The NFL combine has officially wrapped up, which means we’re pressing ever closer to the draft, the crowning jewel of the offseason. The most intriguing days of the combine happened on the latter two days of it, showcasing the edge rushers and defensive backs all vying for the top pick at their respective positions. For Pittsburgh Steelers fans, this was the most fascinating part of the combine due to the ever-pressing need to infuse talent and depth in the secondary and once again begin generating consistent pressure on quarterbacks. For the purpose of this article, I will be showcasing the most intriguing prospects at both edge rusher and cornerback, positions many fans think the Steelers will focus on early in the draft. Let’s start with the defensive backs.
Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Many had Waynes as their top defensive back heading into the combine, and he may have all but solidified that afterward. His 4.31 forty time was thoroughly impressive and made $100,000 out of it via Adidas. His raw speed, coupled with his 38-inch vertical and 18 reps on the bench have made him an intriguing prospect. Though some have concerns about the system in which he plays — Michigan State is notorious for their physical corners, often described as being “handsy” who lack top end speed and the ability to run with the faster, top end receivers at the collegiate level — Waynes doesn’t express these attributes. His fluidity allows him to run with the best receivers in the game. While footwork continues to be an issue with him, this is something that can be coached and fixed at the next level.
I mentioned there were concerns about Waynes and the scheme that he plays in, but it is not just the physicality of the scheme that those have expressed concern with. Put on Michigan State tape and Waynes’ ability to play off receivers and in zone is alarming. Though rarely asked to do it, when Waynes played off and in zone, he struggled to stay inside the hip of a receiver.
Waynes might be the consensus number one cornerback in this draft, but if he can’t resolve his off the receiver technique, Waynes might be sidelined early in his career as he develops these attributes at the next level.
Marcus Peters, Washington
At this point, most people have heard about his off field issues. Everyone is well aware of the stories that conveniently leaked out of Washington. What exactly happened with Peters and the coaching staff is something we will likely never know the full story of. The story that we do know, however, is this kids’ ability on the football field. Peters’ ability should make him the consensus number one corner in this class, but his off the field actions and leaked stories have made this untrue. However, when paired against the other top cornerback in this class Trae Waynes, Peters pulls ahead.
His football IQ is something you’ll hear a lot about and for good reason. He understands the game and knows how to use his size to his advantage. At 6’0, 197 lbs., his measurables are prototypical for the position. The major concern with Peters — aside from questions about his maturity — is his top end speed. His forty was 4.53 and there are questions about his turn and run speed with receivers, but Peters’ fluid hips and smoothness should eliminate those concerns. Peters is physical off the line of scrimmage and can throw off the timing of routes with his ability to jam at the line. His coverage ability is also impressive, as he showcases impressive ball skills and ability to make the play on the ball. There are concerns regarding his technique, but these are overblown. Coaching at the next level should take care of any concerns about his technique. His ball skills, coverage ability, scheme versatility and ability to jam at the line of scrimmage makes Peters an intriguing prospect, and my number one cornerback. While not necessarily the “elite” prospect at defensive back we’ve seen in recent years such as Patrick Peterson, Peters’ name does deserve to be in the conversation for the first defensive back taken in the draft.
I would like to list another name here for the elite defensive back talent that should be taken in the first round, but this leads me to my problem in this year’s draft regarding cornerback talent: after Waynes and Peters, the top end talent at the position takes a steep nose dive. Names such as P.J. Williams, Ronald Darby and Quinten Rollins are going to be brought up as potential first round players, but the talent of these players doesn’t come close to matching Peters or Waynes. The steep drop off at the position makes a lot of these players interchangeable. There really isn’t a tangible difference in talent for a cornerback in the second to the fifth round. They all have potential and upside, and there will likely be a run on corners in the second round, but they don’t possess the skill set or ability that you want to see from a top-50 defender. Steeler fans are clamoring for the answer at defensive back and I don’t believe this draft has it. Not at the top of it. Do not be at all surprised to see the Steelers take another mid-to-late round flyer on a cornerback in hopes of developing his ability and technique.
Unless one of those two names drops to 22 — something I consider very unlikely at this point — cornerback isn’t going to be addressed until the third day.
Edge rushers, on the other hand…
I could talk all day about the natural ability, prowess and freakishness of guys such as Dante Fowler and Randy Gregory. Unfortunately for the Steelers, neither of these two are going to be available in the bottom half of the first round. They are universally and unanimously seen as top-10 selections and because of this, breaking them down and listing them here wouldn’t make much sense. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Fowler, Gregory and Shane Ray are going to be out of the Steelers’ reach at 22.
It’s not all bad news though. The combine allowed wide receivers to showcase their ability and in a league that is pass heavy, receivers that possess the speed and talent as many do in this year’s draft class, an edge rusher is going to get pushed down the board to the Steelers.
There has been talk of, one day, a 30 for 30 being made for the 2014 wide receiver draft class. That said, there might also be a 30 for 30 for the 2015 edge rusher draft class. The talent and depth at the position is staggering. I don’t recall seeing a draft class this deep at pass rusher, which is excellent news for a team that sorely needs help at the position.
Vic Beasley, Clemson
Explosive. That’s the first word that comes to mind when talking about Clemson’s Vic Beasley. His ability off the line of scrimmage on passing downs is, well, explosive. When talking about bend for edge rushers, Beasley is easily the best in the class. His speed off the line coupled with his bend and excellent use of hands makes him a terror on the edge. Some might question why he isn’t listed with the other top end edge rushers in the draft class, and the answer is simple: concerns about his size. Beasley is considered undersized for his position. Coming into the combine, there were questions about whether or not he would weigh in above 230 lbs. or not. He answered those firmly by coming in at a surprising 246 lbs. That said, questions still remain about his ability to keep weight on. Help at the next level with NFL conditioning and strength coaches will be provided, but his frame does not necessarily support his ability to bulk up and remain bulked up. Aldon Smith faced similar questions and he has answered them, but they still hover around Beasley.
From a pure on-field standpoint, Beasley is exciting. His ability to rush the passer is his selling point, but his ability to anchor in the run game is a question mark, which ties in with his strength and size. Beasley might be a third down situational edge rusher early in his career if he is not able to maintain the strength necessary to be effective in run support. Beasley’s struggles in the run game are well documented, as his ability to shed blocks or anchor the edge isn’t next-level. He’s often been compared to Bruce Irvin, and I think this is a fair comparison. While I think he’s more of a 3-4 edge rusher than Will or Sam ‘backer in a 4-3, I think it’s going to take Beasley a year to fully develop against the run. This may or may not scare teams off of him in the first round, depending on scheme and talent already at the position.
Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree, Kentucky
Kentucky’s Alvin Dupree’s best attribute is his freakish athletic ability coupled with his power. There are very few if any questions regarding Dupree’s ability in the run game. His power and strength to anchor the edge is well documented. There are concerns about his technique in pass rushing, however.
Like Jarvis Jones, Dupree wins with his raw athletic ability over proper technique in edge rushing at this point. He relies heavily on his motor and next-level athletic ability to beat collegiate level tackles at this point. He lacks any true kind of pass rushing move and his use of hands is inconsistent. The Steelers are looking for answers to their lack of quarterback pressure this year. While Dupree brings with him exceptional potential and upside, he does not yet bring ability in rushing the passer.
Dupree’s upside is off the charts. Reaching his full potential, however, is going to take time. Time is one thing the Steelers might not have right now at outside linebacker, as the still-developing Jarvis Jones is also working on his ability to rush the passer and develop proper pass rush technique. Having two outside linebackers developing their edge rush ability is not optimal for this team. If the Steelers possessed a natural edge rusher that could allow Jones and Dupree to refine their craft, this pick would be exceptional based off of his upside alone, but they do not. The Steelers have one outside linebacker under contract for next season in Jones, and need a player to come in and almost have an instant impact. I have questions if Dupree is this player.
Eli Harold, Virginia
Few talked about Virginia’s Eli Harold pre-combine and now he seems to be the talk of the league. Harold is a strong edge player that played both standing up and with his hand in the dirt. His ability off the line of scrimmage, coupled with his surprising explosiveness and speed for someone his size, is exciting. His bend is similar to that of Vic Beasley. He beats tackles with an impressive shoulder dip while possessing a strong counter inside and outside. When talking about a pure edge rush standpoint, Harold is right up there with Beasley in winning at the point of attack. Harold possesses the ability to anchor the edge in the run game and has the natural attributes and fluidity for a pass rusher.
Although speedy for a man his size, Harold struggles when asked to play in space and in coverage. This is not unlike many linebackers and defensive ends to come out of the collegiate game, however. Under the tutelage of Keith Butler and Joey Porter, this is a coachable fix.
The run on other edge rushers and wide receivers in the first round all but guarantees Harold is going to be pushed down to the Steelers at 22. In a draft that was not so top heavy with edge rushers, Harold would easily be in that top-12 consideration.
I will usually write between 3 – 5 mock drafts every off season before the draft. I typically like to do one after the combine to get a good feel as to where the prospects sit against one another. Here it is, the first mock draft of 2015.
2015 POST-COMBINE 3 ROUND MOCK DRAFT
Round 1 – (22) Eli Harold, DE/LB, Virginia
I could talk about him all day, but the previous write up is why I want Eli Harold. He is likely going to be at least the fifth edge rusher off the board, possibly sixth. If the run on edge rushers pushes Harold down to the Steelers, it would be phenomenal for the Steelers to pick up a player that has the potential to be their next Right OLB for a long time.
Round 2 – (24) Laken Tomlinson, OG, Duke
Laken Tomlinson’s name has been pushed up draft boards now since the Senior Bowl. His performance against elite defensive tackle Danny Shelton did not go unnoticed. His pad level is the best of any offensive guard in the draft and generates power at the point of attack. His lack of athletic ability can be a concern for the Steelers’ zone blocking scheme, but put inside with Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and his flaws can be masked. He can struggle in the run game, but is absolutely rock solid in pass protection. This pick would be controversial as the Steelers are sorely lacking talent at defensive back, but Tomlinson’s ability cannot be ignored. Under the coaching of Mike Munchak, Tomlinson would be a rock solid starter for this team for years to come. He could simply sit and learn under Munchak for a year and take over for Ramon Foster when his contract expires at the end of 2015.
Round 3 – (23) T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Yeldon was once touted as a surefire first round pick. After a down season in 2014, Yeldon began to slip down draft boards. Many, including myself, thought he would make up for this with a strong combine showing and get back into that mid to late second round consideration. This did not happen as Yeldon posted an average combine.
Still, when Yeldon has pads on, he plays faster than he ran. He’s an exciting running back that possesses the vision and patience to exceed at the next level. Yeldon is explosive in space and has the natural ability to make guys miss. He is also a factor in the pass game with ability to create space in open field.
This pick has a lot to do with the lack of talent and depth behind Le’Veon Bell. Bell’s likely suspension coming early in the season next year forces the Steelers to add a running back capable of playing the same type of role that Bell brings. While he is unable to duplicate Bell’s ability in pass protection, Yeldon brings the same kind of dynamic play that Bell brings to this offense. Simply put, Haley isn’t going to have to rely on a rotation of two, perhaps three running backs to run the offense as if Bell were in it. This Yeldon pick is all about value. Value of the pick and value to the offense. Finding a stable, capable runner behind Bell has to be a priority for this team.
That’s the post-combine write up for the prospects that intrigued me the most. Next up are tape breakdowns of newly-acquired OLB Shawn Lemon and potential first rounder Eli Harold.