10 NFL Draft Prospects Every Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Should Know About

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor IJanuary 10, 2014

10 NFL Draft Prospects Every Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Should Know About

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 NFL draft will be another critical one for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Even if they lose a late-round pick because of Mike Tomlin interfering on Jacoby Jones' kickoff return in Week 13, they figure to be awarded several compensatory picks after losing Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis to free agency last year.

    The Steelers need a lot of picks to restock a defense that is showing its age. They were 14th in points allowed in the league in 2013 for their worst ranking since 2003, according to Pro Football Reference. They also were 13th in yards allowed—their worst showing since 1992 in Bill Cowher's first season.

    While the defense must be addressed heavily in this draft, the offense gained steam late this past season and could use a player or two to maintain that momentum.

    The draft will be held May 8-10 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

    After an 8-8 finish in 2013, the Steelers have the No. 15 pick in the first round. It will be their highest pick since they chose Lawrence Timmons at that spot in 2007.

    They'll need to have similar success with this year's first-round pick, and their several picks in the later rounds, to avoid extending their playoff drought to three years in 2014.

    College statistics are from Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.

    NFL statistics are from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

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    Year: Junior

    Height: 6'6"

    Weight: 274 pounds

    There's almost no way Jadeveon Clowney will fall to the Steelers at No. 15.

    Still, defense must be the theme of this draft for the Steelers, and this transcendent talent has to be on their radar. The draft board can be shuffled like a deck of cards between January and May.

    Clowney might appear too thin to be a defensive tackle in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, but height and weight can be thrown out the window for a guy who registered 47 tackles for loss and 24 sacks in three seasons according to NFL Draft Scout.

    Thirteen of Clowney's sacks and 23.5 of his tackles for loss came in 2012, his sophomore season, when he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

    Clowney had just three sacks in 2013, but he frequently was double-teamed, according to Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout. There is concern, however, about Clowney's tendency to be a non-factor for long stretches.

    Nonetheless, Clowney is more than just a pass-rusher. He's also stout against the run, according to Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout.

    The Steelers were 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks this season for their fewest since 1990, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and 21st in run defense with 115.6 yards allowed per game. Clowney can help in both areas, but only if he somehow falls to the middle of the first round.

    The Steelers, however, need help at a lot of positions on defense and shouldn't give up picks later in the draft just to get Clowney.

Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M

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    Year: Sophomore (redshirt)

    Height: 6'5"

    Weight: 225 pounds

    Mike Evans could be the tall receiver Ben Roethlisberger has always wanted.

    Sure, the Steelers should load up on defense in the 2014 draft, but if there's one position on offense that needs attention, it's wide receiver.

    Emmanuel Sanders is expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent. If that happens, there will be a void at the No. 3 receiver spot behind Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, and that's assuming the Steelers can re-sign Cotchery.

    For the Steelers to have any depth at the position, someone among Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye and Justin Brown will have to make big strides in 2014.

    The Steelers receiving corps isn't without height. Moye is 6'5" and Brown is 6'3," but Evans could come in and overtake both of them for playing time.

    Evans was Johnny Manziel's favorite target in 2012 and 2013, leading the Aggies with 82 receptions for 1,185 yards as a freshman and 65 catches for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore.

    "I think one of the highest compliments you can say about Mike is that he plays as hard when he doesn't have the ball in his hands as when he does," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout.

    Evans is a physical receiver who can be a red-zone weapon for a Steelers offense that enters 2014 with a lot of promise after a strong finish in 2013.

Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

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    Year: Senior

    Height: 5'11"

    Weight: 197 pounds

    Darqueze Dennard might not have the size the Steelers normally look for in cornerbacks, but he was a vital cog in the nation's top defense in 2013.

    The Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, Dennard intercepted four passes and broke up 10 passes as a senior. He's a technically sound cornerback, according to Scott Wright's Draft Countdown.

    It's time for the Steelers to draft a replacement for Ike Taylor, who turns 34 in May and isn't guaranteed to return next season. William Gay and Cortez Allen both received positive grades overall and in pass coverage for 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, there's little depth behind them.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says that Dennard's "footwork and aggressiveness are pro-ready."

Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame

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    Year: Junior

    Height: 6'6"

    Weight: 312 pounds

    Defensive line will be a need in this draft for the Steelers, not just in terms of talent but also in numbers.

    If Ziggy Hood leaves as a free agent and 35-year-old Brett Keisel retires or signs elsewhere, the Steelers will desperately need defensive linemen, and Stephon Tuitt will be more attainable at No. 15 than Jadeveon Clowney.

    Tuitt had 12 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2012, but wasn't as effective early in 2013 after offseason hernia surgery. He still had 7.5 sacks and finished third on Notre Dame's all-time list with 21.5, according to NFL Draft Scout. Tuitt also made nine tackles for losses in 2012 and even scored a touchdown on an interception deep in Michigan territory in a loss to the Wolverines on Sept. 7.

    With his height, Tuitt could bat down passes at the line of scrimmage the way Keisel did in his prime. There is some concern, however, about his inconsistency as a junior, even though he improved later in the season.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

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    Year: Senior

    Height: 6'0"

    Weight: 200 pounds

    Their 8-8 record wasn't the only mediocre number the Steelers replicated from 2012 in 2013. They also forced just 20 turnovers for the second straight season.

    The Steelers let Keenan Lewis sign with the New Orleans Saints last year and kept Cortez Allen because they thought he could be the ballhawk that their defense has been missing for the last couple of years, but Allen had just two interceptions in 2013.

    Justin Gilbert led the Big 12 with seven interceptions in 2013, returning two of them for touchdowns, also tops in the Big 12. His 123 yards in interception returns led the conference as well.

    Gilbert would be useful for a team that had Felix Jones returning kickoffs an average of 22.2 yards, which ranked 62nd in the NFL this season. Gilbert returned six kickoffs for touchdowns during his career at Oklahoma State, the most by anyone in the Big 12 since 2000.

    There might be concerns about Gilbert's technique as a cornerback, but Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout calls Gilbert "an extraordinary athlete with the hands, vision and speed to score any time he gets his hands on the ball."

Louis Nix III, NT, Notre Dame

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    Year: Junior (redshirt)

    Height: 6'2"

    Weight: 345 pounds

    It worked out pretty well the last time the Steelers chose a nose tackle in the first round. They took Casey Hampton at No. 19 in 2001 with Hampton going on to make five Pro Bowls and earn two Super Bowl rings.

    The Steelers' No. 21 ranking against the run in 2013 was their second-worst in 44 years, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The loss of inside linebacker Larry Foote in the season opener had a lot to do with that, but without Hampton the Steelers don't have that space-eating presence in the middle of their defensive line. 

    Nix recorded 14 tackles for loss in three years at Notre Dame and was named to the 2013 FBS All-Independents First Team, according to NFL Draft Scout. He carries his weight well, but there are health concerns. Nix's 2013 season ended after eight games when he had knee surgery in November.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

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    Year: Sophomore (redshirt)

    Height: 6'5"

    Weight: 235 pounds

    Kelvin Benjamin caught the winning touchdown pass from Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston with 13 seconds left in the BCS National Championship Game.

    Benjamin's 2-yard touchdown catch was the difference in Florida State's 34-31 win over Auburn for Benjamin's 15th touchdown of the season, which led the ACC.

    Benjamin also rose to the occasion in the ACC championship game against Duke. He caught five passes, two of them for touchdowns, for 119 yards in the Seminoles' 45-7 victory.

    The Steelers' receiving corps could use some height, as their tallest receiver to make a significant contribution in 2013 was 6'1" Jerricho Cotchery.

    The last time the Steelers drafted a wide receiver in the first round was 2006, when they took Santonio Holmes. Benjamin played at Glades Central High School in Belle Glade, Fla., just like Holmes.

    While becoming a Super Bowl MVP like Holmes would be a tall order, so to speak, for Benjamin, NFL Draft Scout notes that Benjamin has a "ridiculously large wingspan," which could make him an inviting target for Ben Roethlisberger, especially in the red zone. 

    Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout has Benjamin going to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 23 in his Jan. 6 mock draft. If his stock remains the same, the Steelers could trade down in the first round, pick up an extra pick or two later in the draft, and still get Benjamin.

Calvin Pryor, FS, Louisville

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    Year: Junior

    Height: 6'2"

    Weight: 208 pounds

    The Steelers must devote some early-round attention to the safety position. They haven't drafted one in the first two rounds since they traded up to get Troy Polamalu in 2003.

    Ryan Clark, 34, probably won't be back next season and even Polamalu isn't a lock to return in 2014.

    Will Allen provided some decent depth this season, but the 31-year-old also is a free agent.

    Shamarko Thomas, drafted in the fourth round last year, had the type of season that's expected from a rookie in Dick LeBeau's defense. He'll have a chance to apply what he learned next season.

    Meanwhile, Robert Golden, an undrafted free agent in 2012, "disappeared from the defense" in 2013, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    The Steelers need more bodies at safety, and Calvin Pryor is the top-ranked overall safety, according to NFL Draft Scout.

    In three years at Louisville, Pryor intercepted seven passes, broke up 14 and forced eight fumbles, according to NFL.com. Pryor is a "ferocious hitter," according to NFL.com, but not all that fast. He is projected to run in the low-4.6 range in the 40-yard dash.

    Louisville went 12-1 in 2013, beating Miami, 36-9, in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Pryor had six tackles in that game.

    According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, "Pryor has the ability to start from his first day as a pro safety."

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Alabama

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    Year: Junior

    Height: 6'1"

    Weight: 208 pounds

    Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might be a little more heralded than Louisville's Calvin Pryor, not only for his unusual name, but also because he's won two national championships.

    SEC coaches voted Clinton-Dix All-SEC First Team, per NFL Draft Scout. Clinton-Dix declared for the draft on Jan. 9, via NFL.com.

    Clinton-Dix has been clocked at 4.54 in the 40-yard dash, so he might be a little faster than Pryor, but not as physical. He aided Alabama's national championship run in 2012 with an interception in each of Alabama's last three games—a 49-0 victory over Auburn, a 32-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC championship game and a 42-14 hammering of Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. Clinton-Dix also broke up five passes in those three games.

    In 2013, Clinton-Dix was suspended for two games after an assistant coach loaned him money, according to NFL Draft Scout. He closed out his collegiate career with two tackles for losses in a 45-31 defeat to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech

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    Year: Senior

    Height: 6'3"

    Weight: 242 pounds

    If the Steelers release LaMarr Woodley, they'll have a re-signed or franchised Jason Worilds starting at left outside linebacker and second-year man Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker.

    Even if Worilds picks up where he left off in 2013 and Jones makes a big leap from his rookie season, the Steelers will need depth at the position. Chris Carter would be the only other outside linebacker who has seen any real playing time.

    The Steelers don't necessarily have to pick an outside linebacker in the first round, especially since they used a first-round pick on Jones last season. However, they should look for one in the later rounds, and Jeremiah Attaochu is projected as a third-rounder by NFL Draft Scout.

    Attaochu made 12 tackles for loss and racked up 10 sacks as an outside linebacker in 2012.

    Georgia Tech transitioned to a 4-3 defense in 2013, and Attaochu didn't miss a beat. He moved to defensive end and was third in the country with 12 sacks in the regular season, then had another half-sack in Georgia Tech's 25-17 loss to Mississippi in the Music City Bowl. Ten of his sacks came in the last five games of the regular season, and his 16 tackles for loss were fifth in the nation this season.

    Attaochu just has to play with a little more discipline, according to NFL Draft Scout, but he could be a mid-round sleeper for the Steelers.