After spending last week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl looking over potential NFL prospects, I developed the following list of players in whom I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers will show interest the next few months:
1. Derek Rivers, EDGE, Youngstown State
Outside linebacker is easily the Steelers' biggest need this offseason, and one I expect them to look to address in the first round. Rivers likely doesn’t go that high, but if Pittsburgh goes in another direction on the draft’s first day, he could be a terrific Day 2 selection. The Youngstown State edge played from a two and three-point stance in college, showing the length, leverage and technique to consistently win the point of attack against the run. He’s a cerebral player who consistently carries out his assignments snap-to-snap, but also has the explosive abilities to make plays in space, sideline-to-sideline. I love Rivers' ability to convert speed-to-power off the edge, but his flashes of burst and cornering ability are what will make the biggest impact in the NFL, especially as he learns to set up rushes and utilize counters to keep tackles off balance. He’s got the size and length the Steelers want at the position, and if he tests well, I’d expect the team to attempt to target him sometime on the draft’s second day.
2. Cam Sutton, CB/S, Tennessee
For years William Gay has been the Steelers' versatile piece in the secondary, able to play outside cornerback, nickel and even the occasional safety spot in some deceptive coverages. But his play is declining quickly and Sutton showed this week that he could be a guy who wears several hats at the next level.
Despite not having played safety since high school, Sutton manned the position admirably all week, drawing praise from the coaches with his ability to master the defensive scheme and make adjustments on the field despite the short week. He started 45 games at Tennessee, including every contest of his true freshman season, and has the experience and communication skills the Steelers really value in the slot, where Sutton spent much of the week in Mobile. Sutton is a willing (but occasionally sloppy) tackler, and has a lot of the athletic and personality traits the Steelers desire in the secondary. A bonus? Sutton also had returned three punts for touchdowns during his four years with the Vols, showing big play ability in the open field as a return specialist.
3. Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
If the Steelers want to return to that big dime look they ran for several games near the end of the 2015 season, a box safety who can run and cover might be in the cards for this team. Melifonwu hits like a Mack truck, and has the range to play sideline-to-sideline against the run. If he kills it at the combine, he might bump himself out of a spot that makes sense for Pittsburgh, but fellow Senior Bowl players such as Minnesota’s Damarious Travis or even Nebraska’s Nate Gerry could be fits in that role as well.
If DeAngelo Williams doesn’t return as a free agent, the Steelers will need to grab a back to develop behind Le’Veon Bell, preferably one who can be a potential starter. I’m a huge Williams fan, and he fits the big, powerful persona the Steelers typically look for in their running backs. He also has nasty cuts at the second level and is one of the best pass protecting backs in the draft. Williams showed out as a receiver during Senior Bowl week, an area of the game I think he has a chance to shine in during his NFL career.
Hunt isn’t the pass protector that Williams is, but Hunt's vision is excellent and he runs through arm tackles like a much bigger back. His weigh-ins disappointed some people because Hunt wasn’t the 6-1, 225-pound monster at which Toledo lists him, but even at 5-10, 208, the same power exists and he’s actually a much smaller target to hit. I think he’ll prove to be a very capable third-down back with the ability to contribute in the passing game right away.
5. Michael Roberts, TE, Toledo
Two Toledo players on the Steelers' watch list? Well, we know they love eastern players from the surrounding states, Ohio and Virginia especially, and Roberts might be the red zone threat the team is seeking at the tight end position. His 16 touchdowns this past season led college football, as the 6-4, 261-pound pass catcher showed the ability to high point and reel in difficult grabs. Roberts isn’t a great blocker yet, but he does flash the ability to develop in that area, with the length and strength to make an impact in the run game. How he tests will be critical since the Steelers seem to be searching for a field-stretching, big-play component at the position. If Ladarius Green’s health remains an issue, the team could opt to go tight end earlier in the draft than Roberts’ projected Day 3 slot.
6.Isaac Rochell, DL, Notre Dame
At 6-4, 282, Rochell has the size and length to project as a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. He had a tremendous Senior Bowl week, showing the ability to long-arm and leverage blockers to collapse the pocket and be impactful as a pass rusher. I understand Rochelll had a disappointing year for the Irish, so where he falls in the draft seems to be up in the air. I love his motor and play strength, but defensive end isn’t a huge need for Pittsburgh with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt playing heavy snaps and Javon Hargrave and L.T. Walton showing out this year. Remember, the Steelers are in nickel over 75 percent of the time with just two defensive linemen on the field. So the need isn’t tremendous at the position. But if Ricardo Mathews walks in free agency, the team could be inclined to bring someone in on Day 3 of the draft. Rochell could be gone by then, but if he falls for whatever reason, he fits the mold of a player who intrigues the Steelers on the defensive line.
7. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
If the Steelers are looking for a slot corner who will play physical football and has ball skills, Lewis might be their guy. According to Pro Football Focus, the Michigan star played almost 20 percent of his snaps in the slot last season, and has experience in press and off coverage. His numbers are off the charts in terms of production allowed by opposing receivers, but there are some concerns about his size and overall athleticism at the next level. Lewis was up and down in Mobile, but the Steelers love toughness and turnovers in their corners, and the 5-10, 188-pound corner has shown the ability to do both during his time at Michigan, despite rarely being targeted. Remember, the Steelers showed love for undersized corners Antwon Blake and Senquez Golson, and Gay was the same exact size as Lewis when the Steelers drafted him in 2007.