DBs: Steelers need a handful

Bill Cowher could speak freely about the Steelers' ongoing negotiations with free agent Sammy Knight, and not because the draft looms and the rules will change. Rather, Cowher is being so open because there aren't any feelings to hurt. There aren't enough safeties on the roster for that.

"Sammy Knight is still an option. There's no question about that," the coach said Monday. "We've had some initial talks with him. We'll continue to talk."

The Steelers would like to know whether they can get away with drafting only one safety this weekend. Knight's signing would cut into what looms as the Steelers' biggest need area in the draft.

Currently, the only healthy safeties due in for mini-camp are Brent Alexander, Chris Hope and Erik Totten, and none of them are assured of a starting job.

The Steelers would like to have more speed at free safety, and tried to sign Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson to -- it's assumed -- replace the 31-year-old Alexander. And Hope, according to Cowher, "did flash but he was not a consistent football player a year ago." And Totten was a practice-squad player added late to the roster as an injury replacement. The 5-9, 188-pound Totten has quickness and smarts, but may be too small to help. That leaves the rehabbing Mike Logan, who's entering the final year of his contract, and the specter of Knight, an in-the-box strong safety.

If the Steelers don't sign Knight before the draft, they'll need to add two safeties just to fill uniforms. They'd like one of them to be USC strong safety Troy Polamalu. He's the playmaker, the blitzer, the hitter, the warrior the Steelers have lacked in their secondary since the days of Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake. Polamalu (5-10 1/8, 206) is not as tall as Lake, nor has he proven he can cover like the former Steelers standout strong safety. Polamalu does come with another so-called chink. Word around the league is that he's suffered a number of concussions. Don't you hate guys who hit too hard?

First Round
– Polamalu for the reasons stated above. After all, "knocks himself out too often" isn't going to scare us. That was the rap on Mike Singletary a Hall-of-Fame career ago. As for Polamalu, he runs a sub-4.4 40, squats 600 pounds and takes the game seriously. He's a future team leader, and, if being USC's special teams captain the last two years meant anything, a special-teams star, if not the strong safety by mid-season. If he's somehow on the board, Polamalu is Lee Flowers' replacement.

First Round – Sammy Davis (5-11¾, 186, 4.41, 40 VJ, 19 reps) of Texas A&M would make a decent fall-back proposition and become the heir apparent to cornerback Dewayne Washington. While he's waiting, Davis could work his way into the nickel and dime packages to cover slot receivers. His first year would be easy. You, cover him.

Second Round – Ken Hamlin (6-2½, 209, 4.55) of Arkansas has a pair of DUIs so we're penalizing him a round, but he coulda' been a contender. He coulda' been somebody.

Third Round – Terrence Kiel (5-11 1/8, 204, 4.46) of Texas A&M is a strong safety who had the third-quickest 40 time at the combine (safeties) and tied Hamlin for the top time in the short shuttle. Kiel also ran one of the quickest 3-cone times. He's agile, quick and was A&M's tackling leader the last two years. Run-stopping safety with the potential to be solid in coverage. Also answers to Blair Kiel Project.

Third Round – Todd Johnson (6-0 7/8, 206, 4.53) of Florida has been a center fielder in the SEC air wars the last three years and has the instincts befitting such a veteran. A below-average senior season knocked his grades off kilter, but he wasn't the only Gator to struggle under new Coach Ron Zook.

Fourth Round – Charles Tillman (6-1 1/8, 207, 4.43) of Louisiana-Lafayette ran a 3.87 short shuttle to top all DBs at the combine. The cornerback also jumped 40 inches vertically and 10 feet 11 inches horizontally. Athletic and big. Can he play? "Leader with good character," wrote Joel Buchsbaum. "Has a lot of upside."

Fifth Round – Donald Strickland (5-10, 187, 4.47) of Colorado is a cornerback who supports the run and can be effective in coverage. The Steelers need to draft one corner.

Fifth Round – Derek Pagel (6-1, 208, 4.5, 25 reps) of Iowa is strong and agile and studious. Considered an overachiever who compares favorably with a young Flowers, particularly on special teams.

Sixth Round – Quintin Mikell (5-10, 204, 4.56 pro day) was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year as Boise State's fourth-year starting free safety. Better against the run but smart enough to be in position for the pass. Pro day time in the 3-cone drill an impressive 6.59.

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Jim Wexell
Steel City Sports.com

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