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If the Pittsburgh Steelers can't find a defender, they can draft another weapon

Intriguing group of heart-and-soul, Hines Ward-type receivers available to the Steelers in draft's middle rounds

In the age of sports analytics, you pay attention when a website called VPG Sports sends over a couple of charts comparing some of the top Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers of recent years to the top wide receivers in this draft.

If anyone knows wide receivers, it's the Steelers, and VPG had given high pre-draft scores to Sammie Coates, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel SandersMike Wallace and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

The college athletic scores of those players are comparable to the athletic scores VPG has calculated for speedsters Corey Coleman and Will Fuller in this draft.

So it's possible, since the Steelers believe in their own analytics, that they're looking at those two receivers. In fact, during the Steelers' organizational visit to Baylor, a Dallas reporter had tweeted that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Coleman he's "the best wide receiver in the draft."

It's likely that wide receiver is the only offensive first-round target for the Steelers, and Coleman must therefore be considered as a possibility.

But here are some analytics of my own that might knock the aforementioned analytics down a peg:

* When Ben Roethlisberger has played with either of his tall, deep threats, Plaxico Burress or Bryant, the Steelers are 23-5 (.821).

* When Roethlisberger has played with Wallace, the Steelers are 35-19 (.648).

* When Roethlisberger has played without any of those three deep threats, the Steelers are 55-32 (.632).

Thus, it appears that the speed of the deep threat does not matter, that it's the size of the deep threat that wins for Roethlisberger. And, hey, we've all seen that with our own eyes over the years. That's the reason Josh Doctson of TCU receives the higher grade than Coleman here.

However, that's only the top of the draft board.

The Steelers, due to the suspension of Bryant, are probably in the market for a receiver, and if they don't draft one of the first-round deep threats, there's a group of what can be labeled "heart-and-soul" types, in the Hines Ward mold, who are available, starting with Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma.

Shepard, like Ward, grew up without a father. Former NFL receiver Derrick Shepard died when Sterling was six, and the youngster turned his energies toward sports. He grew into a high-character team leader who might run better routes than anyone else in the draft. In fact, Shepard could be a target in the first round due to the likelihood he can help a team quickly.

Next in the "Hines Ward Group" is Pharoh Cooper (5-11 1/8, 203, 4.65), who, like Shepard, was a pre-draft visitor to Pittsburgh.

Cooper hails from a family of Marines and signed on at South Carolina to play for Steve Spurrier. And like Ward, Cooper was a triple threat in college.

In his last two seasons, Cooper caught 135 passes for 2,109 yards (15.6 avg.) and 17 touchdowns. He also carried 51 times for 311 yards (6.1 avg.) and three touchdowns, and in his college career completed nine of 16 passes for 118 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Cooper also returned 16 kickoffs (22.4 avg.) and 27 punts (4.7 avg.). He also, of course, blocks, but is considered a third-rounder at best because of a perceived lack of explosiveness.

Finally, there's Malcolm Mitchell (5-11 5/8, 198, 4.43), who went to Ward's school, the University of Georgia.

Mitchell is a vocal leader, team captain, return man, route runner and -- for a team that could really use the help -- a cornerback. That's where Mitchell started as a freshman before moving to receiver two years ago.

"Brings similar energy, toughness and attitude as Steelers 1998 third-round pick Hines Ward," draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki wrote of Mitchell.

So, if the Steelers can't find a big, deep threat to replace the suspended Bryant, the next Hines Ward would certainly suffice.

TOP FIVE

1. Josh Doctson, 6-2, 202, 4.50, TCU.

2. Sterling Shepard, 5-10 1/4, 194, 4.48,  Oklahoma.

3. Corey Coleman, 5-10 5/8, 194, 4.40 Baylor.

4. Michael Thomas, 6-2 3/4, 212, 4.57, Ohio State.

5. Tyler Boyd, 6-1 1/4, 197, 4.58 Pitt.

Steelers Value Board

First Round -- Josh Doctson (WR), TCU; Sterling Shepard (WR), Oklahoma.

Second Round -- Tyler Boyd (WR), Pitt.

Third Round -- Pharoh Cooper (WR), South Carolina.

Fourth Round -- Malcolm Mitchell (WR), Georgia; Austin Hooper (TE), Stanford.

Fifth Round -- Nick Vannett (TE), Ohio State; Marquez North (WR), Tennessee.

Sixth Round -- Beau Sandland (TE), Montana State.

Seventh Round -- Devon Cajuste (WR), Stanford.

DRAFT SERIES '16

QUARTERBACKS

DEFENSIVE BACKS

RUNNING BACKS

LINEBACKERS

OFFENSIVE LINE


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