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Waves of Pass-Rushers Meet Steelers

Jon Ledyard and Jim Wexell collaborated on this jam-packed Sunday edition from the NFL Combine, where it seemed as if every top pass-rusher had a Steelers story.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Derek Rivers put to rest any speculation over whether the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking for a premier edge player in the 2017 draft when Rivers stated bluntly that "Joey Porter told me they’re looking for a pass-rusher.” 

That summed up the endless procession of top-flight edge-rushers who passed through the interview room Saturday at the NFL Combine.

It's a top-flight group. And it comes at a time when the Steelers are looking for that final young piece to its nearly rebuilt defense.

"I was a little starstruck," said Rivers, the Youngstown State defensive end. "(Porter) was talking to me coach-to-player and it was awesome, man. He gave me great advice from when he went through this process and that was a true blessing. He told me, ‘Work on your hips, work on things that people want to see you do.'”

This isn’t the first time the Steelers have shown interest in Rivers. The team met with him at the Senior Bowl back in late January. The senior was one of the top performers in Mobile, showing out in practices and during the game. 

As with most small-school prospects, Rivers needs the Combine to prove his athleticism wasn’t simply impressive in comparison to the level of competition he faced at the FCS level. 

* Florida State defensive end Demarcus Walker confirmed he met with the Steelers this week, and cleared up a bit where the 6-3, 280-pound defender would fit into the team’s defensive plans by identifying the coach with whom he met.

“I met with their D-line coach (John Mitchell),” Walker said. “He’s an old school guy so we connected right away. Where I come from, with my family and at Florida State, it's important to be honest and real. And one question teams ask me, 'Is it hard for you to trust people?’ And I say yes it is. One way that you can get me to trust is by being up front and honest. That’s the vibe I got from (Mitchell) and all their coaches.”

Walker had 27 sacks during his career at Florida State, including a ridiculous 16-sack senior season. He did some of his best work as a pass rusher at 3-technique, but may lack the size and strength to play their full-time in the NFL. He's probably more of a niche player in a nickel or dime package, and should be drafted on the third day.

But ...

“I love proving people wrong,” Walker said. “I love when people doubt me. Don’t say anything, just prove them wrong. And smile.”

* The list of edge rushers with whom the Steelers did not meet is short, but includes Houston’s Tyus Bowser, TCU’s Josh Carraway and Chattanooga’s Keionta Davis. Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot only mentioned he had met the Steelers at the Senior Bowl. 

The Steelers met briefly and informally with former TCU star Devonte Fields, who was kicked out of that school in 2014, went through a junior college and finished his college career at Louisville. 

A reporter told Fields on Saturday that said he had overheard Mike Tomlin a year ago ask someone, "Where's my guy Devaunte Fields these days?" Fields was asked if Tomlin had found him yet.

"I haven't seen him," Fields said hopefully. "Yeah, I'm looking for him myself."

* Tarell Basham met informally with the Steelers, but talks to his fellow Ohio Bobcat, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, as often as he can.

"We’re friends," said Basham, a 6-4, 269-pound edge. "He advised me to enjoy the process because there’s only one time I’m going to go through it."

Basham had 27 sacks and five forced fumbles as the top game-wrecker at Ohio the past four seasons. That's where Mitchell spent his college career.

"Mike Mitchell was a great player at Ohio University," Basham said. "He’s definitely one of those guys that I look up (to) as not only an alumn(us) but just look up to him as a veteran that gives great advice."

* Taco Charlton, a near identical (and taller) version of Jason Gildon, didn't want to discuss teams with whom he may or may not have met. But his bookend, the less heralded but  equally productive Michigan Wolverine, Chris Wormley, happily bragged Saturday afternoon that the Steelers were his first formal interview coming up that night.

"I was growing up a Steelers fan. I admired their defense," said the 6-5, 298-pound, Toledo-born Wormley. "They had great players all growing up, so I was just admiring them.  I get a chance to hopefully talk with Coach Tomlin and the D-coordinator and the D-line coach and just get a feel for how they feel about me and gauge if they have an interest in me."

Wormley said that he was in kindergarten when he went shopping for a winter coat with his grandpa, "and I picked out a Steelers coat. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked the design on it. It kind of just stuck with me for a few years and I realized what that team actually was and what that symbol actually meant and I just stuck with that team growing up."

Wormley is more of a power-side defensive end, perhaps even a 5-tech for their 3-4 base, but he spoke glowingly of meeting Larry Foote, a former Michigan inside linebacker who went on to win championships with the Steelers.

"Growing up watching him on the field as a Steeler made it pretty cool to get to sit down and talk to him for a few minutes and just chat it up," Wormley said of the current Arizona Cardinals assistant coach. "I feel like a little kid sometimes, and I’ve got to take a step back and realize that I’m a 23-year-old man now and that I have to take this seriously and professionally like it’s a job."

Doesn't Wormley identify more closely with another Wolverine-turned-Steeler, LaMarr Woodley, because of his position?

"I think Woodley's more of an outside rusher," Wormley said. "I'm a bigger inside run stopper. But don't get me wrong, I can rush the passer as well. The last two seasons I was more of an end. I played a little 3(-technique) here and there. I think I'm pretty versatile at all positions and I think I can help a team with that."

* JoJo Mathis was more of an inside lineman his first three seasons at Washington until moving outside last season to replace the departed Travis Feeney, a former Steelers draft pick who was scooped off their practice squad late last season by the New Orleans Saints.

Mathis was thriving in his new role with five sacks in six games before a foot injury knocked him out of the final seven games, as well as the Combine drills. He did show up, checked in at 6-2, 266, and did 24 bench reps.

"Travis has always been a big brother to me," Mathis said. "He talked to me and got in my head, motivated me -- a great teammate, a great brother. We talked almost daily on a group message with Danny Shelton, Hau'oli Kikaha, all of us. He expected a lot out of me and pretty much how I was going to take over his position so I tried to do the best because he did really well for us. It hurts me that I missed the last seven games, but I'm going to try to come back strong at the next level and be able to do better things."

Mathis, who just began running and said he'll get his weight down to 250, figures to be a mid-round draft pick. His eyes lit up when asked whether he was drawing interest from the Steelers.

"The Steelers? Yes. Yes. They're showing a lot of interest," he said. "They like the bigger outside backers. My agent told me that they really like me. And I've seen some articles on me for the Steelers. I've got to run a good 40 at my pro day. They're waiting to see me run."

Will he be quick enough to drop into coverage?

"Oh, I'm going to be more than quick enough," he said.

Mathis met with Porter on Friday night.

"It was a good conversation. He was one of my favorite players in my childhood and my dad's favorite player of all time," Mathis said. "My dad's a Steelers fan, so it was pretty fun going to talk to him and pick his brain. It was a blessing to be able to meet him."

* Carl Lawson engaged in a serious discussion with a small group of reporters that will be expanded upon here at SteelCityInsider at a later date. But it can be reported that he had formal meetings scheduled Saturday night with the Steelers and New England Patriots.

" I'm going to stop the questions there because my agent told me not to tell who I'm going to see," Lawson said. "That's the only two you're getting out of me."

Charlton, as mentioned earlier, did not answer the question, and neither did Tennessee edge-rusher Derek Barnett, who was sick and didn't show up. But the rest of the top pass-rushers were scheduled to meet formally with Tomlin and Co. last night, including Takk McKinley, Haason Reddick, Charles Harris, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and T.J. Watt.

* McKinley, of course, was coached last season by former Penn State and WVU defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, whose brother Jim is the orthopedic surgeon for the Steelers. A first-rounder, McKinley will miss four to six months after undergoing labrum surgery to correct a problem he played through the last two seasons.

McKinley was very familiar with the situation when someone joked that Tom Bradley might steer him to the Steelers.

"Maybe. He knows their doctor," McKinley said with a laugh.

McKinley was asked if Jim Bradley might examine him in the future.

"He probably already has checked me out, to be honest," McKinley said. "There are so many guys tugging on you. You kind of don't really know who's actually doing the tugging."

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