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Pittsburgh Steelers are sorting through a talented draft crop of D-linemen

Final positional segment of the 2016 draft series: Big, fast and versatile interior defenders available to the Steelers.

The image of John Mitchell knocking on the door of Karim Kassam's office comes with a soundtrack that might go something like this:

Kassam: Can I help you?

Mitchell: Um, yeah, Coach Tomlin told me to come see you.

Kassam: About?

Mitchell: Well, I asked him why he took my boys off the board. He said to come see you.

Mitchell, of course, is the defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Kassam is the organization's analytics & football research coordinator.

Now, the above meeting is complete fantasy, but in today's NFL -- even in today's Pittsburgh -- a similar conversation has probably taken place.

Yes, the Steelers are using analytics in their draft analysis, but to what degree is an organizational secret. And in a draft with so many talented defensive linemen, and in an organization that's made no secret of it's desire for one, maybe even two, there must be an easy way to thin the herd.

Analytics is one way, and in this column it was used to weed out A'Shawn RobinsonJarran Reed and Jihad Ward.

All three have been shown interest by the Steelers, but, because of surprisingly poor workout numbers, those players -- who are regarded highly by most analysts -- have been cut from consideration.

Robinson and Reed, of course, played at Alabama, where Mitchell is a legend. He's never coached one of his school's players in Pittsburgh, and no doubt would like to.

As for Ward, Tomlin himself made a big deal at a Senior Bowl practice about the big, powerful defensive end from Illinois. But a 5.11 40 and a 25-inch vertical jump -- along with bad tape and only 5.5 career sacks -- just aren't going to cut it where Ward's expected to be drafted.

So, that's the negative about this crop.

The positive is that it has all types of niches for all types of needs. The Steelers need, precisely, a nose tackle who can also rotate as a 3-tech in the nickel package that's used about 70 percent of the time. Asking a nose tackle to rush the passer is asking quite a bit, and for that reason such a player must be drafted early.

In the first round, players such as Sheldon Rankins of Louisville, Andrew Billings of Baylor and Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State fit the bill.

Ranklins will most likely already have been drafted, but Billings -- who had dinner with Joe Greene and was scouted personally by Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and defensive coordinator Keith Butler -- is a serious target.

Billings didn't put out great tape during the second half of the season because of a high ankle sprain, and that may have affected his mediocre combine numbers, but when healthy he's the type of player who takes on double teams to stuff the run and can also collapse the pocket on pass downs.

Hargrave (6-1 3/8, 309) is similar, but is more of a pass-rusher than run-stuffer. Hargrave doesn't get his arms out to control interior linemen well enough to assume the starting nose tackle job as a rookie, but is quicker than Billings and could be more of a pass-rush threat earlier in his career.

Both players could also force the Steelers to eventually employ bigger four-man fronts with Cameron Heyward moving to 4-3 end, particularly if Jarvis Jones doesn't improve as an edge rusher this season.

The second round -- as it was in 2014 -- could be a round in which the Steelers catch a falling star.

Because the crop is so deep, the possibility exists that a late-first/early-second round talent such as Vernon Butler (6-3 5/8, 323) of Louisiana Tech, Robert Nkemdiche (6-3 1/2, 294) of Ole Miss or 20-year-old Kenny Clark (6-2 5/8, 314) of UCLA -- or even the Alabama lads, should Mitch become overly heated -- might fall to the Steelers at pick 58.

Finding a nose tackle later in the draft will be difficult, and drafting a late-round reserve to play 5-tech in the 3-4 and 3-tech in the 4-2-5 might be a waste of a pick with L.T. Walton and Caushaud Lyons moving into their second seasons with the team.

But if the Steelers do draft a tackle in the first round, and it does force more of a true four-man defensive front, the Steelers may take a mid-round shot on a small-school 4-3 defensive end such as Matt Judon (6-3, 275, 4.73) of Grand Valley State or Tyrone Holmes (6-2 1/2, 253, 4.64) of Montana. 

Speaking of small-school sleepers, defensive tackle Justin Zimmer opened the eyes of NFL scouts at the same Regional Combine that introduced many to Akron linebacker Jatavis Brown.

The 6-2 3/4, 302-pound Zimmer was a three-time captain at Ferris State and compiled 26 career sacks. At the regional, he ran a 4.89 40 with a 33 1/2-inch vertical jump with sparkling agility times. He also repped 225 pounds a startling 46 times and must surely be considered in the middle rounds.


1. Joey Bosa (DE), 6-5 1/4, 269, Ohio State

2. DeForest Buckner (DT/DE), 6-7, 291, Oregon.

3. Sheldon Rankins (DT), 6-1, 299, Louisville.

4. Andrew Billings (NT/DT), 6-0 5/8, 311, Baylor.

5. Chris Jones (DT/DE), 6-5 3/4, 310, Mississippi State


First Round -- Sheldon Rankins (DT/NT), Louisville; Andrew Billings (NT/DT), Baylor; Javon Hargrave (NT/DT), South Carolina St.

Second Round -- Vernon Butler (NT/DT), Louisiana Tech; Robert Nkemdiche (DT/DE), Ole Miss; Kenny Clark (NT/DT), UCLA.

Third Round -- Maliek Collins (DT/DE), Nebraska;

Fourth Round -- Hassan Ridgeway (DT/DE), Texas; Dean Lowry (DE/DT), Northwestern; Matt Judon (DE), Grand Valley State; Bronson Kaufusi (DE/DT), BYU; Tyrone Holmes (DE), Montana; Justin Zimmer (DT), Ferris State.

Fifth Round -- Austin Johnson (NT), Penn State; Quinton Jefferson (DT/DE), Maryland.

Seventh Round -- Joel Heath (DE/DT), Michigan State.










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