With the advent of more pass-happy offenses in college football, NFL teams have had much more success finding star wide receivers later in the draft.
The Steelers have been one of those, taking Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders in the third round of recent drafts and Antonio Brown in the sixth.
But with Wallace having left as a free agent for Miami and Sanders playing on a one-year contract entering 2013, the Steelers have a need at the wide receiver position once again.
It’s one of many needs they hope to fill in the NFL draft, which will be held Thursday through Saturday. Pittsburgh holds eight selections in the seven-round draft, including the 17th pick in the first round.
As has been the case, this year’s draft class includes a large group of talented receivers.
“It’s a good group,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “There’s some big ones. There’s some small ones. There are some return-capable ones. It’s a nice variety. It’s something that you feel good about there being some guys who can help us. But they come in different shapes and sizes as well.”
Behind Brown and Sanders, who is expected to move into the starting lineup to replace Wallace, the Steelers have veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress and youngster David Gilreath. But like Sanders, Cotchery and Burress are not signed beyond the 2013 season.
The Steelers didn’t have to look far to evaluate the player considered the top receiver in this year’s class. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin holds that honor after a stellar career for the Mountaineers.
Though just 5-9, 179 pounds, Austin was one of the fastest players at the NFL combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds. His speed and elusiveness were apparent at West Virginia, where he excelled as a receiver/running back/return man.
“Tavon Austin is a playmaker,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “People want to make the comparison to Percy Harvin. He’s just 20 pounds lighter than Percy Harvin. To me, he’s more like a Wes Welker and a tremendous return guy.”
If Austin isn’t the top pick, it will be because teams are scared off by his lack of size.
Tennessee’s duo of Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter don’t have that problem.
Both are over 6-2 and have excellent speed. But both also have some issues.
Patterson played just one season in Tennessee after transferring from junior college and is raw as a route runner, while Hunter suffered an ACL tear in 2011 that hampered him in 2012.
Clemson’s De’Andre Hopkins, California’s Keenan Allen and USC’s Robert Woods also could be selected in the first round.
In later rounds, Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patterson, West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton or Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope could interest the Steelers.
The tight end position isn’t nearly as deep this year, though it does have some top-end talent.
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is considered the top tight end available and is expected to be a first-round pick.
The Steelers lost starter and team MVP Heath Miller at the end of the 2012 season to a torn ACL, but re-signed veterans Matt Spaeth, who had spent three seasons in Chicago, and David Johnson, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, to help carry the load until Miller returns.
Behind Eifert, Stanford’s Zach Ertz is considered a second- to third-round prospect, while Rice’s Vance McDonald also should be selected on the draft’s second day.