AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Breakdown: Consecutive 8-8 seasons have not taken away from the Pittsburgh Steelers' broad appeal, at least to TV executives. The Steelers play five prime-time games -- that is the maximum teams are allowed unless granted a waiver by the NFL -- including two Monday night contests on ESPN. The Steelers host the Texans on Oct. 20. They play another Monday night game on ESPN a month later when they visit the Titans. Both of the Steelers’ games against the Ravens will be prime-time affairs, including Sept. 11 in Baltimore. The 8:25 p.m. game marks the Steelers’ only Thursday night game of the season. No stretch of the schedule looks particularly daunting, though the Steelers play four of their first six away from Heinz Field. Coach Mike Tomlin is probably pleased that the Steelers have 10 games scheduled for 1 p.m. and only one contest scheduled for the 4 p.m. ET slot. I’ve always gotten the sense that the players prefer early games or night ones since the latter provide a bigger stage. The schedule, in that sense, makes it a little easier on the coaches.

Complaint department: Yo, NFL, did I not make it clear that I prefer the bye week to come somewhere in the middle of the season and not right before Thanksgiving? The Steelers and Panthers are the last teams to get a bye as each is off in late November. That is not any better for beat-up players than it is for whiny beat writers who want to catch their breath. Early back-to-back night games on the road (Ravens and the Panthers) aren’t exactly a treat either, and couldn’t you have spaced out the Bengals games a little better? The Steelers visit Cincinnati on Dec. 7 and host their AFC North rival on Dec. 28, the final day of the regular season. Props for sandwiching two home games around Christmas.

Roads less traveled: The most favorable aspect of the Steelers’ schedule is it keeps them close to home even when they are on the road. The Steelers only play one game out of their time zone, and they are only an hour behind when they travel to Nashville, Tenn., for a Nov. 17 game against the Titans. Long-distance travel has not agreed with the Steelers under Tomlin. Since 2007, the Steelers are just 2-7 when playing outside of the Eastern and Central time zones. If minimal travel isn’t enough of a boost for the Steelers they only play two road games against teams that had winning records last season -- the Panthers and Bengals.

Strength of schedule: 23rd, .469 | Vegas over/under : 8.5

Steelers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 11, at Baltimore, 8:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Carolina, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 20, Houston, 8:30 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Indianapolis, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Baltimore, 8:30 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 17, at Tennessee, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
PITTSBURGH -- Mel Kiper Jr. has the Steelers taking LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with their first pick in his latest mock draft.

Dennard
But a different player stands out to the ESPN analyst as the best fit for the Steelers at No. 15 overall.

“I think the ideal pick if you’re the Steelers is Darqueze Dennard,” Kiper said of the Michigan State cornerback during a conference call on Wednesday. “He’s a Steeler. Rough, tough, aggressive football player, plays with a chip on his shoulder, very good in coverage, plays faster than he timed. Just a whale of a football player.”

So why doesn’t Kiper have the Steelers taking Dennard in his most recent mock draft? Easy. He has the Rams taking Dennard, the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, two picks ahead of the Steelers.

Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Dennard are Kiper’s top-rated cornerbacks in the draft and his 14th- and 15th-best players overall, respectively. Gilbert has tremendous speed and has added value as a kickoff returner.

One concern Kiper has with Gilbert is whether he is a physical enough player to provide solid run support as well as get opposing receivers on the ground. Both are critical for cornerbacks in the Steelers’ defense.

“You’ve got to be able to tackle after the catch,” Kiper said. “That’s an underrated part of playing corner.”

That is also why he said Dennard would be the best pick for the Steelers if the 5-foot-11, 199-pounder is available at No. 15 and they want to address one of their most pressing needs.

“You look at that Steelers mentality, a Steelers kind of player, and I think it would be Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State,” Kiper said. “Pure football players [in the draft], he’d be on your top-10 list.”
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract status has been a topic of interest because he has two years left on the $102 million deal he signed in 2008.

That is the same number of years Roethlisberger had remaining on his rookie contract when he and the Steelers agreed to the deal that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history.

That nothing has happened as far as a new contract -- and that nothing is imminent -- has generated a little anxiety among some Pittsburgh Steelers fans.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his contract.
What hasn't changed, however, is that the two most important factors to a new deal getting done are still in place: Roethlisberger wants to play his entire career in Pittsburgh, and the organization wants the 10-year veteran to retire as a Steeler.

"There's been ongoing [contract] discussions for quite awhile," Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger’s agent, told ESPN.com. "I think from the time we did the first extension there was sort of a plan moving forward. There's a plan in place, but both sides are pretty committed to doing that privately and not having it be something that's discussed in the media."

That is how the Steelers operate, whether it is with their franchise quarterback or a player who helps fill out the roster. But Steelers president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have each said the organization is committed to Roethlisberger playing his entire career in Pittsburgh and maximizing the remaining years he has left in him.

As for Roethlisberger’s desire to play for just one team his entire career, Tollner said, "It's always been critical to him. From day one he's always admired players that could play with one organization and retire with that organization. That's an underlying goal that always drives him, that he would always be a Steeler."

The Steelers can lower Roethlisberger's cap hit -- it is just under $18.9 million in 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- but they also can wait to get a new deal done because they already have done the bulk of their free-agent shopping and get more than $8 million in cap relief after June 1.

Whether that means the Steelers sign Roethlisberger to a new contract this summer, before the start of the 2014 season, or even next year remains to be seen. Tollner wouldn't predict when or if a new deal would get done, but he said, "I think there's mutual respect on both parties."
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are meeting with another cornerback prospect as Duke’s Ross Cockrell is visiting team headquarters today.

Cockrell, a four-year starter at Duke, recorded 46 tackles last season and intercepted three passes while breaking up 12 of them. The 6-foot, 191-pounder is Duke’s all-time leader in interceptions (12) as well as passes defended (46).

Cockrell, who redshirted his first season at Duke, is widely projected as a third- or fourth-round pick.

He is the latest cornerback to make a pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh as the Steelers previously hosted Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, TCU’s Jason Verrett, Rice’s Phillip Gaines and Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson.

Dennard will be a first-round pick and Roby and Verrett could also get taken on the first day of the draft. The Steelers will draft at least one cornerback, and I will be surprised if they don’t take two this year given their need for an infusion of talent and youth at the position.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay has the Steelers taking Dennard with the 15th overall pick in his latest mock draft.

Teams are permitted to host 30 out of area prospects prior to the draft and no visits are allowed after this week.

The three-day draft starts May 8.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers are meeting with a pair of defensive players Monday, including a potential first-round pick.

Barr
UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen are the Steelers' latest visitors as the team prepares for the upcoming draft.

Barr is considered one of the best pass-rushers in the draft while Allen is a projected late-round pick after moving to nose tackle last season when Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 scheme.

Barr is an intriguing prospect because of his production at UCLA -- the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder recorded 10 sacks last season -- and his upside as a pass-rusher. Barr played fullback for two seasons before moving to defense, and he is still learning on that side of the ball.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Barr as the 15th-best player in the draft.

"He has a decent arsenal of moves, using quick feet and hands to free himself, and he's disciplined against the run, pursuing with speed when the play runs away from him," Kiper writes of Barr. "I love the effort, and the athleticism, but as a former fullback, he needs to grow in his awareness."

ESPN analyst Todd McShay isn't as high on the former Bruins star. McShay ranks Barr as the 30th-best player in the draft.

The Steelers are unlikely to draft an outside linebacker in the first round since they took one with their first-round pick last year in Jarvis Jones. But they do need to add depth at the position and are expected to draft an outside linebacker prospect at some point.

Allen could be a late-round possibility for the Steelers if they don't take a nose tackle early in the draft. The 6-foot-2, 333-pounder recorded 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season for the Badgers but did not get invited to the NFL scouting combine.

Allen tested well at Wisconsin’s pro day though he was limited in running drills because of a hamstring issue.

The Steelers are allowed to host 30 players outside of the Pittsburgh area for pre-draft visits. This is the final week of visits for NFL prospects.
PITTSBURGH -- Mock drafts have, predictably, been all over the place as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' first-round pick. Most, however, have them taking a wide receiver or a cornerback No. 15 overall, assuming they don’t try to trade down.

I think those two positions are most likely the ones the Steelers will target with their first pick, though North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could also be in play if he slides a little in the draft.

Ebron
Ebron is the No. 1 player at one of the few positions that is not particularly deep, and he would give the Steelers a tall receiver while also filling a long-term need. I think Heath Miller has at least three good seasons left in him, but the Steelers have to plan for the post-Miller years at some point.

If Ebron is still available when they make the first pick, I think they give him serious consideration, especially if a couple of cornerbacks are already off the board, as well as Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans.

The Steelers have eight other picks in the draft, three of which are compensatory selections, including one at the end of the third round. They have a lot of needs -- or as general manager Kevin Colbert would frame it "wants" -- particularly on defense.

Here is my projection of the positions they will address with their nine picks, which is contingent on the Steelers not adding extra ones through a trade.

Cornerback (2): The Steelers could use immediate help here, and they don't have a long-term starter at cornerback after third-year man Cortez Allen. I would be surprised if they don't draft two cornerbacks, with one of them coming in the first three rounds. They drafted two cornerbacks in 2011, including Allen in the fourth round.

Defensive line (2): The Steelers will draft a defensive lineman as early as the second round -- ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has them taking Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III with their second pick in his latest mock draft -- and they need to take at least one end. The signing of Cam Thomas gives them a player with position flexibility, but the Steelers' need at defensive end is every bit as glaring as it is at cornerback.

Wide receiver (1): No position is deeper in the draft, and even if the Steelers don't address it in the first round, they can still get a good prospect later. The Steelers probably won't get a chance to draft Evans unless they trade up in the first round and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin may be too much of a risk to take at No. 15. LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. has been linked to the Steelers in various mock drafts, and they could pull the trigger on him if they have him high on their board.

Linebacker (1): The Steelers have to take a player who projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme given how thin they are at the position. It will be interesting to see what they will do if Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is still on the board at No. 15. Mosley, who projects as an inside linebacker, may be one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft. “He and (Lawrence) Timmons could be your (NaVorro) Bowman and (Patrick) Willis,” ESPN analyst and former NFL scout Matt Williamson said. If the Steelers take Mosley, they will also draft an outside linebacker later in the draft.

Safety (1): The Steelers have hosted at least three safeties for pre-draft visits, including Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, a projected first-round pick. The signing of Mike Mitchell makes it unlikely the Steelers take a safety in the first round but it wouldn't hurt to add another younger player here. The question is whether it makes sense for them to draft a safety -- or instead sign a couple of undrafted free agents -- if they don’t take one in the second or third round.

Offensive line (1): I don't see this as the need that others do. The Steelers got their upgrade up front when they hired Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and he has plenty of material with which to work. All five starters return, including Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who tore his ACL eight snaps into last season. And the Steelers have depth up front after re-signing Cody Wallace and Guy Whimper. The Steelers will probably take a lineman they can develop later in the draft, but I could also see them not drafting one for the second year in a row if they take two linebackers or a tight end.

Running back (1): The Steelers need depth and they could use a speedster to complement Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. The de-valuing of running backs allows the Steelers to wait until later in the draft to address the position and still get a good prospect. I don't see them taking a running back before the fifth round.
The Pittsburgh Steelers usually draft so logically and sensibly that predicting the position and player they take is not that huge of a challenge.

This draft is no different. Pittsburgh, coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons, could use a receiver, a defensive lineman or a cornerback. Any would make sense.


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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.

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