Pittsburgh Steelers: 2014 Countdown to combine

The Steelers play four of their first six games away from Heinz Field. A 4-2 start to the schedule with early games at Baltimore and Carolina would bode well for the Steelers' rebounding from back-to-back 8-8 seasons, especially given that they play three consecutive home games after that opening stretch. Another slow start might allow doubt to seep into the Steelers' locker room, and it will certainly turn up the heat on coach Mike Tomlin.

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Countdown to combine: Steelers

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
With the NFL scouting combine starting today, we review positions of need and who the Steelers might be looking at during the combine at those positions.

Position of need: Wide receiver

Unrestricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders is likely to receive an offer that the Steelers are unwilling to match and sign elsewhere. Even if Markus Wheaton is ready to step into the starting lineup after playing sparingly as a rookie and the Steelers re-sign No. 3 wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, they could still find room for a wide receiver, particularly one who is bigger than the ones they have on their roster and are projected to play regularly in 2014. The Steelers would make no bigger splash with the 15th overall pick than if they selected a tall wide receiver, something quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has long coveted.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State: Played just two seasons for the Seminoles but exploded onto the scene in 2013, catching 54 passes for 1,011 yards and an ACC-best 15 touchdown receptions. Benjamin may be the most intriguing player among the draft-eligible wide receivers because of his blend of size and athleticism and his upside, which may be the highest among the wideouts. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Benjamin just eighth in his rankings of the top 10 wide receivers in the draft but no player could move up more based on what he does in Indianapolis. It will be interesting to see what his measurements are -- Benjamin is listed at 6-foot-4 7/8, 233 pounds -- as well as what he runs in the 40-yard dash. Benjamin doesn't lack the polish of other top wide receivers in the draft, which might make picking him at No. 15 overall risky. But if the Steelers don't get him in the first round they are unlikely to get another crack at Benjamin.

Mike Evans, Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel's primary target in college has already been linked to the Steelers by several draft analysts, and he may be the most attractive tall wide receiver in the draft. Evans, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, had two highly productive seasons at Texas A&M before declaring for the draft, and he is second on Kiper's rankings for wide receivers. Here is what Kiper wrote about Evans earlier this week: "I had a friend in one front office tell me he feels Evans has the best ball skills he's seen in 20 years. I won't go that far, but If Evans shows off mid-4.4 speed, we'll have teams debating the top wide receiver in this draft between him and [Sammy] Watkins." Like Benjamin, there are questions about Evans' speed, but no receiver in the draft is better in jump-ball situations or plays bigger than Evans, who had 69 catches for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

Allen Robinson, Penn State: It took him just two seasons to etch his name all over the Nittany Lions' record book for wide receivers, obliterating marks held by O.J. McDuffie and Bobby Engram, each of whom had lengthy and productive NFL careers. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has good size and he uses the basketball skills that made him a Division I prospect in high school to make contested catches in traffic. Robinson is not among Kiper's top 10 wide receivers but that is a reflection of the depth at the position more than anything. The two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year is a likely second-round pick though Robinson still has time to push his way into the first round, especially if he runs well as the combine. He could be an option for the Steelers in the second round if they don't pick a wide receiver at No. 15 overall and if Robinson, who caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns last season, is still on the board.

Countdown to combine: Steelers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
PITTSBURGH -- With the NFL combine starting Wednesday in Indianapolis, we’re taking a look at positions of need and who the Pittsburgh Steelers might be looking at during the combine at those positions.

Position of need: Inside linebacker

The Steelers need depth at the position and possibly a long-term starter. Rookie Vince Williams started 11 games at left inside linebacker following the loss of Larry Foote in the 2013 season opener. Williams, a sixth-round draft pick, made steady improvement, but struggled in coverage. It is too early to tell whether he is a viable NFL starter in the mold of Foote, who stood out against the run, or is better suited as a reserve who is also a core special-teams player. Foote has one year left on his contract, but given his age -- the 12th-year veteran turns 34 in June -- and the fact that he is coming back from a ruptured bicep, there is no guarantee he returns for another season. Stevenson Sylvester will be an unrestricted free agent next month.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The Steelers, like most teams, should fall in love with his game tape. Borland made tackles all over the field at Wisconsin, racking up 416 stops during a career in which he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times. Borland burnished his reputation as a guy who can simply play at the Senior Bowl ,and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks the 5-foot-11, 245-pounder second among inside linebackers. Concerns about his height and short arms, which raise questions about whether he will struggle to shed blocks at the next level, could hurt Borland’s draft stock. Couple that with the belief many teams have that inside linebackers can be found later in the draft, and there is a good chance Borland will still be available when the Steelers pick in the second round.

Christian Kirksey, Iowa: Kirksey played outside linebacker in college, but he would likely move inside if drafted by a team that plays a 3-4 defense like the Steelers. Kirksey had an outstanding senior season -- he recorded 104 tackles despite getting overshadowed by teammates James Morris and Anthony Hitchens -- and he drew good reviews from his week at the Senior Bowl. The 6-2, 234-pounder has good size and athleticism, and Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has raved about his character. Kirksey could be among the inside linebackers available to the Steelers in the middle rounds if they address other positions earlier in the draft.

C.J. Mosley, Alabama: The consensus All-American and possibly the most ready-made NFL player in the draft might not even get to the Steelers at No. 15 overall. The 6-2, 228-pound Mosley is a three-down linebacker who should make an immediate impact, if not start right away. The hunch here is that Mosely does make it past the first 14 picks with a handful of teams in front of the Steelers desperate for quarterbacks and the de-valuing of inside linebacker in the draft in general. If Mosley, who is expected to test well in all aspects at the combine, is available when the Steelers make their first-round pick, it will be very temping for them to take him and pair him with Lawrence Timmons. That, if Mosley is as good as advertised, would help the Steelers improve a run defense that allowed 125 yards per game in 2013.

Countdown to combine: Steelers

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
PITTSBURGH -- With the NFL scouting combine starting Feb. 22, we review positions of need and who the Steelers might be looking at during the combine.

Position of need: Safety

Ryan Clark, the starter at free safety since 2006, is unlikely to be re-signed. Strong safety Troy Polamalu is on the back stretch of his career. The Steelers need to get younger on the back end of their defense, and finding a long-term starter at free safety may be one of their top priorities in the 2014 NFL draft. Look for the Steelers to select at least one safety a year after they traded a third-round pick so they could take Shamarko Thomas, the likely successor to Polamalu, in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Terrence Brooks, Florida State: Brooks, overshadowed a bit on a defense that led the nation in scoring (12.8 points allowed per game), could be an option for the Steelers if they don’t use their first two picks on a safety. They get another look at the former Seminole in Indianapolis after watching him at the Senior Bowl. The 5-11, 197-pound Brooks doesn’t have great size but he is strong in pass coverage, having converted from cornerback to safety after his sophomore season at Florida State. One intangible the Steelers may like about Brooks: He was not among the most heavily recruited players in his class, and he used that to drive him and play as a true freshman in Tallahassee.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: The Steelers will take a long look at the player who goes into the combine as the best safety prospect in the draft. Clinton-Dix coverage skills make him a good fit for a team that has more of a need at free safety, but the Steelers have only drafted one safety in the first-round of the draft since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Of course that safety turned out to be the transcendent Polamalu in 2003. The more apt comparison when it comes to Clinton-Dix may be Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas, the 14th overall pick of the 2010 draft. If the Steelers think Clinton-Dix can develop into a player of Thomas’ ilk then they have to seriously consider taking him at No. 15.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: Ward is another player the Steelers will get a chance to evaluate after seeing him at the Senior Bowl. Ward shined in Mobile, Ala., last month answering questions about how he would fare against better competition. Ward’s showing at the Senior Bowl built on a senior season in which he intercepted seven passes and recorded 95 tackles. The 5-11, 191-pounder isn’t the biggest guy so it is imperative he runs well at the Combine. Ward has been widely projected as a second- or third-day pick so he may be an option for the Steelers if they don’t take a safety in the first round. Ward is one of the best prospects in a safety class that is not considered deep. "He’s not a big safety, but he fits today's NFL with his coverage ability and he makes so many impact plays," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "He could go second or third round, but he's going to be a fast riser."