Every year, as Round One approaches, there's a player who suddenly emerges as my Day One favorite to land with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year it was Marcus Peters. This year it's Karl Joseph.
Reports indicate the medical checks on Joseph's knee are positive. The idea of getting the best player at a position of need is an exciting thought, especially when considering the only reason your team has a chance at the player to begin with is because of his injury.
Although Joseph nearly matches the same height-weight ratios of Troy Polamalu and Earl Thomas when they entered the draft, I don't think Joseph has the 4.3 speed those players had. He looks more like a 4.5 guy to me on tape. There was one red flag play against Oklahoma in which Joseph failed to get to the outside on a run that ended up going for about 60 yards. That said, there's still too much good video to not believe he'll be an impact player.
The Steelers brought in just about every safety available for pre-draft visits, and while they did see the top-rated corners on the pro day circuit, bringing in just about every one of the top-rated safeties for a private visit leads me to believe that Joseph will be the target if he's there at pick 25. Unfortunately, he might not last long. The Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals all could use a playmaker on the back end.
Should Joseph not be available, look for the Steelers to attempt to trade down a few spots and address depth on the defensive interior line. This doesn't necessarily mean taking Andrew Billings. Javon Hargrave remains a distinct first-round possibility. I like Hargrave's fluidity and quickness much more than I do Billings'. Hargrave's 34.5-inch vertical jump at 6-1, 309 is ridiculous. His 4.9 speed isn't too shabby, either. He's just not as stout against the run as Billings, which will take some time and coaching from John Mitchell.
Hargrave and Billings, in my opinion, are the bowling-ball prototypes necessary to provide versatility for the Steelers' nickel front while also being able to line up against power formations in the base 3-4. And to me, solidifying the versatility of the nickel defense is what this draft is going to be all about in the early rounds. Modern day nickel defenses need versatile hybrids: corners who are safeties; safeties who are linebackers; front fours that can go small or big. Assuming the talent is there, I can't see the Steelers addressing any other positions in the first three rounds than safety, cornerback and defensive line.
Depending on whether they draft Joseph or one of the defensive tackles, these are my second-round candidates:
* Hargrave -- In a perfect draft world, he miraculously slides after the Steelers select Joseph. Not going to happen. It's more likely the Steelers trade down with the Denver Broncos and select him at pick 31.
* Vonn Bell/Keanu Neal -- One may slide to pick 58, but not both, so I'll lump them together. Bell's the cover safety; Neal's the box safety. Both have potential to develop a complete game. Of course, Joseph's already there and thus the first-round love.
* Artie Burns -- Arm length, ball skills and inconsistency are all on this guy's tape. I can't get excited if this is the pick, but I'd settle for it. The next two prospects in my opinion are more exciting and versatile.
* Sean Davis -- At 6-1, 201, Davis has the great size to play corner along with 4.4 speed and outstanding agility times. Regardless if the Steelers comes away with Joseph or a versatile nose tackle-three technique in Round One, they still need a big, physical corner. Davis is an aggressive hitter-tackler. He more than held his own against Michael Thomas of Ohio State and had a strong performance against Michigan. The analytics people should no doubt be high on Davis. I enjoyed Davis' tape much more than I did Bell's because he's bigger, more athletic and is a much more aggressive tackler. Maryland's head coach was fired after the season. Maybe all this kid needs to become a consistent stud is some quality coaching.
* T.J. Green -- Raw athlete is a better tackler than I anticipated. At 6-2, Green offers that Mel Blount/Ike Taylor length which helped the Steelers win all six of their championships. Green possesses Ike's 4.3 speed as well. He's a project, but, hey, as long as he has the heart and smarts, they can coach that athlete up and figure out where he plays later. I would look to develop him at corner first.
In Round Three, let's live the dream and assume the Steelers got their safety and versatile nose tackle. Here's where I would go:
* Ryan Smith -- Started 42 games at North Carolina Central and his first two seasons were at strong safety. Small-school product is a little undersized at 5-11 189, but he's a physical tackler with 4.45 speed. Then again, he could be long gone.
* James Bradberry -- He has great numbers, but on tape I've seen him slip and get beat deep. However, I believe the Steelers are trying to build a secondary capable of playing cover-two, so if they solidify the safety position early, these big, long corners who don't change direction well should still do well in a scheme that redirects receivers and forces quarterbacks to fit passes over their length.
* Maliek Collins -- The next closest option to the bowling ball type of nose tackle is this 6-2, 311-pounder. Collins' combine numbers are nearly a match to those of Billings, but Collins struggles to anchor against double teams. Good player who could slip due to positional depth in this draft.
* Darian Thompson -- Another unlikely survivor of an expected R2 run on safeties, but 19 career interceptions at Boise State will mean something to the Steelers. Thompson's lack of timed speed is alarming, but that's the only reason a Darren Perry-like ballhawk could be available at the bottom of the third round.
* Justin Simmons -- I enjoyed watching his tape. I saw a smart player who was a sound tackler with good ball skills. At 6-2 with elite short-shuttle and 3-cone times, he's a premier athlete, but he's not an explosive player and so here he sits.
Finally, receiver needs to be addressed. I like Charone Peake or Malcolm Mitchell in Round Four. Depending on how the first three rounds play out, I also like defenders Jatavis Brown and Matt Judon in Round Four. The goal of this draft should be to solidify and diversify the defense. Hopefully by Saturday afternoon, the Steelers accomplish that goal.