Emmanuel Sanders tried to leave.
Do any wide receivers want to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers anymore?
"I'd LOVE to play for the Steelers!" raved Quinton Patton at the combine.
But it wasn't just the openings on the depth chart or the opportunity to catch passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that had Patton so excited.
"I want to go to any place that has a great defense," he said, "because then I get to go against them every day in practice."
The ebullient Patton (6-0, 204, 4.53), of course, called himself the best receiver in the draft. They all do. So for informational purposes, it's better to ask a receiver who might be the second best in the draft.
"Probably Cordarrelle Patterson," Patton said. "That's my boy."
Patterson (6-1.7, 216, 4.42) is the wide receiver most likely to tempt the Steelers at pick no. 17.
Because Tavon Austin (5-8.4, 174, 4.34) will be long gone, Patterson – because of his ability to return kicks and run after the (bubble screen) catch – should create serious consideration. But there's a problem with his understanding of offensive schemes after his poor combine interviews and the fact his quarterback expressed doubts about Patterson's knowledge of the Tennessee offense.
Patterson played only one season at Tennessee after traveling the junior-college route, but in that one season averaged 16.9 yards per catch, 12.3 per carry, 28.0 per kickoff return and 25.2 per punt return in leading the SEC in all-purpose yardage (1,858).
The re-signing of Sanders has freed the Steelers to draft a developmental project.
However, a safer pick would be DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 214, 4.57), a soon-to-be 21-year-old from Clemson who not only reminded reporters at the combine that Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 40 coming out, but that Hopkins's best game was his last game.
Hopkins caught 13 passes for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, including a clutch 26-yard catch in front of Eric Reid on fourth-and-16 to continue the late, game-winning drive.
"I'm not the most athletic guy in this class, but I'm a student of the game," said Hopkins. "I know football, the Xs and Os. I know how to break down a defense. Get me in the film room and I'll show you."
His coach at Clemson, Dabo Swinney, agreed, and added the following: "He has the best hands and ability to catch the ball in traffic that I have seen in a long time."
But because Hopkins is not a deep threat due to his 4.57 speed, he's considered a late first-round or early second-round candidate.
Ideally, the Steelers would trade down, pick up an extra third-round pick, and attempt to draft Hopkins from among a pool that includes similarly serious pass-catchers Keenan Allen (6-2, 206, 4.71) and Robert Woods (6-0.3, 201, 4.51), or even Plaxico Burress's protégé Justin Hunter (6-4, 196, 4.44).
In the second round, Steelers might have the opportunity to choose from Patton or even Oregon State track sprinter Markus Wheaton (5-11, 189, 4.45), who may not be as fast as the departed Wallace but would come out of college with more polished receiving skills.
"I think I have all the tools necessary to be successful at the next level, whether it's route-running, speed, hands," said Wheaton. "I'm not sure what Mike Wallace has or doesn't have – I'm not trying to knock him or anything like that – but I do think I have all the tools necessary to be successful."
Wheaton, who also spoke enthusiastically about returning kicks and playing gunner, expected to run a 4.3 at the combine and was disappointed with his official electronic clocking of 4.45.
A better comparison to Wallace – who ran an official 4.31 at the 2009 combine – might be Olympian Marquise Goodwin (5-8.7, 183, 4.27), who was timed at 4.21 at the combine by multiple hand-held watches.
Goodwin finished 10th in the long jump at the last Olympics, and his involvement with track-and-field interrupted a football career at Texas that improved markedly by the end of his senior season (MVP of Sun Bowl and impressive Senior Bowl week).
Goodwin will likely be picked in the third round, an area where the Steelers might also consider a Hines Ward-type in Ryan Swope (6-0.2, 205, 4.34), who made crushing blocks and gave himself several concussions as Johnny Manziel's go-to receiver at Texas A&M, or an even bigger, stronger, more possession-oriented receiver in the Anquan Bouldin mold such as Chris Harper (6-0.6, 229, 4.55).
"We're smart, that's why," Harper said with a laugh. "It took me a while to adjust to it, but I eventually got the hang of it. It helped me better understand the schemes and how to run routes and how to be instinctive out there. You can't run every route like it was drawn up."
The Steelers might also be interested in a tight end, due to the torn ACL suffered by Heath Miller in the finale. One draft expert – Path to the Draft's Daniel Jeremiah – believes he's uncovered the ideal choice in Travis Kelce (6-5, 255), who like Miller started his college career as a quarterback and ended it with a sports hernia. On the down side, Kelce was suspended from Cincinnati his entire sophomore season reportedly for drugs.
"The thing I love about him," Jeremiah said of Kelce, "it's so hard to find any of these tight ends who will block anybody. Most of them are flexed out in their college offenses. You see him put his hand on the ground, you see him get after people, finish people in the run game. When I watched him I wrote down on my paper ‘Pittsburgh Steelers' because to me he just looked like a player the Pittsburgh Steelers would target."
Wexell's Value Board for the Pittsburgh Steelers
First Round – Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee; DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson; Keenan Allen, Cal; Robert Woods, USC.
Second Round – Markus Wheaton, Oregon State; Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech; Justin Hunter, Tennessee.
Seventh Round – Mike Shanahan, Pitt.