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Scouting Future Steelers in Mobile

Jon Ledyard is at the Senior Bowl talking to players who've interviewed with the Steelers and taking notes on which prospects should fit best. Here's his Day One report.

Trying to find the prospects in which the Pittsburgh Steelers are interested during Senior Bowl week is like trying to keep track of Taylor Swift’s dating life. You see their scouts at weigh-ins, and maybe for a second in the hotel lobby. The rest of the day they are hidden in the most remote parts of this city, whether at practices or during the open interview periods of the day. 

One prospect, North Carolina wide receiver Ryan Switzer, told me he’d met with the team out of the 15-20 players I interviewed. Switzer certainly fits the mold of an NFL slot, and although Eli Rogers’ stock is on the rise after a strong second season, schematically the former Tar Heel makes a lot of sense as a day three selection. That being said, the Steelers will meet with almost every player here, and although it's interesting that Switzer is one of the few they’ve hand-picked to begin the week with, I wouldn’t read a ton into it at this time.

South Team Practice Notes

I spent most of practice watching the edge rushers and tight ends, the two position groups I believe Pittsburgh will be most heavily considering in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Most of my notes will pertain to those two spots, with some thoughts on a few other positions and players as well.

- Alabama’s Ryan Anderson is the edge defender here that seems to be linked to Pittsburgh most frequently, but he played mostly off-ball linebacker today during practice, and received very few opportunities to rush off the edge. I’m not as high on Anderson as some, viewing him as more of a late Day 2 pick, but he’s a powerful looking linebacker who will play his best football on the line of scrimmage at the next level. He struggled in his new role, getting toasted deep by Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram in 11v11 periods, and falling down in flat coverage on Florida State fullback Freddie Stevenson.

- Engram had an excellent day from what I saw, showing off his prowess as a route runner at all levels of the field. He beat Miami safety Rayshawn Jenkins on a dig route, but dropped the ball. Engram made up for it later with a great catch on a vertical route, showing the speed to separate at the top of the pattern. It was a terrific weigh-in for the Ole Miss product as well, who weighed in at 6-3 1/8, 236 pounds, almost ten pounds more than his listed weight. Carried it well too, and has big hands at ten inches, the same size as Howard.

- Howard also looked like a monster during weigh-ins at 6-5 5/8, 249 pounds, and had one of the best practice days of anyone on the field. One-handed snags, speed to separate down the field and top-notch tracking ability were on display, as no linebacker could handle Howard in coverage. He’ll make a strong case this week to be the best player here.

- Texas A&M safety Justin Evans can be technically sloppy at times, especially as a tackler, but he flies around the football field and showed some good range as a center fielder today. Evans had a nice break on the ball to knock away a nine route with too much air under it, and clocked his former teammate wide receiver Josh Reynolds out of bounds on a screen pass. 

- Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton, who has return ability as well, was impressive today playing both corner and safety, and often aligning in the slot. He closes on the ball very quickly from off coverage, and looked like one of the more fluid athletes at his position on the field.

- The quarterback group looked really rough, especially Davis Webb and Joshua Dobbs. Both of their arms are solid, but too many poor decisions from both quarterbacks ruled the day, with Dobbs throwing a pick-six to Tre’davious White on a deep curl, and Webb having an interception dropped by Johnathan Ford on a play action rollout.

- Villanova defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon did some good things at times in one-on-ones, and at other times looked very raw. I continue to contend he’s not a great all-around athlete, but he does have an explosive first step and enticing physical tools that he’s learning to put to better use. He tossed Western Kentucky offensive lineman Forrest Lamp aside on one rep and beat Mississippi State tackle Justin Senior with an inside rip later, but got stoned on a number of rushes where it was clear he didn’t have a plan of attack.

- Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis continues to struggles to corner efficiently, even in 1v1s, but he did set up counters well and use his hands effectively. He had a great inside spin counter to beat Conor McDermott early in the session. I think he’s a 4-3 only guy though, so not a great fit for Pittsburgh.

- UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes has a good swim move, and was the only guy to beat Lamp once the lineman moved inside to guard. He’s a high energy defender that doesn’t have the length or explosiveness you want, but he wreaks some havoc thanks to his hand usage.

- Texas A&M defensive end Daeshon Hall, like most of the pass rushers on the South team, probably isn’t a great fit for the Steelers, but he had a very strong day in the 1v1s relying on inside moves. Hall credited his new personal coach Taylor Scott, who played in the NFL and CFL, for helping him mentally process what the offensive lineman is giving him each snap. 

“If he gives me the inside, I’m gonna take it every time,” said Hall. “I’ve gotta take what I do and base it off the tackle more often.”

Hall and Troy offensive tackle Antonio Garcia had some great battles during 1v1, with Hall winning the first on a inside swim. Garcia responded with a powerful punch that staggered Hall on the next rep.

- McDermott and Senior really struggled in pass protection. I have Senior getting beat cleanly at least four times in my notes. Outside of Garcia, the best talent for the South offensive line was on the interior, where both Miami guard Danny Isidora and LSU center Ethan Pocic had very good days.

North Team Practice Notes

- The Bears coaching staff began the practice with special teams, which made it easy to see who was returning punts: Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp, Louisiana Tech WR Trent Taylor, Lamar cornerback Brendan Langley and Iowa cornerback Desmond King. I’ll continue to keep an eye on returners throughout the week, since it seems somewhat likely the Steelers will be interested in acquiring one on the draft’s third day. 

- No comparison between the energy level at Bears and Browns practice, as Cleveland may have run the quietest, least intense practice I can recall. The Bears were much more energetic, and while neither practice will compare with the Jaguars under coach Gus Bradley, I felt the players were more engaged and vocal on the South side of the ball.

- Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman said the North team put in their whole offense from 8:30-11 last night.

“I look at it as a big mental test for a quarterback, but in a good way. What else would you want other than to prove to NFL teams that you can pick up an offense fast and be detailed with it. It’s a great opportunity.”

Peterman said the Steelers haven’t spoken with him yet. From the conversations I’ve had here with scouts and analysts, Peterman is the consensus best quarterback in Mobile, but probably still an early Day 3 pick who could rise with a great week.

- I have seen very little of Kupp’s game tape, but I thought the receiver showed great quickness out of his breaks and the ability to control his body expertly along the boundary. Kupp did have a couple egregious drops on the day, as did just about every receiver on the North squad. 

- Coming into the week, I thought Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot and Youngstown State edge defender Derek Rivers were the two most dynamic pass rushers at the Senior Bowl, and Tuesday did little to prove that theory wrong. Smoot’s explosive first step and flexibility carried him around Pitt’s Adam Bisnowaty and USC’s Zach Banner, and when the former overset to take away the edge, Smoot hit a terrific inside spin on him.

Rivers was all speed-to-power to start the session, before heading across the field to take part in coverage drills for a bit. He returned to whip Bucknell’s Julie’n Davenport around the edge with a dip-and-rip move, just a few plays before doing the same thing Bisnowaty. He’s twitched up with his best football ahead of him.

- Illinois edge Carroll Phillips impressed some too, although his rushes are much more frenetic and not as clean as his former teammate. Phillips brings a ton of energy to the field, but lost his balance a few times despite flashing strong counter moves. He’s a bit unrefined, but moved better than I expected based on his tape.

- Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson might not be a first round pick, but he was the best pass rushing interior defensive lineman in Mobile during the first practice, using speed-to-power to push the pocket and overwhelm guards and centers. He’s a powerful player whose consistent disruption will be effective in the NFL.

- Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel has no plan of attack as an edge rusher, and was stoned on every one of his pass rush attempts during 1v1s. He’s not an athlete and he’s not a power rusher. Standing out in special teams might be huge for Biegel’s stock.

- Temple’s Haason Reddick is listed as an inside linebacker this week, but for those who liked him as an edge defender, his 6-1 1/2, 237-pound frame was encouraging considering he was listed an inch shorter and 7-10 pounds lighter. He made splash plays at inside linebacker and off the edge during Tuesday’s practice, solidifying himself as one of the big early winners of the week. Reddick is very athletic and could have the opportunity to impress at multiple positions this offseason.

- Lot of tiny corners here. Aarion Penton from Missouri is 5-9, 177. Jourdan Lewis from Michigan is 5-10, 188, which was actually a good weigh-in for him, especially when you consider his 31-inch arms. Desmond King from Iowa is 5-10, 205. Muscular, but lacking in height. A move to safety will be talked about a lot if he doesn’t test well at the combine. Sutton from Tennessee is 5-11, but just 182. Damontae Kazee from San Diego State is 5-10, 183.

The Steelers should be looking for a nickel corner to eventually replace Will Gay, and with Senquez Golson coming off another season-ending injury, the position needs to be addressed. The 2017 class is loaded with talented corners, so finding the one that best fits what Pittsburgh does will be the key. I think Sutton could generate a lot of interest from the organization moving forward.

(For complete coverage of Senior Bowl workouts from, click here.)

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