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Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-draft position watch: Outside linebacker

4/29/2015

Overview: The Steelers managed just 33 sacks in 2014, their lowest total since 1989, and by the end of the season 36-year-old James Harrison was arguably their best pass-rusher. Harrison, who came out of retirement last September, has been re-signed to a two-year contract, but the five-time Pro Bowler, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats are the only outside linebackers on the roster with NFL experience. Jones is at a crossroads after struggling as a rookie and then playing two-and-a-half games in 2014 before dislocating his wrist, which effectively ended his season. Moats gets the first crack at replacing Jason Worilds at left outside linebacker after starting 10 games at right outside linebacker last season and recording four sacks.

Draft priority: Extremely high. The pipeline the Steelers have always seemed to enjoy at outside linebacker has run dry. Take away Harrison, who turns 37 next month, and the outside linebackers on the Steelers’ roster have 12 career sacks among them. Their need for pass-rushers dovetails nicely with the abundance of them in the draft, and the Steelers should be able to find help at outside linebacker even if they address the position after the first round.

Last player drafted at position: Jones, first round in 2013. The former Georgia All-American has had a tough introduction to the NFL. The 17th-overall pick of the 2013 draft managed just one sack as a rookie and two last season though the Steelers were encouraged by what they saw from Jones at right outside linebacker before he got hurt. This is shaping up as a make-or-break season for Jones.

Dream pick: Randy Gregory, Nebraska. Florida defensive end/outside linebacker Dante Fowler is unrealistic since he will get taken in the top five of the draft. And, yes, Gregory comes with significant risk after failing drug tests in college and one at the NFL scouting combine. But Gregory is as talented as any pass-rusher in the draft. If he keeps it together off the field, Gregory could be great at the next level. Some team is going to take a chance with Gregory before the Steelers get a crack at him.

Practical pick: Eli Harold, Virginia. Harold recorded 15 ½ sacks in his two seasons as a starter, has good measurables and fits the profile of prospects the Steelers like to draft. Harold is a third-year junior who has plenty of room for growth, and he would learn from Harrison as well as outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. The Steelers likely won’t win plaudits from analysts if they take Harold at No. 22 in the first round. But general manager Kevin Colbert made it clear earlier this week that the Steelers don’t give a fig about what folks outside team headquarters think.

He said it: “I've had a bunch of teams in the bottom half of the first round going, 'Uh oh' because you might have to bring him into this conversation, from our owner down to our coaching staff. You've got top-10 talent. And if you're going to pull the string with him at 16 or 32 or 48, I don't care where, because of the well-known off the field issues, you've got to get ownership buy in and you've got to have a coaching staff that understands what they're going to have to do to provide an infrastructure to help this kid succeed.” -- NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock on Gregory.