Defense must be the theme of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2014 draft. They ranked 14th in the NFL in points allowed in 2013, their lowest since 2003, and 13th in yards allowed, their worst since 1992.
The Steelers allowed 11 plays of 50 or more yards in 2013 after allowing three in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. They had just 34 sacks, their fewest since 1989, and they yielded an average of 100 rushing yards per game for the first time since Dick LeBeau became defensive coordinator in 2004.
Yet only eight of the Steelers’ 18 draft picks in 2012 and 2013 were defensive players. That ratio has to change in 2014.
The board will be in sharper focus after the NFL Scouting Combine, which takes place Feb. 22-25. This is a pre-combine look at players who should be on the Steelers’ radar.
Even though the Steelers traded their third-round pick in 2014 to draft Shamarko Thomas last year, there is one pick in each round of this mock draft with the assumption that they’ll get a compensatory pick between the third and fourth rounds. They’re likely to get additional compensatory picks in the later rounds. Subsequent mock drafts will reflect that.
NFL Draft Scout was used for statistics, unless otherwise noted.
The Steelers have the No. 15 pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, which will be held May 8-10 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
FIRST ROUND: Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
(Senior, 6’0″; 200 pounds)
The Steelers haven’t chosen a cornerback in the first round since they took Chad Scott with the No. 24 pick in 1997. It’s about time they do it again. Ike Taylor, who will turn 34 in May, started to show his age in 2013 and could be a cap casualty this spring. That would leave Cortez Allen and William Gay as the Steelers’ only competent cornerbacks. Whether or not Taylor stays, the cornerback position needs attention in the early rounds of the draft. The last two corners the Steelers drafted, Terrence Frederick in 2012 and Terry Hawthorne in 2013, didn’t make it out of training camp.
Gilbert would bring badly needed ball skills to the Steelers secondary. He led the Big 12 with six interceptions this season, returning two for touchdowns. He also returned six kickoffs for touchdowns at Oklahoma State. That would give the Steelers a lot of bang for their buck with this pick. They also need an upgrade over Felix Jones on kickoff returns.
SECOND ROUND: Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
(Senior, 6’3″, 209 pounds)
The Steelers put defense on hold in the second round and address their most urgent offensive need, which is depth at wide receiver. Emmanuel Sanders likely will sign elsewhere in free agency. According to The New York Daily News, the Jets have their eye on Sanders. Jerricho Cotchery also is a free agent. The Steelers probably can’t keep both, and Markus Wheaton caught just six passes as a rookie. They can’t be sure he’s ready to fill one of the top three receiving spots.
Ben Roethlisberger long ago lobbied for a tall wide receiver. The Steelers will pass on Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (both 6’5″) in the first round, if they’re even available, and get a guy who’s just a couple of inches shorter.
Matthews is a cousin of Jerry Rice, so the bloodlines couldn’t be any better. He caught 112 passes in 2013 and 94 in 2012. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s a precise route runner and can make difficult catches.
THIRD ROUND: Shayne Skov, ILB, Stanford
(Senior, 6’2″, 245 pounds)
Vince Williams showed promise at inside linebacker as a rookie, but the Steelers shouldn’t stand pat. If Skov is available in the third round, they have to grab him.
Skov put his name on the map in Stanford’s 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. He made nine total tackles, three for loss, and also had a sack and a forced fumble, according to Sports Reference. A fifth-year senior, Skov was third in the Pac-12 with 109 tackles in 2013, including 13 tackles for loss. He also had 5.5 sacks and forced three fumbles.
Larry Foote could return from his arm injury in 2014, but he’ll be 34. No one in the Pac-12 has had more assisted tackles since 2005 than Skov, and he appears to be recovered from an ACL tear he suffered in 2011. According to NFL Draft Scout, Skov “knows the opposing offense as well as any player on the field.”
FOURTH ROUND: Dion Bailey, FS, USC
(Junior, 6’0″, 200 pounds)
The Steelers go safety in the fourth round for the second straight year. Even if Shamarko Thomas seemlessly takes Ryan Clark’s place, safety is still a concern because Troy Polamalu has only a year left on his contract. The next best safety on the team is Will Allen, but he’s a free agent. Next in line is Robert Golden, who hasn’t contributed much outside of special teams. This is a thin position that needs new blood.
Bailey led the Trojans with five interceptions in 2013 and intercepted 11 passes in college. He also broke up six passes in 2013 and had 6.5 tackles for loss. Voted by the coaches as an All-Pac 12 second-teamer, Bailey missed just one game because of injury in three seasons as a starter. Bailey already has an undergraduate degree in policy. If he can use that academic prowess to quickly learn Dick LeBeau’s defense, he’d be a good pick for the Steelers.
FIFTH ROUND: Devon Kennard, OLB, USC
(Senior, 6’3″, 257 pounds)
Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds would be the starting outside linebackers if the Steelers part ways with LaMarr Woodley. Chris Carter would be the top backup. The Steelers need better depth that than, so they tap USC again and take the Trojans’ 2013 sack leader.
To go with his eight sacks, Kennard recorded 10 tackles for negative yardage. Like Bailey, Kennard already has a degree – a master’s degree in communication management. As long as Worilds picks up where he left off and Jones makes strides in 2014, there won’t be much pressure for Kennard to immediately master Dick LeBeau’s defense.
SIXTH ROUND: Deandre Coleman, DT, California
(Senior, 6’5″, 315 pounds)
The Steelers need to shore up the defensive front with the likely departures of Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. Coleman is “position and scheme versatile” according to NFL Draft Scout. He led the Golden Bears with nine tackles for loss in 2013. Coleman has Keisel’s height and 30 more pounds of bulk, but must learn how to get his hands up to bat down passes.
SEVENTH ROUND: Hakeem Smith, SS, Louisville
(Senior, 6’0″, 186 pounds)
Having addressed all three levels of their defense at least once in the first six rounds, the Steelers simply look for the best defensive player still on the board with their last pick. Smith earned all-conference honors in all four of his years at Louisville and intercepted a career-high three passes in 2013. He also broke up five passes as a senior, according to Sports Reference, and 23 in his career.