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Pittsburgh Steelers open to innovative use of linebackers out of this draft

No matter which way the draft breaks for the Steelers, there will be linebackers to fill any part of any scheme, new or old.

Eric Striker likes to talk, as playmaking linebackers are wont to do, and he talked at the NFL Combine about anything: the big game that year against Alabama, politics, his mom and her entrance into law school, the racial incident that year on his Oklahoma campus, and fun stuff like how his name pretty much describes his actions on the football field.

Striker also brings an edge to his conversation, as playmaking linebackers are wont to do, particularly when he was asked about his speed and his size in a series of delicate questions that went at the heart of his media-perceived weakness -- his 5-11 3/8, 227-pound frame.

Q: What about playing safety?

A: "No, I haven't gotten to any safety yet."

Q: Is it out of the question?

A: "I wouldn't know that answer."

Q: Can you run a 4.4?

A: "Can you run a 4.4?"

Q: Noooo.

A: "Oh, your day's over, huh?"

Q: Never had that day. I'm a reporter.

A: "Prolly a six-something, huh?"

Q: Just wondering if you can do the Carnell Lake thing and move back to safety.

A: "I don't know. We'll see," Striker said as his edge began to dissipate. "I'm sure coaches' imaginations are really great. I guess we'll see."

Coaches do have great imaginations, and the imagination of Mike Tomlin must be included in that group.

After years of drafting linebackers to service Dick LeBeau's 3-4, it appears as if Tomlin must now find players to service another scheme, a scheme that's evolved to meet the needs of today's pass-happy league, a 4-2-5 scheme they still call a sub-package.

The Pittsburgh Steelers still have outside linebackers, but they're employed as defensive ends about 70 percent of the time. That's when the Steelers move out of their 3-4 so-called "base" and into their predominant scheme, their "sub-package."

But the Steelers are looking closely -- very closely -- at big defensive tackles in this pre-draft season. One theory is they're looking at shade tackles for a 4-3 alignment that in 2017 would push Cameron Heyward outside to replace the combination of soon-to-be 38-year-old James Harrison and the thus far ineffective Jarvis Jones, whose contract could expire following the 2016 season if the Steelers don't pick up his option after this draft. In the meantime, this season, the rookie plays nose tackle on run downs and rotates through the sub-package.

Would that spell the eventual end of the 3-4?

Perhaps. And a big defensive tackle in the middle of bookends Heyward and Bud Dupree, and alongside Stephon Tuitt, would also provide cover for lightening-quick, 237-pound inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.

With Lawrence Timmons entering the final year of his contract, perhaps a big tackle would afford the Steelers the luxury of drafting another light-and-quick coverage backer to begin grooming in a 5-safety look.

Or something like that.

To that end, the Steelers have brought in 5-10 3/4, 221-pounder Jatavis Brown of Akron for a pre-draft visit. The hard-hitting linebacker holds the school record for career tackles-for-loss (41 1/2) and was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season with 20 tackles-for-loss and 12 sacks. Oh, and he runs a 4.49 40 and can cover like a safety.

Other coverage linebacker prospects who should be available in the middle rounds of this draft include Minnesota's De'Vondre Campbell (6-3 5/8, 232, 4.58) and Washington's Travis Feeney (6-3 5/8, 230, 4.5).

The Steelers, should they phase out their 3-4 OLBs, would eventually need another piece to replace Heyward and/or Tuitt on third-and-longs. They would need a whipsaw pass-rusher, and that whipsaw -- unlike those in their seemingly fruitless searches anymore for 3-4 OLBs -- need not stop the run or drop into coverage. Someone such as Victor Ochi (6-1.1, 246) of Stony Brook, who dominated the East-West Shrine Game, would provide pressure on quarterbacks. The Steelers are also looking at Virginia Tech's Dadi Nicolas (6-2 7/8, 235).

What about Striker?

Well, the guy who measures the exact height as Elvis Dumervil, and who put up Dumervil-like college numbers, ran a 4.8 40, which erased all questions about him moving to safety.

But it also puts him into the late-round mix as a deluxe pass-rusher. And if there's one thing he can do, it's strike.

"Yeah, a lot of people l-o-o-v-v-e that last name," he said. "It's pretty much the perfect name for a linebacker."

Even the coaches with great imaginations, who are moving their chess pieces all over the field, would agree.

TOP FIVE

1. Myles Jack, 6-1, 245, UCLA.

2. Shaq Lawson, 6-2 5/8, 269, Clemson.

3. Darron Lee, 6-0 3/4, 232, Ohio State.

4. Reggie Ragland, 6-1 1/4, 247, Alabama.

5. Noah Spence, 6-2 1/2, 251, Eastern Kentucky.

STEELERS VALUE BOARD

Third Round -- Kamalei Correa (OLB), Boise State; Yannick Ngakoue (OLB), Maryland.

Fourth Round -- Brown (ILB), Akron; Campbell (ILB), Minnesota; Freeney (ILB), Washington; Ochi (PR), Stony Brook.

Fifth Round -- Blake Martinez (ILB), Stanford.

Sixth Round -- Nicolas (PR), Virginia Tech; Striker (PR), Oklahoma; James Burgess (ILB), Louisville.

DRAFT SERIES '16

QUARTERBACKS

DEFENSIVE BACKS

RUNNING BACKS


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