The Pittsburgh Steelers could come away from the draft with newfound explosiveness in their secondary

The Steelers showed strong interest in one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the draft, among others.

Three years ago, after Art Rooney II mandated that his Pittsburgh Steelers improve their pass rush, the team drafted the top pass-rusher in college football.

Jarvis Jones had led the nation in tackles-for-loss and sacks that season, but ran a 4.92 40.

Yet, the Steelers sprinted to the podium to make Jones the 17th pick of the draft.

"We were happy because we knew that we had a chance (to draft him,)" Kevin Colbert said of the abysmal 40 time.

The question today -- knowing Rooney's mandate for improved pass defense and Colbert's definition of such as more interceptions -- is this: Are the Steelers happy that Darian Thompson ran a 4.7 40 at the Combine on Monday?

Thompson, a fifth-year safety out of Boise State, has been a target of Steelers interest this draft season, no doubt due to the fact his 19 career interceptions are tied for the lead nationally.

Thompson broke Eric Weddle's Mountain West Conference record of 18 career interceptions, and Weddle, of course, is a Steelers fan's most popular potential free agent these days. He was a 5-11 1/4, 203-pound safety out of Utah who ran a 4.56 40 with 11 bench reps, a vertical jump of 33 1/2 inches, a shuttle time of 4.12 and a 3-cone time of 6.78.

Thompson is bigger, at 6-1 7/8, 208, and repped 12 times, but he's slower in the 40 (4.69 official), the short shuttle (4.33) and the 3-cone (7.26).

In his defense, some of the more explosive safeties in the draft -- also running in Group 2 after jumping earlier in the day -- ran disappointing 40s.

Keanu Neal, the 6-0 1/2, 211-pound third-year junior out of Florida, ran a 4.62 40 after a 38-inch vertical jump and 11-0 broad jump.

Justin Simmons, the 6-2 3/8, 202-pound senior out of Boston College, ran a 4.61 40 after a 40-inch vertical jump and sensational short shuttle (3.85) and 3-cone (6.58) times.

However, Thompson didn't look nearly as athletic as Neal, Simmons or even Maryland CB/S Sean Davis (6-1, 201, 4.46 40 in first group, 37 1/2 vertical, 3.97 SS, 6.64 3-cone) in ball/field drills.

The latter three seem more suitable -- athletically -- for a Steelers team that thrived in its secondary until losing the ultra-athletic Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

So, if the Steelers are going to draft a safety in the first round, he must help them athletically. And at the Combine the Steelers showed great interest in Neal, in particular, hosting him in both informal and formal meetings.

"I think I'm an underrated player," said Neal. "A lot of people don't know me yet but as time goes on, after the Combine, after the pro day, they'll start really watching my film because they'll know who I am after what I showcase here. I'm looking forward to it."

Neal's famous for his hitting ability -- as his head-first meetings with Alabama running back Derrick Henry attest -- but in a media interview that revealed a high degree of intelligence and affability, Neal stressed his coverage skills.

"A lot of guys see me as a big hitter," he said. "I am a big hitter. And I can make the for-sure tackle. And I can cover. I'm not just a hitter. A lot of people see that, though."

Neal explained that while he's been dubbed a strong safety by the media, Florida didn't use such designations. "We just had right and left," he said. "There were times when I played free, where I was in the middle of the field or I was playing quarters, and there were times when I was down in the box playing strong or rotating down with the single-high safety and I was the down safety at the time. That's considered the strong safety in cover-3 and things like that."

He naturally patterns his game after Kam Chancellor, and looks the part of the comparison, even though he was disappointed in his Combine height measurement. But Neal loves how Chancellor can cover tight ends and slot receivers, and he loves his tackling -- big hit or not.

"You've got to go full throttle," Neal said. "But there are times when going full throttle is bad. You've gotta slow down and make the for-sure tackle, whether it's in space or whatnot. I didn't really get that concept this past year. I was trying to kill, kill, kill, but it was a learning experience. You've just got to be smart."

Neal sheepishly admitted that his mother named him after actor Keanu Reeves.

"A lot of people call me 'The Matrix,'" he said of a popular Reeves role. "I never knew why until I watched the movie, and I didn't really like it."

Neal said that if scouts watch the movie of his first season as a starter, 2014, when he had three interceptions (compared to one in 2015), they'll see the coverage skills they need to see.

"In 2014 we did a lot blitzes where we blitzed the nickel back, and the safety had to rotate down on the front side to the slot receiver. We played man there and I played it in a lot of cover-3," he said. "In 2015 we didn't do much of it, played a lot of quarters and things like that, but I had a lot of opportunities in 2014 to cover slot receivers."

If the Steelers are fortunate to have a speedy 6-foot cornerback such as Eli Apple or William Jackson fall to them in the first round, they'll likely go in that direction, and then hope a player such as Neal is available in the second round.

That might not be a bad strategy regardless of a cornerback, with the explosive -- but ACL-injured -- Karl Joseph of West Virginia likely to be available late in the second round.

Joseph, whom Mike Mayock excitedly compared to Seattle's Earl Thomas, said that his knee is on track for full recovery by the start of training camp. But since he'll miss spring, and is more of a health risk than other safeties, the second round will likely be the place to draft him.

Or Simmons.

Or Davis.

Or even Thompson.

There's also another first-round safety possibility who could be a candidate to land in Pittsburgh.

"Vonn Bell probably has the best range out of any safety in the draft," Apple said about his Ohio State teammate. "He's a great open-field tackler, he's very smart, he can read offenses and see what they're going to do."

Bell was the Ohio State free safety who played like a strong safety in Ohio State's cover-2. He measured 5-10 3/4, 199 at the Combine but didn't workout. He no doubt will run a great time on OSU's lightning-quick track at his pro day.

Of course, the Steelers always show up in Columbus in a big way on that day. Ask Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Will AllenDoran Grant and Mike Adams.

"It would be something special playing with all of those guys on the Steelers," said Bell as he walked away from the podium while looking at his meetings list. "Yes, I've got a formal with them Sunday night."

It was a date with another explosive, athletic safety.

They're readily available in this draft.

As long as the Steelers don't let college stats get in their way.


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