10 NFL Combine Participants Pittsburgh Steelers Fans Should Know

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 20, 2017

10 NFL Combine Participants Pittsburgh Steelers Fans Should Know

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    Alabama linebacker Tim Williams will have to do more than just ace his drills for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be interested in drafting him.
    Alabama linebacker Tim Williams will have to do more than just ace his drills for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be interested in drafting him.LM Otero/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine begins in a matter of days, presenting one of the final chances for NFL teams to take a look at a number of the prospects they can choose from in the upcoming draft.

    Though teams have spent a year or more evaluating these players on the field, the unique individual drills supply the last little bits of information that can cement prospects' places on the teams' big boards or knock them off entirely.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have eight picks in this year's draft, and all facets of the combine—from interviews to medical checks to strength and agility drills—will come in handy when determining who they want to choose. Here are 10 players the Steelers should keep an eye on at next week's big event.

Jake Butt, TE, Michigan

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Michigan tight end Jake Butt won't be participating in any of the combine's agility drills this year, as he is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered nearly two months ago—the second of his young career. But he will be in attendance in Indianapolis in order to undergo the thorough physical examinations and the interview process that are both so crucial to players' draft prospects.

    It wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers were one of the teams to pay close attention to Butt and spend one-on-one time with him in the interview rooms.

    Butt, who caught 46 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns in his senior season, could have been a first-rounder in the 2017 draft. But his injury could provide an opportunity for teams like the Steelers, who need to round out their tight end class but who don't necessarily need to do so in Round 1.

    Based on Butt's medical check and how he checks out in the interviews, Pittsburgh could be compelled to use a mid-round pick on him and eventually have a starting stud once the tight end is healthy.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Steelers may not limit themselves to searching for an addition at tight end this year to a middle- or late-round pick. If the draft falls a specific way, Pittsburgh may have the opportunity to pick up the class's top prospect at the position, Alabama's O.J. Howard. So it should not be ignoring him over the course of the combine.

    Howard had similar numbers in his senior season to Butt, with 45 catches for 595 yards and three scores. But the Alabama offense wasn't about the passing game, which held Howard's stat line down. It did, though, give him opportunities to improve as a pass- and run-blocker, two areas of his game that Pittsburgh's scouts will be looking at closely in individual drills.

    Interviews will also be crucial for Howard. As NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pointed out in his scouting profile of Howard, the tight end "doesn't have the field demeanor of most Alabama players," with an NFC general manager adding, "I don't worry about the talent at all. He could be an All-Pro. I just need to know if he loves football."

    Howard will need to state his case as much off the field as on it in Indianapolis, and the Steelers will be curious to see how well he interviews.

Desmond King, CB, Iowa

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Iowa cornerback Desmond King has many of the hallmarks of a Steelers-style defensive back. He's relatively small, listed at 5'11" in college but measuring 5'10" at the Senior Bowl. He's also a ball hawk with 14 career collegiate interceptions.

    But there are questions about King's role in the NFL, namely based around his size (though he does weigh north of 200 pounds) and whether that makes him suited for a slot corner role in the professional ranks or if his physicality makes him more of a safety prospect. With the Steelers having roster needs in both areas, King should be on their radar at the combine.

    Per Draft Wire's Luke Easterling, King said that he's open to a shift to safety and that he'd be interested in signing with the Steelers' rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. Seeing where he matches up in individual drills against other safeties and corners will help solidify where he'd be best suited to play on an NFL defense. 

    Pittsburgh has no problem converting cornerbacks to safeties; it did so in 2016 with rookie Sean Davis. Will it be willing to do that again with King, who is projected to be a second-day prospect? His combine performance will inform the Steelers' ultimate assessment.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC

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    Leon Bennett/Getty Images

    With the Steelers set to lose Markus Wheaton in free agency, the status of suspended receiver Martavis Bryant anywhere near settled and Sammie Coates still a work-in-progress, Pittsburgh is likely to make additions at the receiver position this year. One player who could be on its radar is USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster. How he performs at the combine will help determine if he stays there.

    Smith-Schuster had 70 receptions for 914 yards and 10 scores in 2016, proving that he can be an on-field impact player. But the receiving drills at the combine will be important. Smith-Schuster is more of a midfield, possession-type receiver who relies on his routes and hands more than his speed to make plays. 

    If Smith-Schuster comes off slower than expected, that may not hurt him as long as his route running is on display at a high level in his drills. If that is the case, the Steelers could have a third-round interest in him. If not, he could be a late-round flyer for the team, or the Steelers may completely disregard him come the draft.

    Pittsburgh could use a receiver like Smith-Schuster based on his on-field stats and on-paper strengths, but all of that must translate in Indianapolis to maintain the Steelers' interest.

Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Michigan's Amara Darboh is another possession-style receiver who the Steelers could have their eyes on at this year's combine. Darboh, who caught 57 passes for 862 yards and seven scores in 2016, could be a target in Round 3, or he could go later—his combine performance will be crucial to his draft standing.

    At 6'2", Darboh can play physically against cornerbacks and be a strong end-zone threat. The question is whether his speed has been underrated or overrated. Zierlein considered him "not very dynamic after the catch," but an executive for an NFC team called him "bigger and faster than you think."

    With that much variance in his initial assessments from various draft and team experts, Darboh's combine will be crucial. If the Steelers see a large receiver with plus blocking skills, that could have him wearing Black and Gold in April. If they see only depth, though, they may pass on him. Pittsburgh needs to add a receiver this year who can do more contributing than warming the bench in his rookie year.

Tim Williams, LB, Alabama

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Alabama linebacker Tim Williams is in an interesting and complicated situation headed into the combine. On one hand, he is among the best pass-rushers among the combine's invitees, with nine sacks in 2016 and 9.5 in 2015. On the other, he will have some questions to answer, both about his on-field abilities and off-field rumors, and adequate answers will be necessary on both accounts for the Steelers to seriously consider him as perhaps their Round 1 pick in the 2017 draft.

    Charlie Campbell of WalterFootball.com reported that Williams failed "many drug tests at Alabama," something that could cause him to drop out of the first round altogether, and that there are teams that may not be willing to consider him at all, given the chance that he could face multiple suspensions once reaching the NFL.

    There's no doubt that the Steelers and any other teams with interest in Williams this year will be spending a lot of time in the interview room with him, asking about these rumors and his personal habits.

    But Williams also has to prove he's a top-level linebacker during his drills. Zierlein pointed out that Williams is a one-trick pony—as a pass-rusher and nothing more—and will need to show off better technique when being coached up in Indianapolis.

    As a pure pass-rusher, the Steelers could still have interest in Williams, even if his fundamentals in other areas prove rough. But Williams will also need to assure them that he won't be a waste of a draft pick from a character perspective.

Haason Reddick, OLB/DE, Temple

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    The combine was meant for players like Temple's Haason Reddick, who played defensive end in college but who is most likely switching to outside (or even inside) linebacker at the professional level, thanks to issues with his size.

    At 6'2" and 237 pounds, he's too small for a modern-day defensive end, but a position switch at this point in his career means added scrutiny in his on-field drills. But the Steelers may not be scared off by his size or his sudden turn to linebacker; he just has to prove he can do the job, regardless of those weaknesses.

    Reddick is a talented player, with 65 tackles (22 for loss) and 10.5 sacks in 2016 alone. He's fast and athletic, to the point where he can rush the passer and work in coverage, a combination that the Steelers covet from linebackers in their defensive scheme.

    What the Steelers will have to take note of is how Reddick has prepared over the last month for the drills he will face and whether he has found better ways to add power to his game. They will also need to determine how quickly Reddick may be able to add bulk without taking away from his speed.

    But even if Reddick projects to be an inside linebacker, that wouldn't turn the Steelers off; the team not only needs to add pass-rushing talent on the outside but also interior talent, especially if Lawrence Timmons leaves in free agency or is re-signed to work a more limited role. 

Garrett Sickels, LB, Penn State

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    Chris Knight/Associated Press

    The Steelers won't just be looking at the linebackers who are most commonly thought of as Day 1 or Day 2 draft prospects; they'll be paying close attention to the position group as a whole. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said as much, calling the linebackers "a good group" this year, per Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot. But he noted that he wants to see who can play a pure outside role. 

    Penn State's Garrett Sickels could easily find his name on that list if his drills at the combine project him as a pure outside backer in a Steelers-type scheme. He performed well as a junior in 2016, posting 47 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.

    Sickels was only a two-year starter for Penn State, choosing to skip his senior year to head to the NFL. He could prove to be a diamond in the rough and a potential late-round pick for the Steelers. 

Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The Steelers should be paying some attention to the quarterbacks throwing during this year's combine, given that their two backups for Ben Roethlisberger in years past—Landry Jones and Bruce Gradkowski—are both set to be free agents next month. Pittsburgh will want to take a closer look to see if Jones can be successfully replaced by one of these rookies or if re-signing him might be its best option.

    With this not being an early-round draft need, it will be the more marginal quarterback prospects who most concern them. One may be Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans, who, despite a lack of experience, could bring a new dynamic to Pittsburgh's quarterback bench.

    Evans started just one year for Virginia Tech, but it was a good one: He completed 63.5 percent of his 422 pass attempts for 3,552 yards and threw 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He also made a great number of plays with his legs, notching 204 rushes for 846 yards and 12 scores. That kind of rushing-and-passing dynamic is one the Steelers have rarely had on their quarterback depth chart, and it could intrigue them in this year's draft.

    Evans would not be a developmental backup to Roethlisberger—one to replace the starter. And with that lack of experience, the Steelers may need to add a third, veteran quarterback to the room just in case. But Evans could catch Pittsburgh's eye via late-round draft pick if his arms and legs both look good at the combine.

Stanley "Boom" Williams, RB, Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Even if the Steelers choose to re-sign running back DeAngelo Williams for one more season, the team's depth chart behind starter Le'Veon Bell needs padded. And with a deep class in the 2017 NFL draft, a new rookie back in Pittsburgh is not out of the question. Among the numerous they will take closer looks at next week in Indianapolis is Kentucky's Stanley Williams, who goes by the nickname of "Boom."

    Williams had 171 carries for 1,170 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, along with eight catches for 56 yards and a score. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry last season—also his collegiate career average. He's a big-play runner with great patience and speed, as pointed out by Steelers Depot's Daniel Valente, though his pass-blocking skills leave something to be desired.

    The latter can be coached up, though—the Steelers did it with Bell, for example, to great success—while things like patience and vision are mostly inherent skills that a back either does or does not have. Williams' blocking practices will be put to the test at the combine. If his clay can be molded, the Steelers may look to him in a middle or later round as a value pick at a position of need.

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