Breaking Down the Most Important Pro Days for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Curt PopejoyContributor IMarch 20, 2014

Breaking Down the Most Important Pro Days for the Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The marathon that is the NFL draft season is in its final leg. The college football regular season is through as are the bowl games. The myriad of all-star games are done as well as the scouting combine. The final phase as we approach May are school pro days. These are school-organized, choreographed workouts for prospects who have voluntary attendance by any number of teams.

    What is the value of a pro day? That is up to some debate. It isn't like a team is going to have a third-round grade on a prospect, watch them go through some drills on their own campus and vault them into the first round. There is no more sanitary a way to view a prospect than on their pro day. And we all understand football is dirty.

    So, if you are hoping to be able to read about the five pro days where potential Pittsburgh Steelers prospects are moving up and down draft boards, you might be disappointed. No, these are the five most relevant pro days for the Steelers for various reasons, including the bulk of prospects to choose from with the chance to compare players very closely to one another.

    That's not to say the pro days are meaningless. They are quite simply part of the process—not a large part of it but still important. Any team that wants to do its due diligence should attend and gather as much information as they can. With that, here are five pro days vital to the draft plans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Florida State

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    Sometimes, attendance at a pro day is a matter of bang for the buck. There are few schools that provide more in terms of potential Steelers prospects than do the Florida State Seminoles. Head coach Mike Tomlin made a point to be there and with good reason.

    The Steelers could fill a great deal of their draft needs by selecting only players from Tallahassee. Here's a rundown of the prime prospects from FSU for Pittsburgh:

    • Devonta Freeman, Running Back: Excellent change-of-pace back who would complement Le'Veon Bell.
    • Lamarcus Joyner, Cornerback: Hybrid cornerback/safety prospect with tremendous athleticism.
    • Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Tackle: Projects to a 5-technique defensive end in the NFL and has exceptional quickness.
    • Kelvin Benjamin, Wide Receiver: Huge receiving target with tremendous upside.
    • Christian Jones, Linebacker: Fast, thumper of an inside linebacker who would provide excellent depth.

    And this doesn't even include safety Terrence Brooks and linebacker Telvin Smith. All in all, the Steelers have a broad group of players to choose from in terms of potential draft picks. The top target on this list could be Benjamin, but don't rule out the Steelers snatching up Freeman early on Day 3.

     

Oklahoma State

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    The Steelers have made no secret that cornerback is a top draft priority. Even with Ike Taylor returning for one more season, the front office has to look to the future. If Cortez Allen continues to develop, he will want a new contract.

    That could cost big bucks, meaning whoever is opposite him needs to be affordable. That means a rookie. That also means the Steelers send their best to the Oklahoma State pro day.

    Oklahoma State has the top cornerback prospect in the entire draft in Justin Gilbert. His combination of size and speed is elite. However, Gilbert is much more than that. He is an exceptional coverage player, in particular, in off-man.

    The Steelers run a great deal of off-man, especially against the opposing team's best wideout. Gilbert is a near perfect fit for what the Steelers do on defense. The pro day is an opportunity for the coaches to gage Gilbert's personality and football acumen in a more casual setting.

Michigan State

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    If this sounds like a broken record, it is because it is. The Steelers attending the Michigan State pro day is important because it is also linked directly to their first-round pick.

    Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is another one of the top cornerbacks in the draft and a virtual lock for a first-round selection. If the Steelers are serious about drafting a cornerback early, it is worth their time to check out both of the principal options.

    Dennard differs from Gilbert in that he's more stout in run support and a much more physical coverage player. This could be interpreted as a negative in the NFL. Dennard is also a bit smaller and slower than Gilbert. If Gilbert is off the board, Dennard would be a great consolation prize.

    Beyond Dennard, the Steelers could also be giving a closer look to inside linebacker Max Bullough. Bullough has been very productive in college, but lacks ideal athleticism. Nevertheless, he is going to be a very late pick, but could be a prolific two-down thumper in a 3-4 set.

Florida

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    We travel back to the Sunshine State for the next "must-see" pro day event. The University of Florida is once again oozing with possible Steelers prospects at a variety of positions. A nice thing about this pro day is, with three of the prospects playing cornerback, the Steelers will have an excellent opportunity to see them side-by-side in drills.

    • Loucheiz Purifoy, Cornerback: More athlete than football player, but some fascinating tools to work with.
    • Marcus Roberson, Cornerback: Solid all-around cornerback prospect with nothing that really stands out.
    • Jaylen Watkins, Cornerback: Best coverage player of the group, but doesn't have elite measureables.
    • Dominique Easley, Defensive Tackle: One of the best interior linemen in the country, but recovering from injury. Could project to a 5-technique end in a 3-4.
    • Ronald Powell, Linebacker: A bit undersized, but shows nice get-off as a pass-rushing defensive end. Could be a situational outside linebacker.
    • Jon Halapio, Guard: Raw, punishing blocker who lacks polish. Certainly an interesting developmental player late Day 3.

    Should the Steelers opt to pass on a cornerback in the first, the Florida pro day provides their coaches and staff an opportunity to scout three cornerbacks who could be available in the second and third rounds. However, keep a close eye on where Easley ends up. He is just the type of player who could excel in that 3-4 front.

Auburn

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    This pro day is noteworthy from a Steelers' perspective, because it might not have meant what we think it did. On the surface, having general manager Kevin Colbert in attendance means this is no smokescreen. And logic would dictate the primary target of the Steelers would be defensive end Dee Ford. Ford has the look of a very effective 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker.

    So imagine the surprise when it was also reported the Steelers brought offensive assistant coach Shaun Sarrett. Presumably, that would mean the Steelers were there on some level to scout offensive tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason. This is puzzling because most projections have Robinson off the board long before the Steelers pick in the first round. Could they see enough to warrant a trade up?

    Mason, on the other hand, makes some sense. 2013 saw Mason become the workhorse of the Auburn rushing offense. He racked up 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns on 317 carries. His speed and acceleration pop on film. In a zone-blocking scheme, where the running back makes one cut and goes, Mason would be a very good option. Could Mason have been the target?

    Perhaps, but it is hard to think Colbert came all the way to Auburn to watch a third-round running back. No, this was almost certainly about Ford and how he might fit as a rotational player at outside linebacker. Having the Steelers general manager in attendance solidifies the idea this team is committed to boosting its pass rush in 2014.