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Steelers Bringing Draft Into Focus

In this morning's notebook, Jim Wexell eliminates players and positions from the Steelers draft at the start of the homestretch.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who's trying to put off doing a 3,000-word draft story by having a little bit of fun:

* Notes columns about the draft are more than a little fun.

* Long, windy magazine previews are more than a little work.

* Mike Tomlin, in an interview with the NFL Network, which will air Wednesday night, said “We better start sharpening our sword in terms of evaluation of quarterbacks and what’s available to us or potentially available to us." 

* Sounds like a bit of a mic drop, and Tomlin goes on to say that "It’s an element of the business. Guys can’t play forever and (Ben Roethlisberger) acknowledges that and we acknowledge that."

* OK, so it sounds as if Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to draft a quarterback. After all, Art Rooney II said in January that "We haven’t drafted a quarterback for several years now, so we are probably due to look at the position." And Kevin Colbert explained in February that "San Francisco went from Joe Montana to Steve Young. Green Bay went from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. So, if you want to be a continuously successful organization, you should have the successive quarterback planning in place."

* Team president in January, general manager in February and head coach in March; will the drumbeat continue in April with the selection of a quarterback with pick 30? 

* My understanding is that it won't. Again, Colbert and Tomlin make the pick and they could surprise anyone without it leaking through the organization. But I've been led to believe that the only quarterback added will be a camp arm following the draft.

* Mitchell Trubisky is the one guy I have ranked in my Steelers 30 and it's an extreme longshot that he falls to the bottom of the first round. Not that he's the classic franchise quarterback, but you have to like his poise and accuracy. 

* Stephon Tuitt does. I recall him being so impressed with Trubisky during the season. "Not that I'm any kind of a talent scout," Tuitt cautioned. But Tuitt is a smart defensive player who's watched tape of a lot of quarterbacks in his career. So I listened.

* Not that I break down college tape with Tuitt during open locker rooms but the Notre Dame grad also spoke highly of his school's quarterback, DeShone Kizer, particularly after the opener when the Notre Dame coach inexplicably rotated Kizer in and out of the Texas game. 

* Not that what Tuitt said was inexplicable. He was just clearly incredulous.

* But Kizer has the size, arm and potential to become that classic franchise QB. What bothers me is that he had six chances to tie or win games last season and went 0-for-6. Not a stat that's going to help anyone who might be "pounding the table" for a guy who'll sit the bench for at least two seasons.

* I guess I'm just looking for reasons to agree with the Steelers on not drafting one early in this draft.

* And here's the other potential first-rounder: Pat Mahomes is supposed to be the "gunslinger," the Brett Favre-type, of this draft. Favre was a relative nobody out of Southern Miss but was well regarded for his arm and mentality back in 1991 when he became the 33rd pick of the draft. Mahomes has that history hanging over him with that comparison and that kind of draft expectation, and the Steelers, of course, are picking 30th. But for me, no.

* I met Mahomes at the NFL Combine. He impressed me as a good guy. He's intelligent and impressed others with his forthrightness in discussing his weaknesses. But he struck me as a 15-year-old. He was mentally mature, yes, but I was struck by his lack of physical maturity. I just can't see him taking charge of an NFL huddle. 

* Maybe I'm not projecting an additional five years on him, but, to me, with a franchise QB already in place for at least two more years, there's nothing that screams "take me" about Mahomes.

* Someone noted on a message board that I seem to have become overly reliant on my impressions of college prospects during these Combine interviews. Sorry, but it's impossible not to be affected, particularly at that position.

* One guy who did impress me in an odd way was Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans. The guy didn't care much for or about me. And that's fine. I was there to do my job and he helped me in that regard by answering my questions. I don't need to be liked. But his arrogance struck me as coming from a guy who could definitely take charge of an NFL huddle. 

* I just watched tape of Evans in the Belk Bowl yesterday. He and the Hokies rallied from a 24-0 second-half deficit to win 35-24. My opinion is that more people should be talking about him. I think he's an ideal third-round pick. I think he's the Dak Prescott of this draft.

* Everyone has their "Dak Prescott of this draft," I know. It's only natural.

* Beware, though, because that was the only game of Evans's I watched closely. I hope to re-watch the Pitt-Virginia Tech game in which Evans and his two main receivers annihilated Pitt's man-to-man coverage. I talked to the three key players about that game and will have more about it in a feature. But Evans is the QB I would target in this draft. Again, my understanding is the Steelers won't draft one.

* Why worry so much about a position I just said they'll ignore? Due diligence.

* And what the heck else am I going to do with all of these QB notes?

* I also don't believe the Steelers will draft a tight end, yet I'll have my George Kittle interview early next month. He's too good and fits too well to completely ignore, and I want to make sure customers are prepared in either event.

* I believe the Steelers will draft a running back and possibly a receiver but not until the third round, at the earliest.

* It's obvious, and heartening at the same time that my understanding is the Steelers will target a needed defensive player in the first and second rounds.

* That's what we expect. That's what we understand as logical. 

* Sometimes you just have to clear out the dead wood in your mental forest before proceeding.

* And, boom, this morning we learn that's exactly what Tomlin told reporters at the NFL Owners Meeting yesterday, that his team needs to find man cornerbacks and pass-rushers.

* Not that it needed to be spelled out, but it's good to see we're all on the same page.

* I've listed my 30, and some of that will change. Right now off the top of my head I'm thinking Carl Lawson above T.J. Watt and Derek Rivers in the first. 

* I put Watt ahead of Rivers not because I believe he's the better choice but because of the Steelers' history of drafting major college players in the first round. Watt -- like Rivers -- has the frame to add weight and play that defensive end spot, but with more agility than most of the others (Charles Harris, Derek Barnett) to also drop into coverage as a linebacker. Many scouts consider Watt to be a linebacker. 

* The guys who draw the oohs and aahs of the Daniel Jeremiahs in the media as looking like "the classic Steelers pass-rusher" really aren't fits any more with the preponderance of nickel fronts the Steelers use these days.

* I know they need more of a defensive end, and you know it, and we can criticize the national media for not knowing it, but I wonder: Do the Steelers know it? Or do they still get swept up in their traditional thinking the same way the media scouts do?

* I know. It makes my head spin, too. We all prefer logical form and order, as it used to be in the Bill Cowher drafts. I knew the quarterback was always in question and the asskicker wasn't. And I knew the fits he wanted and needed.

* Tomlin's changing world of pass-rushers and cornerbacks even puts Marlon Humphrey in question. Dick LeBeau would've loved that kind of physical zone corner. But can Humphrey play man all the way down the field? We know he can press, he can tackle, he can run and hit. But does he fit the Steelers' changing need for a man-to-man cornerback? 

* I would take the chance on him because I think he would be a falling star in the first round and I think he would learn and adapt. Young, smart, physical and athletic with his father's NFL pedigree. And the Steelers aren't going to need pure man corners anyway. Just enough for the sake of variance.

* There are so many quality cornerbacks that I'll stick to my initial impression of the draft and take the pass-rusher first and the cornerback second. I would look for that running back in the third round, particularly if it's Kareem Hunt, and then perhaps another defensive back with the third-round compensation pick.

* Jon Ledyard will have his read on those key second-rounders (and beyond) tomorrow, as we get back to work from my 10 days of family time off. 

* You'll beg my pardon the rest of this day. A 3,000-worder awaits.

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