What The La'el?

The Steelers and Mike Tomlin skipped the big man while investigating other potential first-round picks at LSU's pro day late last week.

Another one of Lance Zierlein's mock drafts came out late last week and he had the Steelers taking Bud Dupree with the 22nd pick.

Makes sense. In fact, in the odds column I'm forming in my head, Dupree will likely be the betting favorite. All that would stop me is a strong sense that Dupree will be chosen before pick 22.

At this point, because his tape is so bland, I don't see that happening.

So Zierlein appears to be bang on. Again.

But, of course, I had to take a peek at his leftovers. There was Marcus Peters, the outstanding and physical cornerback who was kicked off his team because of his problems with the new Washington coaching staff. And there was my man Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who's more of a personal choice, a 4-3 end in whom I don't really expect the Steelers to be interested. Unfortunately.

The other guy who jumped off the bottom of Zierlein's first-round list, beyond pick 22, is an offensive tackle.

The analyst for NFL.com -- who is very familiar to Steelers fans, and particularly readers of this site -- had already doled out Brandon Scherff (8), Andrus Peat (9), D.J. Humphries (18) and Ereck Flowers (21). One would think that with so many tackles going before pick 22, LSU masher La'el Collins would be one of them.

He was not.

But I must say, I'm interested.

I like Collins on tape. He plays with the intensity of Scherff. Every play begins, continues, and finishes with attitude and effort. I asked him at the combine if he takes a defender's mentality to his left tackle position.

"Most definitely," he said. "When I started playing football, I played defense more than offense and I kind of made the transition to playing offense in high school. I always had the mentality of a defensive lineman, a defensive guy, and I was able to bring that over to the offensive side. But I also bring intelligence over to play the offensive line position."

"La'el," I followed, "are you saying that most defenders lack intelligence?"

This brought the desired result: a hearty laugh from the big man at the podium.

"I'm not going to say that," he said with a big smile.

I was hoping I could remind him of my little joke next draft day. After all, Collins had a great combine. At 6-4 1/2, 305, with 33 1/4-inch arms and big 10 3/8-inch hands, he drew raves for his on-field drill work. He looked so very smooth, and that had been a question for a guy whose in-game mission seems to be more seek-and-destroy than polish. Some experts say he'll have to move inside to guard, or over to right tackle, but that's OK with me, too.

Yet, in his combine drills, Collins looked like a left tackle. In fact, I didn't see anyone better.

The bigger point, and why I like Collins and Scherff a bit more than those technically polished left tackles, Humphries and Jake Fisher, is they can play four positions, and that's what the Steelers need this year. They need depth on their offensive line.

When I write this, questions inevitably come up: Who would you replace on the Steelers' line with Collins? Would you move Kelvin Beachum inside? Is Ramon Foster going to leave after this final year of his contract? Would you move Collins to right tackle to replace Marcus Gilbert?

Truth is, I wouldn't target anyone for replacement. I just can't expect this line to go injury-free again this season, so I would teach Collins guard and tackle and then wait and see. The question of where to play him will no doubt answer itself.

Collins said he prefers either tackle spot over guard because he "loves being out there on the island." But he really doesn't care.

“They’ve asked me about playing guard," he said of NFL personnel men. "I'll fit in wherever. I can play guard at either spot, right or left side. I worked a little bit at both at the Senior Bowl."

Collins played guard his first two years at LSU and left tackle his last two. He's a four-year letterman, a three-year starter, a captain, a former Parade All-America, a first-team All-SEC, a second-team Associated Press All-America, the Top Offensive Lineman in the SEC as voted upon by coaches, and the pride and joy of his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All of those decorations and he's still only 21 years old. Collins won't turn 22 until July 26, or when the Steelers report to training camp.

But, apparently, he won't be reporting with the Steelers, because Mike Tomlin went to LSU late last week to have dinner with a cornerback and an outside linebacker.

Yes, those are primary needs. But, are Jalen Collins or Danielle Hunter the right players?

Jalen Collins certainly has the size and speed to tempt the Steelers at pick 22. At the combine he measured 6-1 1/2, 203, and ran a 4.48 40 with a 1.50 split. He had a vertical jump of 36 inches, a broad jump of 10-4, a rather pedestrian short shuttle time of 4.27 but an outstanding 3-cone time of 6.77. And he did all of that with a fractured foot. Collins underwent surgery after the combine and didn't work out last Thursday at his pro day. But he ate dinner with Tomlin the previous night and the next day took questions from the media, or at least from Mike Mayock, who asked Collins the million dollar question.

"After I watched your tape, I was like, 'Wow. This is a first-round corner," said Mayock while interviewing Collins for NFL.com. "'He's got length. He's got speed. He tackles.' So I'm all in on the physical traits. What I need to know is how come only 10 starts in three years? And how come in the middle of (last) year you weren't starting?"

"Over the past years," answered Collins, a 22-year-old redshirt junior, "I felt maybe it was a trust issue. I kind of had a couple off-the-field issues. This past year we had a three-corner rotation going. The other guys would start the game and I would rotate in."

After redshirting as a freshman, Collins made one start in 2012, two starts in 2013 and seven starts (first three games and the final four) in 2014. During that span LSU played 13 games per season. No "off-the-field issues" have been made public, but his stats show only three interceptions in three years after only three interceptions as a high school senior in Mississippi. The Draft Advisory Committee, which only gives three grades, gave Collins the worst: go back to school.

Yet, he's up for the draft and most experts -- including the Houston-based Zierlein, who has him going 16th to Houston -- rate him as a first-rounder.

Collins had been working out with Ike Taylor in Orlando before meeting with Carnell Lake in Indianapolis and eating with Tomlin in Baton Rouge.

The other dinner companion that night, Hunter, is an even bigger risk/projection.

A true junior who won't turn 21 until Oct. 29, the LSU blind-side edge rusher measured 6-5.1, 252 with 34 1/4-inch arms and 10 1/2-inch hands at the combine. He ran a 4.57 (1.57) 40 and repped 25 times.

At his pro day, Danielle (Duh-NEEL) "blew the scouts on hand out of the water with his workout," according to NFL.com. He had a 36 1/2-inch vertical jump, a 10-10 broad jump and ran a 3-cone drill in 6.95 seconds.

Jamaica-born and Texas-bred, Hunter shows less on tape than either Collins, and has produced less than Jalen Collins. In 23 starts the last two years, Hunter has only 4.5 sacks. He had only 11 sacks in two high school seasons.

Yet, Hunter doesn't view himself as a long-term project.

"I’ll be able to go in and contribute immediately, whether it’s on special teams or outside linebacker or defensive end," he told combine reporters.

The guess here is that Tomlin was merely doing his due diligence with Hunter, but that Jalen Collins is a legitimate Steelers consideration if he makes it to pick 22.

And a cornerback would go over well -- even big, rousing -- in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have drafted defense three times out of their last four first and second-round picks.

Of course, the Steelers should keep in mind that it's the player and not the position that matters on draft day. In three years they don't want to be shaking their heads and asking themselves, "What the La'el were we thinking?"


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