The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t have scripted things any better for themselves, nor could a Hollywood screenwriter have done so either, when it comes to the their need’s pairing up so seamlessly with the depth of talent available at those positions in the May NFL Draft. The cherry on top of this dream scenario is the Steelers recently being awarded a third round compensatory pick, giving them four of the first 105 picks in the draft. The only remaining questions for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are, which order they will go about prioritizing their needs, and how much free agency will affect the process at each position. At the moment, the biggest priority would appear to be the need for an edge rusher, but that could change if the Steelers lose CB Ross Cockrell, who was signed to a fourth round tender, to free agency. Regardless of which order they prioritize their needs on draft weekend, the Steelers will be looking to invest draft picks at OLB, CB, RB.
Over the past four years the Steelers have invested two number one picks, one at each outside linebacker spot, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree. With the likely departure of Jones, the Steelers will no doubt look to pick up what they hope will be a bookend compliment to Dupree, giving them the tandem pass rushing threat they have been missing since James Harrison and Lamar Woodley. While it is doubtful that the Steelers see Myles Garrett, 6’5″/269 lbs, from Texas A&M, or Takkarist McKinley, 6’2″/265 lbs, from UCLA, fall to them at number 30, there will be plenty of top talent for them to choose from.
Tyus Bowser, 6’3″/247 lbs, from Houston, and Charles Harris, 6’3″/253 lbs, out of Missouri are both explosive athletes who would fit nicely as pass rushers in the Steelers scheme, and are climbing up draft boards after strong showings at the combine. Haason Reddick, 6’1″/237 lbs, does nothing but make plays, with 33 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage, including 10.5 sacks as a senior. Unless there is a record run on edge rushers in the first round, at least one of these names should be available for the Steelers at 30. Whoever the Steelers select, hopefully he will be capable of earning enough playing time to help keep 39 year old James Harrison fresh for the next two years.
If the Steelers loss in the AFC championship game proved nothing else, it was that they don’t have much at cornerback, outside of Artie Burns, that is capable of switching to man coverage and being successful. Perhaps the front office has finally come to the realization that to beat offenses like the one Tom Brady runs, you have to be proficient in press man coverage. An indication of that realization might be Kevin Colbert’s choosing to issue a fourth round tender to Ross Cockrell instead of directly resigning him, a gamble that would yield the Steelers a fourth round pick if someone signs him. While Ross Cockrell has been a steady presence for the Steelers, leading them in passes defended in 2016, he has been a liability in man coverage.
If the Steelers are looking to go with man coverage more often, then they will need to bring in players who are suited for that role. There is plenty of that type of cornerback in the NFL draft, with around 13 that carry a first round grade. Here are some of those who stand out, and are worthy of being selected at 30.
Shaquill Griffin (UCF)- 6’0″/194. Griffin is physical in run support, and possess a good punch and great feet for battling in press man coverage. He has fluid hips and was very smooth in his drills at the combine, and seemed to high point every ball he caught. He would bring a lot of tools for Carnell Lake to work with.
Fabian Moreau (UCLA)- 6’0″/ 206 lbs. Moreau is a converted running back, similar to Ike Taylor, who has yet to tap into his potential. He is fast, physical, athletic, and seems to like mixing it up in run support as much as muscling receivers off their routes in press man coverage. For being newer to the cornerback position, Moreau seems to be quick to react when he realizes that his receiver is trying to clear him out to open the field up for the quarterbacks intended target.
Gareon Conley (Ohio State)- 6’0″/195 lbs. Conley is talented in press coverage and is equally comfortable playing zone. He doesn’t get fooled easily, only allowing a 37 percent completion rate. In run defense he is a willing tackler, but needs to get stronger.
Cordrea Tankersley (Clem)- 6’1″/199 lbs. Tankersley has very good ball skills and does a good job of turning around to track the ball. He is excellent At frustrating and harassing receivers just short just shy of the point of drawing a flag, and is very aggressive in run support. Pressure isn’t an issue with him as he is comfortable on the biggest of stages.
The most intriguing prospect just might be Obi Melifonwu (UConn)- 6’4″/224 lbs. Although listed as a Safety, Melifonwu has the size to cover tight ends from the slot, and the speed to cover any receiver on the outside. With a 44″ vertical, 4.4 speed, and an 11’9″ broad jump, Melifonwu has plenty to offer in the way of potential, and following a standout performance at the combine, he’ll be a unique and valued commodity in the early rounds. Having switched positions himself, twice, Carnell Lake has the experience to help develop Obi Melifonwu.
With the stay of DeAngelo Williams coming to an apparent end, the Steelers have signed RB Karlos Williams, and have interviewed several more prospects at the combine. Next year’s backfield could have a completely different look to it, with LeVeon Bell, Karlos Williams and a rookie. Whether that rookie is a change of pace back, a compliment to LeVeon Bell, or a power runner, there will be plenty of quality options available in the April draft. Here are a few who would fit in nicely with Todd Haley’s offense.
Samaje Perine (Oklahoma)- 5’11″/233 lbs. Perine is an all power running back with the capacity for a heavy workload. He has adequate speed for his size, running 4.6 in the 40 at the combine. He can get skinny between the tackles or create his own room with his power. He uses his pad level perfectly to finish off every run, and has good enough hands to be a reliable check-down option.
Alvin Kamara (Tenn)- 5’10″/214 lbs. This SEC runner gets to top speed in a hurry and changes gears as necessary to create more running room. Kamara is a very fluid runner who can change directions on a dime. He is a reliable receiver who does a decent job in pass protection. Kamara overcame early troubles at Alabama to become a team leader at Tennessee.
James Connor (Pitt)- 6’1″/233 lbs. Connor’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma defines what he is all about, doing whatever it takes to overcome what each opponent throws at him. Possessing a violent stiff arm to extend his runs further, Connor will also lay a heavy shoulder into the last tackler to deliver more punishment than he takes. He has faster game speed than he’s given credit for and is willing to sacrifice his body near the goal line, or to move the chains. James Connor is solid in pass protection and is a dangerous target on wheel routes out of the backfield. He has the perfect combination of power and speed to spell LeVeon Bell.
Last year’s draft brought three new starters, and this draft holds the same potential as well. With five of the first 135 selections, the Steelers have a golden opportunity to bring in five athletes with first round grades to bolster a roster that is already one of the best in the NFL. What Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ultimately do in free agency will determine the direction their priorities take on draft day. However it shakes out, when the depth of the talent in the draft matches the needs of your team, it bodes well. When that happens, and your team is on the verge of a ninth Super Bowl appearance, either that’s a rare case of the stars perfectly aligning themselves for the Steelers, or the football Gods are finally making things right.