AFC North: Mike Tomlin

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are ever going to use a first-round draft pick again on a cornerback – they have not done so since 1997 – this would appear to be the year to do it.

Cornerback and outside linebacker are the Steelers’ biggest need with the draft five weeks away.

And with the draft “rich” in pass-rushers, according to coach Mike Tomlin, it makes sense for the Steelers to address cornerback first and then target outside linebackers.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said the three most likely cornerback candidates for the Steelers to pick in the first round are Washington’s Marcus Peters, LSU’s Jalen Collins and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson.

All three come with concerns.

Peters was kicked off Washington’s team last November after a series of run-ins with coaches. Collins started only 10 games in three seasons at LSU and recently underwent foot surgery. Johnson, meanwhile, might be better playing off coverage and the Steelers like to use their cornerback in press coverage.

But all three are widely projected as first-round picks – the Steelers have the No. 22 overall selection -- and for good reason.

Peters might be the most talented cornerback in the draft and Collins might be the best long-term prospect at the position. Johnson, meanwhile, is polished and experienced and oozes confidence, a trait that is critical for cornerbacks.

Two cornerbacks to also keep an eye on when it comes to the Steelers, Kiper said, are UConn’s Byron Jones and Utah's Eric Rowe.

Jones tested as well as anyone as the NFL combine, is a high-character kid and has position flexibility. Like Jones, Rowe tested well at the combine and also has experience playing safety.

“He tested like a first-round and played like a high pick as well at a variety of positions,” Kiper said of Rowe.

Jones did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine because he was still recovering from shoulder surgery. But he set a broad jump record with 12 feet, 3 inches – no one had ever exceeded 12 feet at the combine -- and also recorded a vertical leap of 44 inches.

“He's a really good 40 time away from having one of the better corner workouts we've ever seen," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said after the combine.

Jones is slated to run next Tuesday at UConn’s pro day and it will be interesting to see who the Steelers send to Storrs to watch the workout.

Florida State is also staging its pro day on March 31, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that is among the annual showcases he never misses.

Jones will only boost his draft stock if he runs at his pro day. Kiper said on Thursday that it would not “shock” him if Jones works his way into the first round and is selected in the range where the Steelers pick.

PHOENIX – There is a lot of uncertainty on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense as Kevin Colbert illustrated earlier this week.

The Steelers general manager said he sees as many as five spots open as far as starting jobs -- both cornerback positions, both outside linebacker positions and inside linebacker alongside Pro Bowler Lawrence Timmons.

Two spots secure as any on defense are end, where Cameron Heyward has established himself as a cornerstone of the unit despite starting for only one full season and where Stephon Tuitt has a chance to really come into his own in his second season.

Tuitt, a second-round draft pick in 2014, took some time to adjust to the NFL and get comfortable in the Steelers' defense.

But he started the final four games of the regular-season after Brett Keisel went down with a triceps tear and showed flashes of why the Steelers thought they got a steal when the former Notre Dame standout slipped to the second round.

No play stood out -- and revealed Tuitt’s enormous potential – more than when the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder throttled Jamaal Charles from behind after the Kansas City Chiefs running back caught a screen pass.

Tuitt, who showed excellent pursuit on the play, forced a fumble that loomed large in the Steelers’ 20-12 win.

“I think his arrow was pointed up at the end of the season and from that standpoint it’s exciting,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He didn’t die on the vine the way some rookies are capable of dying. He’s a talented young guy. He was a third-year guy out of Notre Dame when we drafted him.If you look at our football team some of the most dynamic contributors have come to us under those circumstances -- Maurkice Pouncey, Le'Veon Bell, Lawrence Timmons and others. If that group is an indication of where he is capable of going then that’s exciting.”

Tomlin should be just as excited about Heyward, who doesn’t have Tuitt’s growth potential only because he has already established himself as one of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.

Heyward led the Steelers with 21 quarterback pressures in 2014 and tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks. The 2011 first-round draft pick is carrying on the Steelers' legacy at defensive end, one he inherited from Aaron Smith and Keisel, his mentor.

“Cam Heyward is the core central leader to our defense and a good one,” Tomlin said. “He’s a good player. He’s got good football character. He’s hard-working. He’s a good communicator and he’s vocal. It’s been fun to watch him ascend over his years with us to that role. I look forward to him continuing to grow in that role.”

PHOENIX -- Steve McLendon had the misfortune of following Casey Hampton, who made five Pro Bowls in 12 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and looked the part of nose tackle as much as any player ever did.

But McLendon, a battler who made the NFL as an undrafted free agent, has held his own since replacing Hampton in the middle of Steelers’ defense. The fifth-year veteran received a vote of confidence from coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday.

McLendon fought through a recurring shoulder in jury that cost him four games in 2014 to record 18 tackles and a sack. The 6-foot-4 McLendon, who played at around 330 pounds last season, also helped the Steelers finish sixth in the NFL in rushing defense (100.3 yards per game) in 2014.

“I was really pleased with his growth and development over the last 12 months, particularly during the season,” Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. “It was a difficult season for him because he faced some injury adversity, but I think that’s an opportunity for growth. I think he displayed that growth in terms of how he dealt with the discomfort associated with injuries and how he was able to push through and be what it is we needed him to be in the midst of those things.”

A couple of notes:

  • Dri Archer will not only get a chance to win back the kickoff returner job he lost last season, but the 2014 third-round draft pick might also get an opportunity to return punts with the Steelers possibly looking to ease the burden on All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. “I’m excited about where (punt returner) may go for us this year whether it’s Antonio Brown, whether it’s Dri Archer whether it’s a player to be named later,” Tomlin said.
  • Tomlin has been asked several times at the owners meetings about the early retirement of Jason Worilds and has applauded the former Steelers outside linebacker for following his heart. “I respect any man’s decision to choose to work in this business or not work in this business,” Tomlin said. “It’s a tough way to earn a living. And you have to be 100 percent committed to it, and if you are not then that is the appropriate decision. I champion that.
  • Tomlin has no imminent plans to add another coach to his staff. The Steelers seemingly have an opening for a defensive assistant after Joey Porter and Jerry Olsavsky were promoted to fill Keith Butler’s spot at linebackers coach -- they are splitting duties -- when Butler succeeded Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator. Tomlin said he might hire another defensive assistant, or not. “We are comfortable with the collection of men that we have working right now,” Tomlin said.

PHOENIX – Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have talked so reverently about James Harrison at the NFL owners meetings you would think the outside linebacker retired.

Harrison has, in fact, done the opposite, signing a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this week.

Harrison said on social media last Saturday that he would pick between the Steelers and Tennessee Titans where Dick LeBeau is now running the defense. The five-time Pro Bowler revealed on the “Ike Taylor Show” how difficult a decision it turned out to be for him.

“I wanted to be with [LeBeau] again, to be honest with you. I am not going to sugarcoat it,” Harrison said Tuesday on TribLive Radio. “It was real hard. You know how it is with Dicky. You don’t want to let him down. You want to be loyal to him to a fault.”

Harrison said he had been in contact with LeBeau, who joined the Titans as an assistant head coach/defense last month. He promised to call LeBeau if the Steelers made him an offer.

Harrison signed a two-year, $2.75 million contract with Pittsburgh, continuing an unlikely chapter that started when the Steelers talked him out of retirement last September. He said the Titans offered him the same deal but the pull of LeBeau wasn’t quite enough to convince Harrison to turn down the Steelers.

“It wasn’t good business move to go to Tennessee because I would’ve had to uproot everything,” Harrison said. “I already had everything in Pittsburgh combined with the fact that my legacy is in Pittsburgh.”

The Steelers were happy to land Harrison given their need at outside linebacker and the value he also provides as a leader and example in the locker room.

“He’s got a unique experience and a unique story and a unique journey,” Tomlin said of Harrison. “I think that he’s a walking, talking, breathing blue-print for our young guys particularly at the position, many of which grew up watching him do it for us. I think he’s embracing that. I think he has a level of appreciation for that. I think that it’s his way of giving back to a game that’s been obviously a tremendous blessing to him.”

PHOENIX -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't borrow from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers Tuesday and tell fans to R-E-L-A-X over the situation at cornerback.

The eighth-year coach is confident the Steelers will be more than capable at cornerback in 2015 despite the inexperience they have at the position and finishing 27th in the NFL against the pass last season.

"I expect the guys that we have to continue to grow and get better," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "I expect to add credible, competent men to add to that mix to provide competition and put them in a competitive environment and see who comes out on top. I'm completely comfortable that at the end of that we're going to have above the line corner play."

The Steelers have just three cornerbacks with NFL experience on their roster, though Antwon Blake is expected to sign the one-year, $1.554 million contract the team offered him as a restricted free agent.

Tomlin cited Blake as a young cornerback who made some big plays last season and is on the rise.

The Steelers expect him to at least replace Brice McCain, who signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins earlier this month. Tomlin said he is also confident Cortez Allen will rebound from a season in which he battled injuries and twice lost jobs because of ineffectiveness.

The Steelers hosted free-agent cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Sterling Moore last week but each signed one-year deals with other teams.

Both Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert said this week the Steelers are most likely to add to the position through the draft. The team could draft several cornerbacks early and use a first-round pick on one -- which would be the first time since 1997 when the Steelers selected Chad Scott.

The Steelers have largely shrugged off questions and concerns about the cornerback position after allowing 253 passing yards per game last season, and so far losing instead of adding players at the position.

Tomlin explained why Tuesday at the media breakfast for AFC coaches.

"We believe in the process that we go through and we also believe in the men that we have," Tomlin said. "I know some of the guys that we have on our roster at the position right now don't have extended resumes. That's always the case. How do you gain experience without going through the process of gaining experience? These guys are driven and they want to be positive contributors to our efforts and reasons why we're successful and some of those guys played key roles down the stretch last year."

PHOENIX -- The Pittsburgh Steelers opted for change when they promoted linebackers coach Keith Butler to defensive coordinator to replace Dick LeBeau.

One thing that put coach Mike Tomlin at ease with the move is that it offered change but not upheaval.

[+] EnlargeKeith Butler
George Gojkovich/Getty Images"Change isn't something that I fear," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the switch to Keith Butler, above, as the team's defensive coordinator. "If you are trying to be the very best that you can be you can't have that mentality."

And that's from an organizational, philosophical and even personal standpoint.

Tomlin and Butler have coached together in three different places. They first worked with each other in 1996, when Butler coached the linebackers and defensive ends at Memphis and Tomlin served as his graduate assistant.

"The nature of our relationship has changed over the years and I enjoy that," Tomlin said with a laugh while chatting with Pittsburgh reporters at the NFL owners meetings. "We have a great deal of comfort and continuity. Also I'm looking forward to the impact he can have of putting his spin on what we have been doing. I am excited about how that might make us different and more competitive as we move forward. Change isn't something that I fear. If you are trying to be the very best that you can be, you can't have that mentality."

Butler, at best, inherits a defense that is in transition. The more cynical view is that Butler has been handed a defense with more holes than a bad alibi.

Either way, he will try to mold a respectable unit that can complement an offense that could again be one of the best in the NFL.

Butler has said he won't fundamentally change the Steelers' approach to defense. But he will have his own ideas when it comes to shutting down the run and rushing the passer -- areas in which the Steelers have slipped the past two years as the defense has been too old in some places, but too callow in others.

When asked if the Steelers needed a new pair of eyes on the defense after 11 seasons of LeBeau as the coordinator, Tomlin said, "With change come some positive things. It also comes with some potential negative things. It is our job to potentially work to minimize the negative associated with change, and that's being on the same page and having an understanding of what we are trying to get done specifically and culturally. Some of the positives are that you are somewhat less known in terms of your personality or [what] your agenda may be."

LeBeau is one of the most innovative defensive minds in NFL history, but his signature zone blitzes may have lost the element of surprise, given how long he had run the defense in Pittsburgh.

Tomlin, however, said defensive shortcomings or breakdowns usually result from a lack of execution rather than an issue with scheme. That is generally true for teams across the board, he said.

"Just know that we have a great deal of love and respect for not only the man, but what he brought to us," Tomlin said of LeBeau, who is now running the Tennessee Titans' defense. "He moved on and we feel that we have a very capable man in Keith Butler."

PHOENIX -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he expects Mike Mitchell to play better in 2015. He also is “not opposed” to Mitchell playing strong safety given the uncertainty at the position.

The Steelers plan to move on from 12th-year veteran Troy Polamalu, putting Shamarko Thomas in line to start at strong safety in 2015. Thomas, however, has played primarily on special teams in his first two seasons, and his inexperience coupled with Mitchell’s aggressive sensibilities could cause the Steelers to take a look at Mitchell at strong safety.

[+] EnlargeGreen
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMike Mitchell recorded 70 tackles last season despite battling a groin injury.

Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers last March, started every game at free safety in 2014 and finished second on the team with 70 tackles. The sixth-year veteran did not record a sack or interception and was credited with just three passes defensed.

Mitchell became a target of fan ire even though he had to adjust to a new defense and also played through a groin injury in 2014. Tomlin said Mitchell is close to full strength and that the injury is a “non-issue.”

Familiarity with the Steelers, Tomlin said, will lead to significant improvement in Mitchell's second season with the team.

“That experience that comes with being in our environment and how we do business I think is a platform for them to improve,” Tomlin said Monday at the NFL owners meetings. “I say that all the time in regards people who have had a lap around the track with us, whether it’s an unrestricted free agent like Mike Mitchell or whether it’s a drafted guy.”

Mitchell, despite his struggles last season, is as sure a thing as the Steelers have on the back end of their defense right now.

Thomas hasn’t played significant snaps on defense since the first half of his rookie season and Polamalu has almost certainly played his last down for the Steelers even though the eight-time Pro Bowler has two years left on his contract.

The Steelers are giving Polamalu time as he mulls retiring or playing in 2015 with the hope he calls it a career so they don’t have to release him.

Team president Art Rooney II said last Friday that he had no update on Polamalu. General manager Kevin Colbert said on Sunday that the team has not set any deadline as far as Polamalu making a decision on his future.

“I’m not getting into Troy,” Tomlin said about the future Pro Football Hall of Famer. “That’s been documented. Art’s made comments and I don’t need to add on to that. It doesn’t serve as any purpose.”

PHOENIX -- The re-signing of James Harrison gives the Pittsburgh Steelers what general manager Kevin Colbert called a potentially “nice problem” at right outside linebacker.

Jarvis Jones returns at the position, and the Steelers really need the 2013 first-round draft pick to emerge in his third NFL season. Jones may have been on the verge of doing that in 2014 before dislocating his right wrist in the third game while sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and forcing a fumble.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJames Harrison shined for the Steelers after Jarvis Jones suffered an injury early in the 2014 season.

That injury pretty much cost Jones the rest of the season. It also provided the opening that Harrison took full advantage of after ditching retirement -- and has led to his return for another season.

Colbert said he expects an “open competition” between Jones and Harrison for the starting job at right outside linebacker though he added it is something that is ultimately coach Mike Tomlin’s call.

“Jarvis has to come in and he has to pick up where he left off before he injured his wrist because I really think he was playing very well at that point,” Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings. "But to have James there to spell him, push him and compete, we can’t help but benefit from having the two of them.”

Colbert said Jones has the capability of playing left outside linebacker where Arthur Moats is the starter for now.

But Jones, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, doesn’t have the size to play regular snaps on the strong side of the defense. It’s also hard to imagine the Steelers moving Jones from right outside linebacker even if Harrison beats him out for the starting job.

Harrison turns 37 next month and Colbert acknowledged that the Steelers will have to manage his playing time to maximize production from the five-time Pro Bowler.

“One, you know what he can do and you hope that he can still do it,” Colbert said of Harrison. “The other, you’ve seen flashes and you want to see more. I think it’s a comfort to know that if one fails you have a fallback. I know in James’ situation he is not going to come in and view himself anything else than starter-capable and that’s why he is who he is.”

The Steelers would love nothing more than for Jones to seize the starting job at right outside linebacker and force them to find ways to also get Harrison on the field. That is the ideal scenario at outside linebacker where Harrison, Jones and Moats are the only players on the roster with NFL experience.

“Whatever depth we add or whatever picks we add in the draft, it’s going to be a nice, competitive situation,” Colbert said of the Steelers’ outside linebackers. "And with coach [Keith] Butler coordinating the defense, there may be some different combinations and alignments that they use. That’s something we will have to wait and see.”

Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes said he has pre-draft visits lined up with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars.

He also has private workouts scheduled with the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans.

The Pittsburgh Steelers might bring in Waynes for a pre-draft visit. Or maybe they saw enough Wednesday at Michigan State's pro day and simply hope that they have a chance at drafting the player who is widely considered the best cornerback in the draft.

Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran well in other drills at the Spartans’ pro day with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake watching.

What pleased Waynes as much as anything: The 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback got a good review after his workout from close friend and former Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

“I’m just trying to be like him,” Waynes told reporters. “When I was here, he was one of those guys that was hardest on me just because he saw my potential early on and he pushed me to be the player I could.”

The Steelers had a chance to draft Dennard last year, but they opted for linebacker Ryan Shazier at No. 15 overall and Dennard went 24th to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers might not have a chance to draft Waynes unless they trade up from No. 22 overall. They have only traded up once in the first round for a defensive player since Colbert joned the organization in 2000.

They drafted a transcendent talent in 2003 when they moved up from No. 27 to No. 16 to take Troy Polamalu. Waynes does not project as the same kind of game-changer, but the Steelers' need at cornerback is so acute that they could consider trying to move up in the first round to get a shot at taking Waynes.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each rank Waynes as the 16th-best player in the draft. The overall need for cornerbacks in what has become a passing league could push Waynes into the early teens of the draft, if not higher.

And Waynes, who played just three seasons at Michigan State, said his best football is ahead of him.

“I feel like I tackle well and run with people, but everything can use improving, obviously,” he said. “I’m not at the best or highest level right now.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers took another long look at defensive end Bud Dupree on Thursday at Kentucky's Pro Day.

Coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and outside linebackers coach Joey Porter all attended the Wildcats’ workout and had a chance to talk to Dupree afterward.

Dupree did not run the 40-yard dash, opting to stand with the time he posted last month at the NFL scouting combine.

Dupree stood out in Indianapolis, running the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and recording a vertical leap of 42 inches.

Some of his shine from the combine has faded as Dupree is not listed among ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s top 25 players in the draft or ESPN Todd McShay’s top 32.

ESPN lists Dupree as the fourth-best outside linebacker in the draft, behind Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Washington’s Shaq Thompson, and Virginia’s Eli Harold.

Outside linebacker is shaping up as the Steelers’ biggest need with the draft six weeks away.

They signed Arthur Moats to a three-year, $7.5 million contract, Monday but lost any possibility of re-signing Jason Worilds when he opted for early retirement.

The pool of pass-rushers in free agency has thinned considerably, and the Steelers have not been involved with the upper-tier outside linebackers.

They will almost surely draft an outside linebacker within the first three rounds, and the question they have to answer about Dupree is whether he is a better athlete than football player.

The 6-foot-4, 259-pounder has good size and dropped into pass coverage at Kentucky. Dupree recorded 7 sacks last season and 23 for his career. But there are questions about his instincts, and whether he plays with the kind of intensity that will be demanded at the next level.

The Steelers will do plenty of homework on Dupree, and it will be interesting to see when they bring him to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit.
PITTSBURGH -- There is significant change coming with Keith Butler succeeding Dick LeBeau as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator.

But that is more in Butler’s increased responsibilities and not in the Steelers’ fundamental approach to playing defense, general manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this week.

“The coaches will determine the X's and O's [but] I don’t anticipate a huge difference,” Colbert said.

Both Butler and team president Art Rooney II have said Pittsburgh won’t deviate much from what it did under LeBeau, the Steelers’ defensive coordinator from 2004-14. And Butler shares the same philosophy as LeBeau, whom he worked under for 11 of his 12 seasons with the Steelers.

That doesn’t mean Butler won’t get a chance to put his stamp on a defense that recorded just 33 sacks last season and allowed 4.36 yards per carry, the highest yielded by the Steelers since 1964, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Far from it, Butler will now be more involved in personnel discussions than he had been as the Steelers’ linebackers coach from 2003-14.

“In the past we only got Keith’s input on linebackers. Now he’s going to be talking about defensive linemen, he’s going to be talking about secondary people, so there will be a learning experience for us to hear what his preferences are for those positions,” Colbert said. “We know what he likes and doesn’t like as a linebackers coach, but now it will be the whole defense.”

The Steelers started full staff personnel discussions on Wednesday with position coaches offering grades on players from last season.

Colbert, Tomlin and the Steelers’ scouts and assistant coaches are also putting together the team’s plan for free agency based on needs and players who might be available after the new league year starts on March 10.

Colbert said the list of outside free agents the Steelers may target will be around 30 players. That number, Colbert said, is based on the players the Steelers anticipate being available and those who are within their price range.

“We’ll certainly be looking at improving the pass rush and improving the coverage in the secondary,” Colbert said.
PITTSBURGH -- Outside linebacker Jason Worilds will be prominent in formal discussions that start Wednesday at Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters.

Worilds tops the list of Steelers free agents, and general manager Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and their respective staffs will meet the rest of the week to talk about free agency and evaluate their own players in advance of March 10, the start of the NFL’s new year.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of Jason Worilds, either as a Steeler or as a potential player for someone else’s team,” Colbert said. “He’s definitely somebody we’ll consider keeping and see where the market goes.”

The Steelers have the option of using a transition tag on Worilds, which would prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent, for the second year in a row. Worilds recorded 7 sacks in 2014, tying for the team lead, and retaining the fifth-year veteran's services should be a priority for the Steelers given their uncertainty at outside linebacker.

Jarvis Jones is the only outside linebacker on the roster signed for 2015 who has NFL experience.

Colbert said the Steelers would like to stay away from tagging any player -- teams are allowed to use one tag, either franchise or transition, per year -- and instead sign any players they are considering for that designation to a long-term contract. Teams are allowed to start tagging players Monday.

The Steelers paid Worilds $9.754 million in 2014 after the two sides were unable to agree to a multi-year contract before the start of the regular season.

The Steelers have less than $2.8 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information, if it rises from $133 to $140 million, as has been widely projected.

However, Colbert said the Steelers are in better shape than they have been in past years in regard to the salary cap.

The Steelers had to make a number of cuts last year as well as restructure contracts to get in compliance with the cap at the start of the new NFL year. That didn’t stop them from signing a handful of outside free agents, including safety Mike Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers.

“I don’t think we’ll have to do as much work to get in compliance with the cap as maybe we have previously,” Colbert said. “I think we’ll be in a manageable area.”
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel is still mulling his football future.

But a freshly shaved Keisel gave a strong indication Wednesday night that he will return for another season if the Steelers want him back.

“I’ve been preparing for when that day comes, and by 'that day' I mean the end,” Keisel told reporters at his Shear Da Beard charity event. “But right now I’m under contract and I’m going to rehab and see (how) things turn out.”

Keisel’s 13th NFL season ended in late November when he tore his triceps in the Steelers’ 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The injury and his advanced football age raised questions about whether the 36-year-old Keisel has played his last down for the Steelers.

The Steelers’ change in defensive coordinator from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler cast more uncertainty on the future of Keisel and a handful of veterans.

But, much like veteran outside linebacker James Harrison, Keisel proved he could still play last season after the Steelers re-signed him in August.

Keisel finished fourth on the Steelers with 12 quarterback pressures despite missing the last four games. He also batted down six passes and made his second career interception.

Rookie Stephon Tuitt emerged after Keisel went down, and the 2014 second-round draft pick has the look of a cornerstone player. But Keisel had to accept a part-time role when he returned last season, and the Steelers don’t have much at defensive end behind Tuitt and Cameron Heyward.

Keisel and Cam Thomas are each signed for one more season, and if it comes down to a choice between the two, it's close to a no-brainer to bring Keisel back.

Thomas is younger and also plays nose tackle. But Keisel outplayed him in 2014 and Thomas' position flexibility isn't as valuable since the Steelers already have a pair of nose tackles in Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers, who will play more in 2015 if he makes the improvement coach Mike Tomlin expects from players in their second NFL seasons.

Whatever the Steelers decide to do, Keisel seems at peace with what happens next.

“It’s getting close,” he said of retirement. “That’s the way this business goes.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers will make their first pick in the draft, assuming they keep it, in both familiar and unfamiliar territory.

The Steelers are used to drafting in the bottom half of the first round. However, just one time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 have they had the No. 22 overall pick.

That came in 1978 when the Steelers selected cornerback Ron Johnson.

Johnson played all seven of his NFL seasons with the Steelers and intercepted 13 passes in 91 career games.

What is interesting, with cornerback one of the Steelers’ biggest needs, is they are right in the wheelhouse of where they picked the last two times they addressed the position in the first round.

The Steelers selected Maryland cornerback Chad Scott with the No. 24 pick in 1997 and Colorado cornerback Deon Figures with the 23rd overall pick in 1993.

As acute as the Steelers’ need is at cornerback, it is anything but a sure thing that they will use their first pick on one.

The Steelers haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round in almost 20 years and they have just as much of a need at outside linebacker.

Then there is this from ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay: “There’s a lot of good corners but there seems to be varying issues with most of them."

The good news for the Steelers is the draft appears to set up for what they need. McShay said the draft is a good one defensively, though not particularly strong at defensive tackle and inside linebacker.

The last thing the Steelers need is to add to the crowd they have at inside linebacker through the draft.

“I think when you talk about defensive front seven, it’s a really good group, especially in the perimeter,” McShay said.

The Steelers are expected to focus on defense in the offseason but coach Mike Tomlin said the team won’t “neglect” other areas as it adds pieces in free agency and the draft.

“Just because we have some outstanding, front-line guys on offense, it doesn’t mean that we can’t get better,” Tomlin said. “It might be as simple as fortifying depth in some positions.”