The Pittsburgh Steelers brass was all present and accounted for at the NFL Combine. They had a plan in mind and came away thoroughly impressed with the depth of this year's class. Even though their draft board didn't change too much following the combine, they did check off a few boxes and find some hidden gems in the process. These draft picks will provide much needed youth, speed, and strength on both sides of the ball. Given that some of these players may not be available at the time they make their pick, here are the top ten players that the Steelers would like to draft and should draft based on their needs in the first round while employing the ‘best available’ concept. For practical purposes, I've included players that most likely will be off the draft board by the 15th pick. There are always teams that make moves on Draft Day and you can count on a player or two to fall or rise.
Sammy Watkins doing what he does best - stretching the defense vertically.
1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson – Fills an immediate need and has the strongest skill-set that projects to the NFL. He plays with exceptional speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. His route-running skills have improved greatly this past season. He is a threat from anywhere on the field and a game changer. Will most likely go in the first 10 picks to a number of teams, i.e. St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders. I feel that he is the best player in the draft and should be drafted regardless of team needs if he falls.
2. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State - Fills an immediate need and, in my opinion, fills the biggest need for the Steelers. He is a great cover corner and kicks returner with size, speed, athleticism and ball skills. He is also long and rangy with the ability to cover all types of receivers and a lot of space quickly. He can play on an island as a lock down defender. In the mold of a Richard Sherman and Darelle Revis. Had a great NFL Combine showcasing his talent. May or may not be available at 15. It depends a lot on the Detroit Lions, who need a corner desperately.
3. Hasean Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama - Fills a possible immediate need (depends on the status of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu), but fills a need for depth. In a pass-happy league, the safety position has become paramount. Teams are looking for athletic, long, rangy, hard-hitting, and cover skills from this position that can lock down tight ends and tall receivers while providing great run support. Clinton-Dix fits the mold with solid ball skills, like a CB. He should be the first safety off the board and, based on current of NFL teams drafting in the top-15, he will most likely be available when the Steelers pick.DE Khalil Mack chasing down Heisman Hopeful, QB Braxton Miller of the Buckeyes during a game in Columbus where the Bulls almost pulled the upset.
4. Khalil Mack, OLB/DE, Buffalo - Fills a marginal need (depends on the status of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds), but fits well into the Steelers scheme and what they like to do. They need to get younger on defense. Mack could be a top-5. He has been a consistent performer his whole career for Buffalo. He is an explosive defender with a knack for creating havoc in the backfield either off the edge or in the running game. He also has the speed to cover linebackers in the passing game and chase down running backs and quarterbacks. Could go to the Buffalo Bills in the top-10. If he falls to the Steelers, they can't afford to pass him up. He is a rare athlete at his position.
5. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State - like, Gilbert, fills an immediate need. Dennard is arguably the most polished and pro-ready cornerback in this class even more so than Gilbert. Gilbert has a slight edge because of his size, length, athleticism and speed, but Dennard shows excellent technique, ball skills and toughness. He thrives at press coverage making receivers change their patterns. Should be available to the Steelers at 15 if they are willing to take him this high as the #2 CB on the board. As mentioned above, a lot depends on the Detroit Lions or a team who trades up to draft a CB.
6. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M - Fills an immediate need and would be the first WR off the board if it wasn't for Watkins. Big-bodied receivers with size, speed and athleticism are starting to dominate the league. Evans could be the next big playmaking receiver, like Calvin Johnson, to arrive in the NFL. His speed, quickness, and elusiveness are deceptive. Evans may or may not be off the board when the Steelers pick. If he does go, the aforementioned Detroit Lions could hold the key.
7. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville - Fills a possible need (see Dix above). Pryor is similar to Dix but exhibits a more punishing and intimidating frame - physical package, if you will. He possesses anticipation and awareness to the ball, like an Earl Thomas. He displays deceptive speed and athleticism to get the job done. He is more suited to take on big receivers and tight ends in coverage than Dix, especially across the middle. Pryor should be available at 15 should the Steelers go in that direction for the #2 S.
8. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina - Fills a marginal need (Heath Miller is getting older and not fast). In this age of the passing game with big, athletic receivers and tight ends like Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas going vertical, Ebron is a versatile athlete with explosive speed and soft hands. As for most tight ends entering the NFL, he needs to improve route running. His size and rare speed at his position could make him an immediate impact player in the league. At the 15th pick, probably too high to draft a TE.
9. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh - Fills a need somewhere between marginal and immediate. The jury is still out on Steve McClendon. Donald has impressed and is climbing on most draft boards since the Senior Bowl and combine. He shows an exceptional first-step quickness and burst as well as surprising strength, power and leverage against the run. May need to get a little heavier to play NT in the NFL, but huge upside. Donald showed his athleticism and skill-set during drills at the combine. Although not a pressing need, he will most likely be available to the Steelers in the first round.
10. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA - Fills a moderate need (see Mack above). Pass rushers with speed and athleticism are valued in the first round, especially ones that can cover as well as Barr. He is comparable to Mack, but is still learning the position after just two seasons on defense at UCLA. He can make an impact as an OLB or DE, if he gets bigger, in the right defensive scheme. Some draft boards have him going as high as pick #11. With all the possibilities listed above, I doubt the Steelers will reach for him at 15 considering all their other needs, but, as history shows, they like these kinds of players in their blitz schemes.
Look for my Pittsburgh Steelers Mock Draft Rounds 1-7 post in the upcoming weeks. Stay tuned!