Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert calls the NFL Draft talent pool as deep as any he has seen in 30 years. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock says it’s the best in at least 10 years.
For the Steelers, it needs to be.
A fast-deteriorating defense needs help at multiple positions, including some of the most crucial in coordinator Dick LeBeau’s scheme. Ben Roethlisberger must be surrounded by weapons, Colbert said. And age is becoming a factor for a team that’s 16-16 the past two seasons after being 24-8 the previous two.
Salary cap restraints will limit the Steelers in free agency unless they make dramatic personnel moves between now and March 11. As usual, that makes their draft preparations critical as they start to narrow their possible picks.
The NFL Combine that starts Thursday in Indianapolis gives them the chance to see many, if not all, of those potential picks in a workout-interview setting in which they can assess the player, his personality and his character.
Six players the Steelers will be watching closely at Lucas Oil Stadium:
HA HA CLINTON-DIX, S, 6-0, 210, Alabama. Is being compared to Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. The Steelers have drafted only one safety in the first round in 44 years — Troy Polamalu — but they’ll likely have two new starting safeties by 2015. Dix has excellent coverage skills, a Steelers secondary weakness last season. What the Steelers will watch in Indy: Can they take a cornerback or wideout in the first round and possibly get big-hitter safety Calvin Pryor (6-1, 210) of Louisville in the second round?
DARQUEZE DENNARD, CB, 5-11, 195, Michigan State. Even if Ike Taylor returns in 2014 — and he might not — cornerback is a position of great need. Dennard lacks Seahawks cornerback-like size, but he’s a playmaker. He doesn’t just project, he also produces (four INTs in 2013) and he’s physical and aggressive. What the Steelers will be watching in Indy: His 40 time. A good time makes him even more attractive.
MIKE EVANS, WR, 6-4, 225, Texas A&M and KELVIN BENJAMIN, WR, 6-4, 230, Florida State. The Steelers badly need a big, cornerback-shedding wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown, and Roethlisberger loves big wideouts. Evans and Benjamin might be on the board at No. 15. What the Steelers will watch in Indy: Did Johnny Manziel make Evans or vice versa? Is Benjamin fast enough?
RYAN SHAZIER, LB, 6-1, 230, Ohio State.
TROY NIKLAS, TE, 6-6, 270, Notre Dame. The Steelers missed out on the Irish’s Tyler Eifert last year, but Niklas could be there when they draft in the second round. Can block and is athletic. Doesn’t have great speed, but Heath Miller doesn’t, either. What the Steelers will be watching in Indy: As fast as Niklas is developing, how much more upside does he have?