Moments of clarity on Steelers' draft process

SCI.com publisher Jim Wexell believes he's seen the light concerning the Pittsburgh Steelers and draft prospects Sean Weatherspoon, Taylor Mays, Devin McCourty and Chad Jones.

It must've been the Viking rune I bought in San Diego that's provided me with needed clarity on the Steelers' draft process.

"Moments of revelation" are what the wrapper around this lucky charm promised as I browsed the beachfront knick-knack store, and that's what I believe I enjoyed for about five minutes the other day while watching endless hours of combine workouts.

One key revelation is that the days of Levon Kirkland are long gone.

The Steelers do not need a big run-stuffer at the buck linebacker position. They can live, probably thrive, with two Lawrence Timmons behind a front wall that includes three of the game's best run-stoppers at their positions: Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and LaMarr Woodley.

No, the 3-4 is actually a 5-2, and those two linebackers had better be able to cover. Brandon Spikes, I've decided, is the run-stuffing middle backer for a 4-3, which still has two coverage backers at the mike's service.

At least that's what I told myself as I watched Sean Weatherspoon glide through a scintillating workout.

Here are three points to keep in mind about Weatherspoon, a near replica of the Steelers' other ILB, Lawrence Timmons:

1. Weatherspoon benched 225 pounds 34 times, so he should have enough strength to take on blocks in the middle when necessary.

2. Weatherspoon's enthusiastic and passionate, but mostly loud (he says "loquacious"), which will be an important characteristic in the next defensive signal-caller, as opposed to the quiet and shy Timmons.

3. Weatherspoon can cover. He dropped deep into the end zone in the Senior Bowl and went way up to bat a touchdown pass away from a tight end. While he's barely 6 feet 1, his combine vertical jump was 40 inches, and that's what he showed in the Senior Bowl.

Yes, Weatherspoon had a mediocre season. He explained that it had to do with a new defensive coordinator who moved Weatherspoon "from mike to will within the same drive at times, and sometimes it was confusing." Weatherspoon also said that he'd put on 12 pounds, and when he looked at tape from his junior season, and saw that he was much quicker and more fluid then, he decided to get back to his 239 pounds for the post-season. He feels, and looks, much better.

The bigger moment of clarity, for me, as someone who's changing his mind on Weatherspoon, occurred after I'd listened to my favorite second-round ILB, Daryl Washington.

Washington told his interviewer that he instead prefers to play the weak side in a 4-3 because he needs more space. Weatherspoon, meanwhile, glowed when asked the same question. He said he preferred playing inside and being in the middle of the action.

Earlier, Weatherspoon had said that Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin feels the same way about his position. That's when my Viking rune spoke to me, because at that moment I realized Tomlin had found his man.

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One player about whom I haven't changed my mind is Taylor Mays. And I don't care whether his 4.24 40 time was official or not.

Deion Sanders spoke for my feelings about the USC free safety when Sanders opened his appearance on the NFL Network's coverage of the defensive backs in general and Mays in particular by saying, "How can you have all those physical attributes but you don't make plays consistently on the field? Last year, he was a dog."

Wow. Players don't talk about other players that way, but there was Deion speaking the plain truth.

Evidently, word got around to Mays, who, before running his first 40, said to NFLN reporter Charles Davis, "Tell Deion Sanders I've got something for him in the 40. Expect something in the 4.3s."

Sanders replied, "I want to see something on the field. Forget the 40. We know you can run."

Well, Mays ran his 40 and Sanders was less than enthusiastic. "No, no," he said.

And when an unofficial time of 4.24 was reported, Sanders said, "4.24? Are you serious? That didn't look like it."

But for the next hour or so, and on Internet boards all over the country, the 4.24 stood and was celebrated by the workout set – until the official time of 4.43 came out.

Mays was less than impressive in ball drills. He's too stiff, too "rocked up." He had a vertical jump of over 40 inches, but for all of his wonderful weights, measures and times, he, in my mind, is too unathletic to play safety for anyone other than the Oakland Raiders. And they already have enough stiff workout warriors in their defensive backfield.

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The combine giveth and the combine taketh away. I'm talking about two of my favorite players.

The first, LSU safety Chad Jones, was my favorite first-round safety prospect coming into this week. The second, Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, was my favorite second-round cornerback prospect.

But McCourty went out and tested as the No. 1 corner at the combine. He ran a top-10 time (4.48) for defensive backs as Joe Haden timed slow and Kyle Wilson sat out with a minor injury.

McCourty also flashed lightning-quick feet during ball drills, and this on top of what we already know about him as a physical, run-stopping corner and kick-blocking, gunner-jammer-returner of a special teams ace on the field.

Even if McCourty hasn't moved into the No. 1 spot on the NFL's CB board, he's certainly moved out of second-round range for the Steelers.

But guess who may have moved in? Yep, Mr. Jones.

Jones is hearing critical reviews after his combine workout. I feel it's because he's not a workout warrior, that he has not spent the last two years training for his big day at the combine, and it showed in some areas.

Jones, instead, has been splitting time with the LSU baseball and football teams, and that's as good an excuse as any for his low 9-rep output in the bench press.

But here's what Deion had to say about that: "I never had to put Jerry Rice across my chest and lift him."

Jones, though, hasn't had many interceptions, and in any free safety the Steelers draft this April, ball skills, after last year's embarrassing lack of interceptions, are a prerequisite. Jones had only five interceptions in 2-plus years as a starter. Earl Thomas he is not, and many evaluators say Jones will have to play strong safety.

But I disagree, as, I believe, would anyone who watched him play this past season. Just go back to the LSU-Penn State bowl game, where Jones was a major factor in the middle of the field as both a hitter and cover man.

In spite of some of the knee-jerk reviews of his work yesterday in ball drills, I believe Jones showed fluidity and great hands. In fact, Sanders praised him for his ball skills without knowing who he was. Fellow analyst Mike Mayock jumped in with this:

"That was Chad Jones, a baseball player. I always felt baseball players have an advantage. We were both baseball players, Deion. I played center field and first base, and when the ball was in the air I always thought it was mine. It was easy to find. You don't even think about catching the football."

Jones, of course, played center field before moving to the bullpen and starring as a relief pitcher for LSU during its championship run last summer. It made him a national champion in two sports, and he might now be a second-round steal because of it.

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