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Banned by the Big Ten Conference, pass-rusher Noah Spence is being researched by the Pittsburgh Steelers

A report indicates the Steelers are expressing plenty of interest in an exquisite pass-rusher with a problematic past. SCI's Jim Wexell takes a close look at the issue.

Exactly four weeks from Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will draft the next piece for what's nearly a rebuilt defense.

And, sure, you would like to be the guy to predict that pick, so you get up early and meditate on it.

All's quiet, the ohm is humming, and the image begins to appear.

It's a man running. He's in a dead sprint. No, it's not a player, but a man in a suit. Kind of looks like Rich Eisen with his tie flying behind him.

Oh, he's running with a card in his hand. There's a clock in the corner of a TV screen and only 2.3 seconds have ticked off.

OK, I get it. The Steelers are sprinting to the podium again.

But why? The screen's showing that Andrew Billings and William Jackson are on the list of most recently drafted players.

What the -- Shhh. Here's the commissioner.

"With the 25th pick of this year's NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select (pause) linebacker (pause) ..."

And the vision dissipates. The dream is over. The dog's barking. The kid's awake. Today's session has come to an end.

I know. Thank you very much.

For nothing.

Hey, maybe it's just a recurring vision, planted there by history, because, after all, since Mike Tomlin became head coach the Steelers have drafted a linebacker in the first round four times in eight drafts, including each of the last three drafts. Of the 76 total picks Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have made together, 15 have been linebackers, six in the last three drafts.

I remember Anthony Spencer relaying to me in 2007 that Tomlin said he wanted to rebuild the entire corps. But hasn't enough been enough already?

Well, when a 37-year-old, who came out of retirement the previous year, gets to the quarterback five times and pressures him 15 times to lead all edge rushers in both categories, the guys you've been drafting to replace him -- a soon-to-be 38-year-old James Harrison -- obviously aren't doing the job.

Bud Dupree, you get a rookie pass.

But Jarvis Jones -- with two sacks and three pressures in your third season, after being drafted in the first round in 2013 -- you don't.

So, yes, the vision must remain alive.

In this draft there are two edge rushers, in my opinion, deserving of first-round consideration by a team with five already on its roster.

One, Shaq Lawson, is just too good, too explosive and timed too well at the NFL Combine to expect a fall to pick 25.

The other, Noah Spence, is also too good, but for a number of reasons is being looked at by media scouts as a potential Steelers draft pick.

Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah is one. He had the Steelers taking Spence in his mock draft from March 1. And USA Today's Draftwire reporter, Jon Ledyard, wrote Tuesday night that "Pittsburgh has shown a ton of interest in (Spence) throughout the pre-draft process." Ledyard credited Spence with passing along the information.

Spence has been known to local football fans since he recorded 50 sacks in his final two seasons at Harrisburg's Bishop McDevitt High. He was a two-time Big School Defensive Player of the Year in PA, the Maxwell National Player of the Year in 2011, a Parade All-America, a five-star blue-chipper who went off to Ohio State and played in 12 games as a true freshman. As a sophomore he recorded 7.5 sacks and was named to the All-Big Ten first team. And as a junior he was suspended for a year for what's commonly being called all over the 'Net as an addiction to Ecstasy.

An addiction to Ecstasy?

"Honestly," Spence told reporters at this past NFL Combine, "it was more me going to parties and stuff like that. It was never really an addiction."

Well, if it happens twice, the media will call it what it wants to call it.

After testing positive the first time and being suspended for the first three games of 2014, Spence tested positive again and was banned from playing in the Big 10. He sat out the 2014 season, transferred to Eastern Kentucky, was cited for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in May of 2015 for smashing a bottle on the street, and apparently cleaned up his act long enough to record 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles-for-loss. He was named the FCS National Defensive Performer of the Year by the College Football Performance Awards and was invited to the Senior Bowl, where he was virtually unblockable.

My opinion prior to watching him in the Senior Bowl was that the Steelers would not draft in the first round a player who had been banned by the Big Ten, and then sit through a press conference in which the player would be asked about an "addiction to Ecstasy," and whatever else.

That's just not the Rooney way. It wasn't going to happen last year with Marcus Peters. He wasn't taken off their board after being kicked off his college team but they didn't have him ranked as a first-rounder. No, that guy and any of his problems leads all newscasts.

And then I watched Spence in the Senior Bowl, figured he would be drafted first in a year without a superstar quarterback, and adjusted my thinking: Perhaps the Steelers would consider the top player in college football, at a position of need, with the 25th pick. Isn't an adjustment of some 24 picks enough of a markdown?

But the Combine came along, Spence ran a dull 4.8 40 and I heard NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis say the following:

"When I saw what happened (at the Combine), coupled with some other questions and some things I heard coming out of the Combine, (that) maybe he hadn't presented himself quite the way people wanted in some of the meeting rooms, I took him out of the first round."

Hmmm. Davis is normally a player's guy, a guy who remains positive on the player's behalf through the ups and downs. So his words seemed pretty damning and I didn't give Spence another thought.

Until reading Ledyard's report last night.

On one hand, I certainly believe in finding outstanding citizens to place in the locker room, particularly with a first-round pick. I mean, aren't there 25 super-serious AND super-athletic football players in America?

C'mon, now.

But there's always been one position that I've allowed my good judgment to be challenged, and that is pass-rusher.

Allow me to take you through my personal history with these guys:

* Greg Lloyd -- My first year covering the team and Lloyd wasn't talking to reporters, and after the season he pushed a Russian journalist. I didn't care. I was scared to death of the guy and was kind of happy I didn't have to talk to him. Interviewed him in retirement for a book and came out of his dojo trembling. Great interview. But intense.

* Kevin Greene -- Nice guy who snapped at a group of us late in the season. Some of the other reporters hated him. I liked him when he was in a good mood, like Super Bowl Media Day when I sat at his table as he made fun of a chubby young reporter who had doughnut powder all over his face. Mean. But funny. Hey, I was immature.

* Chad Brown -- Not popular with reporters until they learned he was so interesting with the snakes and all. And he admitted to not liking football. I found that interesting. But he was moody, and it seemed that right after his popularity with us grew, he left.

* Steven Conley -- Nicest outside linebacker I've met. I remember that, and him having the most sparkling smile I've ever seen on an athlete.

* Jason Gildon -- Wasn't very interesting so I didn't approach him much. My lasting vision is of him holding a stool up over his head during a spring-time locker room melee, linebackers v. Richard Huntley.

* Joey Porter -- Loved to mock the media and their questions. If you ask him a question that starts "People say that you ..." he wisely would challenge and ask "What people? You're the people, aren't you?" Wouldn't let the media slide by with it's B.S.

* Clark Haggans -- Developed a relationship with him early because he was a late-round pick, so we always go along. But a bit daft. Yeah, his mood could swing quickly.

* James Harrison -- Nothing to mention that you don't already know, except maybe that reporters in Cincinnati believe to this day that he had a profound influence on his neighbor in the Bengals' locker room, a young linebacker name of Burfict.

* LaMarr Woodley -- Always on edge, and I think some reporters whined about being pushed, something or other, during his final season with the club. My only response was, hey, the dude's a pass-rusher, get outta the man's way.

* Jarvis Jones -- I was worried about his attitude toward me after I had criticized the drafting of him in the first round. My worries were put to rest when I found him to be the nicest pass-rusher since Conley.

Are you understanding to where I've careened here?

Choir boys belong in church on Sundays. Yes, I agree with that. But to a point. I don't think bringing another drug issue into the locker room, following the possibly catastrophic loss of Martavis Bryant, is a particularly wise move to make right now.

On the other hand, hey, a real pass-rusher off the blind side is needed, particularly by 2017 if Jones can't get over the hump, as we are growing to expect, and Harrison retires.

Is Spence a real pass-rusher?

More precisely: Does the 4.8 scare me?

Well, at his cold and rainy pro day, Spence ran a 4.75 on the EKU grass field. And his other Combine numbers are respectable for a 6-2 1/2, 251-pounder: 1.71 10, 25 bench reps, 35 vertical, 10-1 broad jump, 4.35 short shuttle and 7.21 3-cone.

I can live with all of those numbers, just as I can live with the edge he displayed with reporters during his Combine interview. And of course I could live with the obvious bend around the corner and explosion into the quarterback that he put on display at the Senior Bowl, a display that had me thinking Spence was going to be the No. 1 pick of the entire draft.

It's definitely a conversation the Steelers should be having. And I no doubt believe Ledyard's report about the Steelers showing "a ton" of interest. I mean, how else are they supposed to dig as deep as they need to be digging on this particular pass-rusher?

(To read the transcript from Noah Spence's Combine interview, click here for our pay-site's message board.)


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