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Steelers Draft '17: Safety

Is Pittsburgh set at safety? Not yet, according to SCI publisher Jim Wexell. Here's his prospect breakdown for the evolving Steelers.

Their free safety is a team leader who won't turn 30 until June. He has two years left on his contract.

Their strong safety was drafted in the second round last year and was voted the team's Rookie of the Year. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers are set at safety, correct?

Well, maybe not. In fact, these three players are first-round considerations: Jabrill Peppers, Budda Baker and Obi Melifonwu.

Those are players who could step into the slot and give the Steelers the inside man-coverage ability they lacked against the New England Patriots, as well as the tough run stopper they would lack with a cornerback in that spot. 

One of them, Peppers, would also give them the agile, instinctive, penetrating playmaker off the edge they've lacked since Troy Polamalu retired.

Peppers was surprisingly named a Heisman finalist last year, and the blowback from analysts this draft season seems to be a form of protest.

The poor guy can't win. First, the media fell in love with the Michigan defender because he played safety, cornerback, linebacker, defensive end, running back, wildcat quarterback, slot receiver and returned punts and kickoffs. Then, the media fell out of love because they noticed Peppers wasn't making game-changing, Heisman-type plays. 

Peppers had only one interception at Michigan, and that on a deflected pass against Ohio State. And he was often burned in deep coverage. 

Imagine Polamalu playing cornerback, and that's what Michigan fans saw whenever their former USA Today Player of the Year and four-time New Jersey state sprint champ got beat deep on the flank.

No, Peppers isn't a cornerback. And he's not a center fielder as a free safety. He actually started at linebacker throughout his final season at Michigan, and at 213 pounds he's too small for that and was at times blown off the ball by guards and/or tackles. 

Remember that, too, from Polamalu the dime backer?

So, yes, ironically, all of Polamalu's shortcomings are Peppers' as well.

But he's a smart, quick-twitched, playmaker who -- as was pointed out so adroitly in a recent article (accompanied by video proof) by Trevor Sikkema -- "protects" the edge in the run game as a penetrating slot corner and has an uncommon ability to cover one-on-one in the middle of the field. 

Peppers no doubt could play the slot on early downs and dime linebacker on obvious pass downs. That would help run-stuffing insider backer Vince Williams' duties greatly.

Baker, the slot safety from Washington, might be a safer pick because he's better in coverage down the field and has a definite future as a free safety. He's also a playmaker and a smart, instinctive winning player who can cover slot receivers and play the run in the box.

However, Baker is 1 1/4 inches shorter than Peppers and 18 pounds lighter. Baker might be fearless, but his small stature was a problem against the huge Alabama run game in the national semifinals last year. 

A bit of a chubster with 13.2 percent body fat, Baker also lacks the quick-twitch muscle fiber of Peppers and isn't nearly as sticky in underneath man coverage.

Melifonwu is the 6-4, 224-pound freakish safety from UConn who shocked the NFL Combine with a vertical jump of 44 inches and a broad jump of 11-9. He also ran the 40 in 4.40. There's been chatter about the Steelers grabbing Melifonwu for use in the slot as a tight end eraser, but his tape shows a player who plays like a 6-foot-4 safety. 

In other words, Melifonwu plays like a tall guy, for lack of more nuanced criticism.

All three players have their flaws and could legitimately be characterized as early second-rounders. But, that would mean the Steelers likely would miss the chance to draft any of them late in the second round.

Josh Jones (6-1, 220, 4.41) might be that guy. The North Carolina State safety would be a perfect fit for that big slot/little linebacker role they require for nickel and dime situations. But Jones just isn't as sticky in coverage as Peppers and also lacks Peppers' "it" factor.

A safety for the third or maybe fourth round is Xavier Woods (5-11, 197, 4.54) of Louisiana Tech, who also checks boxes for toughness and coverage skills, but like Baker is smaller and might not be able to take that pounding over the years. Woods is also a bit raw in man coverage, but does have a future as a center fielder and the Steelers are lacking depth behind Mike Mitchell.

MY TAKE

If you look through my Twitter feed, you'll find me taking shots at what I felt was an overrated Peppers. But while he may not be defined by the classic positions, he does fit the Steelers' specific need for the slot-safety/$backer positions taking hold in the NFL. It's been said that a coach had better have a precise idea what he wants to do with Peppers if he's going to draft him, and the Steelers seem to have that perfectly defined need. Ask Tom Brady. Peppers would bring needed underneath man-coverage skills and give the secondary it's first legitimate playmaker/chess piece since Polamalu. The added bonus is that Peppers is also a true threat as a punt and kickoff returner, and could even "tote the rock" in an emergency situation at running back.

VALUE BOARD

First Round -- Jabrill Peppers, Michigan.

Second Round -- Budda Baker, Washington; Josh Jones, N. C. State; Justin Evans, Texas A&M.

Third Round -- Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech; Marcus Maye, Florida.

Fifth Round -- Montae Nicholson, Michigan State; John Johnson, Boston College; Nathan Gerry, Nebraska.

Sixth Round -- Mike Tyson, Cincinnati; Paul Magloire, Arizona.

(* Click here to read Matt Steel's detailed breakdown of Jabrill Peppers and how he would fit the Steelers.)


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