Hunt for three key draftees heats up for Steelers

February 20, 2013
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

LSU's Barkevious Mingo is the sort of pass rusher off the end the Steelers look for to play outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Colbert already has framed the offseason plan for the Steelers. He and coach Mike Tomlin are not going to stand pat after an 8-8 season in which the team lost three of its final four games to miss the playoffs.

Not to mention the need to deal with serious salary-cap issues.

The road to change begins Thursday when the NFL combine gets under way at Lucas Oil Stadium, a six-day testing and research mission in which the Steelers need to further define the players they will seek to help them in the April draft.

And, for the first time since 2004, they need to find at least two skill players on offense -- a wide receiver and running back -- and an edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback on defense, something team president Art Rooney II suggested would help the team create more takeaways.

What's more, the Steelers cannot afford to use their No. 1 draft pick on a player who will be groomed to play in another year or two. That's a luxury they can afford after a Super Bowl season when not many roster openings are available. Not now.

With 17 unrestricted free agents, they need players to come in and play immediately, especially the one who will be the 17th overall pick.

While this crop of collegiate players does not have a defining star such as Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III on offense or Von Miller or Ndamukong Suh on defense, it is considered a good year for defensive ends who project as outside linebackers in the NFL.

"I wouldn't want a top-10 pick this year," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call. "I think the fifth pick in the draft and the 25th pick in this draft are very similar. The top 10 picks, I don't see the difference-makers that we've had the last several years."

The combine might help to sort out some of that top-10 uncertainty, but, either way, that could bode well for the Steelers.

There is no question they need at least one wide receiver, and likely two, from the draft to give Ben Roethlisberger additional weapons. And there will be a need for that receiver to play immediately with the expected departure of Mike Wallace.

But, with postseason declarations from Colbert and Rooney about the lack of pressure, the need for a pass-rushing outside linebacker would appear to be tantamount. And that need is heightened because of the situation surrounding James Harrison, who will be 35 and is scheduled to make $6.57 million this season. Harrison is coming off a season in which he had six sacks in 13 games.

Some mock drafts have the Steelers selecting Georgia's Jarvis Jones (6-2, 242), a defensive end who is projected as an outside linebacker, in the first round. That would make sense to Mayock.

Other potential edge rushers who could be converted from defensive end are Ezekial Ansah of Brigham Young, Barkevious Mingo of LSU, Alex Okafor of Texas and Dion Jordan of Oregon.

"He's explosive; he's tough; he's a playmaker," Mayock said of Jones, who had 28 sacks the past two seasons at Georgia. "He fits in that 4-3, which is what he already played, but some teams that are in the 3-4 like him. The teams like Pittsburgh, they don't care as much about length as some of the other 3-4 teams do. Pittsburgh looks at an outside linebacker and says, 'Hey, he needs to be explosive. He needs to be able to disengage from blocks. He needs to be able to pressure a quarterback.'

"LaMarr Woodley. That's who those guys look like ... Harrison. They look more like him than they do some of the old-school, long 3-4 guys. So, yeah, some of the 3-4 teams will see him and say, 'Yes, he can play in what we do.' "

In other words, an edge rusher who can pressure the quarterback without the help of a scheme.

Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote accounted for 27 percent of the team's sacks in 2012 (10 of 37), but their pressure comes as a result of a scheme that springs them free.

Jones could be a top-10 pick, but his medical condition -- he was diagnosed with stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column, in 2009 -- will receive much scrutiny at the combine. Mayock likes Jones more than Mingo (6-4, 230), who is being projected as a possible top-10 pick, if not top five.

"A lot of people have him in the top 10, I've got him at the end of the first round," Mayock said. "He's got a little bit of stiffness to him. He obviously runs very fast. When the ball goes away from him, he's fantastic. He's a run-and-chase linebacker. I think he's got some upside as a pass-rusher. There's nothing about the kid I don't like, I just don't see a top-10 guy today."