Today is the day. The 2014 NFL draft is finally here, starting with the first round tonight at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
The Pittsburgh Steelers need a fruitful draft to curb their slide down the slippery slope of perennial mediocrity. They’ve finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. If they don’t win a playoff game in 2014, it will be their first four-year stretch without a playoff victory since 1990-1993.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Monday at the team’s pre-draft press conference that they wouldn’t trade up from the No. 15 spot in the first round, but they might trade down, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Considering the depth of the 2014 draft class, this might be a good year for the Steelers to trade down and collect picks in the later rounds. That said, they can’t afford to miss on their first-round pick.
As barren as their drafts have been in recent years, the Steelers’ last bastion of drafting acumen has been the first round. Starting in 2000, when Colbert became director of football operations, 11 straight first-round picks have been the Steelers’ primary starter at their position in multiple seasons, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Steelers’ two first-rounders after that, Cameron Heyward in 2011 and David DeCastro in 2012, both have spent one year as primary starters and figure to establish themselves as starters for years to come. Even 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones has eight starts under his belt.
Colbert’s first-round picks have combined for 20 Pro Bowl seasons, and that doesn’t take into account Lawrence Timmons, who probably should have been to a Pro Bowl or two.
The Steelers have never drafted a first-round bust since the turn of the century, and this is not the time to start. Another late bloomer won’t cut the mustard at Heinz Field, either. Heyward didn’t make an impact until his third season. Jones had one sack in his rookie season. When the Steelers were going to Super Bowls every two or three years, they had the luxury of waiting a year or two for their draft picks to develop.
If the player the Steelers draft tonight doesn’t contribute in 2014, it will be another long season.
Colbert said there were “at least 19″ players the Steelers would be happy to pick at No. 15.
It’s obvious who some of those 19 players are, but only the Steelers know the list top to bottom. These 19 names sit at the top of the “Big Board” the Steelers will use as a guide throughout the draft.
Based on a combination of positional need and overall talent, we can project where the Steelers rank their first-round prospects. At the top of this list are players who will be long gone by the time the Steelers pick at No. 15. But the Steelers have to be prepared for anything. They never expected Rashard Mendenhall to be available to them at No. 23 in 2008 or David DeCastro at No. 24 in 2012.
If our theoretical board is on the mark, then the Steelers will draft the top remaining player on this list tonight when their turn comes up at No. 15.
THE STEELERS 2014 FIRST-ROUND BOARD
1. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
(Sr., 6’3″, 251 pounds)
Mack set NCAA records with 75 tackles for loss and 16 forced fumbles to go with 28.5 career sacks. Not only can he rush the passer, he can drop back in coverage. He can do more than Jadeveon Clowney and would be a better scheme fit in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
(Jr., 6’5″, 266 pounds)
Clowney isn’t big enough to play defensive end in the Steelers’ three-man front. But he’s a once-in-a-decade talent and if he were available when they were on the clock, the Steelers would snap him up and find a place for him. Unless Mack is on the board, too.
3. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
(So., 6’4 3/4, 231 pounds)
Ben Roethlisberger wants a tall target, and there’s no receiver 6’3″ or taller who comes close to Evans. The Steelers offense showed promise late last season, and Evans would make it dangerous. He led the SEC with 12 touchdown catches in 2013. There’s a slim chance he falls to No. 15
4. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
(Sr., 5’11”, 199 pounds)
The Steelers have a realistic chance of getting Dennard, but his stock is rising so there’s no guarantee. He’s the top cornerback on their board because of his tenacity, his willingness to stop the run and his ball skills. Dennard intercepted four passes in 2013. The last Steelers cornerback to pick off that many passes in a season was Deshea Townsend in 2004.
5. Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
(Sr., 6’0″, 190 pounds)
The Steelers can get their receiver later in the draft. This class isn’t quite as deep at cornerback, so Fuller gets into the top five on the Steelers’ board. Fuller started 42 games at Virginia Tech with six interceptions and 32 passes defended. He’s a skilled tackler who can be disruptive with 23.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his career. He probably won’t go in the top 15 and should be there if the Steelers want him.
6. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
(Jr., 5’11’, 198 pounds)
NFL Network analyst and former NFL general manager Charley Casserly calls Beckham “a faster Michael Crabtree.” Beckham is an electric receiver who averaged 19.6 yards per reception last season. He also is a dangerous returner, leading the SEC with 806 kickoff return yards in 2013.
7. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
(Jr., 6’1″, 211 pounds)
That’s right. If somehow Beckham and Watkins are both there at No. 15, the Steelers should take Beckham. Watkins is a little overrated and he’s not as much of a vertical threat as Beckham. He makes his living catching passes on intermediate routes over the middle and would help Ben Roethlisberger get rid of the ball quickly. The Steelers have a far better chance of landing Beckham. Watkins won’t make it out of the top five.
8. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
(Sr., 6’6″, 308 pounds)
The Steelers’ offensive line did a better job protecting Ben Roethlisberger late last season, but they still could draft an offensive lineman somewhere to add depth. Matthews would be a best-player-available pick. He’d be an instant upgrade over Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.
9. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
(Sr., 6’0″, 202)
Gilbert returned two of his 12 career interceptions for touchdowns. The Steelers badly need a ballhawk like him in their secondary. But they should rate Dennard and Fuller over him because Gilbert is a little soft against the run. One scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “he’s not always tough.” He has a bigger upside than Dennard and Fuller, but he’s a riskier pick even if he also returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in college.
10. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
(Sr., 6’2″, 234 pounds)
Mosley would be higher on the Steelers’ board if they didn’t need cornerbacks so badly. His durability is a concern, but he can do a little bit of everything. He made 23 tackles for loss in college, had 6.5 sacks, intercepted five passes (returning three for touchdowns), broke up 24 passes and forced two fumbles. He’s a safe pick.
11. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA
(Sr., 6’5″, 255 pounds)
If Jarvis Jones continues at his current pace, he’d be the only first-round bust of the Colbert era. Even if Jones improves, there’s little behind him and Jason Worilds at outside linebacker. Barr converted from running back two years ago and has amassed 23.5 sacks. He forced an NCAA-high six fumbles last season. If the Steelers draft him, they would expect more than they got from 2008 third-round bust Bruce Davis, the last pass-rusher they drafted from UCLA.
12. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
(Sr., 6’1″, 285 pounds)
Donald is better suited to a 4-3 defense. But he led the NCAA with 28.5 tackles for loss last year. He led the ACC with four forced fumbles and tallied 29.5 sacks in four years at Pittsburgh. He’s a disruptive force and the Steelers could find something for him to do.
13. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
(Jr., 6’1″, 208 pounds)
If the first dozen players on this board are taken, the Steelers can draft Troy Polamalu’s eventual successor.
14. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
(So., 6’5″, 332 pounds)
Robinson’s pass protection is a work in progress, but he’s another guy who can render moot the impending Adams-Gilbert position battle at right tackle. The Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive tackle in the first round since Jamain Stephens in 1996. Excluding kicker and punter, they’ve picked at least one player at every position in the first round since then.
15. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
(Jr., 6’1″, 237 pounds)
Shazier is a little small, but he posted an astonishing 45.5 tackles for loss at Ohio State as well as 15 sacks and nine forced fumbles. His sack numbers increased each year, going from three in 2011 to five in 2012 to seven in 2013. Shazier broke up 16 passes for the Buckeyes, including 12 in 2012, and led everyone at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 42-inch vertical leap. He seems like a guy who the Steelers would be better off taking if they traded down in the first round, but if Colbert says there are 19 players worth taking at No. 15, it’s hard to believe Shazier wouldn’t be one of them.
16. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
(Jr., 5’10”, 189 pounds)
The Steelers are looking for a taller receiver, but how could Cooks not be on their board? He led the nation with 1,730 receiving yards and was second with 128 receptions in 2013. Cooks caught 16 touchdown passes last season and ran for two touchdowns. He was the fastest receiver at the combine with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash. He could restore what the Steelers lost when Mike Wallace left, although former Oregon State teammate Markus Wheaton is supposed to do that.
17. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
(Jr., 5’11”, 207 pounds)
Pryor appears to be more physical than Clinton-Dix, and he’s just as much of a playmaker. He intercepted seven passes in college, just like Clinton-Dix. The Steelers don’t have as much of a need for Pryor, however, because they signed Mike Mitchell. But he’s still on their board.
18. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
(Sr., 5’10”, 189 pounds)
Verrett led the nation with 22 passes defended in 2012 and followed that up with 14 pass breakups last season. He intercepted nine passes in college and broke up 41. If he were taller he’d be an easy top-15 pick. Some sites list him at 5’9″.
19. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
(Jr., 6’7″, 322 pounds)
Kouandjio has the ability to start on Day 1 at right tackle for the Steelers if he checks out medically.
NOTABLE PLAYERS NOT ON THE STEELERS FIRST-ROUND BOARD
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina: If Ebron were still there at No. 46 in the second round, the Steelers would run to the podium with his name on the card. But this tight end class isn’t strong enough to take one in the first round.
Zack Martin, OL, Notre Dame: Martin played tackle in college but might project to guard in the pros because of his size (6’4″, 308 pounds). Versatility is nice, but you don’t draft utility players in the first round.
Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan and Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State: Both players should be off the Steelers’ board entirely because of character red flags.