Three Intriguing Senior Bowlers

SCI's Jim Wexell believes the Steelers should pay attention to a trio of unique defenders who played so well Saturday in the Senior Bowl.

As I watched the tape of Telvin Smith in the Senior Bowl, I saw no reason to move him to a new position, and perhaps even every reason to draft him.

Smith's an inside linebacker who must insist, repeatedly, that he's not going to move to strong safety in the NFL just because he stands a tick under 6 feet 3 and weighs only 218 pounds.

Smith looks too skinny to be in the middle of the mass of humanity that crashes around him on every snap -- until you see him produce against not only the pass but the run as well.

Smith was the middle linebacker for the Florida State team that just won the national championship. It was his first year as a starter after sitting behind starter Vince Williams for two seasons, and Smith led FSU with 90 tackles, was second with 9.5 tackles for loss, and returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns.

And he got better as the games got bigger.

Against Duke in the ACC championship game, Smith made 8 tackles with an interception and a sack. Against Auburn in the National Championship Game, Smith made a career-high 15 tackles. And in the Senior Bowl, Smith made 5 tackles while roaming sideline-to-sideline as mainly an outside linebacker in the South's standard 4-3 alignment. He also forced a fumble as the first one down the field on a second-quarter punt, but the return man recovered.

Smith was only credited with half a tackle-for-loss at the Senior Bowl, but had one taken away when, after sniffing out a another screen, officials determined that teammate Dee Ford had jumped offside.

Smith obliterated the North's screen game throughout. He flashed his instincts and speed to the flats early, and then late he showed that -- like a pair of skinny and legendary Steelers inside linebackers of the past, Jack Lambert and James Farrior -- Smith could take on future first-round linemen such as Zack Martin, shed them, and make the stop in the run game.

Smith did all of this with the enthusiasm and confidence of someone who has no doubt he will play inside linebacker somewhere in the NFL.

If it's in Pittsburgh, Smith will find himself reunited with Williams, and would likely find himself as the much-needed pass-coverage linebacker as a rookie. Competition would then forge the best possible starter.


Some of the top draft sites I follow say that Smith should be an easy get on draft weekend. has him ranked 60th. The Sideline View ranks Smith 98th. And the National Football Post has him way down at 141, which by my math would make the linebacker available at the bottom of the fourth round.

That's why it came as a surprise yesterday to read a mock draft from Draft Breakdown's Matthew Mochal which had Smith going 12th to the New York Giants.

Equally surprising -- and interesting, considering that I am quite smitten with both players -- is that Mochal has the Steelers drafting beastly cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste with the 15th pick.

Smith and Jean-Baptiste are two players I'd like to see the Steelers take as mid-round sleepers. But apparently, they're not sleeping any longer.

In my judgment, Jean-Baptiste was the best of the "long" cornerbacks invited to the Senior Bowl by scout-friendly director Phil Savage.

The 6-2.3, 215-pound Jean-Baptiste looked like he could play for the Seattle Seahawks when he walked on to the field, but not so much when he fell down on a deep flea-flicker that, fortunately for him, missed its mark. But he rebounded against the better group of wide receivers throughout the rest of the game.

Known for his press man coverage, Jean-Baptiste also seemed to display a great understanding (and the required smooth backpedal) in playing off-coverage, which is very important to the Steelers. Jean-Baptiste also drew great praise from the TV analysts for a play late in the first half in which he played off Mike Davis, but broke quickly out of his cushion to dive through Davis and nearly intercept a pass.

On the next play, which went to the other side, Jean-Baptiste looked like Mel Blount in pressing and shadowing Davis down the sideline.

In the last two seasons, Jean-Baptiste has led Nebraska with 21 pass break-ups and also intercepted six passes. He is -- or at least was -- considered a second or third-round prospect, but with that size, and the skill he displayed in Mobile, he's someone to watch as the testing and interviewing phases of the draft process draw near.


The third defensive player who intrigued me in last Saturday's all-star game was a safety whom I had watched twice but apparently wasn't paying great attention, because Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois was a subject of drafnik intrigue in the weeks leading up to Mobile.

He didn't disappoint. Another unique body type, Ward is a skinny 5-10.3, 191-pound free safety who really made re-watching this tape much less of a grind, and, dare I say, fun.

Ward, like Jean-Baptiste, didn't get off to a great start, and, hey, that wide-open touchdown pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore on the weak side may have been more Chris Borland's fault than Ward's. Regardless, Ward soon got hot. And sticky.

That was the adjective of the day as Ward manned up on slot WRs, and was also physical with them. Later, Ward undercut Gillmore with a great burst of speed and the tight end crashed to the ground and dropped the ball incomplete.

Ward got up rocking and rolling and his enthusiasm had to be infectious to the rest of the team. I know it made me want to see more and more and more of an enthusiastic and aggressive player in the run game who was also sticky and physical as a coverage safety.

Ward, Jean-Baptiste and Smith are three unique players whom the Steelers should inspect closely.

Could they draft all three? Well, the titans of the draftnik business would make one believe so. But my gut -- as well as Mochal's unusually interesting mock draft -- says otherwise.

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