Who is the best cornerback in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft? If you ask 10 draft analysts, you will likely get several different answers. The same holds true for every position and across all teams and experts.
The Pittsburgh Steelers should have a full contingent of coaches, scouts and front office personnel at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. Their mission is to use this evaluative tool to help finalize their big board.
The combine is one piece of the bigger puzzle but an important one nonetheless. Every top prospect is going to be at the combine, doing some level of workouts to make their cases to be a first-round pick.
Pittsburgh has some very specific draft needs, all of which are dependent on how free agency goes. The top positions the Steelers will target in the draft include wide receiver, offensive tackle, outside linebacker, cornerback, safety and defensive line.
A big list, yes? However, it's a prudent strategy for a team not to limit its options in the first round. Getting too caught up with a single position or two could mean potentially missing out on some really great players.
Not all of these prospects project to be on the board at the 15th pick. Some could require a trade up, which isn't out of the realm of possibility. On the other hand, some of these players project lower than the 15th pick, making a trade down a possibility as well.
Let's take a quick look at the top three at each of these positions and what to expect from them at the combine.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine if a team is bluffing or not. When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told Scott Brown of ESPN that they plan to draft a tall wide receiver for Ben Roethlisberger, you are inclined to believe him.
With that knowledge, you can narrow the list down to these three wide receivers as early targets for the Steelers.
Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans is the star of this group. Not only is he huge at 6'5" and 225 pounds, but he is a sneaky athlete. As far as the combine goes, he needs to do one thing very well: run. At his size, he struggles at times to get separation from defensive backs. If he can impress with his 40-yard dash time, it will quiet some of the concerns about his deep speed.
At 6'5" and 234 pounds, Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is a slightly bigger wide receiver than Evans. In fact, he is bigger than top tight end prospect Eric Ebron. This mucks up what Benjamin's ceiling is in the NFL. On film, he has too many lazy plays.
His physical advantage should allow him to make some plays easily, but he sometimes doesn't. At the combine, he needs to show crisp routes and active hands and convince the Steelers he is prepared to fight for the ball every play.
If there is a player who might be a bit of the best of Benjamin and Evans, it is Penn State's Allen Robinson. He has exceptional length at 6'3" with long arms but comes in lighter than Evans and Benjamin by at least 15 pounds. This affords Robinson much more quickness and agility.
As much as the Steelers want a big wide receiver, the route trees for the Steelers wideouts reward those who can do damage. Add in that Robinson could likely be had late in the round, and he would also represent an exceptional value as well.
There is a school of thought that with the improved play of the Steelers offensive line, offensive tackle is no longer a top need. However, that sort of thinking is how a team misses an elite player. That's why the Steelers need to be mindful of some of the first-round tackles who will be at the combine.
This group is an interesting mix for the Steelers for a couple of reasons. First, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is going to be going into the combine with a lot to prove. While he was once a consensus top pick, his stock has fallen.
This has less to do with what he's done on the field and more about the pool of talent around him. The Steelers need to be mindful of his footwork in drills. His ability to step out and set up quickly is the one part of his game he can stand to improve.
The next top tackle of this group is Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio. The upside to selecting him would be that he is a mauling run-blocker. If the Steelers are committed to adding more power into their run game in 2014, his ability to get downhill would be a plus.
Again, like Lewan, Kouandjio needs to display smarter footwork and coordination between his hands and feet in pass protection. These are things for the Steelers to watch out for.
Finally, we have offensive lineman Zach Martin. The Notre Dame product is fascinating because his ability to play inside or outside makes him particularly intriguing to a team like the Steelers.
At 6'4" and 305 pounds, he would be an interesting contrast to what the Steelers have now at right tackle with Marcus Gilbert. However, his real future could be at left guard opposite guard David DeCastro.
The outside linebacker position for the Steelers is tenuous, to say the least. Jason Worilds is a free agent, LaMarr Woodley is coming off another disappointing season, and Jarvis Jones is still very much a work in progress.
Even if they hope to get that entire situation squared away, it's worth their time to study some of the top pass-rush specialists in this draft. If one should fall to their pick, he could represent the best value for that spot.
You can split these players up based on how they play. While all three look to have very high ceilings and can fit in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme, their styles are significantly different.
Auburn's Dee Ford is a pure edge-rusher. He has a tremendous first step and fights with his hands. He is emerging as a run defender and plays with a fabulous motor. The Steelers need to watch him and his ability to turn the corner.
Ford could be asked to line up at right inside linebacker, meaning he would have to consistently win against the top left tackles in the NFL.
By contrast, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is a more explosive, albeit straight-line athlete. He is raw and hyper-athletic with amazing physical gifts. The downside to his game is that he is a lot like Jones was coming out of college last year.
Most of his splash plays happen when the play is extended or on a broken play. Rarely does Barr simply win off the snap and finish. Instead it's about staying with the play, like Jones. Do the Steelers want two players like that on their defense?
Finally, we come to Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. Aside from South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, there is no more disruptive force in college football than Mack. Nevertheless, he has a great deal to prove at the combine. Too many times during the season, some smart scheming shut him out.
This is partly due to his sort of reckless style and lack of polish to his game. If the Steelers believe that they can harness his potential, he's an easy pick.
Cornerback might be the only position that is a need irrespective of what happens in free agency. With Ike Taylor getting older and Cortez Allen entering the final year of his contract, a cornerback must be a target. Fortunately for the Steelers, this class features some talented cornerbacks. Their skills will be on full display at the combine.
The star of this class is Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert. He has great length and excels in off-man coverage. Of all the cornerbacks in this draft, he might be the most ready to step in and play in the Steelers' scheme as a rookie.
The combine is going to give him a chance to show one thing we don't always see on film: his speed. For a player his size, he could run a ridiculous 40 time. If he does, look for him to be all the buzz.
Next in line is Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Drafting a player like him might come with some risk. His physical style is aggressive. It is difficult to say if that will translate to just elite press-man coverage in the NFL or a lot of pass interference flags.
Speed is also the watchword for Dennard. His deep speed is a question, and so he needs to run well also.
Rounding out this group is Virginia Tech Cornerback Kyle Fuller. The best way to describe him is to compare and contrast his game with that of Gilbert. Both players have excellent size and length.
Both players are at their best in off-man coverage and have exceptional awareness and recognition. Fuller is better in run support and is a very good tackler. On the downside, he lacks the speed and quickness of Gilbert, and that hurts him in zone coverage.
Drafting a safety early in the draft is a philosophical decision as much as a football one. The role of safety in the NFL continues to evolve, and every team is on the hunt for that transcendent player.
Teams want one player who can line up in man coverage and mirror offensive players. One who can be smart and aggressive in the box and stuff the run. And one who can drop into the deep middle and diagnose the play in an instant.
While this group is strong, it doesn't feature that one transcendent player.
If the Steelers must draft a safety in the first round, Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has to be the choice. In terms of a complete game, he is the best all-around prospect in the draft. That's not to say he's perfect, because that is not the case. For all the highlight plays he makes, it's the typical ones where he lacks at times.
His coverage skills are developing, but they are not on par with other recent first-round safeties. The combine is an opportunity for Clinton-Dix to show his range, especially in coverage to see if the Steelers can put him in that single high-safety role.
The hot name among safeties is Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. Upon review, he does display excellent range and a solid all-around game. But a first-round pick? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
If he wants to be in the mix for a first-round pick, one thing he can do at the combine is wow the Steelers with speed and athleticism. His instincts are good, and his range is nice, but that's not how you describe a player who could be taken in the same area as future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu.
If the Steelers want to trade back and still target a safety early, they will have other options. One very noteworthy one is Washington State safety Deone Bucannon. He is a big, physical hitter with a killer instinct. His coverage skills are natural, but his instincts are somewhat suspect.
This will push him down. However, his physical gifts cannot be coached, so he is worth the shot. As far as the combine goes, the Steelers need to look for his ability to flow in drills and display proper flexibility.