PITTSBURGH – Forty years ago, the Steelers put together the greatest draft in NFL history, picking four future Pro Football Hall of Fame players – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster – in the first five rounds of the draft.
They don’t need to match that extraordinary feat in this year’s draft, which begins today and runs through Saturday, but neither can they afford to swing and miss on a number of picks.
Coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the Steelers are a team in transition.
The stalwarts of teams that appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two, are largely gone. And replacing those players, just as it was for the Steelers of the ‘70s, is never an easy task.
Pittsburgh enters today’s draft with nine picks in seven rounds. And as general manger Kevin Colbert said earlier this week, the Steelers wouldn’t mind adding to that in what he considers the deepest draft he’s seen in 30 years of evaluating NFL talent.
But just because this draft is considered deep doesn’t mean every player selected will be a star or even a viable NFL player.
“I think it means they have high pedigree along with upside,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“It’s our job to evaluate the pedigree along with the upside and maybe quantify the learning curve if it constitutes a position change or a strong technique change relative to the schematics that go across the board as we look at all of these guys or most of these guys.”
That being said, two of the Steelers’ biggest needs, cornerback and wide receiver, should be a little easier to evaluate than some others.
Those two positions just happen to be two of the more star-studded and deepest in this draft. And the Steelers should be able to help themselves greatly at both of those spots, regardless of where they decide to address them.
The way things are looking in this draft, the Steelers won’t have an opportunity to select one of the top two wideouts – Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans of Texas A&M. Colbert already ruled out the team trading up in the first round, which is what would be required to grab one of those talented players.
But Colbert said Monday that he feels there are 19 players available he’d be glad to add to his roster in the first round.
The feeling here is that the Steelers will take cornerback Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech.
Pittsburgh should have its pick of LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., USC’s Marquise Lee or even Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks in the first round, with Beckham topping that list and likely among Colbert’s 19.
Beckham is considered the most pro-ready wide receiver prospect in this draft because of his speed and route running, though his upside isn’t as high as Watkins or Evans because, unlike those two big receivers, he’s a shade under six-foot tall. Considering the Steelers lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in the offseason, they could use a pro-ready prospect at wide recevier.
But the feeling here is the Steelers wait on a wide receiver – they have had plenty of success taking them in later rounds in recent years – and select a cornerback instead.
Currently, William Gay is the only cornerback on the roster signed for the 2015 season, though the Steelers would certainly like to work out an extension with Cortez Allen at some point.
Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, an aggressive, good tackling corner, is considered the best of the bunch and if he’s available when the Steelers pick at 15, he’ll be the likely selection.
But that’s probably a 50-50 proposition.
If Dennard is gone, the Steelers will look at corners Justin Gilbert and Fuller or inside linebackers C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Ryan Shazier of Ohio State.
Mosley would be a nice addition to play next to Lawrence Timmons, but had numerous injury problems at Alabama, while Shazier is a speedy run-and-tackle linebacker in the same mold as Timmons.
Gilbert was one of the stars of the combine because his of his time in the 40-yard dash and is also an accomplished return man, but he lacks the physical nature the Steelers usually like in their cornerbacks.
That leaves us with Fuller, who excelled in zone coverage at Virginia Tech and is such a physical tackler that the Hokies at times lined him up at linebacker.
Outside of Dennard, Fuller’s the corner that best fits what the Steelers like in their defensive backs, and he should be available to them, even if they move back a few picks in the first round.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.