Before the Pittsburgh Steelers make their first pick Thursday night, let's take a quick review:
* The Steelers have two or three remaining holes on defense that involve rushing and covering.
* Their inability to play man and be more zone versatile are their most glaring weaknesses.
* The Steelers were picked apart in the middle of the field last season.
* The Steelers' top brass attended the pro days of nearly every top safety.
* The media is focused on adding an outside linebacker to improve the pass rush.
I'm going to focus on the first four points in my draft, because with today’s quick-passing offenses, the outside rusher isn't quite as important as he has been in the past.
A dominant interior pass-rushing presence is becoming the trend, particularly when it comes to stopping the best of the quick-throwing QBs in these spread attacks. That means the most important pass-rushers for the Steelers may now be Javon Hargrave and Bud Dupree. If both can take another substantial step forward, most of the Steelers' pressure issues should be solved.
To get Hargrave’s quickness on the field more often, the Steelers could spell James Harrison with Cam Heyward in the nickel. A large four-man front might be what’s necessary to balance out a three-safety dime look. At least that's how the New England Patriots approached their 3-safety looks and they had the No. 1 scoring defense in the league.
That means I'm not looking for edge rushers as much as I'm looking for the hybrid safeties Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert watched this spring. However, there’s a good chance they'll all be gone by the time the Steelers pick in the second round.
With that in mind, let's get to my Top 10:
1. Jabrill Peppers - I hope the recent report of a diluted drug test doesn't effect his draft stock with the Steelers. Analysts say that Peppers has a second-round grade from most teams, but grades are often about fit. Peppers could not be a better fit for what the Steelers need and do on defense.
2. Kevin King - This 6-3 cornerback has a reputation for being a soft tackler, but with 4.43 speed and elite change-of-direction skills, how could the Steelers not be interested? In my opinion, King’s shuttle and three-cone times were among the most impressive at the combine. Tall players often struggle changing direction. Faster players tend to struggle because there’s more force in their transition. King overcame both issues, which is extremely impressive. He’s an ankle-biter when it comes to tackling, but he’s aggressive with it so I don’t look at his tackling as being a problem. A big part of tackling is want to and he shows the want to. King also displays elite-level ball skills, as evidenced by his famed one-handed interception on a fade route in the end zone. Also, every Steelers championship team had a starting corner 6-1 or taller.
3. T.J. Watt - This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.
4. Obi Melifonwu - Four of the Steelers' championship teams included a 6-4 cornerback. It’d be stretch to assume Melinfonwu is the next Mel Blount, but I’m swinging for the fences here. The tape is good, and there were little things I see that tell me he could be special, one being make-up speed. When he was close enough to someone who had a step, he quickly made up the ground. At first I didn’t think he looked as fast as he times, but then most players that tall don’t look like they’re moving fast. The UConn coach praised Melifonwu’s intelligence as a player. At worst, I think he’ll be a good center fielder or an in-the-box defender. He just won’t be able to cover both tight ends and slot receivers like Peppers.
5. Marlon Humphrey - Great athlete, extremely physical, and yet to turn 21. He might be at the top of the Steelers' draft board. Humphrey has only played corner and has never returned punts, so his ability to defend the deep pass is more concerning than Peppers'. If Humphrey gets that part of his game down, he just might be the best corner in the draft. That’s worth taking a swing for the fences on him.
6. Chidobe Awuzie - I love this kid’s mentality and would think his versatility and style of play would be an ideal fit in Pittsburgh. I like Awuzie’s tape more than Humphrey’s but I don’t think Awuzie has as much upside.
7. Budda Baker - If forced to guess who out of this group would be first to make a Pro Bowl, I might choose Baker. His size and quickness would be an asset going against the Patriots' Julian Edelman and Brandon Cooks. The center fielder of the future could cause Mike Mitchell to slowly transition to $backer. Similar in range and physicality to Earl Thomas, Baker's one drawback is size. How well will he hold up?
8. Adoree Jackson - Gave up seven touchdowns last season and ran track in the spring. Sounds a lot like Artie Burns’ resume. This kid could blow up with his focus on football. He might be the best return man in the draft and should be able to play the slot. Great return man, but will he develop at corner? Tremendous upside has him barely ahead of my next player.
9. Tre’Davious White - Extremely solid and by all accounts a high-character kid. Can play inside, outside, off, or press. White just doesn’t jump off the tape with size and speed but he can still be a championship-level starter. I could easily see him being rated higher than this because he offers similar attributes of Gareon Conley, except White’s an inch shorter.
10. Takk McKinley - Seems like a smaller version of Dupree. A straight-line, fast, high-motor player with a lot of room for development, McKinley struggled with change-of-direction drills at the Combine. The talent is there, just not sure I want to invest a first-round pick in a player who needs development time while recovering from shoulder surgery.