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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Final mock draft

The playing around is pretty much over. It’s time to put up or shut up – or at the very least get this draft completed before another prospect his arrested for something stupid.

For the sake of sanity, I’m not putting any trades into this draft that already have not taken place. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think there will be any deals made. In fact, I expect quite a few this year as teams position themselves to get the guys they want.

Anyway, without any further ado, here we go.

1. Tampa Bay, Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State – This pick has been locked in since the combine.

2. Tennessee, Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans make this pick and then deal Mariota later.

3. Jacksonville, Dante Fowler, OLB, Florida – The Jaguars need pass rushers. Leonard Williams would fit, but Fowler will give Gus Bradley the kind of edge rusher he covets.

4. Oakland, Leonard Williams, DT, USC – Amari Cooper would make sense as well, but the Raiders can add a receiver later. Williams is a game changer.

5.  Washington, Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson – Beasley steps in and replaces Brian Orakpo. Brandon Scherff would make sense here too, but it’s a little too early.

6.   N.Y. Jets, Alvin Dupree, DE, Kentucky – The Jets would love to get their hands on Winston or Mariota. Perhaps they make this move and dangle Dupree and something else for Mariota.

7.   Chicago, Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama – It’s no secret that since Brandon Marshall was dealt that the Bears will be looking at wide receivers.

8.   Atlanta, Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia – With Fowler, Beasley and Dupree gone, the Falcons go get Steven Jackson’s replacement in Gurley.

9.   N.Y. Giants, Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa – I’ve felt pretty good about this being Scherff’s landing spot for a while now.

10.   St. Louis, La’el Collins. OT, LSU – The Rams got Greg Robinson last year, now they get his bookend.

11.   Minnesota, Trae Waynes, CB,  Michigan State – When you play in the same division as Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, you’d better have corners who can cover.

12.   Cleveland, Kevin White, West Virginia – It’s hard to believe White falls this far, but here he is. He would be tough for Cleveland to pass on.

13.   New Orleans, Randy Gregory, OLB, Nebraska – The Saints are in desperate need of pass rushers.

14.   Miami, DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville – The Dolphins would have loved to get their hands on Gurley and it’s too early for Melvin Gordon, so they go for a dynamic playmaker.

15.   San Francisco, Marcus Peters, CB, Washington – Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver are gone and the 49ers should have more info than anyone on the Peters, an Oakland native.

16.   Houston, Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon – The Texans could use an inside linebacker, but it’s too early for that. Armstead gives them an end to line up opposite J.J. Watt.

17.   San Diego, Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin – An easy choice for the Chargers, who need an every-down runner.

18.   Kansas City, Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford – Eric Fisher is still a work in progress at LT. If he fails on the left side, Peat would give them another option. And can start on the right side right away.

19.   Cleveland, Danny Shelton, DT, Washington – Getting White and Shelton would be a heck of a haul for the Browns.

20.   Philadelphia, Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest – The top three corners and top four OLB prospects are now off the board for the Steelers.

21.   Cincinnati, Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami (Fla.) – Andrew Whitworth will turn 34 this year. Flowers plays with a nasty edge.

22.   Pittsburgh, Byron Jones, CB, UConn – With the top three corners off the board, the Steelers choice in this mock comes down to Jones, talented-but-troubled Shane Ray or Landon Collins. Collins would be tempting as a box safety, and Ray is a top-15 talent who drops because of a toe injury and an issue with marijuana. Jones, meanwhile, is a high-character player who tested off the charts at the combine, including setting a world record in the standing long jump. Oh, and he can play as well, though he was limited to seven games in 2014 with a shoulder injury.

23.   Detroit, Malcom Brown, DT, Texas – The losses of Suh and Fairley in the middle will be made up for by the additions of Brown and Haloti Ngata.

24.   Arizona, Cameron Erving, C, Florida State – Bruce Arians saw what adding a top-notch center did in Pittsburgh when Maurkice Pouncey was brought in.

25.   Carolina, D.J. Humphries, OT, Florida – Offensive line picks aren’t sexy, but they are necessary. And Carolina needs help on its line in the worst way.

26.   Baltimore, Phillip Dorsett, WR, Miami (Fla.) – Having lost their speed receiver, Torrey Smith, the Ravens need for speed at WR is obvious.
27.   Dallas, Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri – If there’s a team that doesn’t mind troubled players, it’s the Cowboys. I’m not convinced Ray is a truly bad guy. Smoking some marijuana is not the character strike it used to be. That toe injury, though, is troubling.

28.   Denver, Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon – The Broncos have to protect Peyton Manning, who is as mobile as the Lincoln Memorial at this stage in his career, not that he ever moved around great to begin with.

29.   Indianapolis, Landon Collins, S, Alabama – Winston Guy is currently Indianapolis’ starting strong safety. Nobody outside of Guy’s family knows who he is.

30.   Green Bay, Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA – Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk are gone. Kendricks is a bit on the small side, but he makes every tackle.

31.   New Orleans, Nelson Aghlor, WR, USC – Agholor doesn’t have the size of some of the other top receivers, but he’s silky smooth.

32.   New England, Eric Rowe, CB/S, Utah – Rowe’s size and speed are off the charts. He has suspect hands, but he’s the kind of hybrid player the Patriots love.

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.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

A look at the Steelers, Part V

With the news of Le'Veon Bell's suspension for the first three games of the season being announced today, it's a good time to continue this ongoing series with a look at that position.

Bell was the Steelers' MVP in 2014, setting team records for total yards from scrimmage (2,215), receptions by a running back (83) and receiving yards by a running back (854).

How important is Bell to the Steelers' offense? In his two seasons with the team, they are 19-10 when he plays, 0-4 when he does not.

The interesting thing about Bell's suspension - which he is appealing - is that he not only will not be paid for the first three weeks of the season, but the league also is fining him a fourth game check in the week that he is permitted to return, bringing his total lost wages to $194,900 of a salary of $779,600.

That, to me, seems excessive, particularly the fine for the fourth game, which totals nearly $49,000.

If I were Bell, I'd be tempted to sit out that game rather than put my health on the line for no pay. He understandably wants to put this incident behind him and likely won't do that, but the temptation has to be there.

With Bell now down for those first three weeks, the Steelers' decision to bring in DeAngelo Williams  to a two-year deal looks better.

It was assumed that Bell would get at least two games, which would have been tough. But without him for three games - nearly 20 percent of the schedule - the Steelers needed a running back capable of handling the ball 15-20 times per game in those contests.

Williams, 31, was nicked up quite a bit in 2014, but had seven games in 2013 when he had at least 15 touches while sharing time with Jonathan Stewart.

It's important that the Steelers keep Williams healthy and ready to go for that first month of the season, which means youngsters Dri Archer and Josh Harris could also be worked into the equation.

But the Steelers also will look to the draft to bring some young competition into that equation as well, though likely not in the first three rounds.

Archer, a diminutive speedster has drawn plenty of criticism from fans because he didn't contribute much in 2014. But he did contribute in the playoff loss to Baltimore when Bell was out with an injury. He'll have this offseason to work on his chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - which was off at times - and try to reclaim the kick return job.

Harris is a tough back with some decent quickness. He was activated off the practice squad when LeGarrette Blount was released in November, but did not play much until the playoffs, when he had 25 yards on nine carries.

Will Johnson will be back as the team's fullback after the Steelers tendered him an offer as a restricted free agent. He catches the ball well - even though he's a bit underutilized in that area - and has gotten considerably better as a lead blocker.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A look at the Steelers Part IV

Today, we'll take a look at the Steelers' linebackers, a group that includes plenty of depth inside and not so much on the outside.

At inside linebacker, the Steelers have a wealth of riches.

Lawrence Timmons is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and has become one of the team leaders.

He heads a group that includes Ryan Shazier, the team's first-round draft pick in 2014, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Terrance Garvin and Jordan Zumwalt.

That's six bodies for two starting spots, which Timmons and Shazier figure to hold down in 2015.

Shazier's rookie season was marred by knee and ankle injuries, but the rookie will be counted on to become more of a prominent player in 2015.

The team was upset that it took him so long to recover from getting nicked up - especially with the knee injury - but that allowed Williams - the starter in 2013 - and Spence to show that they were capable players, as well.

Williams is an old-school thumper in the middle. In fact, if the Steelers were looking to deal one of their inside linebackers later this month, he would be the player I'd shop. He's a starter-quality player.

Spence made a miraculous recovery from a knee injury suffered in his rookie season and, in his third season, showed that he can at least be a capable backup. One only wonders where his career would be now had he not completely ripped his knee up?

The Steelers really like Garvin's coverage ability and he's good on special teams. They've also toyed with him on the outside a little bit, but just as when they moved Timmons to the outside in emergency situations a few years back, that's a last resort kind of thing.

Zumwalt, who spent the 2014 season on injured reserve, also practiced on the outside at times, but it's a bit much to ask a guy to play both and be effective. Inside linebackers might have the size to play outside, particularly against the run, but they lack pass rush ability.

That's why the Steelers have always preferred to convert college defensive ends into outside linebackers.

One player they didn't have to do what with was Jarvis Jones. The 2013 first-round draft pick had two sacks in the Steelers' first three games, but suffered a dislocated wrist at Carolina while making the second one.

That cost him nine games as he rehabbed his way back from the injury. When he returned, he was basically the backup to James Harrison - signed when Jones was injured - on the right side.

Jones needs to continue to get stronger, but he had shown some signs early of being able to use hand placement to beat offensive tackles.

Harrison was re-signed in the offseason after recording 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2014. But he'll turn 37 next month and the team doesn't want him to be a full-time player in 2015. But he brings a locker room presence and remains a very strong pass rusher.

Harrison also worked out with a number of the Steelers' linebackers this offseason in Arizona, including Shazier, Williams, Spence and Jones, showing the youngsters the ins and outs of how to be a pro.

Arthur Moats also was brought back and is penciled in as the starter on the left side right now. The team moved him back over there when Jones returned and he'll replace Jason Worilds - at least for now.

Moats had 23 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in his first season with the Steelers after coming over as a free agent from Buffalo. And the 27-year-old still has some upside as he spends his second season in the 3-4.

But the Steelers need to find somebody to push or supplant him in the long term.

Howard Jones hung around on the practice squad last season, but to be honest, I never noticed him much in practice. That's mainly the result of the fact the practice squad guys are running scout team stuff and there's no real contact, but he needs to take a step forward.

Former CFL player Shawn Lemon was signed in the offseason following a 13-sack season in 2014. But in his previous three CFL seasons, he had nine total sacks, so the jury is out on him. The Steelers won't count on him in 2015 but will be pleasantly surprised if he shows he can make an impact.

For that reason, you can expect an edge rusher to be a high draft pick for this team. They need to add a talented young pass rusher to a group that has some guys who either have yet to show much, live up to their potential or are way on the wrong side of 30.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

A look at the Steelers by position part III

As we continue our look at the Steelers by position, today we'll focus on the pass catchers.

It's a talented group to be sure.

In Antonio Brown, the Steelers might have the pound-for-pound best player in the NFL. A former sixth-round draft pick, Brown has emerged as one of the most dangerous receivers in the game and is still getting better, as scary as that sounds.

The only thing Brown lacks is size, but he makes up for that with his insane competitiveness and knack for getting open, even against double teams.

Markus Wheaton served as the No. 2 receiver last season and struggled at times with his timing with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That will continue to get better. Wheaton is a hard worker who has high aspirations. He should be much better in his third season.

It took Martavis Bryant about half a season to earn the trust of the coaching staff and his teammates last season, but once he did, the rookie took off, catching 26 passes for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games.

Just imagine what he'll do when he actually knows what he's doing.

Bryant's route tree was limited in 2014 and he didn't play a lot in no-huddle situations because of it, but with a full offseason and training camp, he'll be expected to be a much bigger part of the offense in 2015.

Veteran Lance Moore was cut loose following the season and never was much of a factor in 2014 to begin with. But his departure opens the door for Darrius Heyward-Bey to see an increased role in 20125.

Heyward-Bey had just three catches for 33 yards last season as the No. 5 receiver, but the former No. 1 pick of the Oakland Raiders does have a 900-yard season under his belt. He's good on special teams, and the Steelers could do worse for a No. 4 guy.

Of the other guys currently on the roster - Brelan Chancellor, C.J. Goodwin and L'Damian Washington - Goodwin is most well-known.

The former California University of Pennsylvania product spent the 2014 season on the practice squad and showed the ability to make acrobatic catches. Will that translate into a roster spot in 2015? Probably not, as the team will bring in some young talent to challenge.

At tight end, Heath Miller looks to be recovered from the knee injury that ended his 2013 season in Week 17. But it doesn't appear that he'll ever regain his former speed and explosiveness.

He's still a very solid receiving option and a willing blocker, but at some point, the Steelers have to consider looking for his replacement.

Veteran Matt Spaeth was brought back to serve as the No. 2 tight end and is excellent as a blocker but offers little as a receiving option.

Michael Palmer has not been re-signed at this point after serving as the No. 3 tight end last season. That leaves 2014 draft pick Rob Blanchflower and Michael Egnew as the only other tight ends on the roster.

Blanchflower spent the 2014 season on the practice squad and flashed some ability late in the season, while Egnew has a handful of games under his belt - playing in all 16 games and starting five for Miami in 2013. He has seven career receptions for 69 yards.

Again, a rookie will be brought in to add some competition to this group and that could come at any point in the draft if the value is right.

Friday, April 03, 2015

A look at the Steelers by position, Part II

We'll continue our look at the Steelers by position as they come out of free agency today by taking a gander at the defensive line.

Cam Heyward built on his strong 2013 season by putting together and even better 2014 campaign. I was skewered on this blog last summer by saying he had a chance to become the league's best 3-4 defensive end.

He's on his way to doing that. I know, J.J. Watt is technically a 3-4 defensive end, but he could be a star at any position, regardless of scheme.

Heyward might be an effective defensive tackle in the NFL, but he's a damn good 3-4 defensive end.

Nose tackle Steve McLendon gets very little love from Steelers fans. But the veteran is better than he gets credit for and the Steelers can and do win with him in there. Is he a star? No. But the team has bigger problems than their nose tackle.

He played through a shoulder injury suffered early on, missing some games because of it, but returning down the stretch.

At the other end position, rookie Stephon Tuitt started the final month or so of the season and got better as he got his feet under him. In fact, Tuitt showed the team enough that it was comfortable releasing veteran defensive end Brett Keisel.

Tuitt should only continue to get better and the team's defensive line could wind up being a strength in 2015 - if it can find some depth.

Rookie Daniel McCullers is massive at nose tackle and showed promise when pushed into action when McLendon was sidelined with the shoulder injury.

McCullers needs to work on his conditioning and initial get-off at the snap, but he's nearly impossible to stop once he gets rolling.

Cam Thomas was a disappointment in his first season after coming over from San Diego as a free agent. Then again, it's hard to understand why he was being counted on to start in the first place.

The Steelers hope a second season in their system will make Thomas better, but the jury is certainly out.

At this point, guys such as Joe Kruger, Clifton Geathers, Ethan Hemer and Matt Conrath are nothing more than depth guys.

The Steelers could certainly use a draft pick to upgrade the depth at the position, with defensive end being a target.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A look at the Steelers by position

With the draft a little under a month away, I'm going to take a look at the Steelers by position as we transition from free agency to the draft.

Today we'll look at the quarterback position.

The Steelers just signed Ben Roethlisberger to a new contract that will allow him to finish his career in Pittsburgh. They're set at the starting position.

The backup slot, however, could be improved.

Veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski is heading into the final season of his contract, and at 32, he might be at the end of the road. If the Steelers learned anything in the Charlie Batch/Byron Leftwich, it's that older quarterbacks can get nicked up - quickly.

Roethlisberger isn't immune to that either, but the 33-year-old hasn't missed a game in the past two seasons as he's adjusted his game to get the ball out of his hands more quickly and take fewer big shots.

Gradkowski is a nice complimentary guy as a backup. He knows the game and knows his place. But if the Steelers were forced to have him start over a long period of time, they, like most teams, would struggle. That's especially true now that they no longer have a shutdown defense as they did in 2010 when they fought their way through a Roethlisberger suspension with a 3-1 record.

Third-stringer Landry Jones hasn't shown himself to be any kind of answer. The 2013 fourth-round draft pick has limitations and they are great.

And since it's unlikely the team will want him around after year three - players become vested after four years - this is a make-or-break season for him.

Former Clemson star Tajh Boyd was signed in the offseason as a camp/offseason arm, but he has limitations as well. Boyd was a sixth-round pick of the Jets last season but didn't make it out of training camp. Boyd will have to show more consistency on his throws and reads to unseat Jones, but he does have a shot.

A rookie will be added to this group, either in the latter rounds of the draft or as an undrafted free agent.