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Ranking Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 7 Draft Needs

Chris GazzeCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2014

Ranking Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 7 Draft Needs

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The 2013 season was a tale of two halves for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They looked like one of the worst teams out of the gate when they lost their first four games, but won six of their final eight games to finish just outside of the playoff race.

    Estimated by Over the Cap to be more than $12 million over the 2014 salary cap, the Steelers will once again have to look towards the draft to upgrading the roster.

    The Steelers have traditionally been successful in the draft and were rated as the fourth-best drafting team over the past five years by Bleacher Report’s Christopher Hansen.

    The Steelers have been getting their young players onto the field early in their careers. This was particularly evident last season in which Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell, Shamarko Thomas and Vince Williams all saw a significant number of snaps.

    Though the Steelers currently only have six selections in the draft, this number should grow to at least seven or eight with compensatory picks. That will provide Kevin Colbert and the rest of Pittsburgh’s front office and coaching staff ample opportunity to replenish the team’s depth.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, draft projections and rankings are courtesy of CBS Sports, contract information is courtesy of to Spotrac and all statistics are courtesy of sports-reference.com

Backup Running Back

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Le’Veon Bell is a burgeoning start for the Steelers with 1,259 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns as a rookie. He should only get better as he progresses throughout his career.

    Once he finally entered the starting lineup, Bell touched the ball 289 times and proved that he can be a workhorse as well as a three-down player. However, he only had at least 20 carries in five of 13 games played.

    Mike Tomlin rotated Felix Jones into the offense and utilized Jonathan Dwyer as a short-yardage back. Moving into 2014, the Steelers may be without their backups as both, as well as the injured LaRod Stephens-Howling, are free agents.

    It is possible that one of these backs could return, but the Steelers would benefit from finding a quality backup running back late in the draft. One name to consider is Wisconsin’s James White.

    Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke identified White as a “riser” back in November.

    James White, RB, Wisconsin: A lot of folks have spent this season drooling over White’s RB counterpart, Melvin Gordon. But Gordon might head back to Madison next season, while White has no choice but to head pro. He should find several teams interested in his services there, and he showed off why again Saturday against BYU.

    White carried the ball 23 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns, plus caught six balls for 47 yards and another TD. Even with Gordon cutting into his playing time, White has averaged 20.6 carries over the past three weeks, and he’s topped 100 yards rushing six times. Wisconsin’s style obviously deserves some credit there, but White is a versatile back with an NFL future. That White has shown himself capable of being on the field in passing downs—either as a receiver or blocker—will push his stock even higher in May.

    The 13th-rated running back is projected as a fifth-round selection and could fill in nicely behind Bell as a role play. Silas Redd would be another name to consider as he may be available as late as the seventh round.

    It may not be a high priority position, but without any running backs signed beyond 2013, it is definitely a position of need.

Offensive Line Depth

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Free agency hasn’t even started yet and the Steelers may have already made their best move of the offseason by hiring Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, as reported by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Munchak was a Hall of Fame guard as a player and coached many quality offensive linemen while with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans. The Steelers will hope that he can replicate some of that success with the young talent that they have.

    The top six on next year’s line should be set already with Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams all returning. There is a chance that they could re-sign Fernando Velasco as well.

    Behind these players the Steelers lack quality depth. Last year they had to depend on Guy Whimper and Cody Wallace to step in. While there performances were not awful, it is not a position that you want to be in.

    Day three of the draft will be when the Steelers should look for depth. Mike Tomlin likes versatile players, so expect a lineman who can play both tackle and guard to be a potential target. However, if a quality prospect falls in the first or second, another early pick could be an option as well.

    Having Munchak on staff is a valuable resource and the Steelers need to let him at least select one of his own pieces to the line—even if they are just a backup.

Defensive End

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Depth once again is the issue at defensive end. Cameron Heyward is the only starter under contract for 2014, with Brett Keisel’s and Ziggy Hood’s contracts expiring.

    Keisel has been a great player for the Steelers, but they need to get young up front and would be better off re-signing Hood. Assuming they are able to reach an agreement, it still would not be a bad idea to a developmental player to the mix.

    Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams both have potential to develop into backups, but they have a long way to go. Arnfelt had a strong preseason and at least showed he can produce against backups, while Williams has the perfect body frame for the position, but lacks experience.

    If he falls to the second round, Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt may be too good to pass up.

    The 6’6” and 312-pound Tuitt has excellent size to play defensive end in the Steelers' system. He also has shown the ability to get to the quarterback with 22 sacks over the past two seasons.

    After spending two first-round picks on defensive ends in recent years, they may instead wait until the fourth round or later to address this position. Here they can find a player like Alabama’s Ed Stinson or Josh Mauro or Ben Gardner from Stanford.

    CBS Sports’ Rob Rang compared Mauro to a player that the Steelers are very familiar with.

    COMPARES TO: Brett Keisel, Steelers -- Don't count on Mauro for blinding speed off the edge but his size, strength and toughness could make him a dependable five-technique defensive end, like the Steelers' Keisel.

    Pittsburgh would jump on the opportunity to grab another player who could develop like Keisel. But be aware that any defensive end selected will be at least one or two years away from contributing on defense.

Inside Linebacker

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Lawrence Timmons is entrenched at one inside linebacker spot, but there is some question as to who will play there next season.

    Larry Foote has been a dependable—albeit unspectacular—player for them, but he is coming off of an injured bicep which kept him out for the season. Of course, Vince Williams could also step into a starting role if the Steelers decide to part ways with Foote.

    Williams was selected in the sixth round last season and put up 40 tackles in 11 starts. He should improve with experience, but his upside may be limited to being a two-down linebacker. In essence, he is a young version of Foote.

    While there is nothing wrong with having a run-stopper on the inside, adding another dynamic linebacker who can play the run and drop into coverage would make the defense a bit more flexible.

    C.J. Mosley would clearly be an option if he fell to the 15th selection in the first. He is the top inside linebacker in the draft and has experience playing in a 3-4 defense while at Alabama.

    The only way that the Steelers will take him that high is if they believe he can be an outstanding linebacker. Value at this position can be found later in the draft with a player such as BYU’s Kyle Van Noy in the second. He is capable of playing inside or outside which would make him a threat on passing downs.

    Another option would be Christian Jones from Florida State. The Steelers surely would have seen him while scouting Williams last year except would have noticed that he is much stronger in coverage, as noted by Dan Kadar at Senior Bowl practice this week.

    Coverage work paying off for Christian Jones who just picked off a pass at the goal line.

    — Dan Kadar (@MockingTheDraft) January 23, 2014

    Any linebacker that has the ability to drop into coverage should definitely be on the Steelers’ radar as a potential pick.

Wide Receiver

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Antonio Brown proved to be a No. 1 receiver for Ben Roethlisberger as he had the best season of his career.  He finished with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Outside of Brown, the Steelers lack talent at the position with Emmanuel Sanders expected to enter free agency and Markus Wheaton unproven. Jerricho Cotchery is slated to be a free agent, though the Steelers should not have many problems signing him.

    Even if they bring Cotchery back, there is a need to find another top option outside of Brown. With none of their top four receivers taller than 6’1” this past season, adding one with some size would be a bonus for Roethlisberger.

    The draft is deep with big receivers who could present matchup problems with the smaller cornerbacks in the league. Players such as Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin will be the popular names given their size and production last season, but a short guy like Marqise Lee may be the better fit.

    Lee has been viewed as a NFL prospect for years now and fits the mold as a receiver with good speed and big-play ability that Colbert has been selecting in recent years.

    But with all of the needs on defense, it will be more prudent for Pittsburgh to wait until the second round where a quality receiver could be found. In fact, given the depth do not be surprised if two receivers are selected.

Safety

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Not long ago the Steelers had one of the top safety tandems in the league with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. But all good things must come to an end, and age is finally catching up to the duo.

    Pittsburgh already began to address this issue last season when it traded for an additional fourth-round pick to acquire Shamarko Thomas.

    Clark will be a free agent so there is a chance that Thomas will be the next man up to take over at free safety—that is if the coaches believe he is ready. That fills one spot, but still leaves them without a future replacement for Troy Polamalu.

    Or the coaches may let Thomas develop another year behind Polamalu and look for a high-rated safety who could potentially start as a rookie in place of Clark.

    Because of this you can fully expect that safety will be one of the top draft needs and that the top two safeties to both be on the Steelers’ draft radar.

    Hasean Clinton-Dix is a 6’1” safety from Alabama who can drop into coverage and play near the line of scrimmage. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller believes that he can start in his first year.

    While Clinton-Dix should be a good player at the next level, Calvin Pryor is a bit more intriguing. At 6’2” he is taller than Clinton-Dix and may have more upside. Here is what Miller had to say about Pryor:

    When evaluating defensive players, I want a guy who is a little bit crazy. You have to be if you're going to consistently attack the football and punish offensive players.

    When you find that in a free safety, you take notice.

    Calvin Pryor has all the athletic ability you want at the position. He's big enough (listed at 6'2", 208 lbs) and shows very good speed on film when running in coverage and when attacking the ball. And he's a hitter. That's what I like best.

    Pryor isn't afraid to lower his shoulder and knock the hell out of a wide receiver, tight end or running back. He's not always controlled in this area, but that recklessness makes him a feared player in the secondary.

    As you watch Pryor play, he can be an absolutely monster playing near the line of scrimmage and has the ability to blow up the run game. What he lacks is experience in coverage, but given his size and speed, he has all of the tools to develop into an excellent player.

    Now the question becomes is whether or not they believe he is worth the 15th overall selection, because it is highly unlikely that this hot prospect falls to them in the second round.

Cornerback

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    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    One of the strongest positions in 2012 became one of the biggest areas of concern in 2013 and moving forward.

    Ike Taylor is in the final year of his deal and has nearly a $12 million cap hit that may lead to him being released if he does not take a pay reduction. Beyond this, Taylor clearly lost a step last season, and that is a concern moving forward.

    The Steelers had expected to have a quality starter in Cortez Allen, but his struggles at the start of the year resulted in William Gay stepping into a starting role.

    Even if all three cornerbacks return, the Steelers need to add another cornerback, because they have no depth outside of these players.

    Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert are the top two cornerbacks in the draft and could be available in the first. Both are physical enough to step up and play the run yet have different skills in coverage.

    CBS Sports’ Rob Rang noted some differences between the two saying that Dennard “may be the country’s best lockdown corner” while Gilbert “is the big-play specialist.”

    Though these two are at the top of the draft, there is not a huge drop off between them and the other top cornerbacks available meaning that the Steelers could instead wait until the second round for a player such as a Bradley Roby, Lamarcus Joyner or Kyle Fuller.

    Regardless of who it is, it is imperative that the Steelers rebuild their secondary by finding a future starter at cornerback. If they don’t this year they will run into the same problems next season.

     

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