AFC North: Mel Kiper Jr.

PITTSBURGH -- ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay don’t always agree when evaluating draft-eligible players. But their thinking falls along the same lines when it comes to Steelers fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant.

Kiper listed the former Clemson wide receiver as one five offensive players drafted in the later rounds who could make an immediate impact in the NFL. McShay also said that Bryant has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers.

“He does a really nice job of getting off the line and he’s a vertical route runner,” McShay said. “You’ve got a big, strong-armed quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger and you want a guy that can stretch the field vertically. There’s some boom or bust there, but when you get him in the fourth round you’re not worried so much about the risk factor. If he focuses and does all the right things he could wind up being a real steal from this class.”

[+] EnlargeMartavis Bryant
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesMartavis Bryant's size and speed could help the WR earn plenty of playing time as a rookie.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Bryant gives the Steelers the tall wide receiver that the offense has lacked. His 40-yard dash time (4.42 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine as well as his career yards per catch (22.2) at Clemson validate his potential as a big-time deep threat.

And he started only one season at Clemson where first-round picks DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins overshadowed Bryant, meaning he is far from a finished product -- something that should excite the Steelers’ coaches as well as challenge them.

“He’s what I have been hunting,” Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. “Probably had he played more [at Clemson], stayed for another year, he would have been a first-rounder for sure. I think all that he needs to learn we will teach it to him.”

Bryant slipped to the fourth round of the draft because of concerns about his maturity as well as his inconsistency as a pass-catcher. The Steelers hosted Bryant for a pre-draft visit and were comfortable enough after what they heard from him to think that he will be fine in the right environment.

As for the drops he had in college, Mann said that is something that can be easily corrected and can probably be traced to Bryant’s hand placement or his trying to run before securing a catch.

“He does a really good job of tracking the ball and catching it over the top,” Mann said. “A lot of times guys can’t do it and it’s very hard to teach.”

McShay agreed that Bryant’s ball skills are undeniable.

“He was inconsistent catching the ball but he also makes tough catches,” McShay said, “and he can adjust to the ball below his waist, over his head, behind his body.”

It is way too premature to get overly excited about Bryant, who takes part in the Steelers' three-day rookie minicamp that starts on Friday.

Fred Gibson, the last physically gifted wide receiver that the Steelers drafted in the fourth round (2005), didn’t even make it out of training camp. And for all of the buzz created by the second-round selection of Limas Sweed in 2008, the former Texas standout caught just seven career passes for the Steelers.

Chronic drops were one of the reasons why the Steelers released Sweed in 2011.

One thing that Mann won’t do is speculate on how big of a role Bryant will have in the Steelers’ offense as a rookie. But he also won’t rule out Bryant challenging for the starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

“You have to come in and work because we have other guys in the room,” Mann said. “Potentially he will be a starter, you just never know. You play the best. That’s how you win.”
PITTSBURGH -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay will critique draft picks that are made in less than a week. The ESPN analysts took their own respective turns in the hot seat Thursday night on ESPN2.

Ebron
The two engaged in a head-to-head, three-round mock draft with Kiper picking for teams with even-numbered draft picks and McShay picking for those with odd-numbered picks. Their selections were followed by analysis from former NFL general manager Bill Polian and former NFL director of pro personnel Louis Riddick.

And Polian didn't opt for subtlety after McShay picked North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron for the Steelers at No. 15 overall.

"He's a Pittsburgh Steeler and he doesn't block. That doesn't compute," Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year, said of Ebron. "I don't think he's ready to play in the NFL right now. I think he's too immature. I don't think his feet are firmly planted on the ground. Yeah, he has ability but that only gets you so far."

Ebron may be one of the more polarizing players in the draft.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder is the best tight end in the draft and an undeniable talent. Ebron, who caught 62 passes for 973 yards in his final season at North Carolina, has the size and athleticism to create mismatches.

And he is part of the new wave of tight ends who have become such a commodity because of their ability to put stress on opposing defenses.

Ebron would give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a tall target, and he would add a pass-catcher to a group that doesn't have a reliable one after veteran Heath Miller.

But as a blocker he can most diplomatically be described as a work in progress.

Or, as McShay said recently, “He’s a buffet blocker if you will. He kind of picks and chooses when he wants to get interested. But what he does well it’s just hard to find guys that can do it at the level that he does as far as stretching the field vertically and creating after the catch.”

Ebron may be too much of a gamble for the Steelers to pick at No. 15, especially since they have more pressing needs. McShay picked him for the Steelers with Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard off the board though with every other cornerback still available.

Riddick said he would have taken a cornerback for the Steelers, and he is especially high on Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller. Polian added of Ebron, "I would not risk this guy in a Pittsburgh offense that requires you to block."

As for the Steelers' other two picks, Kiper took LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry for them in the second round (No. 46 overall). McShay picked Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland for the Steelers in the third round (No. 97 overall).
PITTSBURGH -- Cody Latimer, arguably the fastest rising player in the NFL draft, held a private workout on Friday and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann was among those in attendance, per NFL.com’s Gil Brandt.

The Steelers met with Latimer at the NFL scouting combine two months ago, and he is one of the hottest names in the draft right now.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Latimer as the 29th-best player in the draft, and Todd McShay is also high on the Indiana wide receiver.

"I’ve watched five tapes of his games and he didn’t drop a ball," McShay said. "I was blown away with his skill set."

There is a lot to like about Latimer, a projected first- or second-round pick.

He has good size -- Latimer measured 6-2 and weighed 215 pounds at the combime -- and McShay said he was clocked between 4.39 and 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Indiana’s pro day.

Latimer did not run at the combine since he was still recovering from surgery to fix a broken metatarsal in his foot. The fact he was limited in what he could do at the combine as well as sheer volume of wide receivers in the draft may have contributed to Latimer staying a bit under the radar until the past couple of weeks.

But he excelled at Indiana, catching 72 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns last season as a junior, and Latimer has upside since he didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school and instead concentrated on basketball.

The range where Latimer is projected to go in the draft does not match up well with where the Steelers pick. But the draft is so flush with wide receivers Latimer could last until where the Steelers' pick in the second round.

Or he could be an option for them in the first round if they trade down.

“He’s competitive, can run after the catch and has great ball skills,” McShay said.

He also has the size the Steelers are lacking at wide receiver. Keep an eye on Latimer -- it's something the Steelers are apparently doing as well.

PITTSBURGH -- ESPN analyst Todd McShay labeled Bradley Roby as "a classic boom or bust" player in the 2014 NFL draft.

And that was before a report surfaced that the Ohio State cornerback faces a charge of operating a vehicle while impaired.

Roby already had some baggage when he declared for the draft following an inconsistent junior season at Ohio State, one in which he missed the opener because of a suspension.

The latest incident, which occurred last Sunday in Columbus, could cost Roby a chance of going in the first round. And he may experience something similar to what happened to former Buckeyes offensive tackle Mike Adams two years ago.

Adams, a first-round talent, slid to the Steelers in the second round, in part because he failed a drug test at the combine. Could Roby, whom the Steelers recently hosted for a pre-draft visit, fall to them in the second round in two weeks?

It's hard to imagine the Steelers considering Roby at No. 15 overall because the pick would be fraught with risk. But Roby's physical skills are undeniable, and he may be too talented for the Steelers to pass on him in the second round if he lasts that long.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Roby as the 39th-best player in the draft, and McShay said, "I actually think he might be the most athletic corner in this draft."

But McShay also issued a caveat emptor when it comes to Roby, who is 5-foot-11, 194 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

"I'd be real nervous to pull the trigger on him because I don't know what I'm getting," McShay said. "It's a young man that has some growing to do. I think he's got to become more focused and there's just a lot of inconsistent tape on him.

"He's a wild card. He could be the best defensive back in this class five years from now or he could wind up being another first-round cornerback that doesn't pan out in the league because he didn't need to do what he had to do mentally and from a preparation standpoint."
PITTSBURGH -- A highly regarded pass-rusher and one of the top performers at the NFL scouting combine are among the players visiting the Steelers today.

Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, a projected second-round pick, and Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon are the Steelers’ latest pre-draft visitors.

Lawrence led the Mountain West last season in both sacks (10 1/2 ) and tackles for losses (20 ), and the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Lawrence as the 44th-best player in the draft and there is a possibility he could get taken late in the first round.

The Steelers have hosted a handful of outside linebacker prospects, including UCLA’s Anthony Barr, a projected first-round pick.

McKinnon is the second running back to visit the Steelers, and he is an intriguing prospect for several reasons. The 5-9, 209-pounder rushed for 3,899 career yards and he gained most of those as an option quarterback.

McKinnon, who led Georgia Southern to a 26-20 upset at Florida last season, played running back in the Senior Bowl and really turned heads at the combine two months ago.

He tested as well as anyone in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and notching 32 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, tops among all running backs. Both speedy and shifty, McKinnon fits the profile of the kind of back the Steelers may be seeking to complement Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount.

McKinnon has been projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

Teams are allowed to host 30 out of area prospects for visits prior to the draft. Sunday is the last day for pre-draft visits.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are meeting with a pair of defensive players Monday, including a potential first-round pick.

Barr
UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen are the Steelers' latest visitors as the team prepares for the upcoming draft.

Barr is considered one of the best pass-rushers in the draft while Allen is a projected late-round pick after moving to nose tackle last season when Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 scheme.

Barr is an intriguing prospect because of his production at UCLA -- the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder recorded 10 sacks last season -- and his upside as a pass-rusher. Barr played fullback for two seasons before moving to defense, and he is still learning on that side of the ball.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Barr as the 15th-best player in the draft.

"He has a decent arsenal of moves, using quick feet and hands to free himself, and he's disciplined against the run, pursuing with speed when the play runs away from him," Kiper writes of Barr. "I love the effort, and the athleticism, but as a former fullback, he needs to grow in his awareness."

ESPN analyst Todd McShay isn't as high on the former Bruins star. McShay ranks Barr as the 30th-best player in the draft.

The Steelers are unlikely to draft an outside linebacker in the first round since they took one with their first-round pick last year in Jarvis Jones. But they do need to add depth at the position and are expected to draft an outside linebacker prospect at some point.

Allen could be a late-round possibility for the Steelers if they don't take a nose tackle early in the draft. The 6-foot-2, 333-pounder recorded 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season for the Badgers but did not get invited to the NFL scouting combine.

Allen tested well at Wisconsin’s pro day though he was limited in running drills because of a hamstring issue.

The Steelers are allowed to host 30 players outside of the Pittsburgh area for pre-draft visits. This is the final week of visits for NFL prospects.
PITTSBURGH -- Mock drafts have, predictably, been all over the place as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick. Most, however, have them taking a wide receiver or a cornerback No. 15 overall, assuming they don’t try to trade down.

I think those two positions are most likely the ones the Steelers will target with their first pick, though North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could also be in play if he slides a little in the draft.

Ebron
Ebron is the No. 1 player at one of the few positions that is not particularly deep, and he would give the Steelers a tall receiver while also filling a long-term need. I think Heath Miller has at least three good seasons left in him, but the Steelers have to plan for the post-Miller years at some point.

If Ebron is still available when they make the first pick, I think they give him serious consideration, especially if a couple of cornerbacks are already off the board, as well as Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans.

The Steelers have eight other picks in the draft, three of which are compensatory selections, including one at the end of the third round. They have a lot of needs -- or as general manager Kevin Colbert would frame it "wants" -- particularly on defense.

Here is my projection of the positions they will address with their nine picks, which is contingent on the Steelers not adding extra ones through a trade.

Cornerback (2): The Steelers could use immediate help here, and they don't have a long-term starter at cornerback after third-year man Cortez Allen. I would be surprised if they don't draft two cornerbacks, with one of them coming in the first three rounds. They drafted two cornerbacks in 2011, including Allen in the fourth round.

Defensive line (2): The Steelers will draft a defensive lineman as early as the second round -- ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III with their second pick in his latest mock draft -- and they need to take at least one end. The signing of Cam Thomas gives them a player with position flexibility, but the Steelers' need at defensive end is every bit as glaring as it is at cornerback.

Wide receiver (1): No position is deeper in the draft, and even if the Steelers don't address it in the first round, they can still get a good prospect later. The Steelers probably won't get a chance to draft Evans unless they trade up in the first round and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin may be too much of a risk to take at No. 15. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. has been linked to the Steelers in various mock drafts, and they could pull the trigger on him if they have him high on their board.

Linebacker (1): The Steelers have to take a player who projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme given how thin they are at the position. It will be interesting to see what they will do if Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is still on the board at No. 15. Mosley, who projects as an inside linebacker, may be one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft. “He and (Lawrence) Timmons could be your (NaVorro) Bowman and (Patrick) Willis,” ESPN analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson said. If the Steelers take Mosley, they will also draft an outside linebacker later in the draft.

Safety (1): The Steelers have hosted at least three safeties for pre-draft visits, including Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, a projected first-round pick. The signing of Mike Mitchell makes it unlikely the Steelers take a safety in the first round but it wouldn't hurt to add another younger player here. The question is whether it makes sense for them to draft a safety -- or instead sign a couple of undrafted free agents -- if they don’t take one in the second or third round.

Offensive line (1): I don't see this as the need that others do. The Steelers got their upgrade up front when they hired Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and he has plenty of material with which to work. All five starters return, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who tore his ACL eight snaps into last season. And the Steelers have depth up front after re-signing Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper. The Steelers will probably take a lineman they can develop later in the draft, but I could also see them not drafting one for the second year in a row if they take two linebackers or a tight end.

Running back (1): The Steelers need depth and they could use a speedster to complement Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. The de-valuing of running backs allows the Steelers to wait until later in the draft to address the position and still get a good prospect. I don't see them taking a running back before the fifth round.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are hosting two linebackers for visits today, including a potential first-round pick, as well as one of the top all-around safeties in the draft.

Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier and UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt are meeting with the Steelers at their practice facility as well Washington State safety Deone Bucannon.

Shazier has been widely projected as a first-round pick and the Steelers would be looking at the former Buckeyes star as an inside linebacker.

Shazier recorded 101 tackles in 2013, the third-highest single-season total in Ohio State history, and the 6-foot-1, 237-pounder has excellent speed.

The Steelers will almost certainly get only one crack at Shazier, as he shouldn’t get drafted any later than the early part of the second round.

“You could make an argument he’s one of the 10 best football players in this draft based on being a pure, instinctive football player,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Shazier.

Zumwalt also projects as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and the former UCLA star is expected to get drafted in the third or fourth round. The 6-4, 235-pound Zumwalt recorded 91 tackles last season and intercepted a pair of passes.

Bucannon is one of the top safeties in the draft and is in the tier of players at the position after Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor.

The 6-1, 211-pounder had 15 career interceptions at Washington State, including six last season when he also recorded 78 tackles and forced three fumbles. Bucannon could get drafted as high as the second round.

This is the first day that the Steelers are hosting draft prospects since Monday.

General manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin each attended pro days at Penn State and LSU the previous two days.

The Steelers are allowed to host 30 prospects for pre-draft visits and they have met with two linebackers and two safeties this week.

Pryor, a projected first-round pick, visited the Steelers on Monday.
I wrote an earlier post that included ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson’s take on what defines a No. 1 pass catcher as part of a larger argument for the Steelers drafting a tall receiver.

What is interesting to note is that tight ends Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are among the players Williamson thinks are bona fide No. 1 receivers.

Williamson followed that piece with one on potential No. 1 receivers, a mix that includes wide receivers and tight ends and players who are already in the NFL as well as ones who will be drafted next month.

Seventh on his list is North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron Insider.

The 6-4, 250-pound Ebron would qualify as a tall receiver and his production and athleticism in college -- he caught 62 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns last season -- make him the No. 1 tight end in the draft

Here is what Williamson wrote about Ebron:
While Ebron lacks the height and bulk of Graham or Rob Gronkowski, he might possess better pure speed. This guy can truly stretch the field like few NFL tight ends. Ebron is fluid and smooth, but he also has an instant acceleration burst. He is versatile in terms of his alignment on the field and should be an instant-impact tight end, as he is noticeably above average in all receiving categories for an incoming prospect.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has projected Ebron going between picks 12 and 18 next month, which would put him in the range of where the Steelers are drafting. What makes Ebron intriguing for the Steelers is he could help right away given the increasing frequency with which teams use two-tight end sets and also give them Heath Miller’s eventual replacement.

Former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik wrote that tight end is a hidden need for the Steelers, which is why he thinks Ebron could be an option Insider for them.

Here is what Dominik, an ESPN Front Office Insider, wrote:
Heath Miller is still a very talented player, and he is a great fit in the Steelers’ offense. However, he will turn 32 this season, and the team needs to find a big-bodied tight end via the draft so Ben Roethlisberger can begin building trust in him. They’ll need a young tight end to take over as their primary target at the position in the near future. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, the consensus top tight end in this year’s draft, could be in play for the Steelers at No. 15 overall if he’s still on the board.

Also of note from Williamson’s story on future No. 1 receivers is he has LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. fifth on his list -- three spots ahead of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans.

The 5-11, 198-pound Beckham doesn’t have great size but he makes up for it in other areas, writes Williamson:
He gets separation with the more technical intermediate routes, as well as just using his pure ability to run past defensive backs. Beckham is also a good return man and excels with the ball in his hands. I think I'm actually higher on Beckham than most others, but expect him to make an instant impact in the NFL. I could see Beckham landing in Pittsburgh, Kansas City or Carolina in Round 1.

Kiper has the Steelers taking Beckham No. 15 overall in the Grade A Mock Draft he released last week. The mock draft is one in which Kiper’s picks are based on what he thinks teams should do in the first three rounds of the draft.
ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay talked in-depth about the Steelers' draft earlier this week, and the two agree that cornerback is probably the team's biggest need.

But McShay isn't as enthused as Kiper is about the Steelers taking one with the 15th overall pick of the draft.

McShay said he is not sure there is a cornerback worth taking that high even if players such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard are available.

“I think I would probably go wide receiver or offensive line in the first round depending on what's available and then maybe coming back cornerback in Round 2,” McShay said on ESPN's First Draft podcast.

Kiper and McShay agree that the Steelers have to focus on defense in this draft with the former saying that defensive line joins cornerback as the team's most pressing need. McShay offered more pointed comments about what the Steelers are facing as they re-tool their defense.

“They've had to get younger fast,” McShay said. “I thought for awhile they were doing that effectively but it hasn't worked out. I do think they are getting younger. I think they have to continue to get faster and more athletic in the back end and I think they know that.”

One of the biggest keys for the Steelers' defense this season is outside linebacker Jarvis Jones taking a huge step after he struggled as a rookie.

Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick last year, started eight games in 2013 but managed just one sack. The former Georgia star played better later in the season as he started thinking less on the field, but Jones needs to add strength as well as more pass-rushing moves during the offseason.

The development of secomd-year players such as Jones, safety Shamarko Thomas and inside linebacker Vince Williams is critical since the Steelers don't like to rely too much on rookies -- something they had to do at a couple of positions last season out of necessity.

“Dick LeBeau's defense takes time to understand it and apply what you know to the field,” Kiper said.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers used a third-round pick last year on Oregon State wide receiver Markus Wheaton, and I'm starting to wonder if they will give serious consideration to adding his college teammate via the draft.

To do that the Steelers will have to spend their first-round pick on Brandin Cooks even though he would do anything but add size to their receiving corps.

Cooks
Cooks measured in at just 5-foot-9 3/4 at the NFL scouting combine in February but he also wowed teams in Indianapolis by running a blistering 4.33 in the 40-yard dash.

Take that eye-popping time, Cooks' production in college -- he caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns last season -- and his swagger and there is a lot to like about this guy.

Speed, after all, wasn't the only thing that Cooks displayed at the combine. He called himself the best wide receiver in the draft and explained from where such confidence emanates.

"Numbers don't lie and I feel like no one is out there working harder than me," Cooks said. "I have a lot to prove. They say I'm not the tallest but I feel like there's so many guys in this game today that are potential Hall of Famers like Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson. I can go down the list and there's under 5-10 [players] that are great receivers in this game. For me, I'm a playmaker.”

Cooks has a believer in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Kiper ranks Cooks as the No. 3 wide receiver in the draft behind only Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans -- the two players Cooks beat out for the Biletnikoff Award in 2013 -- and the 15th-best player overall.

Kiper has compared Cooks to Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 draft, but said Cooks is quicker, stronger and a little bigger than Austin.

Kiper has the Ravens taking Cooks at No. 17 overall in his latest mock draft. But the Steelers could give him serious consideration at No. 15 depending on how the draft shakes out before they make their first pick.

I'm all for the Steelers adding a tall receiver to the offense but it doesn't look like the 6-foot-5 Evans will last until the 15th pick of the draft. And the Steelers are setting themselves up to make a mistake if they place too much of a premium on height when assigning draft grades to wide receivers.

As Cooks said, "Speed kills and I feel like that's what I'm going to bring to the game."
PITTSBURGH -- Ike Taylor returning for one more season provides some stability at a position where the Pittsburgh Steelers are perilously thin.

It also provides the perfect opportunity for the Steelers to draft two cornerbacks, something they did in 2011 with mixed results, and turn them into Taylor’s shadows.

Dennard
Taylor
Among the many things Taylor can teach rookie cornerbacks is how to be a professional. Aside from maybe wide receiver Antonio Brown, no one in the Steelers’ locker room works harder than Taylor.

He is in terrific shape, and his maniacal work ethic is a main reason why Taylor’s play has slipped a little with age but not fallen off dramatically as is often the case for players who are pushing 34.

Taylor returning to the Steelers in 2014 does nothing to minimize their long-term need at cornerback, which is why they have to draft two of them.

The bigger question is whether this is the year the Steelers finally use a first-round pick on a cornerback, something they haven’t done since 1997 when they took Chad Scott with the 24th overall selection.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin are at Michigan State's pro day today, according to the Detroit Free Press, and their presence will further fuel speculation that the organization will target Darqueze Dennard with its first-round pick.

Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert are widely considered the top cornerbacks in what is a deep draft at the position.

A consensus All-American in 2013, Dennard is a physical cornerback who can provide run support as well as stick to opposing wide receivers. He didn’t run a great 40-yard dash time (4.51 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine last month, but his time didn’t raise any red flags either.

Dennard, who broke up 14 passes and made four interceptions in helping the Spartans win the Big Ten in 2013, is the 18th-best player in the draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.

Here is what Kiper wrote about Dennard:
He's the most versatile defensive back in the draft, with proven skill in any area of coverage. Dennard can play up and redirect routes or off in zone and make plays in front of him. He'll blanket even really good receivers in man-to-man, and he turns his head well to avoid penalties that could be called were he not to show ball awareness, given how tightly he can play in coverage. It's all there.

Whether the Steelers take Dennard or another cornerback in the first round remains to be seen. They have generally waited until the middle rounds to draft cornerbacks, something they did with the three veteran ones on their roster.

Taylor and Cortez Allen were fourth-round picks, and William Gay was a fifth-round selection.

No matter where the Steelers draft cornerbacks this year, those players will have no better mentor than Taylor.

Mike Evans climbs Kiper's 'Big Board'

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
6:30
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Few players helped themselves more at the NFL scouting combine than Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMike Evans' combination of size and speed means he won't be on the board long come draft day.
That widely shared opinion is reflected in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s post-combine list of the top 25 players in the draft, and it is not necessarily a good thing for the Steelers.

Evans shot up Kiper’s “Big Board,” moving from No. 15 to No. 6 after performing well in Indianapolis.

Evans, one of the tallest wide receivers in the draft, ran a better-than-expected 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That speed, along with Evans’ size and ball skills, has solidified his standing as the second-best wide receiver in the draft -- and one who may have run himself out of the Steelers’ reach.

The Steelers have the 15th overall pick in the draft but Evans could be gone before they make their first selection.

Here is what Kiper wrote about Evans on his updated Big Board:
Evans put together an exceptional combine with great speed and leaping ability for a player his size. No player in the draft is better on contested throws, and every quarterback wants a target like this. Evans uses his reach, jumping ability and long frame to beat shorter defenders like a good rebounder (and he was a good rebounder on the basketball court). I've been concerned about his off-the-line quickness, but he clearly has good top-end speed. Evans could also be a versatile threat -- used on the edge or in the slot to create matchup problems -- because you simply can't defend his size. Seems likely to land in the top 10 now.

Evans did not make as big a jump on ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s list of the top 32 players in the draft, but had already been in the top 10 and he moved up a spot to No. 7. Here is what McShay wrote in a post-combine update of his top 32 prospects:
[Evans] showcased excellent hands during the gauntlet drill at the combine, and his 4.53 40 time is good for a receiver his size. I've been describing him as a pit bull in terms of his on-field competitiveness; he is one of the best receivers I've ever seen in terms of coming down with contested catches, and he is the most proven downfield threat in this class. I expect him to come off the board somewhere between Nos. 10 and 20.

Southern Cal wide receiver Marqise Lee is No. 15 on Kiper's Big Board while McShay has Louisville safety Calvin Pryor as the 15th-best prospect in the draft. Pryor is one spot ahead of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
PITTSBURGH -- Two cornerbacks who should interest the Pittsburgh Steelers cemented their standing as the top two players at their positions on the final day of the NFL scouting combine.

Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert posted blazing times of 4.35 and 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash Tuesday morning, while Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard checked in with times of 4.42 and 4.46.

Gilbert
Dennard
The times are unofficial -- the official one for each player is likely to be higher -- but both Gilbert and Dennard showed that speed won't be an issue when it comes to their pre-draft evaluations.

The bigger question is did each help himself enough at the combine to move out of the Steelers’ range at No. 15?

At least one team ahead of the Steelers -- the Lions at No. 10 -- has a glaring need at cornerback, and the position has taken on even greater importance with teams increasingly using three cornerbacks to counter pass-centric offenses in the NFL.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Gilbert and Dennard ranked No. 16 and No. 18, respectively, on his list of the top players in the draft. Kiper has said the two should jockey for the top position at their position all the way up to the draft.

Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, which is given to the top college defensive back in the country, is the more physical of the two players. He recorded 62 tackles and intercepted four passes last season.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last season while playing in the pass-happy Big 12, and he said playing in a conference where cornerbacks can do anything but hide should help him make the transition to the NFL.

“I think that Big 12 defensive backs are some of the best DBs in the country and college football,” Gilbert told reporters in Indianapolis. “Sometimes we're overlooked because we give up plays, but at the same time we have way more plays coming at us instead of say, for instance, the SEC. They have a lot of run attacks where the corners are not being a lot pressured. So we have a lot to live up to.

History says that neither Gilbert nor Dennard will be the Steelers' first-round pick in May.

The Steelers have not used a first-round pick selection on a cornerback since 1997, when they chose Chad Scott. Also, the draft appears to be a deep one at cornerback, and the Steelers should be able to fetch a couple of quality prospects in later rounds, something they did in 2011 when they picked Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth round, respectively.

On the flip side, if there is ever a year for the Steelers to take a cornerback in the first round -- this is it.

They only have three experienced cornerbacks on their roster, and 11th-year veteran Ike Taylor is going to have to accept a big pay cut to return to the Steelers. Allen is the only cornerback on the roster with any upside, making it a must that the Steelers add young talent at a position where general manager Kevin Colbert has said the team is lacking depth.

Dennard over Gilbert or Gilbert over Dennard?

It would be real interesting to see what the Steelers do if they are in a position to make that choice.

SPONSORED HEADLINES