Why the Steelers Cannot Afford to Pass on Kelvin Benjamin in 2014 NFL Draft

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Why the Steelers Cannot Afford to Pass on Kelvin Benjamin in 2014 NFL Draft
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It would come as no surprise if the Pittsburgh Steelers use one of their early draft picks on a wide receiver this year. They lost both Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders in free agency, leaving them presently with only Derek Moye, Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton as potential starters on the outside in 2014.

With a deep class of soon-to-be rookie receivers, the Steelers should be able to have quite the pick of prospects. Whether they address the position at 15th overall or wait until the second round, there is one receiver this year who stands out as perfect for the Steelers: Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State.

 

Kelvin Benjamin's College Stats
Year Rec. Yds. YPC TDs
2012 30 495 16.5 4
2013 54 1,011 18.7 15
Total 84 1,506 17.9 19

via Sports-Reference.com

Though it may seem to some that Benjamin would be a reach should the Steelers take him in the middle of the first round, "reach" is a relative word. There may certainly be some teams that see Benjamin as a first-round talent, while he may be pegged by others as more worthy of a second-round pick. For the Steelers, however, they may not be able to pass him up should he still be on the board in the first round.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King said on Monday that he believes the Steelers are interested in two other receivers in Round 1: Odell Beckham Jr., and Brandin Cooks. However, the Steelers would be better off having those two as backup plans should someone else claim Benjamin. Benjamin perfectly fits the mold of the type of receiver the Steelers need to add to their roster.

The first reason why is Benjamin's size. At 6'5" and 240 pounds, he is easily the largest and strongest of this year's receiver class—NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki is right to describe him as "tight end-sized." That height and weight, along with an 83-inch wingspan, helped him catch 54 passes for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013.

Benjamin is big and physical, a great complement to the Steelers' No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Brown, who relies more on finesse and speed. His size makes him a good red-zone replacement for the departed Cotchery. It will also allow him to work the middle of the field and take big hits by safeties—or to hit them back, as Benjamin's intimidation factor cannot be understated.

The other thing that adds to Benjamin's first-round appeal is that the rookie year for a wide receiver often features a stark learning curve. Nearly everyone, no matter how developed they seemed in college, comes into the NFL looking raw.

While that may seem like a blow to Benjamin's draft stock and an argument against the Steelers taking him in the first round, it's not. No matter which receiver they opt to take in Round 1, he'll need development.

Kelvin Benjamin's Strengths and Weaknesses
Strengths Weaknesses
Size makes him a physical mismatch Lacks elite speed
Long arms and jump ball skills Must improve route running
Power creates separation from defenders Drops passes due to lack of concentration
Strength makes him hard to tackle Sometimes runs before securing the football
Is a big-play threat and red-zone target Blocking could use improvement

via NFL.com, various sources

Benjamin needs to improve as a route-runner, and he needs more concentration when catching the football—he was seen very often with Florida State turning to run before completely securing the football. These are aspects of technique that can be honed during the offseason and improved by actually playing an NFL-speed game.

It doesn't hurt that he'll be tutored by Brown—who is becoming one of the league's best receivers—and Ben Roethlisberger, who has been to three and won two Super Bowls with a varied cast of wideouts. With proper coaching, Benjamin can play the role of large red-zone target, much like Plaxico Burress once did, and be a physical, over-the-middle presence like tight end Heath Miller. He's Cotchery-plus—just as aggressive, but much, much larger.

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A receiver taken in the first round is often required to have elite-level speed, and indeed it might be the reason other teams don't see Benjamin as a top-32 pick. However, the Steelers already have speed in Brown and the second-year Wheaton. Once speed is in place, brute strength like Benjamin's becomes a more desirable trait. 

Further, that lack of speed may not make itself as apparent on the field as it did during his scouting combine and pro day appearances. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor has been working with Benjamin this offseason and has nothing but praise for him, according to Steelers Depot:

He plays faster than his 40 time. He has something you can't coach in height and size. He is aggressive and plays receiver with a defensive mentality, he has great ability in the red zone as well as being a deep play threat, and I think he could be a game changer.

Though a ringing endorsement from Taylor won't be enough on its own to sway the Steelers into selecting Benjamin in the first round, it doesn't hurt. The Steelers met with Benjamin prior to his pro day and attended his workout, which at least means he has caught their eye. 

Benjamin's skill set is unlike that of any other receiver in this year's draft. It's impressive and unique to the point that his weaknesses won't carry as much weight for teams needing power to complement speed they already have in place.

That's why Benjamin is so well-suited for the Steelers and worthy of their first-round pick. They should not gamble on the assumption he will remain unclaimed by the time they select 46th in the second round. Other teams may not agree; for the Steelers, however, what Benjamin brings to the field is enough to warrant the team using their first-round selection on him.

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