The NFL Draft will be exactly one month out as of Tuesday, and it’s becoming obvious the Steelers are focusing in on several positions — if not a handful of players — in anticipation of making the No. 15 pick on May 8.
Is there any chance the Steelers, who have nine picks, will trade up to move up in the first round? Not really. Making such trades almost always requires parting with a very high draft pick, which the Steelers almost never do, and teams consistently overpay to move up. And there’s enough talent in that draft that the Steelers are convinced they can get a potential impact player at No. 15.
As of Monday, the Steelers have had at least nine in-house visits from college players — three wide receivers, some of whom will go lower than the first round; three defensive backs, two defensive lineman and one running back. Pretty easy to spot a trend there.
After all, the Steelers’ biggest positions of need are 1) wide receiver; 2) cornerback; 3) defensive end/nose tackle; 4) inside linebacker. For all the depth in this draft class, which Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert calls the best he’s seen in 30 years, this is not a particularly great year for inside linebackers. So it seems likely the Steelers’ first-round pick will come from one of the first three positions.
Five players to watch closely as the countdown to May 8 continues:
1) MIKE EVANS, WR, 6-5, 230, Texas A&M. After watching the Johnny Manziel/Mike Evans workout last month, multiple scouts came away thinking that Evans might be most responsible for Manziel’s two great college seasons. Not only he is an offense-changing receiver, he’s 6-foot-5 with more-than-adequate speed, great moves and an ability to outmuscle smaller cornerbacks; that’s a big advantage when going up against press coverages. He doesn’t drop many passes, and he’s a huge asset in the red zone. Think Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t like having this guy to throw to? The offensively deficient Giants might go for him at No. 12, but if he’s available at No. 15, it’s difficult to envision the Steelers passing on him. He’s that good and, remember, the Steelers still do not have a wide receiver to start opposite Antonio Brown.
2) DARQUEZE DENNARD, CB, 5-11, 200, Michigan State. With Cortez Allen, William Gay, Ike Taylor and Brice McCain under contract, the Steelers don’t have quite the depth issues they have at wide receiver. But they want to get a player at No. 15 who can contribute immediately, and it’s evident they like Dennard, who already has visited the South Side. Dennard is an aggressive, NFL-type corner who seems to be a perfect fit for what the Steelers do. Interestingly, former Steelers CB Keenan Lewis of New Orleans is the current NFL defensive back to whom he’s most compared. He is excellent in man-to-man coverage, a Steelers’ deficiency last season. The downside is Michigan State didn’t play a lot of superior offenses last season.
3) LOUIS NIX, DL, 6-2, 330, Notre Dame. Mike Tomlin was one of two NFL head coaches who attended Notre Dame’s pro day (Gus Bradley of Jacksonville was the other), and he jumped in with Nix on some drills, lining up head-to-head against him. While the Steelers felt Steve McLendon was adequate in the middle last season, multiple Steelers defensive players said at the end of the season that not having Casey Hampton was a big loss because his strength and sheer physical presence often made such a difference on first and second downs. Nix plays with the edge the Steelers like and moves as well as many much-smaller linemen. The red flag: a torn meniscus that required surgery to repair in November and kept him out of the Irish’s final two games and bowl game. The Steelers have a history of shying away from players (see Eddie Lacy) with not insignificant health issues going into the draft.
4) JUSTIN GILBERT, CB, 6-0, 200, Oklahoma State. A couple of months ago, some draft experts didn’t rank a single cornerback in the top 50. That’s changed as both Dennard and Gilbert have moved up the charts — Gilbert to the point that he’s now seen as a potential top 10 pick. He ran a 4.37 in the 40, and he might be the best pure athlete available in the draft. He’s also shown the kind of physicality that NFL scouts like. Gilbert has a history of biting on pump fakes, but NFL teams love these numbers: seven interceptions last season, and six career kickoff return touchdowns, only one off the NCAA record.
5) KELVIN BENJAMIN, WR, 6-5, 240, Florida State. Yet another 6-5 receiver, the type Roethlisberger covets. Marqise Lee of Southern Cal is rated slightly higher, but the Steelers’ need for a big wide receiver (Lee is 6-0) makes Benjamin all the more attractive. He comes from a winning, NCAA championship program. And some NFL scouts believe he could easily add 10 pounds and become a hybrid tight end/oversized wideout. With his size, he has the ability to get to slightly overthrown or underthrown passes that some receivers can’t catch. (Another interesting comparison: he reminds some scouts of Plaxico Burress coming out of Michigan State.) Both Colbert and Tomlin attended Florida State’s pro day. However, he is seen as more of a late-Round 1 pick and, with all the quality players available, it’s likely the Steelers will have other players rated higher than him when they choose. And there seems to be little chance of him falling to No. 46, or where the Steelers draft on the second round.
And what about Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who’s now moved up to around No. 15 on several prominent draft charts? Despite his evident pass-rush skills, he just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Steelers’ defense. He’s a bit undersized at 285 to play nose tackle, and he’s seen as more of a fit for a 4-3 defense than a 3-4. And he would face an enormous amount of pressure to succeed playing in the same city he did in college. A better fit might be the Cowboys. Donald has met with them and likes their system.