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Pittsburgh Steelers host top safeties Keanu Neal and Darian Thompson

The Steelers are looking for versatility and production on the back end, and may even reach a bit for it in the first round.

Most draft experts say that after Jalen Ramsey there aren't any safeties who'll be drafted in the first round, particularly with Karl Joseph recovering from a torn ACL.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers might beg to differ. Two of the four prospects they brought to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for a visit Wednesday will receive serious scrutiny as first-round safeties.

It was Art Rooney II who decreed that the pass defense must improve back on Jan. 28. And a few weeks later, Kevin Colbert was asked what he'll look for in a defensive back.

"Production," said the Steelers general manager. "Obviously we want to see more interceptions."

They won't find anyone more productive than the co-headline visitor yesterday, Darian Thompson, who broke Eric Weddle's Mountain West Conference career interception record with 19 at Boise State.

Thompson (6-1 7/8, 208) intercepted 12 passes the last two seasons, but he'll also come up and hit, as his 15 career tackles-for-loss attest.

Thompson is a smart, tough ballhawk who plays fast and consistently takes good angles as both a single-high or box safety, and he also has experience covering slot receivers.

He seems like the perfect player for the Steelers' needs; however, Thompson had an awful NFL Combine. He was timed in the 40 in the 4.66 to 4.72 range, put up only 12 reps on the bench, and had an uninspiring 32 1/2 vertical jump and agility times of 4.33 in the short shuttle and 7.26 in the 3-cone.

Those numbers don't bode well for a fifth-year senior out of a mid-major conference, but Thompson said he was sick that day, possibly with food poisoning, and he rebounded to run 4.53 and 4.55 40s at his pro day. He also told the Idaho Statesman that day, "I've never been a great tester."

The other visiting safety on Wednesday, Keanu Neal, is a much different player than Thompson. Neal's two years younger and had only four career interceptions. And while Thompson is a free safety who can play strong safety, Neal (6-0 1/2, 211, 4.62) is a strong safety who's played center field at times for Florida and showed good ball skills at the Combine. Neal's a bigger, younger athlete with more upside than realized skills.

Analysts' grades on Neal range from the first to the fifth rounds, but the Steelers have been linked to Neal throughout the process. He's comparable as a college prospect to the college-aged Kam Chancellor, a 6-3, 231-pounder who was drafted in the fifth round in 2010, and a player about whom Tomlin spoke highly before the draft that year.

The Steelers' other draft visitors Wednesday were UCLA OT Caleb Benenoch (6-5 1/2, 311) and Temple CB Tavon Young (5-9 1/8, 183, 4.41).

Benenoch spent most of his college career at right tackle, but did start four games at guard, and played well. He's a versatile, mobile knee-bender who'll be drafted higher by a team that runs zone-blocking schemes.

The estimate here is that Benenoch is a late third or fourth-round prospect.

Young was given the symbolic jersey No. 1 at Temple, signifying a high degree of toughness. He's also smart and came up with six career interceptions.

Young is another of a group of mid-round cornerbacks who've either visited or who are scheduled to visit with the Steelers, which could indicate the team plans to make multiple picks at the position.

(To read transcripts of interviews with Keanu Neal and Darian Thompson, click here to go to our South Side message board.)


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