Ten realistic targets for the Steelers in the NFL Draft

Ten realistic targets for the Steelers in the NFL Draft

Roughly 20 seconds after the whistle sounded on any realistic Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes on Thanksgiving night, the scramble began.

Grown men and women throughout Steeler Nation called on the last little bit of their energy that had not been affected by mass amounts of Tryptophan and pumpkin pie, hopped up from their favorite chair and began their online search for the next great Pittsburgh Steelers first round draft pick.  With just four more weeks left in the regular season – and barring some incredible turnarounds in December – a little simple math can help you compute a basic hypothesis on where the Steelers will be picking when their card is pulled by Commissioner Roger Goodell on May 8.

Although the Steelers are still very much mathematically alive for the final AFC Wild Card slot, it’s pretty obvious that this team as a whole is not up to par with the heavy hitters of the conference.  Pittsburgh will play four more games (at home against Miami, Cincinnati, and Cleveland and on the road vs. Green Bay) before head coach Mike Tomlin, General Manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of the franchises player development staff begin to start looking at realistic possibilities for their first pick at the podium.  If the season ended today, the Steelers would be looking at their first top ten pick since they drafted WR Plaxico Burress with the tenth selection in the 2000 Draft.  A good bit of shuffling will occur over the next month, as certain teams begin their annual nosedives and others fight tooth and nail for a winning season.  Unless the Steelers win out to finish 9-7, they should be in line to pick no later than 19th, with the smart money on them picking in the sweet spot between No. 10 and No. 15.

While Steelers fans will never be happy with any season that ends short of a Super Bowl run, if the team was going to pick a year to play into the top half of the draft board they chose the right year to do so.  The 2014 NFL Draft class is shaping up to be one of the deepest in recent years, with solid classes emerging at every position the Steelers will be shooting for to add an impact player to their roster.  This includes the Quarterback spot, where many very vocal Steelers fans have begun campaigning for the team to draft the eventual replacement for veteran starter Ben Roethlisberger.  Leading the pack at QB are potential No. 1 overall pick Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville), 2013 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and record-setting Derek Carr (Fresno St.).

All four young gunslingers will probably be off the board by the time the Steelers pick, and from there the talent pool turns into a group of players that are borderline second round picks.  These are players that should be on the board for the Steelers and include the injured Zach Mettenberger (LSU), Brett Hundley (UCLA), Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and A.J. McCarron (Alabama).  Despite the unfounded rumors swirling around Roethlisberger and his future in Pittsburgh, the team has made it obvious that they will not be parting with the two-time Super Bowl winning QB unless they have their immediate future in hand.  The 6-foot 1, 225lb Boyd is a player who has started close to 40 games for Clemson and is beginning to trek up the draft boards.  His style of play fits well into the new generation of NFL quarterbacks like Russell Wilson of Seattle, Robert Griffin III of Washington, and the Bills E.J. Manuel.  It would be a shock for the Steelers to draft such a player so high in this all-important draft, but it is fun as a fan to think about Tajh Boyd running circles around the muck in Heinz Field.  The way the field is shaping up, it is probably more likely that the Steelers extend Big Ben through the end of his remarkable career and shun any talk of drafting a first-round QB in 2014.

The team seems to have addressed their immediate future at running back with 2013 second rounder Le’Veon Bell.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see the team take a flier on a mid-round RB like Ohio State thumper Carlos Hyde or speedster De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon, who could take on the role originally planned for a player like Chris Rainey.  Hyde has been absolutely shredding opposing defenses this season, and he could be available as late as round four according to two popular draft sites.  One thing is for sure, there will be no first-round RB in the 2014 Draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Wide Receiver is another story.  The Steelers were unable to fully accommodate the loss of Mike Wallace this season, despite the league-leading play of Antonio Brown.  Rookie Markus Wheaton has spent much of the season injured, and the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders will not be a player the Steelers bust their budget for – although some team out there will do just that.  The future for injured Plaxico Burress would seem to be murky at best, and the team has not seen enough out of Derek Moye.  Veteran Jerricho Cotchery will be around for 2014, but a void is definable for the Steelers at the position.  The team lacks a home run threat like the one they had with Wallace.  While Markus Wheaton could be that guy, he has not stepped forward during his rookie season.  The draft class is DEEP at wide receiver, and many of those players will most certainly be around for the Steelers.

Clemson WR Sammy Watkins is currently the top-ranked WR on the board, but he is in a tight battle with Texas A&M behemoth Mike Evans and Marqise Lee of USC for that distinction.  It is hard to not get excited about a player like Watkins falling to the Steelers, and if WR-hungry teams like the Jets, Raiders, and Lions all fall below the Steelers in draft order, the 6-foot 1 205lb. Watkins could be looking for a Pittsburgh-area retailer in mid-May.  Watkins brings a speed element to his solid size, has great hands, and is a solid punt/kick returner to boot.  He would be the ultimate offensive prize for the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger , who would quickly find a new best friend and babysitter for the growing brood of mini-Bergers.  Should Watkins make it to the Steelers, they will act fast and add the pro-ready wide receiver to the black and gold.

WR Mike Evans of Texas A&M is another candidate if Watkins gets snapped up early.  Evans has been the security blanket for “Johnny Football” and is a massive target for any quarterback.  At 6-foot 5 and 225lbs, the redshirt sophomore is built like a young Calvin Johnson, and he has shown that he possesses the same red zone style and techniques of “Megatron”.  Watching a little more film on Evans will remind you of a young Terrell Owens, who stood two inches shorter than Evans.  His 2013 season has included 65 catches for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns.  Either of these young wide outs would fit the Steelers, Watkins as a speed/homerun-type and Evans as a dominating, intense red zone target.  If either are available – again depending on where the Jets/Raiders/Lions and maybe even the Browns fall – the Steelers will jump on whomever is left as their top pick.

Tight End is another spot where the Steelers will need to eventually start looking towards, with the ultra-durable Heath Miller showing signs of slowing down and little else on the roster in his stead.  While TE is not a deep pool in 2014, one player stands above the rest.  TE Jace Amaro of Texas Tech is an underclassman who seems set on declaring for the draft.  Once that is official, Amaro becomes the undisputed top tight end in the class.  At 6-foot 5 and 260lbs., Amaro has racked up 98 catches for 1,240 yards and 7 touchdowns in the pass-heavy Tech offense.  He is another massive target who could be used in two-tight end sets along with Miller for the next few years before taking over the top spot.  A few draft gurus have already set the Steelers on taking Amaro, some as high as 10th overall.  While this team has more pressing needs, it would not be a great shock to see Kevin Colbert go for a sure thing at a steady, important position in the Todd Haley offense.  If Amaro does in fact declare, he will be a top 15 pick and make an immediate impact for whoever drafts him.  The rest of the tight end pool is full of mid-round picks.

It is difficult to picture the Steelers using yet another first round pick on an offensive lineman, with so much youth already built into the roster up front.  The team already has C Maurkice Pouncey, OG David DeCastro, OT Marcus Gilbert, OT Mike Adams, and G/T Kelvin Beachum locked up, and unless another “can’t miss” prospect falls in their laps like it supposedly did with DeCastro in 2012, there probably isn’t another first round lineman coming to the team in 2014.  It isn’t for a lack of available talent, however.  OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), OT Cameron Erving (Florida State), OT Cyrus Kouandijo (Alabama), OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan), OG David Yankey (Stanford), and C Travis Swanson (Arkansas) are all first-round grade players at their respective positions and all come from huge football programs that play at the highest levels of competition.

Swanson is ranked so high because he is heads and tails above every other Center in the draft.  Matthews will be the first offensive lineman off the board, probably in the top five picks.  Erving, Kouandijo, Lewan, and Yankey will all be available when the Steelers draft.  Has the team lost faith in its young offensive line enough to add another high yield prospect to the mix, or has the late season surge shown by the remaining original starters and their patchwork free agent pickup buddies given Tomlin, Colbert & Co. enough courage to head into 2014 with the same group?  It will be interesting to see what could happen if a tackle like Cameron Erving is on the board when the Steelers draft.  More likely, the team will seek out some depth in the later rounds from a group that includes OG Zach Martin (Notre Dame), OT Antonio Richardson (Tennessee), OT Brandon Scherff (Iowa), and OG Anthony Steen (Alabama).  Many great offensive linemen emerge from the 4th-7th rounds of these drafts, and with a pool this deep, some talent will surely fall the Steelers way if they decide to take it.

On defense, Pittsburgh seems to have finally found the talent hidden in highly-drafted players such as OLB Jason Worilds, DE Ziggy Hood, and DE Cameron Heyward.  Also, younger players like DB Cortez Allen, ILB Vince Williams, and potentially S Shamarko Thomas all made great strides in 2013.  With those players locked up, the team can turn to a few positions it hasn’t had to address in many years.  This includes cornerback, where long-time starter Ike Taylor is beginning to showing signs of slowing down.  The team will also need to begin addressing the post-Polamalu/Clark safety situation, as both players are in their NFL twilight years.  The CB pool this year includes some heavy hitters, but few are close to first-round grades.

Moving up the charts are CB Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State, Iko-Ekpre-Olomu from Oregon, Darqueze Dennard from Michigan, and Jason Verrett of TCU.  All are late first round/early second round grades, but moving up steadily.  None of them possess the pedigree the Steelers would be looking for with a top 15 pick.  Gilbert is interesting for his size alone (6-foot, 200lbs.), and his hands have begun to show signs of being NFL-ready.  He is also a very dangerous return man, another spot the Steelers could use reinforcements.  Out of the cornerbacks available, Gilbert would be the one I would think of as a potential Steelers draft pick.

At the safety positions, there are no clear-cut first round grades.  Alabama star HaHa Clinton-Dix (yes, that is his real name) is the top man available.  He has steadily moved up from a third round grade to a mid-first round slot, where teams like the Rams and Jets will be looking for safety help.  The rest of the draft group doesn’t explode off the page.  SS Deone Bucannon (Washington St.), SS Ahmad Dixon (Baylor), FS Terrance Brooks (Florida State), and FS Dion Bailey (USC) could all be had with 2nd or 3rd round picks.  If the Steelers are looking for impact players to begin the transition from Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, they probably will not find them this year.

The Steelers have OLB LaMarr Woodley locked up for a few more years, despite his production dropping each season.  Jason Worilds has now staked a claim to the other OLB slot with his inspired play during the second half of this season.  The Steelers will have a chance to choose from the highest-level talent they would want at both linebacker positions in this draft, the question is if they truly want or need any help there.  Rookie ILB Vince Williams has turned into a budding star this season playing alongside Lawrence Timmons.

Larry Foote may be back in 2014 after missing this season with an injury suffered in game one.  A few prospects that could fit the Steelers defense are OLB C.J. Mosley (Alabama), OLB Ryan Shazier (Ohio State), and OLB Khalil Mack (Buffalo).  Mack could end up being the first linebacker off the board.  The Steelers usually find their best OLB as college DE in 4-3 sets who convert to 3-4 OLB.  It is rare to find players who have played strict 3-4 in college, so the learning curve is much higher for those types when they come to Pittsburgh and get their hands on the 2,000 page Dick LeBeau playbook.  Shazier has the Steeler look to him, and if he is still around in the first round he may be the one LB the Steelers really look at.

On the front defensive line, the Steelers are prepared for the impending departure of Brett Keisel to retirement possibly after this season.  They are ready to go with Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward on the ends, but nose tackle is a position where the team will need to find a solid full-time replacement for Casey Hampton, as Steve McClendon wasn’t truly getting the job done before he got hurt.  Al Woods has played admirably the past two weeks, but the Steelers know that they will need to find a true 3-4 nose tackle either in this draft or in free agency, where NT players are usually pretty hard to come by.  While names such as Louis Nix (Notre Dame) – a true nose tackle at 345lbs. – will be thrown around on draft day, it is a local player that Steelers fans will be keeping their eye on.  Pitt DT Aaron Donald is putting together one of the best defensive seasons in Pitt history in 2013, and he has moved himself into a low 1st round/high 2nd round grade.  If the Steelers can find a way to draft Donald, he looks to be the type who could come in and start from day one.

In summary, here are my top 10 Realistic Steelers 1st Round Picks for 2014.

1.  WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

2.  WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M

3.  TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech

4.  OT Cameron Ewing, Florida State

5.  OT Taylor Lewin, Michigan

6.  CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

7.  RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State (probably round 2 but could squeeze upward)

8.  SS HaHa Clinton-Dix, Alabama

9.  OLB Ryan Shazier, Ohio State

10. DT Aaron Donald, Pitt (again, probable second round but trades do happen!)

 

No matter what, the Steelers understand what the 2014 Draft means to the next five years of this franchise.  They are rarely in a position to draft this high, and must use that advantage to grab one of these top-notch, day one starter type players.  They must make every pick count, but starting off with a top ten player in round one is the right place to be for a team that is going through severe growing pains in 2014.

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Jeffrey Snedden

Jeff is the co-beat writer for the Pittsburgh Steelers for Pittsburgh Sporting News. He has been a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh since 2004.

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