Pittsburgh Steelers: Cortez Allen

Here is the latest Steelers mailbag. If you have a Steelers' question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail. And away we go ... @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Le'Veon Bell could get 300-plus carries this season but not much more than that even if he plays every game. The Steelers say they are committed to running the ball this season, and I don't think that's just lip service from offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. However, I doubt that the Steelers lean as heavily on Bell as they did last season because of the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer. Bell will start at running back but the other two will get touches as well. I like that approach because I think it will extend the number of productive seasons Bell has in the NFL. That's probably not good news for fantasy football owners who covet Bell, but he will still be a prominent part of the offense and the Steelers will put his receiving skills to good use too. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think he will because I expect Mike Adams, who may be the Steelers' most physically gifted offensive tackle, to benefit as much as anyone from offensive line coach Mike Munchak's tutelage. Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert got most of the first-team snaps at left tackle and right tackle, respectively, but the real competition along both the offensive and defensive line won't start until training camp. Adams has said he wants the opportunity to start whether it is at right or left tackle and I'd like to see the Steelers give him a shot at unseating Gilbert. I thought Adams played well at right tackle when he made six starts there as a rookie and he could be the future there if the Steelers don't sign Gilbert to a long-term contract before the start of the regular season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Still pretty quiet on that front but I think the Steelers will re-sign Brett Keisel though it might not be until right before the start of training camp. He would be a terrific mentor for second-round pick Stephon Tuitt and Keisel's presence would allow the Steelers to bring Tuitt along slowly. I agree too that Keisel still has something left, and he could play in a rotation with Cam Thomas and Tuitt with the limited snaps keeping him fresh throughout the season. I know the Steelers are committed to getting younger on defense but Keisel would contribute both on and off the field. I think if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has his way Keisel will be back for one more season. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen gets a new contract and that the Steelers let Marcus Gilbert play out the final year of his rookie deal. Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now and the Steelers can't afford to lose him. I think the two sides can reach a deal that is good for both and ensures that Allen is a Steeler well beyond the 2014 season. As for Gilbert, I just haven't seen enough from the former second-round pick to warrant the Steelers locking him up with a long-term deal. Much like outside linebacker Jason Worilds, I think the Steelers want to see more from Gilbert and will take their chances on getting a deal done after the season if he fits into the team's long-term plans. If Gilbert walks after the 2014 season the Steelers have Mike Adams to plug in at right tackle. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I believe that is the case since players are allowed in the building during the span that bridges the end of a season and the start of the team's offseason program. It would make sense too for the coaches to be available to rookies or first-year players who may have questions about the playbook. That availability, however, is limited in the sense that coaches take lengthy vacations not long after the conclusion of offseason practices since it is really the only extended break from football they will get all year. The building is mostly empty too since a lot of players travel somewhere to continue working out, often ratcheting up their training regimen to get ready for camp.
Here is the second part of the latest Steelers' mailbag. If you have a question please send to ScottBrown_ESPN with #steelersmail.

And away we go...

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN Breathe easy because there is nothing to them. I have no idea why those rumors haven’t been put to rest by now but they won’t seem to go away even though there is little or no basis to them. Yes, Mike Tomlin comes from the Tony Dungy coaching tree but he hasn’t coached a 4-3 defense since 2006. And last I checked Dick LeBeau is still the defensive coordinator with linebackers coach Keith Butler his likely successor. It just doesn’t make sense from a personnel standpoint either. Jarvis Jones, as an example, isn’t big enough to play with his hand in the ground and I’m not sure he plays well enough in space to be an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. The Steelers, assuming there were right about Jones when they drafted him 17th overall in 2013, should try to build around the 6-2, 245-pounder, not transition to a defense that could phase him out. The whole 3-4, 4-3 debate is becoming moot anyway with teams playing their bases defenses with less and less frequency. The Steelers will play a lot of 4-2-5 this season, as they did in 2013, with offenses spreading defenses out more than ever.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN I think Markus Wheaton will emerge as a significant contributor this season but he has some work to do to win the starting job opposite Antonio Brown. Justin Brown, who spent last season on the practice squad, looked really good during offseason practices, and he will be among those who push Wheaton in training camp. I also think that Lance Moore and Brown could be the primary wideouts when the Steelers go with just two wide receivers. That is not a knock on Wheaton as much as it is a nod to how good Moore looked during offseason practices – and how valuable I think the seasoned veteran will be in the passing game this season. Wheaton will get plenty of playing time if he establishes himself as one of the top three wide receivers, and I think he will do that in camp. All he needs, in my opinion, is an opportunity and good health, to show what he can do.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN It better if the Steelers want to return to the playoffs following a two-year hiatus. Consider that in the Steelers’ eight losses last season they threw the ball 42.3 times per game. In their eight wins, they threw the ball an average of 30.8 times. Ben Roethlisberger, as much as he likes to run the no-huddle attack, has always been a staunch advocate of offensive balance. And the no-huddle offense and a commitment to the ground game are not mutually exclusive concepts if the player running the former is cognizant of the importance of the latter. The Steelers’ running game should me much better this season due to the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer and the improvement starter Le’Veon Bell is expected to make in his second season. That should translate into the kind of balance that will bode well for the Steelers.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN The Steelers added that mentor when they hired Joey Porter as a defensive assistant. Porter has already been a terrific addition to the coaching staff, especially for Jones, who plays the position where Porter made his indelible mark in Pittsburgh. Harrison is a terrific leader by example given his work ethic and preparation but I’m not sure it’s in his DNA to throw an arm around a younger player and give him pointers. If the Steelers bring back Harrison – and I think the odds are slim barring an injury – it is because they need help at outside linebacker, not because they want him to mentor the youngers players.

 

@ScottBrown_ESPN My guess is Cortez Allen though I’m not sure the Steelers do anything with any of the candidates for long-term deals before training camp. Allen, to me, became the Steelers’ top priority after they signed center Maurkice Pouncey to a five-year contract extension. I think he is ready to really come into his own, and the Steelers can’t risk losing another rising young cornerback, something that happened last year with Keenan Lewis. It wouldn’t surprise me if Allen is the next and last player the Steelers sign to a long-term contract this year. I think they will take a wait-and-see approach with outside linebacker Jason Worilds and right tackle Marcus Gilbert. And they still have plenty of time to get a deal done with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who still has two years left on his contract.
Thanks for all of the great questions. I got enough of them that a second mailbag will run Monday. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #steelersmail. And away we go ... @ScottBrown_ESPN: I'd say it has to do with his position as much as anything. Inside linebackers aren't nearly as valued as quarterbacks, offensive tackles, defensive ends/outside linebackers and cornerbacks. That is why many of the Pittsburgh writers, myself included, were so surprised when the Steelers used their first-round pick on Ryan Shazier. I think a lot of us fixated on a position, such as cornerback, while coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers were looking to add a playmaker on defense. They think they did that with Shazier, who just happens to play a position that frequently produces good players later in the draft. Also, Shazier still went high in the draft even if he was not a top 10 selection, and the guy has had to practice in pads let alone play in a game. We are far from knowing just what the Steelers have in Shazier though he looked really good in the offseason practices. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Put it this way: I like your side of the wager. I see the Steelers going 10-6 or even 11-5 this season for myriad reasons. I think the offense builds on what it did in the second half of last season when it led the Steelers to a 6-2 finish. The defense should be better too based on the speed that the Steelers have added. The schedule is favorable as the Steelers, who haven't traveled long distances well, play just one game out of their time zone. And the AFC North is there for the taking given some of the losses the Bengals sustained and the questions I still have about Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton. What worries me about the Steelers is the lack of depth at outside linebacker and whether they will get a consistent pass rush from starters Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones. To me, Jones is the key to the defense improving significantly in 2014. If he doesn't make a big jump in his second season the defense could have problems. Injuries are an X-factor, as always, but I think you made the right call. @ScottBrown_ESPN: Antonio Brown looked fantastic, and he is really a fun player to watch even in practice without pads. Brown is such a smooth route runner, seems to catch everything and is so good in the open field. He is also a tireless worker, and during the offseason practices he was almost always one of the last players off the field. The extra work he puts in is a strong indication that Brown doesn't think he has arrived even though he has already made two Pro Bowls. A lot of that has to do with his not forgetting that he lasted until the sixth round of the 2010 draft. I see another big season for Brown, barring injury, though it will be tough for him to even approach the numbers he put up in 2013. @ScottBrown_ESPN: It is really tough to tell, especially with linemen like Wesley Johnson and Daniel McCullers, since the Steelers did not practice in pads. We did see Johnson's position flexibility, which will be a key to his making the 53-man roster, and he didn't back down the day the fifth-round pick and defensive end Cameron Heyward got into a fight during an 11-on-11 drills. McCullers is a project, and we will find out a lot more about him during training camp, particularly if the 6-7, 352-pounder can consistently stay low enough, something that is a challenge for a man of that size. Blanchflower looked good during the offseason practices and I think the Steelers like him. If he performs well when they put the pads on he could win a roster spot over Michael Palmer and David Paulson. At worst, I think Blanchflower makes the Steelers' practice squad. @ScottBrown_ESPN: I think Cortez Allen is the most likely of the players you listed to sign a multi-year contract. The Steelers, in my opinion, have little choice since he is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now. The Steelers have not approached Jason Worilds about a new deal since he signed the one-year, $9.754 million contract they had to offer the outside linebacker when they used the transition tag on him. I think they will wait to see what he does this season, which will be his first one as a full-time starter, before offering the kind of deal Worilds is likely seeking. I think Ben Roethlisberger signs a new deal after this season since he still has two years left on his contract, and I'm wondering if the Steelers take a wait-and-see approach with Marcus Gilbert. He has been OK at right tackle but I'm not sure the Steelers make a long-term investment in him, especially since they can turn to Mike Adams if Gilberts walks after this season.
PITTSBURGH -- Brandon Flowers left San Diego without a contract but the free-agent cornerback is not headed to Pittsburgh.

Flowers
Flowers has no plans to visit the Steelers, according to a source, despite the latter’s reported interest in him. Flowers met with the Chargers earlier this week but the two sides did not agree to a deal before the end of his visit.

The Steelers are keeping their options open as far as adding to veteran players to their roster.

“I’m not opposed to anything that will increase our chances of winning. We’re open to all possibilities,” coach Mike Tomlin said at the conclusion of offseason practices.

Flowers is an intriguing player for a team that has long-term questions at cornerback. Cortez Allen is the only long-term starter at the position right now, and he is entering the final year of his contract.

Flowers is only 28, and he made the Pro Bowl last season after recording 68 tackles and a sack and intercepting a pass in 13 games. Flowers, who started all six seasons he was in Kansas City, has 17 career interceptions. The Chiefs released the 5-9, 187-pounder last week after he did not prove to be a good fit in coach Andy Reid’s system.

They netted $7.5 million in salary-cap savings this year by cutting ties with Flowers, a second-round pick in 2008.

The Steelers are $5.856 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information, after signing all of their draft picks. That could limit how much they would be able to offer Flowers if he does return their interest at some point.
PITTSBURGH -- The offense and defense traded big plays Wednesday in the Pittsburgh Steelers' second minicamp practice of the week.

Ben Roethlisberger threw long touchdown passes to Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton during a two-plus hour practice, but the Steelers' defensive backs also had their moments on a hot and humid day that it made it feel like training camp.

Starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen each intercepted Roethlisberger. Allen had a pair of picks while inside linebacker Sean Spence returned an intercepted Landry Jones pass for a touchdown.

Practice concluded with rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant showcasing his speed by blowing past the Steelers' defensive backs and hauling in a long touchdown pass from Jones.

That play, free safety Mike Mitchell said, ultimately allowed the offense to get the better of the defense, though it was close.

"They ended with a high note," Mitchell said. "It would have been nice to knock that ball down but we're battling. I think we've been playing really good in the secondary as a unit. We're all kind of learning each other's strengths and what each other likes to do. We're getting better."

Also of note from Wednesday:
  • Justin Brown continues to get work with the first-team offense, and the 2013 sixth-round pick stood out during a 7-on-9 pass drill. Brown caught a long pass from Roethlisberger and then capped the drive with a short touchdown reception.
  • Roethlisberger is optimistic Dri Archer will help the offense but he isn't sure how the Steelers will deploy the fleet-footed rookie. Archer, Roethlisberger said, has been splitting time between playing running back and wide receiver. The third-round draft pick has also been among the players who have fielded punts during offseason practices. The Steelers are hoping to get more out of Archer than they did Chris Rainey, a fifth-round pick in 2012 who lasted just one season in Pittsburgh. "Is he a better runner than Rainey?" Roethlisberger said. "We won't really know until we get some pads on and get on the field."
  • Outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who practiced on a limited basis of a lingering calf injury, is a good example of how much younger the Steelers have gotten on defense in recent years. Worilds turned just 26 in March, but he is one of the more experienced players on the Steelers' defense. "I'm one of the elders in the room now," Worilds said. "It's an interesting role to be in. I'm just helping some of the younger guys, making sure they know how to go about being a professional and taking care of themselves."

PITTSBURGH -- There are grandiose visions.

Then there is how Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake sees his career playing out.

“When I get to the point where I’m that No. 1 guy and I’m an All-Pro cornerback I’m going to think back to the days when I was sad because I didn’t get drafted,” Blake said.

Blake
A lot of teams will be sad if Blake realizes his goal of becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. There is, of course, the small matter of Blake having to bridge a considerable gap before he is mentioned in the same breaths reserved for the likes of Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis among others.

Blake played just four defensive snaps in 2013, and a big reason why the Steelers were perceived to have a glaring need at cornerback prior to the draft is because of players such as Blake, who lack pedigree and experience at the position.

Blake signed with the Steelers last September after the Jacksonville Jaguars did not include the 5-9, 198-pounder on their 53-man roster.

Blake established himself as a core special-teams player while learning the defense, and the Steelers are hoping he can make a big jump this season. They don’t have a long-term starter at cornerback after Cortez Allen, so the opportunity is there for Blake, who only turns 24 in August.

“I feel like they have confidence in me enough, my work ethic and abilities,” Blake said. “In time I can shock the world and show them I’m someone who will emerge from being an undrafted free agent to the sky’s the limit.”

If Blake’s skills come anywhere close to matching up with his confidence he could be quite a find for the Steelers.

His size doesn't exactly help him, especially with NFL teams coveting taller wide receivers. But Blake has excellent speed and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake told Steelers.com last week that the third-year veteran is among the fastest players on defense.

After the Steelers didn't take a cornerback in the first two rounds of the draft, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau expressed confidence in current roster players who simply need an opportunity.

When asked if he interpreted the Steelers waiting until the fifth round to draft a cornerback as a vote of confidence in him, Blake said, “It is to a certain extent, but I know I have to come out here every day and earn my keep, continue to improve on my technique because on the field it’s what have you done for me lately. One of my strong points is my speed and my ability to stay with guys.”

How far those attributes take Blake, who went undrafted coming out of UTEP, remains to be seen. But when reminded that his goal of becoming an All-Pro cornerback is a rather lofty one, Blake said, “it is but I’m going to work every day until I get to it.”


PITTSBURGH -- Cortez Allen is poised to put everything together in his fourth NFL season and don't overlook William Gay.

That is what Ike Taylor said when assessing the state of the Steelers' cornerbacks, a subject that generated much discussion before the draft -- and after it since Pittsburgh took just one cornerback and waited until the fifth round to select Shaquille Richardson.

"Cortez Allen toward the end (of last) season was breaking out to what we thought he could be, a ballhawk," Taylor said. "Will Gay is real solid. I think last year was the best year of his career."

Allen and Taylor are expected to start at cornerback this season and Gay will see plenty of snaps as the Steelers' nickel back.

Allen just has to stay healthy to become a cornerback who can regularly hold his own against the opposing team's No. 1 wide receiver, let a lone become a shutdown corner. Gay is an underrated player who gets too much flak from fans but is more than capable of covering slot receivers.

As for the roles of the Steelers' top three cornerbacks, Taylor offered a colorful take.

"Cortez is Batman," he said. "I'm Joker. Gay is Robin."

What is no joke is Taylor's training regimen.

The 11th-year veteran is one of the hardest workers on the Steelers, and he is known for pushing himself to the brink during the offseason when he trains at the Tom Shaw Performance Camp in Walt Disney World.

"When you see them little starts that have been blinking across, gnats flying but they're really not gnats, it's about time for you to take a breather," Taylor said. "I got to that point a few times but I like to push myself to the limit."

Taylor will be among those pushing Richardson through the rest of the offseason practices and then training camp, which starts in late July. He likes what he sees so far from the rookie.

"He got the attitude and I think that's the first thing you need to have as a corner," Taylor said. "He's definitely got the attitude so everything else will fall (into place)."
Here is the latest installment of the Steelers’ mailbag. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #steelersmail.

And away we go…

 
PITTSBURGH -- Coach Mike Tomlin, both derisively and accurately, calls it "football in shorts."

But the Pittsburgh Steelers' organized team activities, which start today and run through the middle of June, mark a significant step toward preparation for the 2014 season.

Tomlin and his staff will get a chance to work with the full squad for the since time since last December.

The players don't wear pads and there is no hitting -- hence, Tomlin's take on OTAs -- but they practice together 10 times before the mandatory minicamp that concludes the offseason.

And it will give the coaches a chance to see how the newly signed free agents as well as the draft picks and undrafted rookies work with the returning players.

Here are five returning players to watching during OTAs.

WR Markus Wheaton: His position coach Richard Mann said the 2013 third-round pick has the inside track to the starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. And Wheaton will have to earn it at training camp, not over the next month. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound speedster should get extensive work with the first-team offense after playing sparingly as a rookie, and look for him to make the most of his opportunity. Wheaton has the physical skills to make a big jump in his second season, and he attached himself to veteran Jerricho Cotchery last season, showing how eager he is to learn. A finger injury sabotaged Wheaton's rookie season but his willingness to fight through it impressed Mann. "What I found out last year about Marcus was that he has good toughness," Mann said.

OLB Jarvis Jones: The 2013 first-round pick spent the offseason getting stronger, which is one of the prerequisites to Jones making significant improvement after a trying rookie season. The former Georgia product should also play much faster now that he has a stronger grasp on the defense. What bodes well for Jones and the Steelers: the 6-2, 245-pounder recorded a career-high nine tackles in the regular-season finale when he didn't appear to be thinking as much and just playing. The Steelers need that to carry over. They don't have many other options at right outside linebacker and are counting heavily on Jones to emerge as an impact player in 2014. "I think he'll be a lot better," linebackers coach Keith Butler said.

NT Steve McLendon: The former undrafted free agent had his ups and downs in his first full season as a starter. But defensive line coach John Mitchell expects McLendon to carve out his own identity and improve in 2014. "You have to be yourself and not worry about what you can't do," Mitchell said. "I think we are going to see Steve McLendon rather than Steve try to be Casey [Hampton] or Steve trying to be Chris [Hoke]." McLendon is big enough to clog the middle of the line, and he has shown the ability to get after the quarterback. The Steelers are considering keeping McLendon on the field when they go to their nickel defense and having the fourth-year veteran provide an inside pass rush with Cameron Heyward.

CB Cortez Allen: It's time for Allen to establish himself as the Steelers' No. 1 cornerback after three seasons in which he has shown plenty of promise but has yet to put everything together. Ike Taylor's days of shadowing the top wide receivers are over, and the Steelers need Allen to emerge this season. A high-ankle sprain hampered Allen through the first half of last season but the Steelers have to hope that his play once he regained his starting job is a sign of what is to come. In the final four games last season, Allen twice led the Steelers' defensive backs with two passes defended and led the defensive backs with eight tackles in another contest. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the other game over the last quarter of the season. Now, the Steelers need Allen build on that.

LB Sean Spence: It will be hard for anyone not to pull for the 2012 third-round pick and yet not watch him with bated breath. Spence has made tremendous progress while working his way back from a career-threatening knee injury that he sustained in the final preseason game of his rookie season. The reality is no one knows if Spence's knee will hold up during the grind of training camp, but OTAs should give the Steelers a gauge of where he is in his recovery. At this point, it still has to be considered a bonus if Spence can contribute in 2014. "He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him," Butler said, "and I think it will."
PITTSBURGH – This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our eighth look is at the position that is causing Steelers’ fans the most anxiety right now.

Cornerback

McCain
Who is new: Brice McCain and Shaquille Richardson. The Steelers signed McCain to a one-year, $795,000 contract after he spent his first five seasons with the Texans. They took Richardson with the first of their two fifth-round draft picks.

Who is gone: No significant losses. Not this year, anyway.

Returning starters: Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. Taylor is back after agreeing to a pay cut. The 11th-year veteran will be plenty motivated after opposing quarterbacks went after him last season. The Steelers will help Taylor by no longer assigning him to shadow the No. 1 wide receiver – unless maybe when they play A.J. Green and the Bengals. Allen only needs to stay healthy to become a bona fide No. 1 cornerback. A high-ankle sprain set Allen back the first half of last season but he eventually won back his starting job and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

Most significant addition: Richardson. The Steelers successfully gambled that the Arizona product would still be available when they picked in the fifth round. The 6-foot, 194-pounder has good size and is versatile enough that some teams evaluated Richardson as a safety prior to the draft. Richardson has a chance to play right away given the Steelers’ lack of unproven depth at cornerback.

Most significant loss: A year later the loss of Keenan Lewis still stings. Imagine how much different the position would look with Lewis and Allen as the Steelers’ long-term starters at cornerback. Lewis, who signed with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent, intercepted four passes in 2013. The Steelers’ cornerbacks combined for three interceptions last season. Ouch.

On outside looking in: Isaiah Green. The 5-10, 180-pounder spent a little more than half of the 2013 season on the 53-man roster and appeared in three games. The former undrafted free agent will be among those battling Richardson and Antwon Blake for two spots on the roster.

Hidden number: Thirty-one NFL players had more interceptions than the three the Steelers got from their cornerbacks last season.

Outlook: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback in the first round of the draft to take Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, meanwhile, went to the Bengals with the No. 24 overall pick. Steelers fans will keep a close eye on the player many though they would draft, especially since Dennard is now playing for a division rival. The Steelers are confident that players such as McCain and Blake can provide quality depth, but Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now. Time will be the ultimate arbiter as to whether the Steelers did enough this offseason to help themselves at cornerback.

Steelers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsSigning Mike Mitchell gives the Steelers another speedy playmaker in the secondary.
Best move: The Steelers wasted little time in getting younger and faster in the secondary as they landed former Panthers safety Mike Mitchell on the first day of free agency. Mitchell, who turns only 27 next month, blossomed last season in Carolina as he intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 sacks. He gives the Steelers a playmaker to pair with Troy Polamalu on the back of their defense. And Mitchell was cost-effective for a team that had limited room under the salary cap. Only $5.25 million of the five-year $25 million deal that Mitchell signed is guaranteed, and the contract is backloaded to make it cap friendly.

Riskiest move: The Steelers shopped more than usual in free agency, but they added only one player to their defensive line while losing defensive ends Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Cam Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would ideally fill Woods’ role as a swing man between nose tackle and defensive end. But right now he is the Steelers’ best option at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The Steelers need second-round pick Stephon Tuitt to develop quickly and at least play in a rotation at defensive end. They would also be wise to keep Brett Keisel’s number handy.

Most surprising move: The Steelers didn’t draft a cornerback until the fifth round, and that is a position where they have only one long-term starter in Cortez Allen. The prevailing thought prior to the draft was that the Steelers would take a cornerback early and select two of them. Shaquille Richardson, their fifth-round pick, and free-agent signee Brice McCain are the only addition they have made at cornerback. That means the Steelers better be right that the answers at cornerback are already in their building,

What’s next: The Steelers appear to be done adding -- for now -- and most of the $8 million they'll receive in salary cap savings after June from the release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used to sign draft picks. They have a handful of players going into the final year of their contracts that they should try to sign to long-term deals. The list includes center Maurkice Pouncey, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Allen. The Steelers could also try to sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract, though nothing is imminent on that front. The Steelers may wait until after the 2014 to sign Roethlisberger to a new deal since he still has two years left on his contract.
PITTSBURGH -- Would the Steelers have taken a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft had either Justin Gilbert or Kyle Fuller -- or both -- been available at No. 15?

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert isn’t saying.

“Sure, there were guys that went ahead of Ryan that were really good players,” Colbert said Monday on TribLive radio. “We were extremely excited [Shazier] was there but there were other players that we would have entertained and maybe didn’t have an opportunity to pick them. But that doesn’t diminish our excitement for Shazier.”

The Steelers really liked tight end Eric Ebron, and the North Carolina product certainly would have been prominent in the discussion that preceded the Steelers' first-round pick had he still been available.

But the Steelers were more than happy to select Shazier, who provides speed, athleticism and versatility to their defense.

The Steelers only took one cornerback in the draft but Colbert echoed comments made by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau that the position is not as lacking as has been widely perceived.

"Cortez Allen we think has a real bright future and he should only get better," Colbert said. "When you’ve got a guy like William Gay and Brice McCain and Antwon Blake and we feel nice about what they’re going to be able to contribute. Blake did a great job coming in [last season] and playing mainly on special teams because he was a late addition for us but he’s going to have a whole offseason to grow as a corner.”

Despite taking only one cornerback -- and waiting until the fifth round to select Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson -- the Steelers have generally gotten good reviews for their draft.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Steelers an A-minus for their draft. ESPN analyst Todd McShay also liked what the Steelers accomplished during the three-day draft.

"I was really impressed. I thought they had one of the better drafts of all the teams in the league," McShay said Monday during a post-draft conference call. "I really thought beginning to end that Pittsburgh did a really good job of finding players that fit their system and do multiple things.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft. This is the ninth in a series that looks at the nine positions they could address in a week.

Our final look is at cornerback.

Added: Brice McCain

Lost: Curtis Brown

Skinny: The Steelers have twice taken a pair of cornerbacks in their past five drafts (2009 and 2011) and their need at the position is such that they are likely to do it again this year. Cornerback is one of the deeper positions in the draft though it is not as strong as wide receiver. Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard would be an ideal pick for the Steelers as he is tough, physical and regarded by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. as the most complete cornerback in the draft. The biggest question with Dennard is whether he will be available at No. 15 as several teams picking ahead of the Steelers, including the Lions and Rams, could take a cornerback. The Steelers hosted Dennard as well as projected first-round picks Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and Bradley Roby of Ohio State for pre-draft visits. One small-school prospect to watch is Pierre Desir of Lindenwood. Desir showed excellent ball skills at the Division II school in Missouri, and he held his own against better competition at the Senior Bowl. Desir has good size and the Steelers have had success taking cornerbacks from smaller schools as they drafted Ike Taylor out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003 and Cortez Allen out of The Citadel in 2011. Both were fourth-round selections though the Steelers might have to take Desir in the third round if they really like him.

Draft likelihood: High

Extra points

Last CB drafted by the Steelers: Terry Hawthorne, 2013, fifth round

Last CB drafted by the Steelers in the first round: Chad Scott, 1997

Last CB taken 15th overall in the draft: Tye Hill, Rams, 2006

CBs drafted under Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin: Eight

CBs drafted under Colbert/Tomlin still with the Steelers: Two
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.

Steelers' draft review: 2011

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The is the fifth in a series that reviews the Steelers' drafts under general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

Next up is the 2011 draft.

Total picks: 7

[+] EnlargeCameron Heyward
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsCameron Heyward came into his own last season, notching 59 tackles and five sacks.
Picks still with the team: 4

Best pick: DE Cameron Heyward. The penultimate pick of the first round didn't play much his first two seasons but really emerged in 2013 when he cracked the starting lineup after the first four games. Heyward established himself as one of the Steelers' best defensive players as well as the cornerstone of a line that is in transition. Heyward played well against the run in 2013 and also provided the Steelers with an inside pass-rusher as he led the team with 31 quarterback pressures and also recorded five sacks. The former Ohio State star is among the players the Steelers will build around on defense.

Worst pick: CB Curtis Brown. The third-round selection never developed into more than a special-teams contributor and the Steelers released him last month. Brown never started a game in three seasons and was credited with just eight tackles and one pass defended in 34 career games. The Steelers' miss on this pick is one reason why they are thin at cornerback -- and why they are likely to draft two players at that position this year.

Best value pick: CB Cortez Allen. The fourth-round selection from The Citadel has the potential to become a shut-down cornerback and has at least shown, when healthy, that he can be a quality starter. Allen has similarities to Ike Taylor, from the round they were taken in to the fact that each came from a small school and developed fairly quickly. Like Taylor, the 6-1, 196-pound Allen has good size, and he rebounded from a high-ankle sprain last season to intercept two passes and lead the Steelers with 14 passes defended.

Also of note: Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, a second-round pick, was the only Steelers' offensive lineman to start every game last season … Guard Keith Williams, a sixth-round pick, is the only player in this class never to have appeared in a game for the Steelers. Williams played two games for the Bills and is currently toiling in the Arena Football League … Running back Baron Batch created a buzz during his first training camp before tearing his ACL. Batch rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries in 2012 but the Steelers released the seventh-round pick last August and he remains unsigned.

Final analysis/grade: This quietly has turned into a decent draft for the Steelers, especially if Gilbert convinces the team he has a long-term future in Pittsburgh. Heyward and Allen are players the Steelers will build around on defense and the only glaring miss was the Brown selection. I'll give the Steelers a B- for this haul.

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