The debate rages every draft season: need or best player available. Of course, the reality is that teams use a combination of the two.
Of course, draft boards of individual teams will be much different than a draft website, where those putting the boards together are doing so without having a specific team in mind. A general manager understands the process has a great deal of subjectivity to it. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, wouldn't reach for a player with a late first-round grade over one they have rated in the top 10. But there are 20 to 25 players who are consistently mocked anywhere from the mid-first to the late-second round. And from that group, in which difference in players is marginal, teams will position those players based on need. It's why for example, a player such as Eric Wood was reportedly the 13th best player on the Steelers' draft board in 2009.
Most likely the Steelers will be selecting someone from that group of 20 to 25 players, and I see nine players as the most likely selections. Only two from the group are players who could potentially slip to pick 22 and trump the Steelers' glaring needs at cornerback and outside linebacker. Below I've listed the players from least to most likely to be drafted, and in parenthesis next to the name is how I have him ranked among group.
The one need that so many seem to be glossing over is the offensive line, but I'm not sure GM Kevin Colbert agrees. In a recent radio interview, Colbert mentioned how having Le'Veon Bell for the playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens wouldn't have factored much in the outcome because the Steelers were dominated at the line of scrimmage.
The offensive line to me is much like the team as a whole, it's a unit without an identity. They wanted to be a stretch-zone team but have only three, maybe four, pieces in place to execute it.
Ramon Foster and to a lesser extent Marcus Gilbert are more of the beefy, Bruce Arians, man-blocking types. Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro are all very mobile but undersized guys. One is a potential diamond in the rough who will likely receive an extension this off-season while the other two were first-round investments. The problem with these guys is they can't move people off the line of scrimmage. Pouncey is still not going to be able to move Brandon Williams next season. But if they form a unit in which the line of scrimmage is on the move, then I believe we would see the Steelers run the ball much more effectively in the red zone.
While it had it's moments, the running game last season was too hit or miss. It was too left-handed with DeCastro being the only viable option to pull. Teams took away the long developing counter play late in the season after the game in Cincinnati. Drafting a mobile offensive tackle/guard who can get out in space would allow the young/mobile investments to maximize their talents of doing the same, which also speaks best to the patient running style of Bell. Mobility at left guard would open up the stretch zone to either side. The Steelers could also pull their guard from either side. This would make the running game far less predicable and much more consistent. Drafting a tackle who can be a dominant guard would also provide insurance.
9. Brandon Scherff (3) fits the bill as a tackle who's capable of becoming an upper-echelon guard. Scherff is often compared to Zack Martin, the Dallas Cowboys' 17th overall pick last season. That comparison is a stretch. Scherff isn't as mobile and doesn't move people as well as Martin did in college. Still, he would provide enough athleticism to allow the Steelers to consistently run the stretch zone and pull from either guard position.
8. La'el Collins (2) is my top offensive lineman in this draft. He fits everything the Steelers need to add to their offensive line. Collins has the mobility to get out in space, the nasty to move people in the run game, the athleticism to potentially be a very good left tackle, and the leadership qualities/demeanor that would be ideal for the locker room. If there were an ideal comparison to Martin in this draft, Collins would be it. At 6-4 with less than ideal length, there are questions about his ability to play left tackle. With Brad Hopkins and now Beachum, Steelers OL coach Mike Munchak has had experience when it comes to successfully developing undersized left tackles. If he's not needed at tackle, great, the Steelers would have themselves a perennial Pro Bowl left guard.
Scherff and Collins are guys that I would give mid to high first-round grades. Therefore, they would trump a more needed position that has a mid to low first-round grade. One of those positions is outside linebacker, where the Steelers could use a stud pass-rusher/edge-setter, specifically on the left side.
7. Bud Dupree (4) has the size for the left side and the upside to be the pass rusher/edge setter they haven't had since LaMarr Woodley was young and not yet prone to injury. Dupree runs hot and cold. He doesn't always play with the same intensity. What I saw a on film is a player who at times looks tired and appears to pace himself. The upside is intriguing, though I'm not overly high on drafting a player who isn't motivated enough push through the torture required to be physically prepared for every play. It's a red flag that he might not have the passion to be great. But it doesn't mean that being in top condition can't be learned either. He just might not know what it takes to be in that kind of condition. Who better to teach him than James Harrison? That said, I want to line my locker room with as many high-motored self-starters as I can. I don't think I'm getting that with Dupree. That's why I rank him behind the Scherff and Collins should all three be available when the Steelers make their first-round selection. Recent mocks are now suggesting that it's most likely Dupree will be gone by pick 22 anyways.
Vic Beasley and Shane Ray will more than likely be gone as well. And I'm leaving Randy Gregory alone. Aside from the character or dedication aspect, I'm not willing to invest my first-round pick on a player who is already in phase one of the league's substance abuse policy and has admitted to turning to marijuana to cope with anxiety. Professional football is a high-stress business that is compounded by friends and family who suddenly think you owe them monetary favors. Enough said.
Besides, the Steelers most glaring need is at the cornerback position. Reading the tea leaves, it's the position the Steelers have pinpointed for their first-round pick. I believe the Steelers are higher on Arthur Moats than the fan base. Moats' contract of $2.5 million per season is starter money and is slightly more per season than the pay average of Jarvis Jones. It looks as if Moats will start on the left side while Harrison provides situational pass-rushing as an emergency starter in waiting. Regardless, the Steelers have three options at outside linebacker.
But at corner, the Steelers have a player they benched last season and a veteran who was cut by another team. William Gay's talents best serve the team as the nickel corner. With the off-season signing of Shawn Lemon, the potential development of Howard Jones, and the fact they lost arguably their best corner, Brice McCain, all signs point to cornerback with the 22nd pick.
6. Trae Waynes (1) likely will be long gone by 22. I won't hold it against Waynes for having one sub-par outing in the Cotton Bowl against Baylor. Nor will I hold the press corner's mediocre cone drill times against him, either. Taller guys with 4.2/4.3 speed can sometimes struggle powering down for those drills. If he slips into the late teens, I could see the possibility of the Steelers offering a fourth-round pick to move up if he is the top corner on their board.
Waynes will get thicker. He's still young. I see a faster Al Harris type of player in Waynes. He's a great kid and hard worker. A character guy that could help replenish what was lost in that regard this off-season. He's an inconsistent but willing tackler who will need to get stronger. Still, the lockdown potential with ball skills is there.
After Waynes, I could just draw the next five names out of a hat. I have a hard time coming up with definitive reasons for chosing one over the other. But here goes.
5. Marcus Peters (8) might not be on the Steelers' board because of his character concerns. Take away the concerns and he's my top-rated player among these nine. Of course if there weren't character concerns, he'd be long gone by pick 22. The question with him is whether he's is coachable and a possible distraction. Teammates liked him. I liked that he helped his Washington teammates in the secondary over the phone with their assignments after he was kicked off the team. That shows he cares and isn't totally selfish. He apparently has some emotional immaturity, but is young and can mature.
I've played on teams with jerks. But some of those jerks I respected because they weren't afraid to get in someone's face if the team wasn't winning. I'm not saying Peters is a jerk. I'm saying if he's passionate about the game and highly motivated to win, then I'd be open to drafting him, provided he passes the psychological tests the Steelers administer. Peters is a technician who can do it all. He provides everything the Steelers need at the corner position. Still, the loss of leadership this offseason might be bad timing for a character risk like Peters. It certainly didn't work out in recent gambles with LeGarrette Blount and Chris Rainey. But unlike Rainey, and to a certain extent Blount, Peters hasn't had any off-the-field incidents. If the Steelers do draft him, I have to admit, I'd be cautiously excited.
4. Eric Rowe (7) has been a late riser in the draft community. Rowe's size, (6-1), speed, (4.45) and upside could make him the not-so-surprising selection of the Steelers in the first round. It's been said by some in the Pittsburgh media that the Steelers are very high on Rowe. One reason for that is Rowe's three years of safety experience gives the Steelers a fallback option should he not make it at corner. I'd likely have him number one on my list if he had good hands, but only three interceptions in 46 starts suggests limited ball skills. If I'm going to invest a first-round pick in a corner or a safety, I want someone who can take the ball away.
3. Jalen Collins (9) has a high ceiling and low floor. That floor has me down on Collins. He had only had 10 starts at LSU. Collins has been compared to Antonio Cromartie, who only had four starts at Florida State. The concern I have with Collins is that he struggles with redirecting in man coverage. The best attribute I see in Collins is his physicality and willingness to support the run. But Mike Tomlin scares me in that when it comes to selecting corners, he has become the modern-day Al Davis. In his quest to cover "every blade of grass," it seems he's forgotten that a player's technique and instincts can easily make up for .15 seconds and then some when compared to the fast guy with limited instincts. In last year's draft, the only corner the Steelers were going to select with their first-round pick if available was Justin Gilbert. I liked Darqueze Dennard and Kyle Fuller much more than Gilbert because of their consistency, physicality in the run game, and character. There were red flags about Gilbert's character and his tendencies to look more like a matador in run support had him substantially behind Dennard and Fuller in my rankings. Gilbert's knucklehead tendencies were an issue last year for the Cleveland Browns. Despite the red flags, Tomlin wanted the player who ran sub 4.4 at the combine.
Following the selection of Martavis Bryant, I correctly blogged that the Steelers would select Shaquille Richardson in Round 5. It was easy to predict because Richardson was all that was left in terms of size and sub 4.5 speed. But I loved E.J. Gaines. I thought he was a late second/third-round talent. Yet, the Steelers passed on a player who would go on to have one of the most productive seasons of any late-round pick. Should the Steelers draft Collins, it would lead me to believe that Tomlin hasn't learned from chasing 40 times and measurables.
2. Kevin Johnson (6) is probably the safest pick of this handful of corners. Other than Peters, Johnson was the most consistent of the final five that I studied on film. He can play press man or off zone. He's a physical and willing tackler with ball skills. A passionate player with good football character, Johnson seems to have the lowest ceiling of the final five, but the highest floor. This is the safest pick. For a team that could use an immediate impact, it might be correct one. I see a solid football player in Johnson. Sometimes, that's all a team needs. But I believe the Steelers need a guy with lockdown potential. An impact star has yet to emerge in this young but developing defensive unit. The Steelers need an impact guy on the outside that makes the whole defense better.
1. Byron Jones (5) has the potential to be that lockdown guy with ball skills that I believe the Steelers should be targeting. If Tomlin is going to chase measurables, this is the player to chase. I'm not referring to his world-record broad jump or Combine-leading vertical. To me, his most impressive test that best translates to football was his ability to do the 60-yard shuttle in under 11 seconds. That speaks best to Jones' ability to accelerate, redirect, and play with leverage. At 6-1 with 32-inch arms, Jones' ability to play with knee bend and change direction is rare for a player his height. Jones is well built and with those long arms has the potential to single-arm extend and stifle receivers at the line of scrimmage like a Darrelle Revis. Similar to Rowe, Jones' experience at safety gives the Steelers a fallback option should he falter at corner. Jones' eight career interceptions indicates the ball skills that Rowe lacks. Jones is a high character kid who carried a grade point average above 3.0 in college, displaying that he's the type who's willing to grind.
The thing is, it's not as if Jones is just a workout guy. He has very good tape. Prior to his shoulder injury halfway through the 2014 season, he was being projected as a second-round pick. I believe Jones is being knocked for the level of competition and playing for a poor team. He's to corner what Jamie Collins was to the outside linebacker position coming out of winless Southern Mississippi in 2013. A sick athlete with very good tape playing on a poor team with less than ideal competition. Put Jones on an SEC team and the Steeler likely have no shot at getting him. I do think Tomlin would prefer to have some "dawg" in his corners. It's a position in which a player has to be able to bounce back quickly. Going through some life struggles could help prevent the possibility of the stage being too big. Jones could be viewed as a nice kid who could struggle with the stage, like Limas Sweed, and that might be why there has been no buzz or seemingly interest from the Steelers in Jones. Or, they could be playing this one close to the vest. But with the depth of the position and quality options to be had in Rounds 3 and 4, I would be looking to select a player with ball skills who has the highest ceiling and doesn't have the lowest floor. That player is Byron Jones.