Friday, April 24, 2015

My ideal Steelers draft

I'm tired of doing mock drafts, even though I will do my final one later this week. So instead, today I'll do a mock eight-selection draft for the Steelers, who have eight picks in the seven-round draft, with the players I think the team will target in each round.

Obviously, availability will have a lot to do with this, otherwise, I'd simply plug in Dante Fowler in the first round, even though there's no way he's there in with the 22nd pick.

Round 1-Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest - I think Johnson will be there for the Steelers and he's a guy who can, at the very least, step right in as the nickel corner. I could also see Byron Jones being the guy. But if Shane Ray's toe injury causes him to fall, he's go a shot as well.

Round 2-Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, Louisville - Kid who had 16 different sets of foster homes could find a home with the Steelers. Was a productive collegiate pass rusher and is considered a high-character guy. Just what the Steelers need. If they go OLB in the first, then they go corner in the second, with Quentin Rollins, Eric Rowe or Jalen Collins being targets - yes, I think Collins falls that far.

Round 3-Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary - Mike Tomlin bites the bullet and takes a kid from his alma mater. McBride is worth the pick. He's the next in the long line of third-round receivers who make an impact with the Steelers.

Round 4-Senquez Golson, CB, Ole Miss - Golson isn't very big, but all he does is make big plays. The Steelers could use a player like that.

Round 5-Shaquille Mason, G/C, Georgia Tech - Mason is the kind of athlete the Steelers have drafted in recent years on their offensive line. He's a bit undersized, but he can pull and run block well coming from Tech's run-heavy offense.

Round 6 (1)-Wes Saxton, TE, South Alabama - Saxton is a better athlete than a football player right now, but the Steelers have a little time to develop him before Heath Miller hangs up his pads for good. He's a willing blocker and ran a 4.65 40.

Round 6 (2)-Kyle Emmanuel, OLB, North Dakota State - A big-time playmaker at the lower levels, Emmanuel might eventually develop into a valuable backup with starter capabilities. At worst, he's a core special teams player.

Round 7-Corey Crawford, DE, Clemson - At 6-5, 299, he's got ideal size for a 3-4 defensive end. He might never be starter quality, but could be a valuable backup.

Well, there it is. I realize there are no running backs on the list, but there weren't any I wanted to take over the value picks of McBride, Golson, Mason and Saxton in the middle round. Then, you might as well wait and bring in a URFA.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Steelers wrap up draft visits

The local airwaves are abuzz going over the Steelers' schedule, so I'll leave that to them. The schedule is what it is, after all. And anybody who thinks they can predict what a team's record will be without taking the draft into account is, well, a little short sighted.

With that in mind, we'll continue to focus on the draft.

The Steelers wrapped up their pre-draft visits today with four more defensive players. Here's the final list of who they brought in:

TE Cameron Clear, Texas A&M
WR DeVante Parker, Louisville
LB Shane Ray, Missouri
LB Kyle Emanuel, North Dakota State
DL Randy Gregory, Nebraska
QB/WR Devin Gardner, Michigan
CB Darryl Roberts, Marshall
RB Matt Jones, Florida
WR Sammie Coates, Auburn
OLB Eli Harold, Virginia
CB Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
TE C.J. Uzomah, Auburn
DE Nate Orchard, Utah
WR Sammie Coates, Auburn
WR Breshad Perriman, UCF
CB Marcus Peters, Washington
CB Alex Carter, Stanford
LB Max Valles, Virginia
CB Doran Grant, Ohio State
QB Tyler Murphy, Boston College
OL Quinton Spain, WVU

TE Jesse James, Penn State
WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona
TE Kennard Backman, UAB
DT Xavier Cooper, Washington State
TE Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State
TE Wes Saxton, South Alabama
CB Bryce Callahan, Rice
CB Stephen Nelson, Oregon State
S Landon Collins, Alabama
DE Preston Smith, Mississippi State
CB Dexter McDonald, Kansas
LB Davis Tull, Chattanooga

Of course, the Steelers also met with a number of other players at the combine and head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert attended at least a dozen on-campus workouts - while other assistant coaches and scouts attended dozens of others.

But it's pretty obvious the Steelers are looking at corners, linebackers and tight ends very closely.

What does all of this mean?

Last year, the Steelers brought six of the players they selected in the draft in for private visits. The year before, that number was five, while another of their visitors was signed as an undrafted free agent. And in 2012, four of the players they selected came off their pre-draft visit list.

So there's a good chance that four or five of the 29 players players listed above will be selected by the Steelers in this year's draft.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Latest, greatest mock draft

With the draft a little over two weeks away, here's my latest mock.

1. Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State - No change at the top.

2. N.Y. Jets (trade with Tennessee) Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon - The Jets can see all the rumors about others moving up for Mariota and make the move themselves.

3. Jacksonville, Dante Fowler, OLB/DE, Florida - The Jaguars haven't had much of a pass rush in forever. Fowler could give them one.

4. Oakland, Leonard Williams, DT, USC - The Raiders aren't dumb enough to screw this up, are they?

5. Washington, Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama - Washington could use playmakers pretty much across the board.

6. Tennessee (from N.Y. Jets), Kevin White, WR, West Virginia - The Titans could go defensive tackle, but White is a dynamic playmaker.

7. Chicago, DaVante Parker, WR, Louisville - A run on receivers? Yep, it could happen this year.

8. Atlanta, Randy Gregory, LB, Nebraska  - The Falcons can just line Gregory up and let him chase quarterbacks.

9. N.Y. Giants, Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa - A pick that stays the same from my previous mock. It just makes too much sense.

10. St. Louis, Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford - In the NFC West, you must protect the quarterback.

11. Minnesota, Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State - With Parker off the board, the Vikings go defense.

12. Cleveland, Danny Shelton, NT, Washington - There are concerns about Shelton's long-term ability to hold up given his weight, but Cleveland needs a run stuffer.

13. New Orleans, Vic Beasley, LB, Clemson - The Saints need help just about everywhere after turning their roster over.

14. Miami, Breshad Perriman, WR, Central Florida - His 40-time opened some eyes for teams that didn't realize he was that fast.

15. San Francisco, Marcus Peters, CB, Washington - The 49ers take a chance on the local kid.

16. Houston, Alvin Dupree, OLB, Kentucky - The Texans envision pairing Dupree with last year's first round pick Jadaveon Clowney.

17. San Diego, Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia - Gurley is a playmaker, but he's coming off a serious knee injury.

18. Kansas City, Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri - The Chiefs take the local star to eventually replace aging Tamba Hali opposite Justin Houston.

19. Cleveland (from Buffalo), La'el Collins, OT, LSU - The Browns need to improve at right tackle and Joe Thomas isn't getting any younger.

20. Philadelphia, Arik Armstead, DT, Oregon - The Eagles land the massive defensive lineman who Chip Kelly recruited.

21. Cincinnati, Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami (Fla.) - The Bengals get a guy who can step in and play on their line right away.

22. Pittsburgh, Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest - It all just keeps coming back to Johnson for the Steelers, who haven't taken a corner in the first round since 1997.

23. Detroit, Malcom Brown, DT, Texas - The Lions need to replenish up front.

24. Arizona, Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin. This just makes too much sense if he's on the board.

25. Carolina, D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida - T.J. Clemmings might be the better player long-term, but Humphries is more polished now.

26. Baltimore, Byron Jones. CB, UConn - A freakish athlete, but can he play? The Ravens think yes.

27. Dallas, Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma - Jerry Jones loves him some Oklahoma players.

28. Denver, Cameron Erving, C/G, Florida State - Erving is polished and can help the Broncos now.

29. Indianapolis, Landon Collins, S, Alabama - The Colts pump up their run defense, but can Collins cover anyone?

30. Green Bay, Jalen Collins, CB, LSU - The Packers overlook the fact that Collins started just 10 games in college.

31. New Orleans, Eric Rowe, CB/S, Utah - Is he a corner or safety? The Saints need help all over and can afford to see which it is.

32. New England, Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Oklahoma - He's got character issues, but that's never bothered Bill Belichick.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A look at the Steelers, final

With the draft just a few weeks away, here's the final part of our look at the Steelers as currently constructed. Today, we'll take a look at the offensive line.

The Steelers' offensive line stayed relatively healthy in 2014 and the young group had its best season.

Center Maurkice Pouncey made another trip to the Pro Bowl and right guard David DeCastro could have easily joined him there.

They will continue to be the cornerstones of this group.

Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, a former seventh-round pick, has settled in nicely at left tackle. He's no star, but neither were guys such as John Jackson or Max Starks. They just got the job done.

Beachum also will continue to get better as he improves his strength. He's smart and is a hard worker.

Left guard Ramon Foster isn't a star, either, but he's very capable. He's probably the least athletic of the team's linemen, but he's strong and solid at the point of attack.

At right tackle, Marcus Gilbert overcame a somewhat slow start to put together a solid season. Many griped after he had a tough game against Baltimore in the opener - after signing a contract extension - but Elvis Dumervil has made plenty of guys look bad. Gilbert, like Beachum, isn't a star, but he's solid.

The Steelers have reportedly picked up DeCastro's option for 2016, but I haven't confirmed anything about that yet and the team hasn't announced it. And both Beachum and Foster will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, so the Steelers are going to have to spend some money on the position.

Top backup Mike Adams also will be unrestricted following the 2015 season, and it's likely the team will allow the former second round pick to move on. Adams hasn't lived up to his draft status, though he was OK when he filled in for four starts last season, at least showing some fight.

Cody Wallace and Chris Hubbard are the top backups inside and neither is starter quality on a long term basis.

Alejandro Villanueva spent most of the season on the practice squad and is a project.

It's likely the Steelers will attempt to sign Beachum to an extension - possibly before training camp - and will draft at least one young interior linemen in case they are unable to re-sign Foster - though he'd like to stay.

There's also always the chance the value in the draft could be a offensive tackle if the top corners and edge rushers are gone when the Steelers select at 22. Adding a young tackle to this group who could possibly fill in at guard as well wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A look at the Steelers, Part VI

With Troy Polamalu's retirement, it's a good time to take at look at the Steelers' defensive backfield as the next part of this series.

Polamalu's retirement was no unexpected. The Steelers asked him to seriously consider hanging up his helmet and expected him to do the right thing.

Polamalu's once special skills had all but completely eroded - at least the speed portion of his game - and he was getting by on his instincts and ability to diagnose quickly.

But they will be better off in 2015 with Shamarko Thomas at strong safety - provided he stays healthy. That has been a major issue for Thomas in his first two seasons, as he's missed seven games with injuries.

Thomas has excellent speed and coverage ability. His only drawback at this point has been those health issues.

That was one reason Will Allen was brought back immediately after Polamalu retired. Allen is a solid backup who can play both free and strong safety and rarely gets himself out of position. If Thomas is injured or falls flat on his face, Allen has proven over the years that the team can win with him at the back of its defense.

Mike Mitchell will be the other starter and there's also the possibility that if Thomas falters, he could move to strong safety with either Robert Golden or Allen playing free safety.

Mitchell had a tough season in his first year in Pittsburgh, but that's not uncommon. In fact, if you back at the man he replaced, Ryan Clark, you'll see some similarities between their first seasons with the Steelers.

Mitchell had 71 tackles, three pass defenses and two forced fumbles in his first season with the Steelers. Clark had 72 tackles, 1 interception and two pass defenses.

Clark missed all but six games in 2007 after nearly dying following a game in Denver, but bounced back in 2008 with 87 tackles, six pass defenses and an interception in 14 games.

Mitchell, who is a better athlete than Clark could ever claim, should be better in 2015.

Might the Steelers select a safety in the draft? Possibly, but this is not a great year for safeties unless you're going to convert a corner. They've been linked with Alabama strong safety Landon Collins a lot by national draftniks, but I don't see them going out of their way to take a box safety when they're looking for more playmaking ability in the secondary.

It's more likely that they'll got with a combination of Thomas, Mitchell, Allen and Golden as their top four and bring in a younger player or two to see if they can crack that top four or add something as a special teams ace.

At cornerback, the team is, quite frankly, a mystery right now.

William Gay will be one starting corner, that much we know. And he's solid with the ability to make some spectacular plays at times. But he's also limited by average speed for the position.

Cortez Allen will get a shot to reclaim the other starting spot after falling apart last season. Allen struggled with the new emphasis by the league on illegal contact and hands to the face by defenders, seemingly drawing at least one penalty per game for an infraction in the preseason and early on. It shook his confidence and he never recovered.

But he's a bright young man and the talent is there. Like Gay, he lacks high-end straight-line speed, but he's certainly capable, if he's got his head right.

Antwon Blake was brought back as the nickel corner and the diminutive speedster showed at times why defensive backs coach Carnell Lake offered him plenty of praise at the draft.

He's feisty and will stick his nose in on running plays, but he's somewhat limited by his size, something that can be exploited by the league's bigger receivers.

B.W. Webb, a former fourth-round pick of the Cowboys, was signed after being released by Dallas at the end of the preseason. The Steelers like the 5-11, 190-pound corner, who was timed at 4.51 seconds in the 40 at the combine two years go while displaying a 40.5-inch vertical, and he can't be discounted as being in the mix to do more in 2015 once he's had an entire offseason and training camp in Pittsburgh.

But it is undeniable that the Steelers need to add some young talent to this group, perhaps even taking a corner in the first round of the draft for the first time since selecting Chad Scott in 1997.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Polamalu calls it quits

You'll read plenty about Troy Polamalu and what a class act he was throughout his career with the Steelers.

I won't bore you with any of those stories.

I'll share just this one.

In 2004, after Polamalu had put together a rookie season that had many fans wondering if the Steelers had made a mistake in moving up in the draft to acquire the young safety.

Early in training camp, I decided to do a story on Polamalu. There was one problem, Polamalu never came to lunch, even in those days.

See, you had two opportunities to talk to players, during lunch or after practice. And Polamalu was good at avoiding reporters in all cases. It's not that he didn't like talking. He just didn't enjoy talking about himself, especially back then.

Polamalu was always engaging in one-on-one situations. You could talk music, spirituality, etc. But get him in a group setting and it was a lot of yes and no replies, or his favorite, "Sure."

So I decided to get him after practice. Half an hour after everybody else had left the field, Polamalu was still out there running.

And I waited.

Fourty-five minutes had passed and he looked over at me and smiled. I had waited him out.

He came over with his sheepish smile and I asked if I could talk to him for a few minutes. We spoke about a number of subjects, him standing there sweating from his 3-plus hour workout, me because it was about 90 degrees.

After about 15 minutes, I had run out of questions. But he had stood there and answered them all.

It's not much of a story or an exciting one, but it's one I'll always remember with Polamalu. He had to be dog tired at that point, but he took the time to talk to me. He wasn't going to blow me off after I waited for him - and other guys have over the years.

When we were done, he thanked me, shook my hand and we went on our way.

That was Troy Polamalu. Always a gentleman. Never too big, even when he was one of the game's biggest stars.