Position-by-Position Breakdown of Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Combine Targets

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 28, 2017

Position-by-Position Breakdown of Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Combine Targets

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    The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine will be in full swing this week, with all 32 teams trying to get closer, in-person looks at some of the NFL draft's top prospects.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers will of course be one of those teams and likely will arrive in Indianapolis with a list of positions that matter the most and players whom they would like to better personally evaluate.

    Here are the six positions the Steelers will be examining most closely at the combine and a few players who could particularly draw their interest.

Tight End

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    With Jesse James and Ladarius Green the only two real tight ends currently on the Steelers roster and the latter spending most of the 2016 season injured, Pittsburgh needs more depth. This is a position the Steelers could choose to address early or late. Here are a few options.

    O.J. Howard, Alabama

    If early is where the Steelers want to make their tight end acquisition, based on their best-player-available Round 1 draft strategy, then it is possible they could use Pick No. 30 on Alabama tight end O.J. Howard.

    Howard is considered the consensus No. 1 tight end in this draft class, something that will either be cemented or called into question via his combine performance.

    Adam Shaheen, Ashland

    Ashland's Adam Shaheen has seemingly come out of nowhere but could turn himself into a Round 1 draft prospect with a strong showing at the combine.

    An NFL executive who spoke with the NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah said that Shaheen is "clearly the third-best tight end in this year's class." The Division II player had over 800 receiving yards in each of his last two seasons and has combined for 26 touchdowns.

    Jake Butt, Michigan

    Though Michigan's Jake Butt won't be participating in any drills at the combine, having injured his knee just over two months ago, he will be taking part in the interview portion of the event as well as getting physical examinations by NFL team doctors.

    The results of both of those will doubtlessly dictate where Butt is drafted in April and which teams will remain interested versus those who think he is too much of a physical risk. The Steelers will have to determine if his upside is worth it.

    Cole Hikutini, Louisville

    Louisville's Cole Hikutini was mostly a receiving threat in college and not much of a three-down, big blocking tight end. But that may just be what the Steelers are looking for, given that James does most of the blocking work at the position.

    Hikutini may be able to stand out at the combine by showing off his hands and athleticism. What he'll need to do, though, is prove at least to be teachable where blocking is concerned.

    Gerald Everett, South Alabama

    Gerald Everett transferred to South Alabama after the Alabama-Birmingham football program folded, and he had a strong 2016 season with 43 catches for 648 yards and four touchdowns. A receiving-first tight end, he could potentially be a Round 1 target for the Steelers this year.

    But he could also serve as a Round 2 draft pick, though so many tight end prospects are grading highly here on the combine's eve, it's hard to imagine so many being drafted early. Thus, Everett could dominate the combine but still be somewhat of a value pick for the Steelers.

Running Back

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    Though the Steelers just locked down running back Le'Veon Bell for 2017 via the use of the franchise tag (and ideally in lieu of coming to a contract agreement for the long term), that does not mean their running back position is settled.

    DeAngelo Williams is also set to be a free agent this year, and Bell has had both a history of injuries and suspensions. The Steelers need to add depth in their running backs corps.

    Curtis Samuel, Ohio State

    The Steelers don't need to focus on the draft's biggest names at the running back position; chances are, this is not an area in which the Steelers have a Round 1 ranking on. But that doesn't mean they have to shy away from it on Day 2.

    Ohio State's Curtis Samuel is intriguing for Pittsburgh in that he has Bell-like versatility on offense. He rushed for 771 yards and eight scores last year but also had 74 receptions for 865 yards and seven more touchdowns. This could make him the ideal understudy for Bell.

    Kareem Hunt, Toledo

    Toledo's Kareem Hunt is also a versatile running back, with 1,475 rushing yards and 10 scores in 2016 along with another 403 receiving yards and one touchdown. But unlike Samuel, the Steelers may not have to pounce early to get him; he may be a late Day 2 or even Day 3 draft pick this year.

    The combine could change that, though. Hunt's Senior Bowl performance had his stock on the rise to start 2017, and if that momentum continues to build in Indianapolis, he may be too pricey for the Steelers in the spring.

    James Conner, Pitt

    Pitt running back James Conner had one of the better feel-good stories of 2016, returning to the field after not only tearing his ACL in 2015 but also being diagnosed with and beating cancer. And his production in 2016 was impressive, with 16 touchdowns and 1,092 rushing yards and another four scores and 302 yards receiving.

    Though the Steelers likely know much about Conner simply out of proximity, the combine will give them an opportunity to scrutinize him up close and see if he is still dealing with any lingering effects of the knee injury.

    Boom Williams, Kentucky

    The key for Kentucky's Boom Williams to seeing his draft stock rise via the combine is to prove he is more than just a speedy back who is a big-carry threat but little else. Williams had 1,170 rushing yards in 2016 and seven scores, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

    The Steelers will also be curious to see how he handles receiving drills. Williams didn't have many catches in college, though that doesn't necessarily mean he is weak in that area. Showing up well in this area at the combine could be the difference between him being a mid-round draft pick or a late-round one.

    Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette

    Another versatile back that could draw the Steelers' eye at the combine is Louisiana-Lafayette's Elijah McGuire. McGuire has had solid numbers, both rushing and receiving, during his collegiate career, something that carried over to this year's East-West Shrine Game.

    McGuire isn't a household name among the group of backs invited to the combine this year. But his all-around ability could turn heads and make him a Steelers' draft target. He has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in his past three seasons and had 238 receiving yards in 2016.

Outside Linebacker

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    The Steelers must continue to beef up their linebacking corps, particularly on the outside. Even if James Harrison returns for the 2017 season, losing Jarvis Jones in free agency and being about a year away from Arthur Moats' time being up in Pittsburgh means it's time to add both depth and potential quick starters. 

    Haason Reddick, Temple

    Temple's Haason Reddick was a defensive end in college but, because of his size (6'2", 237 lbs), will have to switch to outside linebacker in the NFL. That suits the Steelers just fine, who don't mind a slightly smaller pass-rusher on the field if that means he can affect opposing quarterbacks.

    Reddick had 65 tackles in 2016 (and 22.5 for a loss) as well as 10.5 sacks. The Steelers will intently be watching Reddick's ability to overcome his size disadvantage as well as how quickly and smoothly his transition to his new position could go.

    Charles Harris, Missouri

    Missouri's Charles Harris is another slightly undersized pass-rusher who could catch the Steelers' eye and potentially be in Round 1 consideration for the team. Like Reddick, he will be transitioning from defensive end to linebacker at the NFL level.

    The questions, though, are whether Harris is good enough against the run to be a three-down linebacker and if his technique is refined enough for him to be an early-round draft pick. Though his 2016 numbers—61 tackles, 12 for a loss and nine sacks—are strong, they don't tell the whole story. The subtle things that are revealed during combine drills will have a heavy influence on Harris' draft position.

    Solomon Thomas, Stanford

    So much about Solomon Thomas' future hinges on how he looks at the combine. As NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pointed out, the opinion among scouts is that Thomas is a tweener, somewhere between an inside and outside linebacker. This can be a drawback when it comes to his draft desirability; unlike the increasing appeal of linebacker-safety tweeners, NFL teams are still working around how to handle someone like Thomas who can play both inside and outside linebacker but may not be best suited for either as their sole responsibility.

    The question, therefore, is if Thomas doesn't quite have a role, can he make his own or can he spin that into being a versatile defender. His speed and athleticism certainly point toward the latter, and given the Steelers' predilection for drafting defenders with that pair of skills, Thomas will be on their radar this week.

    Takkarist McKinley, UCLA 

    Takkarist McKinley's 2016 season—and second as a starter—was a good one. The linebacker totaled 61 tackles, including 18 for a loss and 10 sacks. There is a rawness to his game, though, with Zierlein noting that "improved hand usage and pass-rush mechanics are what could elevate his game to another level."

    Hands and mechanics will certainly be a focus for all teams watching McKinley in Indianapolis, but the Steelers are one of the few that can accept that he's a fairly raw player with high upside. McKinley can certainly take the field for the Steelers in 2017 and work toward a larger role the following year. It just depends on if the Steelers see him more as a Day 2 prospect—and therefore may have to reach a bit to get him—or if he's still around on Day 3. 

    Garrett Sickels, Penn State

    Penn State's Garrett Sickels isn't likely to be a starter as a rookie, whether for the Steelers or any other team. But the combine will help determine whether he can be developed into a first-stringer in the future or if being a depth pass-rusher may be his ceiling. But the latter isn't a bad thing; having a full stable of outside linebackers will be key for the Steelers in order to remain competitive against the heavy-passing offenses.

    Sickels had 47 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 6.0 sacks in 2016, and his 43 quarterback pressures were tops in the Big Ten. How well Sickels can demonstrate mastery of fundamentals and can be coached up in his technique will determine if the Steelers will have any Day 3 draft interest in him. These are both areas that will be on display at the combine.

Wide Receiver

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    Though the Steelers took care of one pressing piece of offseason business this week by signing wideout Antonio Brown to a four-year deal worth a maximum of $68 million, that doesn't solve all their issues at the receiver position.

    Markus Wheaton is set to leave in free agency, and Martavis Bryant's suspension is still ongoing and may not be lifted in 2017. Pittsburgh needs to boost its cadre of wideouts and could use more than one draft pick at the position. It will be watching the receivers intently in Indianapolis this weekend.

    Corey Davis, Western Michigan

    The Steelers could be compelled to add a receiver in the first round of this year's draft should Western Michigan's Corey Davis still be available for the 30th overall pick. He has the ideal combination of size and speed and has proven collegiate production.

    Davis caught 97 passes for 1,500 yards and 19 scores in 2016, and the 6'3" wideout could certainly be an end-zone threat for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even better is that Davis is a strong after-the-catch receiver, something that is a hallmark of Pittsburgh's offense. The combine should only cement Davis as a Round 1 prospect, though at 205 pounds, some teams may want him to gain a bit of weight.

    JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

    USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster isn't the fastest prospect at the combine this year, but for the Steelers, that doesn't necessarily matter. What Smith-Schuster brings as a physical receiver with good size may perfectly fit the Steelers' needs.

    Pittsburgh may have the speed in Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers (as well as in Le'Veon Bell when he's catching passes), but a possession receiver is one thing its offense is lacking. Smith-Schuster is a productive example of a possession receiver, with 90 receptions for 914 yards and 10 scores in 2016. He'll be able to show off some of his ability to win contested catches during his drills at the combine.

    Malachi Dupre, LSU

    Players like LSU's Malachi Dupre can be aided immensely by strong showings at the combine, simply because their tape does not belie their entire collection of talents. This is the case for Dupre because he was part of an offense that was not pass-heavy.

    Dupre had only 41 receptions for 593 yards and three scores in 2016, but NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted that he "has desired size and athletic ability" and is "experienced at multiple receiver spots." Still, Zierlein pegs him as the developmental sort, thanks to his low collegiate usage. This would make him a depth addition for the Steelers in a later round in this year's draft; but with so many questions surrounding their receiver depth, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    Amara Darboh, Michigan

    Like Smith-Schuster above, Michigan's Amara Darboh could be a solid possession receiver for the Steelers alongside speed merchant Brown. Darboh was the Wolverines' leading receiver in 2016, with 57 catches for 862 yards and seven scores, all while showing off pro-ready hands and route running.

    The real question, and one that the combine will help answer is just how much a liability Darboh's lack of speed really is. Further, where Darboh lands will have a major influence on his NFL success; Zierlein pointed out that "scheme fit could determine whether he becomes a WR2 or just a guy fighting for snaps off the bench." It does help, though, that Darboh is a committed blocker, something that many collegiate receivers don't always boast. That could draw the Steelers' interest.

    Jalen Robinette, Air Force

    Air Force's Jalen Robinette "has the raw size and tools that teams will covet," Zierlein wrote. But "raw" is a good word to describe other areas of Robinette's game, such as his route running and run blocking, two knocks against him that will likely see the receiver be a third-day draft pick.

    But it's hard to ignore Robinette's 35 receptions in 2016 going for 959 yards—an average of 27.4 yards per reception, as well as ideal height, weight and hand size. And there's no doubt he has spent the months since his last collegiate game and this week's combine working on his routes and trying to become a more well-rounded player. 

    If Robinette shows improvements in the areas he needs it most, the Steelers could easily feel comfortable placing him on their draft board.

Quarterback

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    The Steelers do not have a quarterback problem at the very top of the depth chart. Ben Roethlisberger remains the starter and should stay that way for at least a few more years. However, behind him they currently have nothing—both Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones are set to hit free agency on March 9, and there has yet to be any indication that either will be back.

    Whether Jones, in particular, re-signs with the Steelers depends on how they view both the other free agents at their disposal as well as later rounds of the 2017 draft. Though they aren't looking for someone to coach up to eventually replace Roethlisberger, they'd likely welcome any upgrade over Jones, who has served as both No. 3 and No. 2 on the depth chart over the last four years.

    Davis Webb, California

    Given teams' obsession with identifying potential quarterbacks of the future, Cal's Davis Webb could be a Round 2 draft pick this year and thus out of the Steelers' reach. But there are reasons to believe he could drop to the third or fourth round—ones in which the Steelers may not be adverse to drafting him.

    Though Webb had 4,295 passing yards in 2016 and threw 37 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, he still needs to learn how to play under center and to tighten up his footwork. Both will be tested during drills at the combine, and if they both remain raw and need work, that could cause Webb to slide in the draft. That's not bad news for the Steelers, who simply need a backup that can play better than Jones—Webb could be him.

    Brad Kaaya, Miami

    Miami's Brad Kaaya appears to have all the makings of an effective quarterback, at least according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, who said that Kaaya "has the tools and intangibles to become an NFL starter," but also has "average arm strength" and needs to "improve his accuracy and anticipation." Kaaya can play quite well behind a good offensive line—which the Steelers have—but he also has drawbacks, including taking too many sacks and completing only 38 percent of his passes from 11 to 20 yards.

    It will be interesting to see how Kaaya handles the manufactured pressure drills at the combine. That performance could make or break his chances to make a mark in the league or to be considered as the Steelers' No. 2 on the depth chart. Pittsburgh will need to see that his clay is moldable into being a possible draft pick.

    Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech

    Perhaps the Steelers are looking to change tack at the backup quarterback spot and go with a dual threat to add some spice to the preseason or the next time Roethlisberger misses a week or a snap with an injury. Then Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans could be of interest.

    Evans completed 64 percent of his passes in 2016 for 3,552 yards and 29 touchdowns (with eight interceptions) while also rushing for 846 yards and 12 scores. But this was Evans' only season starting in college, making him very inexperienced. Still, there is enough intrigue that the Steelers could use a sixth- or seventh-round pick on him, especially if Davis holds his own in drills alongside more seasoned passers.

    Sefo Liufau, Colorado

    Colorado's Sefo Liufau doesn't have the experience problem of Evans—he was a four-year starter. But that didn't translate into heavy production. Liufau had only 2,366 passing yards in 2016 and threw 11 touchdowns to six interceptions while missing two games with an ankle injury. His eight rushing touchdowns helped somewhat make up for things, but on the whole, he had just 20 touchdown passes thrown in his last 663 attempts.

    Still, Liufau has some upside. He's a dual-threat quarterback and has the size to handle such a job at 6'3" and 240 pounds. Further, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted that Liufau is "just ahead of league average for accuracy on all three levels of the field." But Liufau struggles with anticipation and timing, leading to his low touchdown count. As a backup, though, the Steelers might not see this as being as great a liability than if they were looking for a starter.

    Seth Russell, Baylor

    Seth Russell didn't have the greatest numbers in 2016 with a completion percentage of 55 percent, 2,126 yards passing and 20 touchdowns thrown to eight interceptions. But he does have the athletic upside and good size that could attract the Steelers' attention.

    Russell's health, though, will be the biggest factor when it comes to his presence or lack thereof on teams' big boards. Russell's 2016 season ended with ankle surgery, and a fractured vertebra put him on the shelf in 2015 after seven weeks. The Steelers will only show interest if Russell seems capable of staying healthy. 

Cornerback

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    The Steelers can never have too many cornerbacks. William Gay will be a free agent after the 2018 season but could be released before that. Senquez Golson, the team's 2015 second-round draft pick, has yet to take the field. Ross Cockrell is a restricted free agent this year who, if given a restricted free-agent tender in the coming days, will still be an unrestricted free agent a year from now. Pittsburgh would be wise to continue to add to its secondary this year. 

    Tre'Davious White, LSU

    LSU's Tre'Davious White could bring a lot to the table for the Steelers. He's a strong man-to-man cornerback who had 14 passes broken up and two interceptions in 2016. He's been a successful punt returner, including returning three for touchdowns over the last three seasons, and he also works in special teams coverage.

    But the question is whether the Steelers want him to work inside or outside, at least initially. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pegged White as a slot corner initially and questioned his ability to stop the run, which could limit his usage as a rookie. Still, the special teams upside could tip the scales for Pittsburgh, which could use its Round 1 draft pick on White.

    Teez Tabor, Florida

    Teez Tabor is one of the top cornerback prospects in the 2017 draft based on on-field performance alone. He had 33 tackles and four interceptions last year and 28 passes defensed over the past two years. He has strong route awareness to keep passes out of receivers' hands and, at 6 feet and 201 pounds, has ideal NFL cornerback size.

    Whether Tabor remains a first-round prospect, though, will depend on how his interviews go in Indianapolis. He's been suspended by Florida in the past for positive drug tests and fighting with a teammate. The Steelers are going to have to be convinced Tabor's personal issues are in the past in order to draft him, especially in the first round.

    Desmond King, Iowa

    Though Desmond King spent four years as a starting cornerback for Iowa, many around the NFL believe that he's best suited to play safety and may be treated at the combine as such as a result. But that doesn't mean all teams will see him as a safety, though there will be limits to what he will be able to do at cornerback.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pointed out that the one biggest weakness, and the major reason why King projects to be a safety is his "lack of size and speed combined with his ball skills, instincts, and competitiveness." Still, those latter three traits can still find him a home at cornerback, particularly when the Steelers are running zone coverage schemes. What teams, including Pittsburgh, see out of his size-speed combination and his potential will determine where King is drafted and for what position. 

    Kevin King, Washington

    Kevin King is not your standard Steelers' cornerback prospect. Though under 200 pounds, he's 6'3", way larger than the typical defensive back on Pittsburgh's roster. But that doesn't mean King won't be on the Steelers' radar at the combine.

    For one, King "has played all four spots in secondary and slot corner as well," as Zierlein noted. He can defend larger receivers and also is "willing to get physical with blocking receivers when it comes time to disengage and make a tackle." Plus, with his greatest upside coming in zone and off-man schemes, he'd be a good fit for the Steelers. It also doesn't hurt that he's allowed only one touchdown in the last 101 targets thrown his way.

    This versatility and strong scheme fit could thus propel the Steelers to think outside the box when adding cornerbacks to their roster this year.

    Corn Elder, Miami

    When Corn Elder began his collegiate career at Miami, he was a running back—in fact, he was Tennessee's Mr. Football Running Back of the Year for both his junior and senior seasons in high school. But as a true freshman, he was shifted to cornerback and the move stuck, culminating in Elder winning a starting job as a junior.

    In 2016, he continued playing well, with 76 tackles, one interception and 12 passes broken up. But at 5'10" and 179 pounds, his home in the NFL would be playing nickel and working against slot receivers. That's not a bad thing; the Steelers could use help this year (and in the future) defending the middle of the field against the small-and-speedy types.

    Zierlein noted that Elder "doesn't realize he's undersized" and "plays physically and with good confidence," traits that the Steelers seek out in their cornerbacks. "Small" is rarely a liability for members of the Steelers secondary as long as they have toughness, which means they could be paying close attention to Elder this week.