When Purdue defensive end/linebacker Cliff Avril visited Steelers headquarters last month, he did so under the cover of darkness.
Avril's visit wasn't announced to the local media, as the team did with other potential high draft picks, such as Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo, Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, Michigan defensive end/linebacker Shawn Crable and Maryland defensive lineman Dre Moore.
Teams are permitted 30 such visits leading up to the NFL Draft on April 26-27.
"I met with all the coaches, talked some football, met with the linebacker coach (Keith Butler). I guess they try to see how fast you can learn. Went through some film, see if I can pick up their defense, some basic stuff," Avril said. "I talked to (Mike Tomlin) for a good bit, actually. Real cool guy. He was trying to get a feel for who I was, what kind of guy I was. We just talked about football."
story continues below
Maybe Steelers officials didn't want media members to know Avril was in town because he might be high on their draft board. Maybe it was simply an oversight. Steelers officials typically don't discuss specific draft prospects.
All 32 teams are informed when potential draft picks make official visits, so there are no secrets around the league regarding visits. That doesn't mean, however, that the Steelers have to inform the local media every time they entertain a player.
If nothing else, Avril's unannounced visit provided the Steelers an opportunity to learn more about a player they may consider drafting without undergoing the media scrutiny of where (or if) he fits in their plans.
One thing's for sure: Avril's skill set appeals to the Steelers, who want to improve their pass rush.
Avril is arguably one of the best pass rushers in this year's draft.
He measured 6-foot-3 and 253 pounds at Purdue's Pro Day last month. He ran a speedy 4.51 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, where he raised his draft stock considerably. At the combine, Avril posted the fastest time among defensive ends in the three-cone drill (6.90 seconds), which tests agility in open space, while finishing in the top six among linebackers.
"When I did OK at the combine, yes, that helped me. I think I did open some eyes with my speed and quickness. That was one question everybody had: how fast I was," said Avril, who also has visited Buffalo and Detroit and has plans to visit New England, Atlanta and Tennessee. "Since then, some of the teams have been more interested."
Avril played defensive end for the better part of the past two seasons after starting his college career at outside linebacker. He recorded a team-high 6 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for losses with three fumble recoveries and a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown in 2007.
He compares favorably among current NFL players with former Purdue defensive standouts Shaun Phillips and Anthony Spencer, who play for San Diego and Dallas, respectively.
"The fact that I played defensive end my last year and a half, I guess they wanted to see if I could still drop back into coverage. I feel like I proved it a little bit," Avril said.
"If I was to compare myself to somebody, it would probably be Shaun Phillips. We have basically the same body type. Spencer is a little heavier than us. The difference is I played linebacker in college. They never played linebacker until they got to the league. I think that helps me a little bit more than them as far as getting used to dropping back into coverage."
Avril said the Steelers spoke with him about playing outside linebacker.
"In their defense, they want me as an outside linebacker, one that can rush (the quarterback) and drop back into coverage," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. I feel like I'm athletic enough to drop back into coverage and be a good pass rusher. I feel like I can do both."