AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- A month into free agency few could have expected the Steelers to be as active as they have been in reshaping their roster. They have signed more than 10 free agents, including seven from other teams.

The Steelers are around $300,000 under the salary cap and are done signing players for now, having shifted their focus to the draft. With free agency having slowed to a crawl following a furious spending spree, let’s take a closer look at the outside free agents that the Steelers added with ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson weighing in on each player:

Mitchell
Mike Mitchell

Position: S

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 210

Deal: five-year, $25 million contract with $5.25 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Set career-highs in tackles (66), interceptions (4), sacks (3 1/2) and forced fumbles (2) for the Panthers, blossoming after leaving Oakland for Carolina.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Mitchell to take over for Ryan Clark at free safety and get younger in the secondary. Mitchell prepares and plays with an edge. Next up for one of former Raiders owner Al Davis’ most infamous drat picks is proving those wrong who say his breakout season had more to do with the talent around Mitchell than his growth.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think the arrow is very much going up on him because he’s big and fast and now he knows how to play the game. I think he’s a better coverage player than he is a run defender. I think he’s going to be your deep centerfield more often than not and let Troy (Polamalu) do his thing. Tackling is one thing he needs to work on but he can blitz.”

Thomas
Cam Thomas

Position: DL

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-4, 330

Deal: two-year, $4 million contract with $1 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Recorded 23 tackles while starting 10 of 16 games at nose tackle for the Chargers and also made his first career interception.

Skinny: The Steelers signed Thomas to provide depth at nose tackle and defensive end. The player known as “Baby Zilla” could get an opportunity to start at the defensive end spot opposite Cameron Heyward depending on the players that the Steelers draft or sign in free agency.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I thought it was a decent pick up. I think he’s versatile enough to play any of their defensive line spots as is (Steve) McLendon. They certainly need d-line help but it’s not like boy they have to get a Casey Hampton or boy they have to get a (Brett) Keisel. It’s giving them more options going into the draft and he’s young, big body, fits the mold of what they want from that position.”

Moore
Lance Moore

Position: WR

Age: 30

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 190

Deal: two-year, $3 million contract with $645,000 million guaranteed

2013 statistics: Caught 37 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns while starting five of the 13 games he played in his final seasons with the Saints.

Skinny: The Steelers moved quickly to fill their opening at No. 3 wide receiver after Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Panthers. They landed Moore, who was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2012, and had some other good seasons in New Orleans. Moore, like Cotchery, knows how to get open and has reliable hands. He is a little younger than Cotchery but isn’t as effective as Cotchery is in the red zone. Eight of Cotchery’s 10 touchdown receptions last season were from inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Matt Williamson’s take: “I think having a veteran in that room is really important, but I just wish he was a bigger guy. Cotchery was a pretty good red zone weapon where now they’re extra small at receiver. Moore had a bad year last year. He didn’t play much because of injuries but the few seasons before that he was a good player. He was always very reliable.”

Moats
Arthur Moats

Position: LB

Age: 26

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 250

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played in every game last season, starting 12 at inside linebacker, and recorded a career-high 54 tackles.

Skinny: This under-the-radar signing could turn out to be a significant one for the Steelers. Moats will provide depth at outside linebacker and play special teams. He also could get a shot at challenging Vince Williams for the starting job at left inside linebacker, though Moats has said the Steelers will first try him at outside linebacker.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s unique. I can’t really come up with a guy off the top of my head in the league who can play all four linebacker spots at a 3-4. They’re very different skill sets. At a minimum he’s your fifth linebacker. He’s a very good special teamer. He’s still really young.”

McCain
Brice McCain

Position: CB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 5-9, 187

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,0000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Started a career-high four games for the Texans and recorded 32 tackles with an interception and seven passes defended.

Skinny: The Texans cut ties with McCain after opposing teams picked on the fifth-year veteran a good bit last season. The Steelers only had three other cornerbacks with significant NFL experience before signing McCain so he gives them some insurance and will be plenty motivated to bounce back from a rough 2013 campaign.

Matt Williamson’s take: “He’s a fourth or fifth guy that plays sparingly and might not even make the team if they draft one or two (cornerbacks) that are real impressive. He has at least played a lot of snaps in this league. He’s good enough to get on the field but bad enough to get burned when he’s on there and he’s little. He’s the (signing) I’m least excited about.”

Williams
Blount
LeGarrette Blount

Position: RB

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-0, 250

Deal: two years, $3.85 million, with $950,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 5.0 yards per carry while emerging as the Patriots’ best back by the end of the season. Blount went off in a Patriots playoff win over the Colts, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns.

Skinny: The Steelers were looking for a proven back to provide depth and injury insurance behind Le'Veon Bell and they found a young one at a reasonable price. If Blount can shoulder some of the workload at running back that should keep Bell fresh throughout the season and perhaps add some seasons to his career.

Matt Williamson’s take: “If you watch SportsCenter and watch his highlights you think he’s better than he is. There’s times that he doesn’t play as big and strong as he really is. If there isn’t a hole there he doesn’t make his own, but he is powerful and I think he’s got really good feet. He doesn’t really offer anything in the passing game but the best thing is he’s better than (Jonathan) Dwyer and (Isaac) Redman. They upgraded there.”

Heyward-Bey
Darrius Heyward-Bey

Position: WR

Age: 27

Ht/Wt.: 6-2, 219

Deal: one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed

2013 statistics: Played a career-high 16 games, starting 12 of them, and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown in his only seasons with the Colts.

Skinny: The seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft has never lived up to expectations with suspect hands often neutralizing his unique blend of size and speed. Heyward-Bey gives the Steelers a bigger wide receiver and one who is still young enough to have some upside. If he doesn’t work out the Steelers took virtually no risk in signing Heyward-Bey

Matt Williamson’s take: “Highly unreliable and it really only comes down to drops. He drops so many passes. It wasn’t his fault that he was the seventh pick of the draft and didn’t live up to it. Nobody thought he should be (picked that high) except for Al Davis. He may not even make the team.”
PITTSBURGH -- The six Lombardi Trophies that line the front of the library at Steelers headquarters are impossible to miss even for those used to walking past them on a regular basis.

They have already made an impression on new offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who has done everything in football but win a Super Bowl.

“I’m here to see if we can get that seventh Super Bowl trophy in that case and help these players become as good as they can be,” Munchak told Steelers.com on Thursday. “From what I can see on tape, this is a good, young group that wants to be the best and it’s going to be fun working with them. I see myself as a teacher.”

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneMike Munchak is aiming to help the Steelers improve off of consecutive 8-8 seasons.
Munchak should find more than willing pupils -- whether it is in the meeting room or on the practice field -- since no offensive line coach can match his combined chops as a coach and a player.

Munchak is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best guards in NFL history. The nine-time Pro Bowler spent 14 seasons coaching the offensive line for the Oilers/Titans before becoming the head coach for the only franchise he had ever worked or played for prior to joining the Steelers.

That the Scranton, Pa., native became available at about the time the Steelers were looking to stop the revolving door at offensive line coach proved ideal for both sides.

“It is hard to pick up and move,” said Munchak, who was fired in January after three seasons as the Titans' coach, “but if you’re going to do that this is a great place to end up.”

Elation may be too strong to characterize the general feeling around the Steelers regarding the addition of Munchak. But not by much.

The offensive line came together nicely at the end of last season and it returns every starter, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who played eight snaps in 2013 before tearing his ACL.

Pouncey has been working out at the Steelers’ practice facility -- he was here again on Thursday -- and he is among the linemen who could elevate their play under Munchak's tutelage.

If the line shows significant improvement in 2014 -- and, of course, stays healthy to some degree -- the offense could be good enough to carry a defense that is in transition.

And carry the Steelers back to the playoffs following 8-8 seasons.

Munchak, the perfect coach to pull everything together for a line that doesn't have a projected starter over 28, said he wants his players to take an even-keeled approach to the game while also exhibiting toughness and selflessness.

He figures to be more teacher than taskmaster but he won't have to yell to get his players' attention. His credentials alone will do that -- and help Munchak impart a message that has guided since his days as an All-American at Penn State.

“You don’t want to be that weak-link guy,” Munchak said. “Be accountable and if you don’t have a good ethic we’re not going to be very good. I’m big on being prepared, being prepared for the moment. It’s a young group, so I’m looking forward to getting to know them and working with them and getting the job done.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are hosting two linebackers for visits today, including a potential first-round pick, as well as one of the top all-around safeties in the draft.

Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier and UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt are meeting with the Steelers at their practice facility as well Washington State safety Deone Bucannon.

Shazier has been widely projected as a first-round pick and the Steelers would be looking at the former Buckeyes star as an inside linebacker.

Shazier recorded 101 tackles in 2013, the third-highest single-season total in Ohio State history, and the 6-foot-1, 237-pounder has excellent speed.

The Steelers will almost certainly get only one crack at Shazier, as he shouldn’t get drafted any later than the early part of the second round.

“You could make an argument he’s one of the 10 best football players in this draft based on being a pure, instinctive football player,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of Shazier.

Zumwalt also projects as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and the former UCLA star is expected to get drafted in the third or fourth round. The 6-4, 235-pound Zumwalt recorded 91 tackles last season and intercepted a pair of passes.

Bucannon is one of the top safeties in the draft and is in the tier of players at the position after Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor.

The 6-1, 211-pounder had 15 career interceptions at Washington State, including six last season when he also recorded 78 tackles and forced three fumbles. Bucannon could get drafted as high as the second round.

This is the first day that the Steelers are hosting draft prospects since Monday.

General manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin each attended pro days at Penn State and LSU the previous two days.

The Steelers are allowed to host 30 prospects for pre-draft visits and they have met with two linebackers and two safeties this week.

Pryor, a projected first-round pick, visited the Steelers on Monday.
The Steelers have the 15th overall pick in the 2014 draft after finishing 8-8 last season, and taking a cornerback, wide receiver or defensive lineman with their first-round pick would make a lot of sense.

Todd McShay’s fourth 2014 NFL mock draft is out today and he has the Steelers addressing arguably their biggest need with their first pick, taking Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and making the 5-foot-11, 199-pounder the first cornerback taken in next month’s draft.


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ESPN's AFC North team reporters -- Jamison Hensley (Ravens), Coley Harvey (Bengals), Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) -- take a look at the remaining free agents in the division:

BALTIMORE RAVENS

TE Dallas Clark: He looked like a tight end playing in his final season, catching 31 passes for the Ravens (his fewest in a season since 2006). It wouldn't be a surprise if Clark retired. He turns 35 in June.

TE Ed Dickson: The signing of Owen Daniels rules out a return for Dickson. He'll be playing in the NFL in 2014, and it will likely be for about the league minimum. Dickson needs a fresh start elsewhere, and he's visiting the Carolina Panthers.

RB Bernard Scott: The Ravens opted to sign Justin Forsett instead of Scott to be their third running back. Scott could have trouble catching on with another team. This offseason, Scott turned 30, which is not a kind number for running backs.

WR Brandon Stokley: He said after the season that he plans to retire after suffering another concussion. Stokley was the last active player from the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

LB Michael Boley: Signed to a one-year deal early last season, Boley has been seen as little more than a stop-gap for last season's team. His return is unlikely.

DB Chris Crocker: Danieal Manning's signing last week might have been enough to prevent the Bengals from re-signing Crocker. The two play similar positions and serve similar purposes as older players. Crocker still hasn’t announced -- for a third time -- if he’s retiring.

P Zoltan Mesko: Much like Boley, Mesko was a stop-gap solution while punter Kevin Huber was out injured. When OTAs and minicamps resume, Huber is expected to be near full health from a broken jaw.

OT Dennis Roland: Though the Bengals signed former Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse this offseason, they still could re-sign Roland for depth, and to give them a tackle who can be a good short-yardage edge blocker.

TE Alex Smith: There is still a chance the Bengals could bring Smith back, considering H-back Orson Charles was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment March 31 in Richmond, Ky., the result of what police believe was a road rage incident involving a handgun.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

C Alex Mack: His only visit has been to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are expected to sign him to an offer sheet. The Browns then will have five days to decide if they want to match the offer.

RB Willis McGahee: Not surprising there has been so little interest. His age and the poor running back market make him a tough sign.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

OT Levi Brown: Suffered a season-ending triceps injury before playing a down for the Steelers last season; would have to accept a non-guaranteed contract to return and try to make the team in 2014.

WR Plaxico Burress: Wants to play in 2014, but is 36 and coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season; does not appear to be in Steelers' plans.

RB Felix Jones: Didn't show enough last season as a change-of-pace back or a kickoff returner to warrant serious consideration for the Steelers to bring him back.

DE Brett Keisel: Re-signing the 12th-year veteran is still an option for the Steelers, who are thin along the defensive line, though nothing will happen until after the draft.

P Mat McBriar: McBriar did OK after the Steelers signed him in October, but it looks like they will go with a younger leg at the position in 2014.

C/G David Snow: Didn't dress in final four games after signing with Pittsburgh last December, and the Steelers have added depth to their offensive line.

RB LaRod Stephens-Howling: Another player coming off an injury (torn ACL) the Steelers might consider re-signing once he is healthy or close to full strength.

LB Stevenson Sylvester: Is a core special teams player and a depth guy the Steelers would probably have interest in bringing back at the right price.

C Fernando Velasco: The Steelers are likely to re-sign one of their most unsung players in 2013 once he has fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in November.

LB Jamaal Westerman: Played in the regular-season finale after signing with the Steelers last December, but is not not in the team's plans.
I wrote an earlier post that included ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson’s take on what defines a No. 1 pass catcher as part of a larger argument for the Steelers drafting a tall receiver.

What is interesting to note is that tight ends Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are among the players Williamson thinks are bona fide No. 1 receivers.

Williamson followed that piece with one on potential No. 1 receivers, a mix that includes wide receivers and tight ends and players who are already in the NFL as well as ones who will be drafted next month.

Seventh on his list is North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron Insider.

The 6-4, 250-pound Ebron would qualify as a tall receiver and his production and athleticism in college -- he caught 62 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns last season -- make him the No. 1 tight end in the draft

Here is what Williamson wrote about Ebron:
While Ebron lacks the height and bulk of Graham or Rob Gronkowski, he might possess better pure speed. This guy can truly stretch the field like few NFL tight ends. Ebron is fluid and smooth, but he also has an instant acceleration burst. He is versatile in terms of his alignment on the field and should be an instant-impact tight end, as he is noticeably above average in all receiving categories for an incoming prospect.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has projected Ebron going between picks 12 and 18 next month, which would put him in the range of where the Steelers are drafting. What makes Ebron intriguing for the Steelers is he could help right away given the increasing frequency with which teams use two-tight end sets and also give them Heath Miller’s eventual replacement.

Former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik wrote that tight end is a hidden need for the Steelers, which is why he thinks Ebron could be an option Insider for them.

Here is what Dominik, an ESPN Front Office Insider, wrote:
Heath Miller is still a very talented player, and he is a great fit in the Steelers’ offense. However, he will turn 32 this season, and the team needs to find a big-bodied tight end via the draft so Ben Roethlisberger can begin building trust in him. They’ll need a young tight end to take over as their primary target at the position in the near future. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, the consensus top tight end in this year’s draft, could be in play for the Steelers at No. 15 overall if he’s still on the board.

Also of note from Williamson’s story on future No. 1 receivers is he has LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. fifth on his list -- three spots ahead of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans.

The 5-11, 198-pound Beckham doesn’t have great size but he makes up for it in other areas, writes Williamson:
He gets separation with the more technical intermediate routes, as well as just using his pure ability to run past defensive backs. Beckham is also a good return man and excels with the ball in his hands. I think I'm actually higher on Beckham than most others, but expect him to make an instant impact in the NFL. I could see Beckham landing in Pittsburgh, Kansas City or Carolina in Round 1.

Kiper has the Steelers taking Beckham No. 15 overall in the Grade A Mock Draft he released last week. The mock draft is one in which Kiper’s picks are based on what he thinks teams should do in the first three rounds of the draft.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are expected to take a wide receiver early in the draft and they could try to find what ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson defines as a No. 1 pass-catcher.

Williamson, a former NFL scout, wrote an interesting piece about the traits that define a true No. 1 receiver, of which there are only 14 in the NFL, in his opinion -- and none named Antonio Brown.

Brown, who set a Steelers single-season record with 1,499 receiving yards in 2013, just missed making the cut. That is probably because one of Williamson’s requirements of a No. 1 receiver is that he plays big.

That usually, but not always, eliminates players such as Brown, who is only 5-foot-10, 186 pounds. As dynamic as Brown is, particularly when he is in the open field, he did not prove to be a viable scoring option in the red zone last season.

Brown’s eight touchdown catches last season averaged 32.3 yards and his shortest scoring reception was 12 yards. That teams were able to neutralize Brown where players are bunched together in a smaller space highlights the Steelers’ need for a bigger receiver they can target in the red zone.

So too does the loss of Jerricho Cotchery.

Cotchery excelled in the red zone last season, catching all 10 of his touchdown passes in that area, including six inside opponents’ 10-yard line. The Steelers replaced Cotchery, who signed with the Panthers, with Lance Moore, and they can’t expect the 5-9, 190-pounder to come close to giving them what Cotchery did last season when the offense moved into scoring territory.

The need for a taller wide receiver leads me to think that the Steelers will consider two players who fit that profile in the first round: Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.

The problem for the Steelers is they likely will have to trade up to take Evans while Benjamin, who played just two seasons, may be a reach with the 15th overall pick.

Consider ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s take on the latter.

“Big, physically talented receiver,” Kiper said of Benjamin. “He improved this year from a pass-catching standpoint. He didn’t drop as many balls but he still needs to continue in that area. He’s got upside but he’s not a finished product yet. You wish he would have stayed [in school] because he would have been a top-10 pick next year.”

If Evans is gone before the 15th pick and the Steelers are willing to take a bit of a gamble on Benjamin, maybe they try to take trade back in the first round to collect an extra draft pick and take the 6-5, 240-pounder a little lower.

If it isn’t Evans or Benjamin in the first round, I’d expect the Steelers to wait until the second or third round to take a wide receiver. The position is arguably the deepest one in the draft and the Steelers should be able to get a good receiver -- and a bigger one than the projected top three wideouts on their roster -- even if they wait until after the first round to select one.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed seven players from other teams and they have been active in free agency despite limited room under the salary cap.

They have been able to add to their roster by taking advantage of a rule that allows teams to sign players to veteran’s minimum contacts and get a discount with such deals in regard to the cap.

The rule was instituted so veteran players did not get left out in free agency because of what they command as far as a minimum base salary, per the collective bargaining agreement, and the Steelers have signed three players under those provisions.

The maximum signing bonuses allowed in veteran minimum contracts is $65,000 and that is the only guaranteed money the Steelers gave to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, linebacker Arthur Moats and cornerback Brice McCain.

[+] EnlargeMike Mitchell
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsMike Mitchell was the Steelers' biggest signing, but even he makes a modest base salary for his first two seasons with the team.
Take that with the guaranteed money -- almost exclusively given in signing bonuses -- the Steelers doled out to the four other outside free agents they signed and they are on the hook for only $8.04 million for those seven players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Of course, the money paid to those players should be much higher assuming the Steelers properly evaluated the free agents they signed and don’t cut ties with a number of them prematurely.

But guaranteeing just over $8 million to seven outside free agents shows how the Steelers have been able to reshape their roster despite the constraints of the salary cap.

Here is a review of the contacts, according to ESPN Stats & Info, signed by the seven outside free agents who have joined the Steelers since March 11:

  • Safety Mike Mitchell: The Steelers made their biggest signing on the first day of free agency when they landed Mitchell with a five-year, $25 million contract. They also protected themselves if Mitchell, who will take over at free safety for Ryan Clark, does not work out. The fifth-year veteran received a $4.75 million signing bonus and has already earned a $500,000 roster bonus. Mitchell has modest base salaries his first two seasons ($750,000 and $2 million) and base salaries of $5 million per season in each of the final three seasons of his deal. The Steelers could cut ties with Mitchell after two seasons if he is not a good fit in Pittsburgh and not absorb too much of a hit in regard to the salary cap.
  • Running back LeGarrette Blount: The Steelers signed the player who emerged as the Patriots’ best running back in the latter part of 2013 to a two-year, $3.85 million contract. Only the signing bonus ($950,000) is guaranteed with Blount scheduled to make base salaries of $900,000 and $2 million in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The Steelers have some protection in the event that they want to part ways with Blount after one season since more than half of his money comes from the 2015 base salary that is not guaranteed.
  • Wide receiver Lance Moore: The Steelers signed Moore shortly after losing Jerricho Cotchery to the Carolina Panthers, landing the ninth-year veteran with a two-year, $3 million contract. Only a signing bonus of $645,000 is guaranteed and Moore will make base salaries of $855,000 and $1.5 million. Half of the money in Moore’s contract is in the second season giving the Steelers another escape hatch if they want to cut ties with the former Saint after one season.
  • Defensive lineman Cam Thomas: The Steelers badly needed bodies along their defensive line when they signed Thomas to a two-year, $4 million contract. The player known as “Baby Zilla” because of his size received a $1 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million and $2 million. Again, even in shorter contracts given out by the Steelers they left themselves an out by putting half of the money in Thomas’ deal in the second year of his contract.
  • Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey: It’s easy to see why the Steelers took a chance on a player who has an excellent blend of size and speed but has inconsistent hands. Heyward-Bey agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract and the only guaranteed money is the $65,000 the fifth-year veteran received as a signing bonus. This is a classic low-risk, potentially high-reward proposition for the Steelers.
  • Linebacker Arthur Moats: The former Bill signed the same deal as Heyward-Bey, and Moats will provide great value for the Steelers if he can handle the role of No. 3 outside linebacker as well as contribute on special teams. Moats really becomes a bargain is he also provides depth at inside linebacker, something the fourth-year veteran said he will be able to do.
  • Cornerback Brice McCain: Like Heyward-Bey and Moats, McCain signed a one-year, $795,000 deal that includes a mere $65,000 signing bonus. As with Heyward-Bey and Moats, McCain will count only $635,000 against the cap this year because of the veteran’s minimum deal he signed.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers hosted Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk for a visit earlier this week, and while that position isn’t a pressing need they figure to address it later in the draft.

The Steelers should be able to find a back who can help them and complement Le’Veon Bell and newly signed LeGarrette Blount given how much the value of that position has slipped.

The first running back in the 2013 draft wasn’t taken until the second round -- the Bengals started a run on them when they selected North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard -- and players at that position could be pushed down even further in this year’s draft.

“Every year there’s third- to sixth-round running backs that are outstanding backs and this year [that is the case] more than any other because there’s not many teams now that really need a running back,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “There’s three to five [teams] maybe that could take one within the first four rounds.”

That prediction bodes well for the Steelers, who are unlikely to take a running back before the fifth round given the other holes they have to fill with their first four picks.

The Steelers are likely to target a speedy, shifty player at the position since they have a pair of big backs in Bell and Blount.

One back whom Kiper really likes is Kent State’s Dri Archer, though he could be gone before the Steelers draft a running back.

Archer ran the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.26 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine and Kiper ranks the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder as the fourth-best running back in the draft despite questions about his size.

Archer had 854 rushing and receiving yards combined last season for Kent State and scored 11 touchdowns, and his speed and versatility would allow the team that drafts the scatback to create mismatches for him.

“Dri Archer could be Darren Sproles in the third round,” Kiper said.
PITTSBURGH -- Arthur Moats wanted stability after dealing with a revolving door at defensive coordinator in Buffalo. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed depth at both inside and outside linebacker, and they also wanted to get younger on defense.

Moats
Hence, the match that looks like it will be a pretty good one for each side.

The Steelers signed Moats to a one-year, $795,000 contract last week and he said on Thursday that playing both inside and outside linebacker won’t be a problem for him after doing the same in Buffalo.

“I’ll definitely have to get adjusted to the terminology,” Moats said on 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. “But I feel like I’m a guy who dedicates himself to the game, dedicates himself mentally as well as physically.”

Moats started 12 of 16 games last season for the Bills, and the Steelers will initially play him at outside linebacker where they badly needed depth prior to his signing. The 6-2, 250-pounder will really add value if he can indeed play outside and inside, and the Steelers are also counting on Moats to contribute on special teams.

Moats, who recorded 54 tackles last season, is only 26 and he said he had an opportunity to stay in Buffalo. But with Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine taking the head coaching job in Cleveland, Moats said the prospect of playing for an organization that is synonymous with stability led to his signing with the Steelers.

“I’ve had three defensive coordinators (in Buffalo) and this would have been my fourth one, two different head coaches and two different general managers,” said Moats, a sixth-round draft pick by the Bills in 2010, “so I was looking for stability and I wanted to go somewhere where they were already proven and had that type of success already.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft after finishing 8-8 last season. A cornerback, wide receiver or defensive lineman would make sense for the Steelers.

Mel Kiper Jr.’s Grade A 2014 mock draftInsider is out on ESPN NFL Insider today, and his choice is a position that has been linked to the Steelers, though not necessarily a player they have been presumed to be targeting.


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PITTSBURGH -- The signing of Darrius Heyward-Bey, once the fastest wide receiver in a draft class that included Mike Wallace, does not make the position any less of a priority for the Steelers in this year’s draft.

The Steelers will still take a wide receiver with one of their first three picks as the addition of Heyward-Bey should be taken as what it is at face value: a flier on a player who should provide depth at wide receiver in 2014 but is probably not part of the team’s long-term plans.

Maybe Heyward-Bey will prove to be otherwise.

Maybe his blend of size and speed will prove to be more than the fool’s gold the Raiders concluded it was when they cut the seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft after just four seasons.

But five years into a career in which he has only once come close to a 1,000-yard season, it is not realistic to think that Heyward-Bey will suddenly put everything together for the Steelers, who are now his third team by the age of 27.

And that’s fine considering the Steelers likely signed the 6-foot-2, 219-pounder to a veteran’s minimum contract or at least a one-year deal laden with incentives.

With almost no room under the salary cap the Steelers were looking for depth at wide receiver, not a starter.

If Heyward-Bey somehow emerges as the latter it means that second-year man Markus Wheaton faltered or the former first-round pick started catching the ball with the consistency that eluded him in Oakland and Indianapolis.

Heyward-Bey, along with Lance Moore, gives the Steelers another veteran wide receiver to offset the losses of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. His signing does not mean the Steelers will wait until later in the draft to add another wide receiver to their roster.

A deep draft is brimming with talent at wide receiver, and the Steelers still have a long-term need at the position even though they have fortified their depth there.

They were likely to use their first-round pick on a cornerback before Heyward-Bey joined the Steelers. His addition simply makes it easier for the Steelers to address their biggest need and wait until the second or third round to draft a wide receiver.
ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay talked in-depth about the Steelers' draft earlier this week, and the two agree that cornerback is probably the team's biggest need.

But McShay isn't as enthused as Kiper is about the Steelers taking one with the 15th overall pick of the draft.

McShay said he is not sure there is a cornerback worth taking that high even if players such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard are available.

“I think I would probably go wide receiver or offensive line in the first round depending on what's available and then maybe coming back cornerback in Round 2,” McShay said on ESPN's First Draft podcast.

Kiper and McShay agree that the Steelers have to focus on defense in this draft with the former saying that defensive line joins cornerback as the team's most pressing need. McShay offered more pointed comments about what the Steelers are facing as they re-tool their defense.

“They've had to get younger fast,” McShay said. “I thought for awhile they were doing that effectively but it hasn't worked out. I do think they are getting younger. I think they have to continue to get faster and more athletic in the back end and I think they know that.”

One of the biggest keys for the Steelers' defense this season is outside linebacker Jarvis Jones taking a huge step after he struggled as a rookie.

Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick last year, started eight games in 2013 but managed just one sack. The former Georgia star played better later in the season as he started thinking less on the field, but Jones needs to add strength as well as more pass-rushing moves during the offseason.

The development of secomd-year players such as Jones, safety Shamarko Thomas and inside linebacker Vince Williams is critical since the Steelers don't like to rely too much on rookies -- something they had to do at a couple of positions last season out of necessity.

“Dick LeBeau's defense takes time to understand it and apply what you know to the field,” Kiper said.
PITTSBURGH -- A day after adding depth at cornerback with the signing of Brice McCain the Steelers could do the same at wide receiver.

Heyward-Bey
Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft, will visit the Steelers on Wednesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Steelers are only $171,934 under the cap, but hovering near the spending ceiling hasn’t stopped them from filling holes on their roster, and Heyward-Bey has emerged as their latest target.

Heyward-Bey never lived up to enormous expectations in Oakland after the Raiders fell in love with his speed and made him the first wide receiver drafted in 2009. The 6-2, 219-pounder spent four seasons in Oakland before signing with Indianapolis.

Heyward-Bey played in all 16 games last season for the Colts -- he started 11 of them -- and caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown. In five NFL seasons Heyward-Bey has 169 catches for 2,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Steelers are expected to take a wide receiver early in the draft but they apparently are interested in adding another veteran to the position as well.

Markus Wheaton is expected to get the first crack at replacing Emmanuel Sanders opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown, but he played just 153 snaps his rookie season and caught six passes for 64 yards.

The Steelers signed Lance Moore to take over as their No. 3 wide receiver following the loss of Jerricho Cotchery to the Panthers and the only other wide receiver on the roster with any NFL experience is Derek Moye.

The 6-5 Moye played 52 snaps last season and caught two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.

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