Steelers draft board is taking shape

The Pittsburgh Steelers may interview up to 60 prospects at the NFL Combine. While the front office tries to keep its draft-hand concealed, inevitably a number of interviewees come to light. This year is no different and the off-season plans are already much clearer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are focusing first round efforts on two positions, running back and quarterback. Cornerback is the backup plan while wide receiver is the wildcard. Second round considerations involve offensive tackles and tight ends. A defensive tackle in the third round is an increasing possibility, finalizing the Day 1 targets.

The Steelers harbored some hope for landing a developmental QB in the second round. The team showed a great deal of interest in Philip Rivers at the Senior Bowl and talk has only heated up at the Combine. The main problem is that Rivers is shooting up a number of teams' draft boards, pushing the NC State prospect comfortably into the first round. Perhaps unwilling to use the 11th pick on Rivers, the Steelers have renewed interest in Drew Henson. Any contract is the likely sticking point because the Houston Texans seem ready to part with Henson for a second round draft pick in 2005, which is the price range the Steelers are considering. Either way, the Steelers desire to acquire a marquee QB prospect is no secret as they continue to scrutinize Rivers.

Right now, the biggest buzz surrounds Steelers fan Steven Jackson. The Steelers have been high on Jackson since his sophomore campaign. But Pittsburgh is not the only one hot for Jackson. The New England Patriots are cutting bait with their current stable of running backs, angling to land a franchise player in the year's draft. Both teams are also keen on Chris Perry, which raises an interesting trade scenario.

With the Washington Redskins hot on the trail of Clinton Portis and the Detroit Lions needing defensive help much more than a new running back (remember the Lions drafted Artose Pinner last year), the Steelers are well positioned to grab Jackson. Pittsburgh has done nothing to hide their interest, perhaps hoping to increase their leverage with New England. At the very least, the Steelers can expect both of the Patriots' first round picks in exchange for the rights to Jackson.

Adding more fuel to the rumor fire is the Steelers' surprising interest in WR Lee Evans. Plaxico Burress is in his final contract year with Pittsburgh and Hines Ward's deal runs out after 2005. The front office would like to have some leverage in any extension and Evans would be ideal. The Steelers could use both picks of the Patriots to grab Evans and Perry, in what would amount to a draft coup.

All these scenarios leave open the possibility of chasing an offensive lineman or tight end in round 2. The Steelers have interviewed both OT Max Starks and TE Ben Troupe, either presenting excellent value at this pick. Right tackle is the most likely target. Keep an eye on Kelly Butler and his availability.

Not for nothing, the Steelers also interviewed CB DeAngelo Hall, who is emerging as the top corner prospect in the 2004 NFL Draft. However, Hall is probably nothing more than a backup plan at #11 if the running back scenario falls through. The Steelers seemed to have cooled on grabbing a DB in round 2, but a trade with the Pats would renew speculation particularly given the cluster of talent likely to go off the board in the latter third of the first round.

Continuing the talk about the defense, defensive tackle has emerged as a pressing concern for the Steelers. Pittsburgh needs some quality depth behind Casey Hampton and the tackle position in the nickel last season was nothing to brag about. In that vein, the Steelers have met with DTs Tim Anderson, Darnell Dockett, and Corey Williams. Both Anderson and Williams, mid-round projections, could sub for Hampton while providing more upside in the nickel. Dockett would figure to be more of a nickel factor, but his baggage will likely scare off the Steelers unless he falls to them in round 2.

The buzz so far mostly concerns Day 1. Day 2 rumors will filter through soon enough and we'll keep you up to date on any further interviews that the Steelers conduct.

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