Draft deep in wide receivers for Steelers

May 3, 2014
ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MAY 3-4 - FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2012, file photo, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins dives between Georgia Tech defenders Daniel Drummond, left, and Louis Young to the 1-yard line during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Watkins is Clemson's career leader in receptions (240) and yards receiving (3,391). He is a top prospect in the upcoming NFL draft. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

Next in a continuing series of NFL draft stories.

Wide receivers come in all sizes, but if you like them big, the 2014 version of the NFL draft is for you.

Everybody wants the next Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones or Brandon Marshall, all receivers who are 6-3 or taller. In today’s NFL, the Steelers 5-10 Pro Bowl wideout Antonio Brown is the exception, not the norm.

Bigger receivers are dominating the league.

The Steelers enter this week’s draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday, with at least one pick in each of the seven rounds, including the 15th selection in the first round. They wouldn’t mind adding some size and depth to their receiving group.

Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, who combined for 113 receptions, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, left as free agents.

Currently, Pittsburgh’s top three receivers – Brown, second-year pro Markus Wheaton and free agent signee Lance Moore – are all 5-11 or shorter. Darius Heyward-Bey, another free agent signee, Derek Moye and Justin Brown are each over 6-2, but none of that group is guaranteed a spot on the roster.

The Steelers also might want to start looking for an eventual replacement for tight end Heath Miller, who will turn 32 this year.

This year’s draft could offer the perfect opportunity to add a big receiver and a tight end.

“It’s the best wide receiver group I’ve seen in years,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.

Clemson’s Sammy Watkins (6-1, 211) and Texas A&M’s Mike Evans (6-5, 231) are the top two wide receivers in this draft and are likely to be top-10 picks.

There is an interesting group of receivers and one tight end after those two are selected who could draw the Steelers’ interest with the 15th pick.

LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. (5-11, 198) isn’t as big as some of the other receivers in this draft but is dynamic with the football in his hands. In fact, he’s been favorably compared to Brown. Beckham had 59 receptions for 1,152 yards last season.

Another small, speedy receiver, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks (5-10, 189) also could go in the top 20 picks.

Beckham ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine, and Cooks, who led all FBS schools with 128 receptions in 2013, was even faster at 4.31.

“Beckham is an explosive kid with return skills and gets in and out of breaks as well as any receiver in the draft,” said Mayock. “Cooks is a smaller receiver, but maybe the most explosive receiver in the entire group. He is also a good route runner.

“I think both of those guys’ value starts somewhere in the (picks) 13, 14 area, and they’ll be gone by plus- or minus-20. Then, Kelvin Benjamin and Marquise Lee, I believe, come into play after that.”

Another player who could come into play in the teens is North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron (6-4, 250). Ebron impressed with a 4.56 40 at the combine and will make some acrobatic catches, but he also will drop some.

Benjamin (6-5, 240) starred at Florida State last season and has drawn favorable comparisons to former Steelers’ star Plaxico Burress, and Lee (6-0, 192) compares to the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz.

Because of the depth in this draft at wide receiver, the Steelers could choose to wait until the second or third rounds to address the position.

Penn State’s Allen Robinson (6-3, 220), Mississippi’s Donte Moncrief (6-2, 221), Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212), Clemson’s Martavius Bennett (6-4, 211) and Fresno State’s Davante Adams (6-1, 212) are bigger receivers who would be solid second-round picks.

In later rounds, South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington (5-9, 197), Pitt’s Devin Street (6-3, 198), Pittsburgh State’s John Brown (5-10, 179) or small-school prospect Jeff Janis (6-3, 219) of Saginaw Valley State could offer value.

At tight end, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas (6-7, 270) would offer value in the third round. Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore (6-6, 260) and Rob Blanchflower (6-4, 256) are a pair of late-round sleepers.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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