Prospective NFL players spend the offseason before they are drafted under the microscope. Prospects are poked, prodded, inspected and worked over like pieces of meat. And as NFL draft types, we love the whole process.
February 19-25 will be the dates for the NFL Scouting Combine. This is an event held in Indianapolis every year, and is the penultimate event to scrutinize potential prospects outside of an actual game.
The true value of the scouting combine is of some debate. The players go through a myriad of drills. Some are designed to measure general athleticism, while others are more position specific.
However, the behind the scenes aspects of the combine are where the value really lies. Teams need to be able to put players through thorough medical examinations, interviews and in some cases psychological testing.
The performance of these prospects here at the "Underwear Olympics" will give NFL franchises another venue to break down these young men.
But what should the Pittsburgh Steelers be looking for? Are there prospects that could find themselves firmly on the radar of the Pittsburgh staff? Are there certain positional groupings they should focus on? It's time to take a look at some people and things the Steelers need to focus on during the NFL Scouting Combine.
There are really two reasons the Steelers need to be mindful of the speed of the prospects at the combine.
First, because on offense, it is a big part of what they do. In particular, the passing game is predicated on getting the football to players quickly and letting them run. This is not a draft class that has gobs of elite speed on offense, but here are a few to keep en eye on.
- Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Clemson
- Marqise Lee, wide receiver, USC
- Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, LSU
- Brandin Cooks, wide receiver, Oregon State
- De'Anthony Thomas, running back/wide receiver, Oregon
- Jeremy Gallon, wide receiver, Michigan
- Tre Mason, running back, Auburn
This represents a really diverse cross-section of draft prospects from high first-round picks to potentially undrafted free agents. Nevertheless, the Steelers should be on the lookout for another game-breaking offensive weapon for this offense.
Defensively, speed has not been a characteristic the Steelers have been able to count on. In particular, in the defensive secondary, the overall lack of deep speed has resulted in far too many long plays. Again, this isn't a tremendous group when it comes to deep speed, but here are some guys to keep an eye on.
- Bradley Roby, cornerback, Ohio State
- Justin Gilbert, cornerback, Oklahoma State
- Deone Bucannon, safety, Washington State
- Lamarcus Joyner, safety, Florida State
- Phillip Gaines, Cornerback, Rice
For all the things that great coaching can do for a player, making them significantly faster isn't one of them. It's great to be strong and physical, but there are instances where a team just needs to be faster than their opponent.
The Steelers took advantage of this on offense in 2013 with wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. It would be perfect if they could add some players on defense with those same strengths.
The importance of the cornerback position and the draft will largely be determined by how the Steelers choose to handle the contract of cornerback Ike Taylor. Taylor's cap hit is $11.94 million in 2014, according to Spotrac. This is totally unacceptable for the type of football Taylor played during the second half of the season.
If the Steelers opt to release Taylor, cornerbacks Cortez Allen and William Gay would assume the starting roles. While Allen is a promising youngster, Gay likely is best served in more of a reserve role.
What should the Steelers be looking for when they scout these cornerbacks? It really comes down to three things.
First is backpedal. Too many cornerbacks give up on their backpedal, don't stay low enough and simply turn and run. A player, particularly one in off-man coverage who can maintain their backpedal, can get a much better break on the football if it's thrown underneath. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett is undersized, but is a great example of a technically superior cornerback.
Next is awareness. By that, I mean awareness of the football. Sometimes it seems like it is a crime to actually try to make a play on the ball in the air. Sometimes, turning ones head while in stride with a wide receiver is a lost art.
Finally, we have physicality. There's little doubt the Steelers will be angling for a bigger, more physical cornerback. It will be key to look for players who understand how to use their hands, both at the line of scrimmage as well as down the field.
Father Time seems to finally be catching up to the Steelers and their safeties. Both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu have been great, but their skills are dwindling. No one should be shocked if Clark isn't re-signed for 2014 and simply chooses to retire.
Young safety Shamarko Thomas has future start at strong safety written all over him. However, his best fit could be in and around the line of scrimmage, similar to how the Steelers use Polamalu. This means the Steelers must keep a sharp eye out for a player who can play that single high that they like so much. However, what does that look like?
They need nice size. Thomas is only around 5'9", so whomever the Steelers pair him with needs to be taller. If not, it creates matchup problems with slot receivers and particularly tight ends. A player like Bucannon at 6'1" and 216 pounds would be an ideal pairing in terms of size.
A free safety as the Steelers employ them need excellent range as well. A significant negative on Clark last year was if he shaded one hash or the other, he simply didn't have the range or recovery speed to get to the other side of the field and help on deep passes.
Last and certainly not least, a Steelers safety needs to be a finisher. Any player who comes over the middle against the Steelers needs to understand that the secondary is not afraid to deliver a blow. USC safety Dion Bailey is a strong, physical player with nice size and finishes going downhill.
The Steelers defensive line is another spot where there could potentially be some vacant spots. Much will depend on how they handle free agent defensive linemen Brett Keisel, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood.
Fortunately, since the Steelers run a base 3-4 defense, the world is their oyster when it comes to scouting defensive tackles. Most can be employed in either a five-technique defensive end role, or if they have been eating their veggies, they will have the beef to play that zero-technique, pure nose tackle.
At the combine, there are some characteristics the Steelers will want to be mindful of in all of these players.
First is strength. Whether they are outside and have to hold the edge against the run or inside commanding a double-team, they must have power. Along those lines is leverage. An understanding of how to keep their butts low and get those big mitts on the offensive lineman is vital. The linebackers behind them can't make plays if the front doesn’t win at the snap.
The other thing to bear in mind, and something that will be covered in greater detail later on, is work ethic. Being a defensive lineman for the Steelers is as exciting as you want to make it. However, for the most part, it is about doing thankless work and that requires effort.
Never taking a play off, and never losing a one-on-one is key. The combine will be a nice look at just how hard these young men are willing to work.
Free agency also could be pulling at least one and possibly two key wide receivers off of this roster. Both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery were very effective in 2013, and will need to be accounted for should they leave.
The problem comes in about the type of wide receiver the Steelers should look for opposite wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Pittsburgh could look at what worked last year and opt for another speedy wide out, similar to what Sanders gave them. These are the wide outs who will show up big in the in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and short shuttle. Drills that emphasize not only downfield speed, but lateral quickness and change of direction.
To offer a little perspective, Sanders ran a 4.40 40-yard dash, a 4.10 short shuttle and 6.64 in the three-cone. There should be a nice mix of prospects that will approach these kinds of triangle numbers. In particular, Oregon State wide out Brandin Cooks compares very favorably to Sanders, both physically and in style of play.
However, the Steelers could harken back to days gone by, and try to find that big, downfield target they love. Not since wide receiver Plaxico Burress was in his prime, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had someone he can just throw it up to and let him haul it in. In terms of the combine, there are only a few wide outs who qualify.
There are two primary wide outs in this draft that meet these criteria that the Steelers should watch. Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Texas A&M's Mike Evans are both prospects topping 6'5" and have an enormous catch radius.
At the combine, a number that could separate these two is the 40-yard dash. For all of their size and athleticism, if they can't show some deep speed, teams are going to be more leery of spending a first-round pick on them. However, if either can find their way in the sub-4.5 range, they would make a fantastic first-round pick.
The reality is, the Steelers could very well go into 2014 with Brown, Cotchery, and Markus Wheaton as their three-deep at wide out. This would mean the need for a wide receiver would drop significantly and so the targets they would want to observe would change as well.
The only specific player on this list is former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla. Lyerla left the Oregon football team, and was arrested shortly after for possession of drugs. A tragic tale for such a talented football player. However, Lyerla has had some time to get his life together and do his very best to salvage an NFL career.
There's nothing the Steelers need to see in drills to determine if Lyerla can play. On the field, Lyerla's game speaks for itself. Lyerla is a lean, athletic type, 6'5" and 238 pounds. His ability to function as a slot wide receiver with a physical edge to go with surprising athleticism and speed makes him a top prospect. However, the elephant in the room is if he is a risk worth taking.
That's why, if the Steelers have an interest in Lyerla, they must do their due diligence in the interview portion of the combine. They have to use that time to find out if this is a young man who is focused on moving forward in a positive way, and had put the negative things of his past behind him.
Even if the Steelers are content with what they hear, it is still a reach to think a team will spend a draft pick on Lyerla. That doesn't change the fact that if a team guesses right on him, they will get a fabulous value.
No scout or coach is going to watch the combine and learn a lot about what kind of football player any particular prospect is. That's what the film is for. You want to find out if a cornerback can play man coverage, you won't get it in the drills in Indianapolis. So, what is the aim of all the drills?
Most of these athletes have had their college seasons in the books for at least a month. This means they have had four weeks or better to get prepared for the combine drills. And it is important to acknowledge that some of these drills are unique in that they don't do them with any regularity.
What these young men have to do is commit countless hours to essentially learning how to be successful at these drills.
This is relevant for the Steelers because this directly reflects work ethic. Too many times, college prospects show up to the combine out of shape and unprepared for the drills. They might be fine football players but this matters.
If they can't commit four weeks to get ready for such a massive phase of this job interview, what can you expect from them once they are making lots of money?
We all understand that talent trumps character in many cases. However, the Steelers are a unique franchise in that they regard the character of a player over talent in many cases. Deciding how far to go when it comes to forgiving character concerns is a slippery slope. Every season, there are stories of players who prove their teams right or wrong.
If the Steelers can be smart, and "guess" right, the rewards would be tremendous. Last season, the Arizona Cardinals took the word of defensive back Tyrann Mathieu that he had his head screwed on straight and it paid off. His NFL future looks bright.
On the flip side, the Steelers drafted running back Chris Rainey, on the hope he had gotten his act together, and his character issues got him released before he could ever get started. The Steelers don't want to make that mistake again.
This once again comes down to that interview. These franchises know going into the combine all the dirty laundry on these players. If it's a prospect they are interested in, the NFL will do its research to find out any dirt these kids might have in their pasts.
Once they get them alone, they are going to ask them about it, and these kids need to be honest. Their careers will depend on it.