Steelers might opt for safety valve in NFL Draft

By Alan Robinson
Published: Monday, April 22, 2013

Troy Polamalu turned 32 on Friday, which isn't an advanced age by many standards but is one at which NFL teams often begin scouting for a player's possible replacement.

The Steelers might have the chance in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday to draft a highly skilled player who would be the logical replacement for Polamalu, whose multi-dimensional skills and playmaking wizardry have made him one of the league's elite players.

If they so dare to do.

Kenny Vaccaro of Texas is widely acknowledged to be the best safety of a very good 2013 class, a player that ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said has skills similar to Polamalu. The Rams need a safety and, choosing at No. 16, they could snatch Vaccaro before the Steelers can even consider taking him.

But if Vaccaro is there at No. 17, he is certain to tantalize the Steelers.

“People are starting to appreciate safeties more, now that tight ends are turning into freaks and controlling the middle of the field,” Vaccaro said. “So you've got to have a safety who can cover and come up and hit.”

Doesn't that sound like Polamalu?

The Steelers have multiple needs — though they insist they never draft for need — and are likely to stay with their proven method of taking who they believe to be the best player available on the board when they choose.

Even in the second round, that could be a safety.

“There's an elite group that are all going to go high,” Kiper said. “You're going to have a run on safeties in the second round. If Jonathan Cyprien (of Florida International) is not a first-round pick, he will be a second. Matt Elam (of Florida), if he's not a one, he will be a two.”

Kiper added, “There is a lot of depth at safety.”

Cyprien is interesting because he chose to attend Florida International rather than a high-profile school. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls him a “wild card” because he could go anywhere from the late first round to possibly early in the third round.

“I think I'm No. 1 because I can bring a lot and contribute to a team winning games, and making plays when called,” Cyprien said. “I want to shine in all that I do.”

Elam is a big hitter in a smaller body; at 5-10 he's a couple of inches shorter than Vaccaro and Cyprien. But he has been beaten in coverage at times simply because he was shorter than the receiver he was defending.

“The only downside with Elam as far as teams are concerned is there's nothing they can do about 5-10, and occasionally you're going to have to live with that,” Mayock said. “But on the positive side you get a kid that tackles, a kid that's tough, a kid that cares ... I think he's going to play a lot of years in the league.”

Elam has heard Pittsburgh mentioned as a possibility and, he said, “That would be a great opportunity.”

But only if Vaccaro doesn't beat him there first.

This is one of the deepest positions in the draft, with seven to eight players who could go in the top three rounds. Kenny Vaccaro of Texas is seen as the best of a position that could produce several first-year starters. But Matt Elam of Florida, despite being 5-foot-10, and Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International aren't far behind.


1. Kenny Vaccaro

6-0, 215, Texas

2012 stats: 92 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 forced fumbles

• All you need to know about the Steelers' interest: Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin watched his pro day workout. The Longhorns' defense wasn't great, but he was.

2. Matt Elam

5-9 ½ , 210, Florida

2012 stats: 76 tackles, 11 for loss , 4 INTs

• Versatile athlete can play multiple positions. Only top prospect going into the draft without an agent.

3. Jonathan Cyprien

6-0, 210, Fla. Internat'l

2012 stats: 93 tackles, 3 1 ⁄ 2 for loss, 3 INTs

• Big hitter, also skilled in coverage and is aggressive; will gamble at times. That might not work as well in NFL as it did at Florida International. Stood out at Senior Bowl.

4. Eric Reid

6-1, 215, LSU

2012 stats: 76 tackles (53 solo), 2 forced fumbles, 2 INTs

• Stats were better in 2011. Very aggressive, also inconsistent. But penchant for making big plays at the right time.

5. D.J. Swearinger

5-10, 210, S. Carolina

2012 stats: 79 tackles, 2 forced fumbles , 2 INTs

• Big-time hitter and four-year starter. Played some at cornerback because of injuries. 40 time slightly slower than Vaccaro and Elam.


Kenny Vaccaro could be there at No. 17 for the Steelers. Could be perfect replacement for Troy Polamalu. Will the Steelers take him? Only if they're convinced he's the best player available.


Rontez Miles, 6-0, 205, California (Pa.) Started out at Kent State but left program after his step-brother was dismissed from team. Ended up at Cal of PSAC; was chosen as defensive player of the year twice. One of few small college players invited to NFL Scouting Combine; should go in late rounds.


Best remaining free agents: Quintin Mikell, Rams; Charles Woodson, Packers; Kerry Rhodes, Cardinals.