The NFL Scouting Combine began on Thursday, with players reported to be weighed and measured and coaches and general managers taking to the podium to give carefully crafted insights into their teams' offseason plans.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are, of course, in Indianapolis with the other 31 teams in the NFL. General manager Kevin Colbert spoke on Thursday about the upcoming draft, saying, this is "one of the deepest classes I've seen in 30 years," per Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest. He admitted that had much to do with the record 98 underclassmen who have decided to test their fates in the draft.
The system forces younger players in, sometimes before they're ready. I know that's one of the concerns we have with this current draft class... although it's a talented group, it also has a bigger chance of failing because you're going to get a lot of kids who aren't physically or emotionally ready for this.
The talent and maturity evaluations that the Steelers will conduct over the coming days therefore carry significantly more weight than in scouting combines of the past. The Steelers will have a lot of roster holes to fill this offseason, and with not much salary-cap space to work with, the draft will be the source of most of those players.
So what positions will be drawing the Steelers' attention in Indianapolis, and who might be some of the players to catch their eye? Let's take a look.
Veteran Steelers free safety Ryan Clark is a free agent—one the team isn't likely to re-sign. 2013 draft pick Shamarko Thomas can certainly take up his role if needed, and veteran Will Allen is also on the roster in case he cannot. Troy Polamalu remains the Steelers' starting strong safety, but his career is closer to its end than the beginning. Behind the trio, Pittsburgh has very little safety depth.
Therefore, it's likely the Steelers use a draft pick on the position this year and, if given the right opportunity, could even select one in the first round. The safeties participating at the combine will therefore be getting a lot of looks from the Steelers.
The biggest name is of course Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. There are few to rival his combination of size and speed, but he does have some character concerns, including the suspension he served for taking financial assistance from a member of the Alabama's coaching staff. This is a minor issue, to be sure, but one the Steelers and other teams who speak with him will inevitably discuss.
The other question surrounding Clinton-Dix is his tackling production. As Bleacher Reports's William Caulton pointed out, though Clinton-Dix displays above-average football intelligence on the field, his 51 tackles in 2013 were far lower than the final-season totals netted by safeties taken in the first round in recent years.
Could this be an issue in the NFL? Is Clinton-Dix the type of safety who may always be where the football is, but when it comes time to make a tackle, he begs off? These questions won't be answered in the positional drills, but they're ones worth exploring in interviews.
After all, the Steelers have taken only one safety in the first round in the past 44 years—Polamalu—so they won't be making the decision of whether or not to do it again with Clinton-Dix lightly.
Ultimately, safety could easily be pushed back to Round 2 or later, especially with a few intriguing prospects who are expected to not go as early as Clinton-Dix. Louisville's Calvin Pryor could be a second-round target for the Steelers. Pryor carries with him no question of his willingness to hit and tackle, with 75 total tackles in 2013.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report said that Pryor is both very strong against the run and the pass and added that he "has the ability to start from his first day as a pro safety." In fact, the combination of his drills performance, his interviews and his tape could push Pryor into the first round.
The Steelers would probably prefer a second-round grade stick on Pryor; however, the impression he makes at the combine could influence the Steelers to make him their first-round pick.
Even though a fast, big-bodied wide receiver might be of higher priority to the Steelers in the 2014 draft, there's a good reason why they might take a safety in the first round—the sheer depth at receiver this draft class possesses.
NFL Network's Mike Mayock said in his annual pre-combine conference call that this is the deepest draft class he's seen in 10 years and that specifically, high-quality wide receivers will be available into the middle rounds.
Therefore, many receivers will be getting closer looks from the Steelers, from first-round hopefuls on down. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers have already assured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger they will be delivering him a tall receiver—something he favors.
Combine that with Emmanuel Sanders all but guaranteed to leave in free agency and second-year player Markus Wheaton still developing and it's clear receiver is a major priority for the Steelers this season. The question is who and when they may select him. That should become clearer to the team's higher-ups during the scouting combine.
Two names that stand out immediately are Mike Evans from Texas A&M and Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State, who are both 6'5". However, WalterFootball.com sees Evans as a top-20 pick and Benjamin going no later than the second round. That does mean that the Steelers could snag either of them with their 15th overall pick.
However, if they would like to leave receiver until later—and they can—they'll need to cast a wider net at the combine. A pair of 6'3" receivers could be in play for the Steelers in Round 2—Penn State's Allen Robinson and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews. Both had extremely productive 2013 seasons, with Robinson catching 97 passes for 1,432 yards and Matthews 112 for 1,477 yards and seven scores.
|Mike Evans||Texas A&M||6'5"||69||1,394||12|
|Kelvin Benjamin||Florida State||6'5"||54||1,011||15|
|Allen Robinson||Penn State||6'3"||97||1,432||6|
via ESPN; 2013 seasons only
Either could rise or fall, however, based on how quickly each runs the 40-yard dash. That speed could be the difference between the Steelers missing out on either of them in Round 2 or getting a relative steal. Again, the Steelers' attention will need to be on practically every tall receiver participating in drills at the combine.
A sleeper for the Steelers could be Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. At 6'2", he's on the (relatively) shorter end of a tall receiver, but his strong route-running could win the Steelers over despite his minus speed.
On a run-first Wisconsin team, Abbrederis still managed 78 catches for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. He has the type of physical play that makes him a good foil for Antonio Brown on the outside.
The secondary, particularly secondary depth, is lacking in Pittsburgh. There's a decreasing chance the Steelers hold onto veteran corner Ike Taylor, and while William Gay played better than expected in 2013, the Steelers don't really have any playmakers at the position.
The NFL Scouting Combine gives the Steelers another tool to use when determining their draft priorities and what position they could conceivably address with their all-important first-round pick. With the possibility that safety and especially wide receiver could be dealt with in later rounds, corner could be the pick at 15th overall, depending on who is still on the board.
In fact, Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke has the Steelers taking Michigan State corner Darqueze Dennard in the first round. And Dennard will certainly be on the Steelers' radar in Indianapolis. Dennard is physical, not afraid of contact or playing man coverage. He had 62 tackles in 2013, along with 10 passes defensed and four interceptions.
Though he may not be extremely fast—his 40-yard dash time will do much to inform his draft stock for many teams—he does have the "it" factor that the Steelers need in their cornerback ranks. Burke likens Dennard to Troy Polamalu in cornerback form.
Another interesting cornerback prospect for the Steelers is Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller. Fuller had 24 tackles in 2013, along with two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He's a solid man corner who has shown the ability to shut down receivers, but he also missed time with injury.
The thing about the Steelers taking a cornerback or any defender in the first round is the fact that the player is not likely to start as a rookie. Dick LeBeau's defense simply doesn't lend itself to inexperienced players getting a lot of playing time outside of special teams.
Therefore, the Steelers would need to be sold on Dennard, Fuller or any other defender as a long-term contributor and not as someone who would make an immediate impact.
Like clockwork, another draft season approaches, and the Steelers need more offensive linemen. Stability was yet again not the hallmark of the Steelers' line in 2013, beginning with center Maurkice Pouncey's Week 1 season-ending knee injury and continuing to the carousel of left tackles that eventually saw 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum becoming the starter.
With the Steelers adding Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, the efforts to transition to an outside zone-blocking line will redouble from last year. But that shift in scheme means that the Steelers need the type of athletic linemen required to run it well. The Steelers are also weak in both guard and tackle depth and could use more starting-caliber players at both positions.
If Mike Mayock is to be believed, then the Steelers are in luck—starter talent, at offensive tackle in particular, could be found as late as Round 4 in the draft. But that also means they'll need to take a deep dive into the position, starting with the combine.
Because of other teams' needs and the depth of offensive tackle available, Notre Dame's Zack Martin could be a first-round talent taken much later. The problem here, however, is that he'd be a great third-round pick for the Steelers—except they don't have one, having traded it to the Cleveland Browns for the ability to move up last year for safety Shamarko Thomas.
Martin has the athleticism and speed ideal for the outside zone, and though he's a little undersized, his impressive performance at the Senior Bowl could make him the perfect replacement for Beachum should the Steelers not be sold on him remaining the starting left tackle.
A good fourth-round sleeper the Steelers will want to look at closely at the combine is North Dakota State's Billy Turner. Though a small-school prospect, Turner started all four years at left tackle and, most importantly, held his own at the Senior Bowl. He is also athletic and fast like Martin but could be had at greater value.
At guard, Nebraska's Spencer Long could find himself in a formal interview with the Steelers. Long tore his ACL in the 2013 season, so he won't be participating in drills, but his presence there will allow teams to get to know a player WalterFootball.com characterized as a top-100 pick before the injury.
Long is athletic and has been getting stronger, and he is particularly notable as a run-blocker. With the Steelers ranking 27th in rushing yards for 2013, any support in the run game will be welcomed. Long could be a steal in Round 4, granted the Steelers aren't worried about his ACL tear.