A Call For Defense

SCI publisher Jim Wexell updates his list of favored Pittsburgh Steelers draft prospects.

Defensive end or outside linebacker?

Big, physical corner or cover man?

Character risk or choir boy?

These are some of the questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers with their first-round pick, and they all deal with defense.

So you may ask: Why worry about it? Why not just draft a tight end who would fit right into the scheme, play a key role on opening day, and eventually replace the great Heath Miller?

That's definitely do-able this year, and then in the second round the Steelers could draft needed OL depth, and in the third round draft a running back from this rich crop to give them a starter on opening day if Le'Veon Bell is suspended. With Ben Roethlisberger fully armed, the Steelers could just go Coryell and outscore everyone in this offensive-mad era.

Yeah, right.

You saw the crowd at Heinz Field in the playoff game against the blood-rival Baltimore Ravens on a dry, 48-degree night.

The Steelers drew 62,780 that night, the smallest crowd to watch all but two other Ravens games (2013, 2002) since Heinz Field opened. It was also the smallest crowd to watch all but one of the 11 playoff games at Heinz Field.

The only playoff game with lower attendance was that which followed the 2002 regular season against Cleveland, and it was smaller by only 185 people.

The common thread to those poorly attended games during the 2014, 2013 and 2002 seasons is poor defense. The 2014 defense ranked 18th in both yardage and points allowed, the worst-ranked Steelers defensive unit in both categories during the Heinz Field era. The 2013 defense was 14th in points allowed and the 2002 defense was 16th.

So in this town, below-average defense equals below-average attendance, and ownership has already begun its stadium expansion project. So guess which side of the ball's getting the attention this off-season?

Hey, the Rooneys know Pittsburgh adores defense, and they must know that this defense, this team, needs a few new hearty defenders. So here's my updated list on the eve of the combine:

1. Leonard Williams, DL, USC -- He's not exactly Reggie White, and this isn't a great year to be picking in the top 10, but Williams is versatile and productive and there isn't a chance he'll fall to the Steelers at pick 22.

2. Dante Fowler, OLB, Florida -- I've moved Fowler ahead of the three elite offensive linemen from my first list. Not that Fowler's a super elite prospect, but he can bend the corner, cover, play the run and won't turn 21 until Aug. 3. And we've already explained why this has to be a defensive-minded draft.

3. Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri -- I've watched him more closely of late and see the same characteristics I see in Fowler, except Ray's 15 pounds lighter and a year older.

4. Randy Gregory, OLB, Nebraska -- Keeping Gregory off the last list was more of a stance. I still feel he's overrated by draftnicks in love with his suddenness, height and wingspan. But I see a 6-6 guy who's easy to block. So, I watched Gregory again without the high expectations and have come to appreciate his quick-twitch and pass-rush skills. I still worry he's too easy to block. But if the blocker makes a mistake, a QB will pay.

5. Danny Shelton, DT, Washington -- The problem with drafting a nose tackle in the first round is he won't be on the field on pass downs. But Shelton, like Casey Hampton until later in his career, is a big man who can get to the passer. And big, strong, difficult-to-block linemen make everyone around them better.

6. Brandon Scherff, OT-OG, Iowa -- Love his demeanor. Has a defender's mentality.

7. Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon -- Listed at 6-7/6-8, 295, this strong and quick 5-tech also shows a pass rush. What to do with too many big men? Well, this won't be the first or last time anyone suggests a deeper rotation of D-linemen for this new wave of uptempo offenses.

8. Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson -- I'll be interested in Beasley's weight at the combine, assuming he runs the 40. If he weighs less than 240 pounds, you have to wonder if the Steelers would draft another light backer who plays mainly on the blind side. Maybe Beasley could stop the run on the strong side opposite Jarvis Jones. Maybe not. But he is a pass-rusher. He has the get-off, the strength, and the ability to bend the corner.

9. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford -- Judging most mocks, the Steelers will get a shot at this battleship of a left tackle. Hard for me to believe, but apparently Peat has the size, mobility and strength but lacks balance. I would hate to pass on this kind of player, particularly since immediate depth is needed.

10. Landon Collins, SS, Alabama -- A concern about his shoulder(s) prevented me from putting Collins on my first list. No news is good news, I take it, so this playmaker in the Troy Polamalu mold is in play. I like everything about him and he can do all that's needed of a safety. I'll be interested in his timed speed, along with any medical news of course.

11. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama -- He's here just to represent the best of the offensive playmakers, which the Steelers fortunately don't need. But I'll never say never to this kind of talent.

12. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin -- While I'm on skill players, let's put Gordon here out of respect and take WVU's great WR Kevin White off, since we all know about White anyway. But Gordon is a future superstar. In the least, another team should want to trade up for him.

13. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon -- Watching the big games down the stretch, it looked like Jameis Winston was a big ol' pain in the rear end to coach. That's not what the Steelers need on their bench, so the nod stays with Mariota. Again, they can trade the pick if he falls to 22.

14. Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota -- Probably the safest pick in the draft for the Steelers, Mad Maxx will at least give them perimeter blocking as a move TE/FB. I'm also expecting strong workout numbers at the combine, because I've seen him hurdle defensive backs and catch deep balls on the run with one hand. So he's a hard-nosed athlete with strong football character.

15. Marcus Peters, CB, Washington -- Should be ranked much higher but was kicked off his team after a team meeting, although Washington Coach Chris Peterson told USA TODAY it wasn't just one incident. It's possible Peterson overstated his own personal stand for the sake of his new program. On the positive side, Peters was reportedly texting assignments to his backups to make sure they were ready to play after he was dismissed. He might hang out with Marshawn Lynch, but people do have good things to say about him. Mike Tomlin will no doubt attempt to ascertain the situation. GM Kevin Colbert confirmed that last week when he said, "We'll try to find out what the truth is and whether or not we should take the risk, or whether that player is worth the risk based not on his talent but his ability to be able to overcome whatever his issue was."

16. Alex Carter, CB, Stanford -- I'll let those with real knowledge of CB play explain why I'm wrong, but until then I have to leave a 6-foot, 200-pound, smart, hard-working, physical, 20-year-old on the list. I know I'm alone out there by ranking Carter this high. And if I'm wrong, I'll just watch some more tape and guess again later.

17. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State -- Do I want a backup guard or a starting corner? Yeah, I thought it was a dumb question.

18. La'el Collins, OT-OG, LSU -- The Steelers need depth and this guy's a masher, a future starter at whichever position opens up first.

19. Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas -- I'm going with him over Nate Orchard, who was 17 pounds lighter than Flowers at the Senior Bowl. It will be interesting to see if the 268-pound Flowers can drop into coverage at the combine. But I guess if they want that kind of a player opposite Jones, they'll take Alvin Dupree. I'll take the bigger player even if he is a 4-3 end, because Flowers can rush the passer too.

20. Preston Smith, DT, Mississippi State -- I'm getting into "fresh name" territory and have to drop DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa and offensive tackles T.J. Clemmings and Ereck Flowers off the list. I've talked about those three enough already this draft season anyway. As for Smith, he played all of the interior positions and gave the Bulldogs a pass-rusher off the nose on pass downs. My belief is he'll be an outstanding 4-3 strong-side end or 5-tech in the NFL. Maybe the Steelers could do the opposite of the 2007 draft and get the power edge guy in the first round and the quicker linebacker in the second.

21. David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa -- Draft defense in the first two rounds and come back in the third to get this future inside hammer. At the Senior Bowl, Johnson measured 6-1, 224 and wowed scouts with his receiving skills and ability to run outside-zone plays. In other words, he's very similar to Bell.

22. Derrick Lott, DL, Tennessee-Chattanooga -- Nice fourth-rounder upon whom I'll keep an eye at the combine. Looked like a young Orpheus Roye running under kickoffs at the Shrine Game. Big, strong 5-tech who can move.

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