NFL Nation: Pittsburgh Steelers

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Thursday that it might make more sense for the Pittsburgh Steelers to use their first-round pick on a cornerback instead of an outside linebacker.

He based the opinion on players who could be available at No. 22 overall, not what is the bigger need for the Steelers.

Kiper Jr. said cornerbacks such as LSU’s Jalen Collins, Washington’s Marcus Peters, and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson could all be on the board when the Steelers make their first pick of the draft.

The pool at outside linebacker won't be as deep with pass-rushers such as Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Clemson’s Vic Beasley all expected to be taken before the 22nd pick.

Kentucky’s Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Virginia’s Eli Harold could be the Steelers’ best options in the first round if they pick an outside linebacker prospect, Kiper Jr. said.

Both tested very well at the NFL scouting combine, and Dupree is a physical specimen and an athletic marvel.

The 6-4, 260-pounder ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds, recorded a 42-inch vertical leap, and a broad jump of 11-feet, 6-inches.

The one question teams may have about Dupree is why he did not take over games more often in college.

"You look at him in paper and say he’s a top-15 pick, at worst a top-25 pick," Kiper Jr. said. "But I didn’t see consistent domination, and I saw some instances where there was a little bit of a lack of great instincts to find the ball. To me he’s a first-round pick, but you want to see if you can make him more consistent. As a pass-rusher you turn him loose with that skill set, he flashed it."

Dupree recorded eight sacks last season and 23 for his career, so it’s not like there is a serious disconnect between his physical ability and production in college.

"I wouldn’t say he’s a boom-or-bust,” Kiper Jr. said, "but he’s not a guarantee, because his performances at Kentucky were a little bit up and down."
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds has probably played his last down for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 There have been no contract talks between the two sides, and the Steelers won’t use a transition tag to keep Worilds from becoming an unrestricted free agent on March 10.

Unless there is a sluggish market for Worilds -- something that is unlikely since he is only 26 years old and one of the better pass rushers who is poised to hit the open market -- the fifth-year veteran will be playing elsewhere in 2015.

Less certain is what will happen with strong safety Troy Polamalu.

The eight-time Pro Bowler is coming off a season in which he did not intercept a pass or record a sack for the first time since 2007. Polamalu turns 34 in April and has clearly lost a step, but he apparently has no plans on retiring.

Cornerback Ike Taylor told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh that Polamalu is already training with the intent of playing next season.

Polamalu is still under contract with the Steelers for two more seasons, but he is due a base salary of $6 million in 2015.

That is too much money for a player whose skills have declined but it is one thing to ask Taylor to take a pay cut -- something the Steelers did last year -- quite another to do it with Polamalu.

And that is if the Steelers want Polamalu back.

If the Steelers decide it is time to move on from Polamalu, it is not without recent precedent as far as cutting ties with an iconic player. It was, after all, just three years ago that the Steelers released Hines Ward, their all-time leading receiver, even though he clearly wanted to return for another season.

Ward's exit served as a stark reminder that the Steelers rarely, if ever, allow sentiment to enter the equation when faced with tough football or business decisions.

That probaly doesn't bode well for Polamalu unless there is a compromise to be found between the 12th-year veteran and the Steelers -- in the form of a pay cut.
The Pittsburgh Steelers saved almost $4 million in regard to the 2015 salary cap when they restructured right tackle Marcus Gilbert ’s contract.

The Steelers converted a $3.5 million roster bonus that would have been due next month and $1.15 million of Gilbert’s base salary for 2015 into a signing bonus, per ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates, creating $3.724 million in cap savings for the upcoming year.

The Steelers were $1.92 million over the projected salary cap for 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information, before restructuring Gilbert’s five-year, $30 million deal.

That is based on the cap rising from $133 to $140 million, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter has reported that the salary cap for 2015 will be at least $140 million. The 2015 spending ceiling for teams could come in as high as $143 million, per Schefter.

The Gilbert restructuring should put the Steelers in compliance with the 2015 cap, something teams are required to do by March 10 at 4 p.m. ET.

The Steelers, however, have work in front of them as they have to create enough salary cap room to be active in free agency, which starts at March 10, the first day of the NFL’s new league year.

Troy Polamalu is due a base salary of $6 million in 2015 and the Steelers will have a hard decision to make if the eight-time Pro Bowl safety does not opt for retirement.

The Steelers could ask Polamalu to take a pay cut or release the future Pro Football Hall of Fame safety.

Team president Art Rooney II has said he wants Polamalu to play his entire career for the Steelers.
James Harrison putting retirement on hold does not mean he will be back in Pittsburgh in 2015.

And that is even if the Steelers want to re-sign the five-time Pro Bowl player, with depth at outside linebacker among their biggest concerns.

Harrison, who announced on social media that he intends to play in 2015, could be more likely to follow Dick LeBeau to Tennessee than to suit up for the Steelers for another season.

His loyalty to the former Steelers defensive coordinator knows no bounds. And LeBeau might want Harrison to provide a short-term charge to the Titans' defense while providing an example to Tennessee’s younger players with his maniacal work ethic and approach to the game.

The timing might be right for the Steelers and Harrison to make a break once and for all.

The Steelers have to commit to their younger players on defense – and specifically Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker.

Harrison probably would balk at returning to the Steelers as insurance if Jones gets hurt again or falters after recording just three sacks in his first 21 games.

He might not embrace relocating, if only temporarily, but LeBeau is the one coach Harrison would follow just about anywhere.

That is why he is more likely to play for the Titans in 2015 than the Steelers.
Kevin Johnson, a cornerback who has been linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers in multiple mock drafts, will look different at the NFL scouting combine than the player teams saw at Wake Forest.

Johnson has added more than 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame and he will show how well he carries it Monday when he runs the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis. Johnson said he expects to run the 40 in the low 4.4-second range.

If Johnson accomplishes that, it could move teams such as the Steelers toward Johnson’s opinion of himself.

"I'm the best cornerback in the draft,” he said. “I think I'm a lockdown cornerback."

Johnson has good length for a cornerback and he started four seasons at Wake Forest, intercepting eight passes and developing the kind of skills that could make him a first-round pick at the end of April. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Johnson as the fourth-best cornerback in the draft. ESPN analyst Kevin Weidl ranks Johnson second among the cornerback in the draft, behind only Marcus Peters.

“I think I have excellent feet, hips, ball skills; I'm a competitor,” Johnson said. “I’m a student of the game and I'm a playmaker. I can do it all.”

That confidence should appeal to the Steelers, who will weigh heavily whether to take a cornerback in the first round of draft for the first time since 1997 when they selected Chad Scott with the 24th overall pick.

Another plus for Johnson is his growth potential.

Wake Forest listed him at 175 pounds last season. Johnson said he weighed 188 pounds at the combine and can add more bulk.

“I was a late bloomer,” Johnson said. ”My freshman year of high school, I was 5-feet tall and weighed 96 pounds. So I'm just growing every day. I'm still growing now."
Nate Orchard prefers to play defensive end, which is not surprising since he registered 18.5 sacks while manning the position last season at Utah.

“But a transition to outside linebackers wouldn’t be a problem because I’ve been dropping into coverage a lot,” Orchard said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Orchard is among the defensive ends in the draft that the Pittsburgh Steelers project as an outside linebacker at the next level. And he should be on their radar given his eye-popping production as a senior and the Steelers’ need at outside linebacker.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Orchard as the fourth-best outside linebacker prospect in the draft, and the latter will give teams that play 3-4 defenses a glimpse of how well he moves in space when he works out Sunday at the combine.

The Steelers pay particular attention to how defensive ends who project as outside linebackers look when dropping into coverage. But Orchard said he has experience playing the pass even though his forte in college was getting after the quarterback.

“Throughout my career I did a good bit of dropping [into coverage],” Orchard said. “I’d say probably a good 10 to 15 times a game.”

Orchard measured 6-foot-3 at the combine and weighed 250 pounds. He plans to add 10 pounds to help him deal with the offensive tackles he will face in the NFL since Orchard knows what will be expected from whatever team drafts him.

“Sacks win games at the end of the day,” said Orchard, who signed with Utah as a wide receiver before moving to defense. “That’s what teams are going to bring me in for and that’s what I’m going to perfect.”
Here are some quick hits based off player interviews at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
  • Jeremy Langford, who followed Le'Veon Bell as Michigan State’s starting running back, might not want to plan for a future in Seattle, unless Seahawks coach Pete Carroll appreciates brutal honesty. When asked what he would have called on the play from the New England Patriots' 1-yard line that resulted in an interception -- and decided the Super Bowl -- Langford said, “I would have run it. Easily. Marshawn Lynch is in the backfield.”
  • Nick Marshall played cornerback in the Senior Bowl but is attending the combine as a quarterback and will throw in Indianapolis. Marshall, who starred as a dual-threat quarterback at Auburn, probably has more of a future on the other side of the ball. And Marshall said he will perform defensive backs drills on the side for interested teams. Marshall has been training in Pensacola, Florida, with a number of draft prospects, including former teammate Sammie Coates. Coates, a wide receiver who is projected as a late first- or second-round pick, said Marshall has the ability to play cornerback at the next level. “He’s just one of them players, you can put him anywhere and he'll be showing you he can do it,” Coates said. “He needs to work because he hasn't done it in a while but I think he'll do great.”
  • Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, the 10th-rated player in the draft by ESPN analyst Todd McShay, lettered in five sports in high school, including tennis. Scherff was athletic enough that he played quarterback at 290 pounds even though he said he outweighed his center by 100 pounds. When asked if there was any concern that he might fall on his undersized center, Scherff said, “I told him to go left, and I’d go right. Yeah. Or vice versa.”
  • Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs is not readily mentioned as one of the top wide receivers in a draft class that is loaded with talented pass catchers again. Just don’t tell that to Diggs, who still had a season of eligibility when he declared for the draft. The 6-foot, 190-pounder said he is the best wideout in the draft after catching 62 passes for 792 yards and five touchdowns last season for the Terrapins. “I believe in my ability and my mental toughness,” said Diggs, who also returned four punts for touchdowns in college. “I know I can pick up a playbook, like anybody can, and I can compete with anybody.”
What worked against David Johnson coming out of high school could, ironically enough, help the Northern Iowa running back as teams give him a long look in advance of the 2015 NFL draft.

"I was tall and lanky," Johnson said of why he only received scholarship offers from Northern Iowa and Illinois State. "I was 190 [pounds] with clothes on. With me playing wide receiver in high school, a lot of teams were projecting me to play wide receiver in college."

Four years and 35 pounds later, Johnson has answered any questions about his size for a running back. And the receiving skills he developed in high school when he also played wide receiver could help distinguish Johnson among the running backs in the draft.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock has given Johnson a third-round grade and said the three-time 1,000-yard rusher could go higher than that in the draft.

Johnson, who had 203 receiving yards in a game against Iowa last season, shined at the Senior Bowl, and he could interest the Steelers given their need for a quality backup to Le'Veon Bell.

Johnson measured 6-foot at the combine --- he insists he is 6-1 – and weighed 224 pounds. Even though Johnson clearly established himself as a running back at Northern Iowa he said he continually polished his receiving skills, which should only help his draft stock.

"After practice, I always tried to work on my routes with the receivers," Johnson said.

A couple of notes
  • Duke wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who 283 career catches tied an ACC record, has spent a lot of time watching film of Steelers wideout Antonio Brown. Like Brown, the 5-8, 174-pound Crowder is not the biggest wideout and the two share something else. Scottie Montgomery worked closely with Brown as the Steelers wide receivers coach in 2010-12. He did the same the last two seasons with Crowder as Duke’s offensive coordinator. "Coach Mo thought that in college, my game could really be like Antonio," Crowder said. "I was given opportunity to sit down and watch film of Antonio Brown. I’m a smart guy. I try to watch a lot of guys, Brandin Cooks, TY Hilton, but Antonio Brown is the guy I watched the most."
  • T.J. Yeldon said he has interviewed with the Steelers at the combine and the Alabama running back is familiar with at least one player on the team. "I pretty much like Le’Veon Bell’s running style," said Yeldon, who rushed for 3,322 yards and 37 touchdowns in three seasons at Alabama, "I watch his highlights a lot." Yeldon said he is hoping to turn in a good time in the 40-yard dash at the combine to answer any questions teams may have about his speed.
One question teams won’t have about tight end Jesse James after the NFL scouting combine is whether he lacks confidence.

The NFL’s draft advisory board all but told James to return to Penn State for another season, and he declared for the draft anyway.

Jesse James
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsThe 6-foot-7 Jesse James caught 38 passes for 396 yards and three TDs last season at Penn State.
James is an intriguing prospect at tight end because of his size, and the 6-foot-7, 262-pounder is in Indianapolis this week trying to convince teams that he did not make a mistake by coming out early for the draft.

"I feel like I’m prepared and very confident in my ability to play at the next level," James said at the combine. "I feel I’m ready. The coaches that I’ve had in the past in my three years at Penn State prepared me for this, and I’m ready to go."

James said he has interviewed with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the combine, and they will take a long look at him for a couple of reasons.

General manager Kevin Colbert said recently that tight end is a "concern" and the Steelers need to add young depth at the position. Also, James grew up right outside of Pittsburgh, and the Steelers always do extra homework on prospects such as James so they don’t miss out on local players.

James will be an interesting evaluation.

He has tantalizing size and set Penn State’s record for most career touchdown receptions (11) by a tight end despite playing only three seasons for the Nittany Lions.

But James did not put up big numbers last season when he caught 38 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns, and there are questions about him as a blocker in spite of his size.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock has James pegged as a mid- to late-round pick even in a draft that is not especially strong at tight end.

"Maybe I can be a little more aggressive blocker, just finishing a little bit more and touching up on my technique," James said.

The NFL draft advisory board told James he would be drafted after the second round -- it doesn’t give prospects specific rounds they could be chosen after the first two rounds -- so he is betting on himself as he tries to sell himself to NFL teams.

James did spend his first two seasons at Penn State with Bill O’Brien, who coached Rob Gronkowski in New England before becoming the Nittany Lions’ head coach. And as a lifelong Steelers fan, James has studied Heath Miller.

"Actually looking at how he does things, he’s a balanced player," James said of Miller. "He works his butt off every play."
Dick LeBeau, in his farewell to Pittsburgh earlier this month, paid homage to the 2008 defense that led the Steelers to the Super Bowl title.

LeBeau, the coordinator of that esteemed defense, talked at length on a day honoring him about the key players on that unit.

And he certainly did not forget about Ryan Clark, who was often overshadowed by the great players on that defense, and especially by fellow safety Troy Polamalu.

"One of the smartest men and, pound for pound, maybe one of the toughest men I’ve ever seen,” LeBeau said of Clark during a ceremony in which Pittsburgh City Council gave LeBeau a symbolic key to the city.

Steelers fans would do well to remember those words when it comes to Clark’s legacy in Pittsburgh.

As hard-hitting off the field as he was on it – and he backed down from no one -- Clark could rankle fans, reporters and maybe even some of his teammates with his nonstop chatter and outspoken nature.

He infamously referred to the Pittsburgh media as “turds” in the midst of the Steelers’ 2009 second-half collapse. Two seasons later, a Steelers media relations staffer had to separate Clark and another reporter after they nearly came to blows at training camp.

If Clark’s look-at-me ways could be grating, they were also not surprising.

Clark had to fight his way into the NFL after going undrafted in 2002 and signing with the New York Giants.

He climbed the ranks as an undersized safety and never lost his edge even after he established himself as Polamalu’s running mate on the back end of the Steelers’ defense.

Clark served an indispensable role on some great Steelers’ defenses as his familiarity with Polamalu allowed the eight-time Pro Bowl safety to play all over the field, knowing that Clark had his back.

And Clark could deliver a pop.

Willis McGahee will never forget the shot that Clark delivered at the end of the 2008 AFC Championship Game -- if the former Baltimore Ravens running back remembers it in the first place.

Clark hit McGahee so hard that fans at Heinz Field weren’t sure whether to gasp or cheer, and the ghastly collision knocked out both players.

That willingness to give up his body is Clark’s legacy, as are the strong opinions he routinely offered while not giving a hoot about whom they ticked off.

In the end, Clark did it his way.

And he did it for 13 seasons in the NFL, overcoming a life-threatening injury along the way, while staying true to himself right up until he announced his retirement.
A closer look at the areas the Pittsburgh Steelers could address in the draft. The final one is a look at the cornerbacks, which are scheduled to work out Monday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: Forget that the Steelers have not drafted a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997. The highest pick they have used on a cornerback since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007 is a third-rounder, and neither Keenan Lewis (2009) nor Curtis Brown (2011) is still with the team. With veteran Ike Taylor at the end of his career and unlikely to return in 2015 and Cortez Allen coming off a disastrous season, the Steelers have little choice but to make the position a priority in the draft.

Three cornerbacks the Steelers could target in the draft:

Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Steelers fans were calling for the team to draft Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard a year ago. The Steelers bypassed Dennard, who went No. 24 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals, and now they will take a hard look at his college teammate. The 6-1, 186-pound Waynes has good size and is tough and physical. He has good ball skills -- Waynes intercepted three passes apiece in his two seasons as a starter in East Lansing -- and could be the top cornerback in a draft that lacks a surefire top prospect at the position. Waynes needs to improve his technique and get away from using his hands so much. But he will be hard to pass on if he is still available when the Steelers make the 22nd pick in the draft.

Jalen Collins, LSU: The 6-2, 198-pounder is fast and rangy and may have the most upside of any cornerback in the draft. The problem with Collins is he only started 10 career games at LSU and intercepted just three passes. If the Steelers are looking for immediate help at the position, Collins may give them pause since he still needs some work. But if they are patient with the player that NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock is really high on, there could be a significant reward down the line. Collins has all of the physical attributes to excel at the next level and his best football is still in front of him.

Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest: ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl ranks Johnson as the second-best cornerback prospect in the draft and compares him to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the 16th overall pick of the 2008 draft. Johnson started 31 career games at Wake Forest and intercepted seven passes while breaking up 32 of them. He is polished, fluid and has good size and Johnson could help right away. The 6-1, 175-pounder also has the frame to add more bulk, which will be necessary at the next level.
Marquee draft prospects from major schools will command a lot of attention at the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis. But here is a look at three prospects from smaller schools that the Pittsburgh Steelers may covet based on their needs.

CB Quinten Rollins, Miami (Ohio)

The good: The 6-foot-1, 203-pounder is a tremendous athlete who starred for the Red Hawks' basketball team before playing one season of football. All Rollins did in 2014 was intercept seven passes and win Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. Given Rollins' upside there may not be a more intriguing prospect in the draft.

The concern: Rollins has excellent quickness -- he is second in all-time steals for Miami’s men's basketball team -- but does not have great straight-line speed. He is also raw and has a significant learning curve ahead of him at the next level.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock on Rollins: “I’m a Quinten Rollins guy. He’s quick, he’s explosive, he’s got great jumping skills. I’m really intrigued by the kid. I think the one question I have along with all of the scouts is what is his long speed. If he runs 4.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) I’ll be really surprised and I think he’s a second-round pick all day long. He got beat a couple of times at the Senior Bowl and it didn’t look like he had makeup speed, so he’s one of the kids whose 40 is really important this week.”

RB David Johnson, Northern Iowa

The good: A big back with soft hands, Johnson had three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Northern Iowa. The 6-3, 225-pounder torched Iowa with 203 receiving yards last season and had a 19-yard touchdown run in the Senior Bowl.

The concern: Johnson did not consistently play against top-caliber competition at Northern Iowa, an FCS school.

Mayock on Johnson: “Tremendous size at running back combined with the ability to catch the football. He’s got great hands, he runs routes. He made a couple of stutter moves against the linebacker from Iowa that were just awesome. Then he comes to the Senior Bowl and he played really well. My one nitpick with him is given his size I’d like him to be more consistently physical. Instead of just bracing for contact I’d like to see him embrace contact. But I’ve got a third-round grade on him and he could go even higher.”

TE Nick Boyle, Delaware

The good: Another FCS prospect, Boyle has excellent size and sneaky athleticism. The 6-6, 270-pounder showed that in the Senior Bowl when he hurdled a defender after making a catch.

The concern: Not incredibly productive as a pass-catcher at Delaware. Boyle’s production dipped from his junior season when he caught 37 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns for the Blue Hens.

Mayock on Boyle: “An in-line tight end that’s a great blocker and also a receiver is getting more and more rare. Almost everybody is a hybrid in college football these days. That helps [Boyle]. I like him. He’s a 270-pound guy who I thought had a better Senior Bowl than he actually did during the season. He opened some eyes. I think he’s limited in the pass game but because he’s got such an upside as an inline blocker and H-back/fullback, I think he’s a valuable commodity. Opinions are all over the board on these tight ends. It’s a weak class. I think he’s probably going to go in the fourth or fifth round.”
A closer look at the areas the Pittsburgh Steelers could address in the draft. Next is our look at the outside linebacker prospects, which are scheduled to work out Sunday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Position of need: The Steelers managed just 33 sacks in 2014, their lowest total since 1989, and that is not the only reason why they may need an influx of talent at outside linebacker. No position could get hit harder in free agency as Jason Worilds, James Harrison and Arthur Moats all hit the open market on March 10 if the Steelers don’t re-sign them before then.

Three outside linebacker prospects the Steelers could target in the draft:

Alvin “Bud” Dupree, LB, Kentucky: Explosive and fast, Dupree is expected to test well at the combine, which could solidify his standing as a first-round draft pick. Dupree played some 3-4 outside linebacker even though he was a defensive end in Kentucky’s hybrid defense. The 6-foot-3, 268-pounder recorded 23½ career sacks and 38 tackles for losses at Kentucky and he could be the fourth edge pass rusher drafted after Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Florida’s Dante Fowler. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Dupree as the 25th-best player in the draft.

Lorenzo Mauldin, LB, Louisville: Mauldin is a high-character prospect who overcame a tough background -- he grew up in and out of foster homes -- to excel at Louisville. The 6-4, 256-pound player recorded 20½ career sacks and is relentless, playing with the kind of urgency that reflects his background and belief that failure is not an option. Mauldin, who played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Cardinals, does not project as a first-round selection. But he could be an option for the Steelers in the second round if they don’t take an outside linebacker prospect with their top pick.

Nate Orchard, LB, Utah: The 6-4, 255-pounder had a monster senior season, recording 17½ sacks and 20 tackles for losses and winning the Hendricks Award, given to the top defensive end in college football. Orchard, who signed with Utah as a wide receiver coming out of high school, continued to bolster his stock at the Senior Bowl. He flashed during the practices leading up to the annual all-star game and is widely projected as a second-round pick. One concern the Steelers could have is Orchard is not especially stout against the run. But he has the speed and athleticism to get to the quarterback and Orchard’s best football may be in front of him.
A closer look at the areas the Pittsburgh Steelers could address in the draft. We’ll get started with a look at the tight end position, with prospects scheduled to work out Friday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: Tight end is the lone position on offense where the Steelers have both short-term and long-term needs. Starter Heath Miller is the only tight end on the roster who has NFL experience and is signed for 2015. And the 10th-year veteran isn’t getting any younger -- Miller will turn 33 during the 2015 season. Backups Matt Spaeth and Michael Palmer are primarily blockers. Even if one or both return in 2015, the Steelers need to add youth and athleticism at tight end.

Three tight ends the Steelers could target in the draft:

Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams is intriguing as both a future successor to Miller and a player who could probably help the Steelers right away. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Williams arguably is the most complete tight end in the draft. He's a good blocker and also led the Golden Gophers in catches (36), receiving yards (569) and touchdowns (eight) last season. Williams played just two seasons – he redshirted his first year – and the Steelers love drafting underclassmen who still have plenty of room for growth. They would probably have to take Williams at No. 22 overall -- or trade down from there and select him -- because he should be long gone by the time the Steelers pick in the second round.

Clive Walford, Miami: The 6-4, 254-pound Walford could be the second tight end drafted and might even challenge Williams for the top spot. Walford caught 44 passes last season, seven of which scored touchdowns, and he led the Hurricanes with 676 receiving yards. Walford needs some polish as a route runner, but he has a chance to be an outstanding receiver at the next level. Walford, who played just one season of high school football before going to Miami, has made strides as a blocker and has the tools to be an asset in the running game at the next level.

Jesse James, Penn State: James is a local kid, having played at South Allegheny High School, outside of Pittsburgh, before spending three seasons at Penn State. The 6-foot-7, 254-pound James has tantalizing size with a frame that can easily hold more muscle. James set Penn State’s record for most career touchdown receptions (11) by a tight end but needs to improve as a blocker. James is a bit of a project, but he has a lot of upside. He should be available later in the draft if the Steelers opt to address defense with their first couple of picks.
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.