to get creative when it comes to finding five-technique defensive ends. The size and power required in order to play defensive end in a 3-4 usually means converting a defensive tackle over once they are drafted.
However, the Steelers have an opportunity at the Shrine Game to see a natural five-technique end that has been very impressive.
Josh Mauro, Defensive End, Stanford (6'5" 276 lbs)
I think both Shrine Game participants Josh Mauro from Stanford and Cassius Marsh from UCLA are both best suited to bulk for athletic 5 techs— NDT Scouting, KMC (@NFLDraftTracker) January 13, 2014
Stanford's Mauro comes from a base 3-4 defense. He has improved every game this past season. His power is NFL-caliber, and he understands leverage. In the NFL, it is often a case of low man wins.
Another advantage to Mauro is his versatility. On passing downs, he can slide inside as a three-technique tackle and uses his first step and active hands to disrupt the passing game.
The requirements to be a great NFL nose tackle are fairly straightforward. You must have the size to anchor the middle of the defensive line and command double-teams. You must also be able to play with leverage to win those one-on-one situations and get into the backfield. And finally, a great nose tackle must have active, violent hands.
There is one young man at this year's Shrine Game flying under that radar who has shown flashes of all three:
Justin Ellis, Defensive Tackle, La. Tech (6'2" 351 lbs)
Talked to mammoth DT Justin Ellis of Louisiana Tech. Rostered at 357, weighed in at 351, wants to play with power at 335. @Shrine_Game— Greg Auman (@gregauman) January 15, 2014
Ellis is a rare player in today's college game. Defensive tackles are seeking to become more streamlined and fit, making life hard for 3-4 defenses in the NFL. Ellis is a wide-body defensive tackle. To be as cliche as possible, he's a high-motor player and has tons of upside.
Regardless of his performance this week at the Shrine Game, Ellis will likely end up a Day 3 pick. This would represent tremendous value.
When the Steelers selected linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, he carried a lot of promise with him. After all, he was one of the most disruptive players in all of college football the preceding season.
However, even with Jones in the fold, Questions remain at the outside linebacker spot. The future of linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds with this team is far from certain. Should either leave, the Steelers will have to address this position in the draft.
A 3-4 outside linebacker is a bit like a natural five-technique defensive end. They don't often come straight out of college. There is often a transition period that most teams would wish to avoid if possible.
This year's Shrine Game lineup has several hybrid players who are coming from a college defensive end position who could move to an outside linebacker spot. However, there is one player who looks to be more ready to play than the others:
Prince Shembo, OLB, Notre Dame (6'1" 254 lbs)
Coming from Notre Dame, Shembo is already accustomed to playing the rush outside linebacker spot in a 3-4. He's got a strong, squatty frame and nice athleticism for his size. Shembo works hard on every play and has the look of a strong-side outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Obviously there will be 4-3 teams who want to try to move Shembo to a move traditional outside linebacker, but his real value is heading to a 3-4. He can come in and play right away, and would be a much more instinctive defender. The Steelers would be wise to give Shembo a long look.