When you think about the fact that there are 335 combine invitees, the sheer scope of the potential NFL players is a bit overwhelming. Obviously, not every prospect is a target for every team. However, there are always a significant number of players each of the 32 NFL franchises will want to target on some level.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a pretty extensive list of offseason needs, dependent on free agency of course. And with only a limited number of draft picks, they must prioritize.
While we can all keep the faith that the Steelers will do well with their first- and second-round picks, working beyond that is more like a chess match. This is where a key part of the NFL Scouting Combine comes in. Nearly every prospect that will be drafted will be on full display. This gives the Steelers an opportunity to perform their due diligence on all these tasty sleeper picks.
At the combine, they can get a better read on a player's athleticism and see how he compares next to his peers in position-specific drills and interviews, so there will be plenty to glean from this group.
Here is a list of 10 potential sleeper prospects for the Steelers to keep a close eye on during the combine.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.
While the Steelers have their feature running back in Le'Veon Bell, there is always room for an added weapon on offense. Where Bell is the blunt instrument of the run game, Kent State running back Dri Archer could be the surgical one.
2013 was more than a bit of a disappointment for Archer. After racking up 1,990 yards of offense and 20 touchdowns in 2012, he fell flat. 2013 yielded only 864 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The 5'8", 175-pound speedster struggled all season on a bad football team. Like it or not, the NFL is all about what a prospect has done lately. 2012 film showed Archer using his exceptional speed and lateral agility to make defenders look foolish.
If Archer wants to boost his draft stock, he needs to wow everyone with his agility drills and force the Steelers to go back and review that 2012 tape. If they do, and they think he can regain that type of form, he could be a serious change-of-pace player for the run and pass game.
At this point, there is probably no player who will be under more scrutiny than Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, especially after coming out just days ago. Sam's announcement means he will be the first openly gay player in the league should he find his way to an NFL roster.
However, this is about how Sam projects as a football player in the NFL and as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sam played a pure 4-3 defensive end position during his time at Missouri. He turned in a huge performance in 2013, with 11.5 sacks on the season. This adds to the seven total sacks he had in the three seasons prior to that.
There are some things the Steelers need to look at with Sam's game if they think he can move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. One thing that should not be a priority at this point is fluidity into coverage. Any Steelers fan who's been paying attention knows that it is a transition.
Linebackers like LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, Joey Porter and Jason Gildon all got on the roster for their potential to hit the quarterback. They all eventually became adequate coverage players but never elite ones. What kept them on the field was that they understood leverage and had a knack for finding a way to get to the quarterback.
Sam's game mirrors that of these guys in so many ways. He's got that same sort of squatty 6'2" build. He's 256 pounds, with arms of a man much taller than himself. The recent addition of Joey Porter to the coaching staff gives even more credence to the idea the Steelers want to take a closer look at Sam at the combine.
For some players, the combine is a shot to open franchises' eyes to their NFL potential. This is due in part to where a prospect plays. Arkansas State defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers has gotten sort of lost in the shuffle among the top defensive tackles in the country.
The Steelers need to take advantage of that anonymity and pounce on the gigantic nose tackle. Carrethers is going to show himself well in drills. And when he crawls under that bench press, look for some crazy numbers. This is a young man who is as strong as any player in the country at any position or any school.
This sort of power is what the Steelers need to anchor the middle of the 3-4 defensive line. Carrethers does a great job with leverage and can turn any one-on-one to a position of advantage very quickly.
When he lines up opposite some of the top linemen in the nation, he has a chance to send plenty of teams running back to watch more film on him. One of those teams needs to be the Steelers.
It's not hard to look at Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines and give him more than a passing grade on the eyeball test. At 6'1", 185 pounds, Gaines looks like an NBA point guard with long limbs and a lean physique.
What Gaines needs to show at the combine is that he can stay low but be fluid in his turn so as not to give up ground on deep routes. His skill set on short and intermediate routes is excellent. If he can round out his game with better awareness and technique on deep throws, he'll push his stock up.
Along those same lines, Gaines gets a real shot to impress with his 40-yard dash time. If you are going to struggle with your agility on deep throws, great recovery speed can help forgive some of that. Gaines is one of those smooth athletic types the Steelers staff can draft late and coach up.
Ideally, the draft is about bringing in as many starters as possible. The reality is that teams need backups—players who can star on special teams and contribute at times on either offense or defense.
These same players are the ones who grow into solid starters in the proper environment. BYU safety Daniel Sorensen is one of those players who does some of everything well. A team like the Steelers respects work ethic and sound fundamentals, both of which Sorenson has plenty.
The Steelers always love to carry plenty of safeties. They want lunch-pail guys who can do a little bit of everything and are physical. This is all Sorensen. At 6'2", 208 pounds, he is thick as a brick and never shies away from contact.
As far as the combine goes, Sorensen needs to display better athleticism than he has on film. His numbers in the three-cone and short shuttle will be very telling as to whether Sorensen's potential is simply as a special teams ace or if he can be developed into a legitimate safety.
This class of tight ends is very impressive. As the role of the tight end in the NFL continues to transition to more of a receiver first, it changes how these young men develop.
You really have to look deep to find tiny Dixie State, but once you do, you get a peek at tight end Joe Don Duncan. Duncan is one of the best all-around tight ends in the draft. Maybe. The combine is going to be key for Duncan from a Steelers perspective because tight end could certainly be a target, but they must know what they are getting.
Duncan became the focal point of the Dixie State offense in 2013 to the tune of 71 receptions for 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, what will be more impressive will be when he is in a position to line up and go through position drills against the other top tight ends.
Much of Duncan's game is incomplete. His route running is raw, and he was never really put to the test by fast, physical defenders. His best chance to be compared to his peers will be to show those active hands and deceptive speed on a major stage against other talented tight end prospects.
When a team is fast, it sometimes wants to get faster. The Steelers offense did a great job trotting out a group of wide receivers who beat opposing defenses with speed and quickness. As much as it might be novel to add a big, tall wide receiver, adding more speed could be a better fit.
There are few small-school players who have as much requisite NFL speed and quickness as Pittsburg State wide receiver John Brown. Brown is a little bit slight at 5'11", 170 pounds, but he makes up for it with an explosive first step and impressive acceleration.
Brown has very active hands. Even on a team that leans heavily on the run, he has been able to be very successful. In 2013, Brown hauled in only 61 catches but for 1,198 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a multi-purpose player, add in 753 more yards and three more touchdowns. Brown will have a chance at the combine to run routes next to more highly touted prospects and get throws from some of the top quarterback prospects in the draft.
The Steelers need to track Brown closely in his drills. Brown promises to have some of the top times in many of the drills so fundamental to slot receivers and return specialists. If the Steelers choose not to re-sign wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, getting Brown late in the draft would be a very nice value pick.
How much of a sleeper Furman guard Dakota Dozier is by May could really depend on how he performs at the combine. Right now, Dozier continues to fly a bit under the radar. However, his mix of athletic ability and solid technique could be hard to ignore by the rest of the league.
The Steelers should monitor closely how Dozier does mirroring linemen. Dozier's athleticism is impressive and is going to wow teams at the combine.
The Steelers specifically need to see if they think Dozier can come in and play left guard opposite David DeCastro. While guard Ramon Foster has been solid, he is more of a stop gap.
Dozier could be a fourth-round target for the Steelers. He has quick feet and is very much a finesse guard. Where he falls among guards come May could vary greatly on how he tests at the combine. It will be a wonderful chance for him to stand beside other top prospects and be compared closely.
It's not clear just how great the impact of new offensive line coach Mike Munchak will be on the Steelers' current offensive tackles. No one can deny that this group played better as the season progressed. This could mean that offensive tackle is off the big board as a high priority.
If the Steelers do want to bring in a player that is a bit of a contrast to whom they have, Tennessee offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James would be a great one. Many people are infatuated with the stopwatch and athleticism, but that's not where James shines.
The Steelers need to pay close attention to his exceptional footwork and hand technique. Use that information from the combine to go back and watch his games at Tennessee. Drills will be vital for James, because it's almost a lock that he'll be in the middle of most of the stopwatch stuff.
However, a quality resume is important, and that is why you look at James. Regardless of how he measures up, he's an experienced starter and a very smart football player.
Another player who isn't going to wow athletically is Oregon defensive end Taylor Hart. Hart is a classic 5-technique defensive end on that Oregon front, with a lot of scheme versatility.
At 6'6" and 287 pounds, Hart casts an imposing shadow. It will be very interesting to see how he measures up compared to some of the top defensive linemen in this draft at the combine.
Hart's frame is long, and he could easily carry another 15 pounds. For the Steelers, Hart's experience playing inside and outside makes him even more fascinating for the Steelers. Often on passing downs, the Steelers slide their 5-technique ends inside, which is right in Hart's wheelhouse.
Emphasis for the Steelers with Hart needs to be on how he uses his hands and keeps linemen off him. With defensive end Cameron Heyward emerging as a defensive force, the expectation on these ends is going to be to work more as pass-rush ends than in the past.
Ultimately, however, the Steelers are going to want to see if Hart can move from outside to inside and still be effective if they want to spend a Day 3 pick on him.