The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a position that they haven't been in for many years. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Steelers haven't had three consecutive seasons without a playoff berth since 1998-2000.
If they don't want a repeat of that in 2014, they must do a better job in the early portion of the NFL draft. This means the Steelers front office, led by general manager Kevin Colbert, has to hit with their first-round pick.
One way to track what teams have interest in particular players is through the interview process. Each team is allotted 60 player interviews during the combine. That might seem like a huge number, but compared to 335 total prospects, it really isn't. Obviously every interview isn't a target, but there is almost always information to glean from it.
Sometimes an interview is designed to gather information about a prospect's teammate or opponent. However, in many cases, it is exactly what you think it is: a chance to get inside the head of a potential Steelers player.
Let's take a closer look at five first-round prospects rumored to be squarely on the radar of the Steelers this week at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Scout.com writer Jim Wexell tweeted out on Sunday that the Steelers intend to meet with Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert:
No surprise, #Steelers to meet with CB Justin Gilbert tonight. He thinks he might run a 4.2 Tuesday.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) February 23, 2014
This should come as no surprise to anyone as Gilbert is regarded as one of the top cornerbacks in this draft class and a certain target for the Steelers with their first-round pick. How good is Gilbert? According to Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller, Gilbert is the No. 10 player in the draft on his big board.
Miller also had this to say about Gilbert:
Finalizing game notes on Justin Gilbert (CB-OKState). Would have drafted him over any CB not-named Patrick Peterson in last three classes.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
Gilbert to the Steelers makes perfect sense. His size is ideal and his speed is elite. Along those same lines, Gilbert's skill set fits very well with what the Steelers do on defense. He excels in off-man coverage and has exceptional ball skills.
Gilbert isn't great in run support, but this is something that can be coached up. In terms of fit, his strengths are a near-perfect match, especially if cornerback Ike Taylor is released.
If Gilbert is there at No. 15, the Steelers will have some decisions to make. His talent level is elite, and he would be an immediate starter on that Steelers defense.
Going into Sunday's drills, Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans was on various teams' radars. The hope was going to be that Evans would run well enough to cement a position somewhere near the top of the first round. For as productive as Evans has been, and as great as his size is, it was his speed that was in question.
And just how did he do? Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac might have said it best:
Uh-oh for #Steelers: Texas A&M WR Mike Evans runs unofficial 4.46 at combine. At 6-5, 231, that speed puts him in elite status.— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) February 23, 2014
Dulac also pointed out in an interview with Bleacher Report that Evans would be a potential target for the Steelers in the first round.
Between Evans and Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Evans is a far more complete prospect. His speed is better, and in drills at the combine Evans looked far smoother and more fluid in his movements. His performance on Sunday might have pushed him ahead of where the Steelers select, but he would certainly be a target if available.
If the Steelers are as smitten with Evans as everyone else, getting him could require a trade up. This is a very deep wide receiver class, and talent can be found later on. A move up high enough to get Evans would be expensive. Do the Steelers do something so bold?
The Steelers could see themselves in the market for a new nose tackle this offseason. While defensive tackle Steve McLendon has played well, an upgrade makes a lot of sense.
According to Jim Wexell of Steelcityinsider.net, Nix met with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and had a very good interview:
NT Louis Nix met w Mike Tomlin ("He was a cool guy") last night. More from a funny and informative interview later at http://t.co/MBaRyoyIoy— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) February 23, 2014
Nix comes across as a very approachable, gregarious young man. Judging by this interview, he is also extremely smart and articulate as well.
From a football standpoint, Nix is the top nose tackle prospect in the draft. He's not an overpowering player like defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Instead, he uses his hands well and has some nice quicks for a big man. From a Steelers standpoint, Nix would be an instant upgrade to the nose tackle spot. The question is whether or not Nix is worth the selection if one of these other five players is on the board.
One of the hot names at the combine this weekend was North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron had a terrific combine and really opened eyes as to his playmaking ability. This is a great tight end class, but it certainly looks like Ebron has distanced himself from the rest of the class.
Bleacher Report NFL writer Matt Bowen tweeted out some impressive numbers for Ebron:
#UNC TE Eric Ebron (6-4, 250) posted a 4.50 40 time... No. 1 TE in '14 class can be a matchup issue for safeties at the NFL level.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) February 22, 2014
Ebron appears to be distancing himself from the other tight ends in this class. Nevertheless, is he a good fit for the Steelers? Not sure, but according to Thomas Roper of steelernationuk.com they are performing their due diligence.
The #Steelers have met with North Carolina TE Eric Ebron at the Combine.— Thomas Roper (@tomroper87) February 22, 2014
The debate for the Steelers at the 15th pick could be whether to go with Evans or Ebron. Both would give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a big, playmaking weapon who wins with their physical tools and speed. But which to take if both are on the board?
If the Steelers want to incorporate more two-tight end sets, Ebron alongside Heath Miller would be a matchup nightmare for any defense.
We go back to Wexell to confirm that the Steelers are planning a meeting Sunday night with Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
HaHa Clinton-Dix to meet w #Steelers tonight. Last meeting report; time to work. Like Sat, other Steelers meetings reported later at SCI.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) February 23, 2014
It makes all kinds of sense for the Steelers to inquire on Clinton-Dix. The Alabama safety is clearly the top safety prospect in this draft. There was a time when drafting Clinton-Dix would have required a trade to go up and get him. However, players begin to rise and fall as the combine progresses.
There is a real chance that the big-hitting safety is still on the board when the Steelers go on the clock. If you want a better look at Clinton-Dix, check out this breakdown by Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen.
The Steelers will likely be without safety Ryan Clark in 2014 as he is a free agent. Troy Polamalu is still on the roster but his skills are diminishing. Safety Shamarko Thomas is ready to step into the starting lineup, but he alongside Clinton-Dix would be a very intimidating tandem.