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Pass Rusher or Cornerback for Steelers in the Draft?

February 25, 2015
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Pass Rusher or Cornerback for Steelers in the Draft?

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There’s no real secret the Steelers need help at cornerback.

Following a season in which the Steelers finished near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense — after benching opening day starters Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor and relying on Brice McCain and Antwon Blake – the position was shuffled to the top of the priority list.

After the recently completed NFL Scouting Combine, that upgrade coming in the first round of the draft may be a long shot, The performance of top-end cornerbacks may result in the Steelers taking more of a look at Plan B – rush outside linebackers.

As many as seven or eight pass rushers could go in the first round (six were selected last year). There’s a better likelihood that a high-end pass rusher will be around when the Steelers pick than a cornerback, making a rush outside linebacker a possibility for the second time in three years.

It something that didn’t catch the Steelers off guard.

“We will never go into a draft saying we have to address that area, because if we do, we are going to over-evaluate a particular position and probably make a draft mistake,”€ Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “You never go into a draft looking for a side of the ball or a particular position. We will evaluate all the positions and see what falls to us at 22.”€

Taking a cornerback in the first round seems like more of a wish following the Combine.

Top-rated Michigan State corner Trae Waynes’ 40-yard time (4.31) may have priced himself out of the Steelers range at 22. The other likely first-rounders – LSU’s Jalen Collins and Washington’s Marcus Peters – likely will see their stock rise closer to draft day because of the lack of high-end talent at the position.

“It was a good workout for the majority of the better cornerbacks,”€ ESPN draft expert Todd McShay said. “I don’t think there is a true top-10 cornerback in this year’s draft, but because of the need for them, you are going to see some of these guys getting bumped up.”

The Vikings (11th pick), Saints (13) and Dolphins (14) are teams that, based on need, could pick Waynes before the Steelers get a chance. Collins’ size and experience make him attractive, and Peters off-the-field issues (kicked off the team) could be enough for the Steelers to pass.

“There’s a bunch of good, long first-round corners at the top of this draft,”€ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said.

There’s even more pass-rushing outside linebackers.

Once a strength and identity of the Steelers’ defense has quickly turned into a considerable liability.

For the second consecutive year, the Steelers finished in the bottom third in the NFL in sacks with 33, their fewest total in 26 years. And the number of quarterback hurries/pressures took a significant downward turn, which is a cause for concern.

Hurries/pressures – a stat compiled by the Steelers coaching staff – dipped 32 percent, from 151 in 2013 to 103 last season. Considering that the Steelers had at least 139 hurries/pressures every year since 2006, that is a significant drop.

Since the end of the season, owner Art Rooney II, head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and Colbert have publicly acknowledged the need to get better at pressuring the quarterback.

Clemson’s Vic Beasley, Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Nebraska’s Randy Gregory used the Combine to solidify themselves as top 10-15 picks, leaving Kentucky’s Bud Dupree and Virginia’s Eli Harold possibly hanging around when the Steelers pick.

“My guess is that you probably have a better opportunity to get a pass rusher when you look at the depth of this class,” McShay said. “Does that mean you try to get the corner first and get a pass-rusher in the second round? Possibly. But I think it just comes down to what’s available at that point.”

Note: Longtime Steelers athletic trainer John Norwig was awarded the Fain-Cain Memorial Award for outstanding NFL Athletic Trainer of the Year at the NFL Scouting Combine. A Penn State graduate, Norwig has been with the Steelers since 1992.

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