Perfect Draft Plan For Steelers

Did William Jackson and Eli Apple perform too well at the NFL Combine? Regardless, the Steelers should be able to fix their beleaguered secondary.

The NFL Combine workouts of cornerbacks William Jackson and Eli Apple were no doubt the cause of a good news/bad news reaction among fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Good because Jackson and Apple were presumably borderline considerations for a team that's drafting 25th and is in desperate need at the position.

Bad because both players no doubt zoomed up draft boards not just because of their times and measurements but because of the smooth hips and fluidity in coverage both displayed during field drills in Indianapolis.

But, maybe not.

Judging by the post-Combine mock drafts of some of the top media scouts, Jackson in particular still isn't receiving that type of "upper 24" consideration.

Pat Kirwan, an author, radio host and former NFL scout, did have Apple going 15th but had Virginia Tech CB/S Kendall Fuller going to the Steelers at 25. He didn't have Jackson in the first round, or even among his next seven fringe players listed.

Matt Miller, who humbly admits to being a mere "media scout" but who nevertheless is one of my favorite follows on "Draft Twitter," has Apple going to the Steelers at 25, but he also left Jackson out of the first round completely.

And perhaps the best known media scout, former NFL scout and current TV personality Daniel Jeremiah, has the Steelers drafting bad-boy pass-rusher Noah Spence, with Apple falling to 30 and Jackson, again, out of the first round.

What in the world is wrong with Jackson?

He's 6-0 3/8 with an official 40 time of 4.37 (veteran scout Charlie Casserly had him at 4.32) and he led the nation with 23 pass breakups to go along with five interceptions last season.

He has a bit of a past as "a knucklehead" but we only know that because of his own admission. Jackson then told reporters that his father turned all of that around while William was still a teen in Houston.

He might not be the smartest guy in the room, but he sure didn't come off as lacking during his media interview.

I went back to 2014 to watch Jackson's tape against Pitt, and he didn't play well. He got lost in coverage too often and he didn't seem particularly interested in tackling. Tyler Boyd, in particular, seemed to have his way with the Houston cornerback.

But Jackson has made huge strides, and this past season was clearly a better and more confident cornerback. That'll happen between a player's third and fourth college seasons.

That's why some of Apple's average tape should be dismissed. The redshirt sophomore is a quarter-inch taller than Jackson and 10 pounds heavier and hasn't shown anything near the interest in tackling that Jackson showed this past season. And with only one interception and six pass breakups last season (4 and 13 in two seasons), Apple hasn't shown near the ball production Jackson has. But, again, Apple has displayed terrific raw coverage skills and one would expect far more polish and production were he to stay at Ohio State for a fourth year.

Both of those guys check all of the proverbial boxes for the Steelers, and, regardless of the opinions of my favorite experts, I would still pick either cornerback at No. 25. If both are gone, as I suspect, that would likely allow another redshirt sophomore, Mackensie Alexander, to be available at pick 25.

Overrated, in my opinion, as a top-15 "lock" by most media experts all season, Alexander would answer Kevin Colbert's question in the affirmative of whether a cornerback prospect could cover Antonio Brown. Of course, none of these guys will do that as rookies, but Alexander has a better chance than anyone not named Ramsey or Hargreaves.

While only 5-10 3/8, and not having intercepted a pass in two seasons at Clemson, Alexander is as fluid, quick and tough as any corner in this draft. He's also supremely confident, and a serious young man, as the tape of his media interview at the Combine portrays.

If he's a bit on the Mike Mitchell side of the trash-talk line, that's OK at that position. After all, Ike Taylor wasn't a particularly humble man out there, was he?

Those are three legitimate candidates for the Steelers at 25. I want to shy away a bit from Fuller because of the word "microfracture." That surgical procedure was used to repair his torn meniscus last season, and there's a chance it could affect the duration of his career. That's not the kind of chance I want to take in the first round. But if he checks out, then, yes, he's another option.

The point though is that the Steelers should take their cornerback in the first round and save safety for what appears to be a rich vein at the position in the second round.

For that reason, the Steelers would be insane to mess around with Eric Weddle in free agency, as most fans are hoping.

No, the Steelers will choose from a pool that should include one of these three favored safety candidates in the second round:

1. Keanu Neal of Florida is the only safety I've watched who came up and hit Alabama's Derrick Henry with enthusiasm, and Henry's played just about all of the top teams the last two seasons. So many safeties gave a good effort, for the camera, but no one came up and really rocked the 247-pound Heisman Trophy winner the way Neal did, and on more than one occasion. He's also 6-0 1/2-inch tall with long arms and fluid hips in coverage.

2. Karl Joseph of West Virginia is the rock of my safety-in-R2 draft plan, because he's been out with a torn ACL since the middle of last season. Joseph promises he'll be ready for training camp, but not the spring, so the guy analyst Mike Mayock compares to Earl Thomas should be available at pick 58.

Mayock raved about Joseph's tape against Oklahoma, so I put it on and agreed with the "he's-a-bullet" assessment. In that game, Joseph showed pro range from center field when he bolted to the sideline to rock a WR and break up a pass; he fought through a block to not only tackle 230-pound RB Samaje Perine as Perine was gathering steam on a sweep, but Joseph dropped the big back like the proverbial sack of potatoes promptly in his tracks; and Joseph, in underneath coverage, reached high to pick off a pass, his fifth of the season (Oct. 3), to show that he has hands, has it all, and would be next in the exceptional Steelers' strong safety line that stretches from Donnie Shell to Carnell Lake to Troy Polamalu.

3. And in case someone's smart enough to grab Neal and Joseph before pick 58, that should leave Boston College's Justin Simmons available.

Simmons (6-2 3/8, 202 with long 32 5/8 arms) had a 40-inch vertical jump and stunning shuttle times, all three of which led the entire group of defensive backs. That kind of pedigree caused me to watch him again, and against Notre Dame his quickness was readily apparent. And he intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble while showing he's not only a center fielder but a free safety who can come up and hit as well as any strong safety this side of Neal and Joseph.

The Steelers are going to need an interchangeable type of safety if they're going to continue with their conversion to a predominant cover-two scheme, and either of those three safeties fill the playmaking void in the Steelers' secondary. And that's not even considering other outstanding safety prospects such as Darian Thompson, Sean Davis, Jalen Mills or K.J. Dillon.

Yes, it's a rich, rich crop of secondary players and the Steelers should plan to come out of this draft with two of the best. In the third round they can dip into that rich crop of defensive linemen for necessary depth, or they can see if TE Nick Vannett or OG Christian Westerman has fallen that far. Hey, maybe they've even discovered that QB Cardale Jones isn't lacking mentally, either.

There are a number of ways the Steelers could go in the third round, but in the first two they have the perfect opportunity to fix their secondary.

It's time.

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