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Which Pass-Rusher Falls to Steelers?

SCI publisher Jim Wexell has returned from the NFL Combine to his desk, compass and ruler in search of the right pass-rusher.

Back from the NFL Combine with more information.

But seemingly less knowledge, particularly when it comes to honing in on that first-round pass-rusher for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In my opinion, they need one of those, and one of these: a cornerback. 

It's a deep draft for both positions, but in my opinion there are more cornerbacks to be trusted in the second and third rounds, so I'm determined to find that pass-rusher in the first round.

And the number of prospects has dwindled. 

Not only did I hear some things I didn't want to hear ("My recovery will take four to six months," said Takk McKinley, for instance), but I saw some times and measurements that were disappointing.

I did talk to experts on some teams that need pass-rushers, and we'll begin there in narrowing down the pool of candidates for the Steelers at pick 30.

Of course, some players don't need an expert. If the Cleveland Browns don't pick Myles Garrett with the first pick of the draft, someone else will take him by the third pick.

I believe the same can be said about the bigger defensive ends, Jonathan Allen and Solomon Thomas. 

That's three off the board, and by looking at Scout.com's Mock Muncher -- a computer generated "mulching" of media mock drafts -- and the USA Today Draftwire mock draft of experts from each NFL city, I'm gauging that at most there'll be three teams in the top 10 that will be drafting an edge rusher.

So that brings us to the pass-rush needy New Orleans Saints at pick number 11

Nick Underhill, the Saints beat writer for The Advocate, says it will be Taco Charlton, the defensive end from Michigan. I did a double-take at my scouting expert at SteelCityInsider.net, Jon Ledyard, who nodded in the affirmative. 

"Teams love him," Ledyard said of Charlton. "The buzz is he'll go top 15."

OK. Next up on the needs list are the Detroit Lions at pick 21. I went to perhaps the best known Lions draft expert in the world, Jeff Risdon of RealGM.com.

"They do need a pass-rusher, pass-rusher or linebacker," said Risdon. "Ziggy Ansah is in the last year of his contract. Devin Taylor started last year but he's a free agent. He may or may not be back, so they have to get somebody to rush the passer. They could take Solomon Thomas if he's there. He would look fantastic at defensive end. If Jonathan Allen is falling, I could see them being his life preserver."

Jeff, the Lions aren't drafting in their usual top 10 position.

"Exactly. I've got to adjust my focus, don't I?" he said with a laugh. "They seem to be very intrigued by the athletic guys. Actually, I happen to think they're looking more at linebacker than at defensive end with the depth in this draft at defensive end. They're going to look at Tanoh Kpassagnon in the second round. Derek Rivers of Youngstown State is a guy I know that they've met with. Tarell Basham out of Ohio University. That second tier, I think -- because they have their lead dog in Ziggy Ansah -- is where they can get a No. 2 rusher in the second or third round. I think that will be their best way to go. I think they're taking Haason Reddick in the first round, personally, as a 4-3 outside linebacker."

The Miami Dolphins, picking No. 22, are next. 

Their expert is tied in so closely with the team that he didn't want his name to be used.

"It may very well be pass-rusher, but they have other needs on defense," the source said. "At every level they need a playmaker. It's going to come down to which player they have rated highest at any one of those positions. It's more likely going to be a 4-3 outside linebacker. Defensive end, that will depend on whether they re-sign Andre Branch. But opposite him is Cameron Wake and he's 35. Taco Charlton might be a guy I would think they might be interested in.  They would need somebody who's going to be sturdy against the run,, so some of those tweener types wouldn't fit. If Charlton's there, he would definitely be someone they would consider. Derek Barnett doesn't test well but all he does is make plays. I believe he ran a 4.8 this morning. But considering how brutal they were against the run last year, if they get a pass-rusher that dude better be able to stop the run, too, so it's not going to be one of those tweener type who can play 3-4 OLBs."

Let's give Barnett to the Dolphins, because the 6-3, 259-pounder actually did test fairly well Sunday -- aside from his 4.88 40 -- and he's stout against the run.

Next up at the pass-rushing trough, at pick 28, are the Dallas Cowboys. Local expert John Owning, the NFL Content Director for FanRag Sports, gave the following names in order:

Carl Lawson, McKinley and Charles Harris.

All three are available, so Lawson goes to the Cowboys at pick 28.

The Green Bay Packers pick 29th, one pick before the Steelers, and they also have several defensive needs. I asked my draftnik friend Bill Huber, the publisher of Scout.com's Packer Report, if he expects Green Bay to pick an edge rusher. 

"Probably," he said. "They've got (Nick) Perry, (Julius) Peppers and (Datone) Jones all free agents, and (Clay) Matthews had a s----y year, so, yeah. They like those elephant guys like Demarcus Walker from Florida State. They like those 280-pound (butt)kickers. If they lose Perry, they would need that kind of guy. If they keep Perry, they would probably go for a smaller rusher, like T.J. Watt. They could go for any of those others, except the 240-pound guys like Tim Williams. They've never gone for a sheer pass-rusher. McKinley's 250, so I could see that. But if you can't play the run, you're not going to play there. 

"Again, it's free agency first. If they lose Nick Perry, they've got to get a big (butt)kicker in there. Perry might be the best run guy in the league at that spot, if not he's two or three. If they re-sign Perry, I wonder if it's the UCLA kid (McKinley). They like UCLA kids. They could get a bargain there."

The problem with McKinely is the aforementioned four to six months off. And since his times weren't as electric as expected (since he waited until after the Combine to undergo surgery and get those times on record), let's have him fall to the Steelers.

Who will pass.

The Steelers just aren't going to draft someone who might not be ready for his first practice until Sept. 1, even with James Harrison holding down the spot.

"Harrison's fine now, yes," a team source told me in Indianapolis. "But at 39, he can break down at any time."

To go back to Green Bay, let's assume their first-round pick won't be Walker, the aforementioned 280-pounder. Just call it the word on the street that the productive Florida State end is more of a nickel inside player. If the Packers were to choose him in the first round, it would be a surprise. Since Huber also mentioned Watt, the brother of All-Pro J.J. Watt, let's give him to the Packers.

That leaves the following edge-rushers for a Steelers team that also -- in my humble opinion -- can't lean on those prototypically lighter 3-4 outside linebackers they've drafted over the years. The Steelers now need their edge rusher to play defensive end (stand-up or hand down) in a nickel front, which they use at least 75 percent of the time. 

Keep in mind that their win streak didn't begin until Harrison took that spot over from Jarvis Jones. In 10 games started by the 265-pound Harrison (counting playoff games), the Steelers allowed 3.4 rushing yards per carry and 68.7 per game. In nine games started by the 248-pound Jones, the Steelers allowed 5.4 rushing yards per carry and 101.4 per game. That's a whopping difference, and most of Jones' starts included Cam Heyward at tackle, whereas only one of Harrison's starts did.

So, the Steelers need a blue-chip pass-rusher/run-stopper to begin grooming behind Harrison. These are the potential first-rounders left on the list:

Harris, McKinley, Rivers and Williams.

Again, I'm eliminating McKinley (injury), as well as Williams. The classic (and bendy) 3-4 OLB admitted to failing multiple drug tests at Alabama and athletically he tested poorly at Indianapolis, particularly in the agility drills (7.36 3-cone, 4.57 short shuttle). Williams also weighed in at 244 pounds, which doesn't offer much confidence against the run.

That leaves Charles Harris of Missouri and Derek Rivers of Youngstown State. 

Here's the tale of the tape:

* Harris -- 6-2 3/4, 253, 32 1/2-inch arms, 4.82 40, 21 bench reps, 32 vertical, 9-1 broad, 7.47 3-cone, 4.42 shuttle.

* Rivers -- 6-3 5/8, 248, 32 3/4-inch arms, 4.61 40, 30 bench reps, 35 vertical, 10-3 broad, 6.94 3-cone, 4.40 shuttle.

Both players met formally with the Steelers at the Combine, while Rivers also met formally with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the Senior Bowl, where Rivers showed he can play with Division One prospects after spending his college career in a slightly lower classification.

Both players are quality pass-rushers who have also shown the ability to drop into coverage. But Rivers is regarded by scouts as the better player against the run. He weighs five pounds less than Harris, but is almost an inch taller with the frame to add weight. Rivers also has slightly longer arms, is faster, stronger, more explosive and more agile according to Combine tests. And his character is beyond reproach. 

Gotta go here, today, with Derek Rivers, OLB/DE, Youngstown State.

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