Who Should the Steelers Look to Draft Early in the 2015 NFL Draft?
Draft for need or take the best player available?
The Steelers have needs on the defensive side of the ball as they enter the 2015 NFL Draft. Fortunately for them, this draft class is deep at both positions where they have a need. The Steelers need to add some young athleticism at the cornerback position, and they need to improve their edge rushing ability at the outside linebacker position. The Steelers also have a need for depth at the safety position, along with a need to focus on finding their tight end of the future. With the 22nd overall pick in the draft, the Steelers should have a couple good options at both outside linebacker and cornerback with that pick. For the Steelers to take a cornerback in the first round for the first time in over a decade, the player they like the most will have to be there. The Steelers are looking for a cornerback with size, speed and the fluidity to run with the receiver after disrupting him at the line of scrimmage. They have not had a player with these skills since Ike Taylor was able to do this in his prime years, and they have not drafted a cornerback in the first round since drafting Chad Scott. This means the Steelers are likely to select an outside linebacker in the first round, even if Bud Dupree or Vic Beasley are not available to them with the 22nd overall pick.
The best options at cornerback
Since the Steelers will be looking for their number one corner of the future, and their replacement for Ike Taylor in this draft class, Trae Waynes would be the ideal draft pick. However, it is unlikely that the Steelers are able to select Trae Waynes, with his status having him lasting only a few picks beyond the top ten. The next best options would be either Jalen Collins out of LSU, or Byron Jones out of University of Connecticut. Both players have the size and physicality to help the Steelers to replace the skills they once had on their defense with Ike Taylor, and both players are among the fastest cornerbacks in this year's draft class. While Kevin Johnson and Marcus Peters possess some of these positive characteristics, neither one has the size and strength that Collins and Jones possess. If Trae Waynes, Jalen Collins and Byron Jones are all off the board by the time the Steelers draft with the 22nd pick, the team may just decide to take the best player available at the outside linebacker position. The Steelers are likely to be very selective in choosing a defensive back early in the 2015 draft, and if last year serves as a precedent they may pass up one of the best corners available to take a linebacker.
The best options at outside linebacker
Since it is not realistic for the Steelers to expect Vic Beasley to be available with the 22nd pick, they will likely have to turn to other options at outside linebacker, such as Bud Dupree from Kentucky. If the Steelers decide they are going to draft an outside linebacker, even without one of the top four prospects at the position available to them, drafting a high upside player that still needs some development may be the way to go. Owamagbe Odighizuwa is the player that the Steelers would have the most interest in drafting in the first round if all the other top outside linebackers are already off the board. The former UCLA defensive standout is exactly the type of player that the Steelers' defense needs in order to find their way back to the dominant form they had on display for most of the last decade. Odighizuwa still needs to further develop his pass rush skills after racking up only six sacks with UCLA last season, but his ability to set the edge against the running game and his disruptiveness at the line of scrimmage make him a force to be reckoned with. Provided the Steelers do not want to draft a cornerback with the 22nd overall pick, there is a strong argument that can be made for Owamagbe Odighizuwa being the best player available with that pick.
Beyond the first round - the tight end position
If the Steelers are going to draft a tight end in the second round of the draft, the player they will target is University of Miami's Clive Walford. While Walford has had some trouble with dropped passes, he possesses the size and physicality to make him a star at the tight end position in the NFL. Walford is not the best blocker in this draft class, but his physical style of play should allow him to make strides in this area at the NFL level. His speed and size make him a matchup nightmare for both linebackers and safeties, allowing his ceiling to be very high for a player that is likely to be drafted after the first round. Beyond Walford, the Steelers have Penn State tight end Jesse James on their radar after bringing him in for a workout as part of the pre-draft process. James possesses the size and athletic ability to be a steal in the third round or later, along with being an excellent replacement for Heath Miller as the Steelers' starting tight end. While James is not the speed threat that Clive Walford is, he is definitely a player that fits the prototype of what Pittsburgh is looking for at the tight end position. With multiple good options available to the Steelers at the tight end position, they should once again be able to draft a very good player at a position of need.
Who will the Steelers take with their first pick?
The player that the Steelers should draft if he is available with the 22nd overall pick, is Byron Jones the cornerback out of University of Connecticut. Jones possesses all the abilities that the Steelers currently need at the cornerback position, and he is the closest in talent level to the top prospect at the position, Trae Waynes. If Byron Jones is not available with the 22nd overall pick, Jalen Collins is also a good option for the Steelers. He should not be their top option though, as players like outside linebackers Bud Dupree and Owamagbe Odighizuwa would be the best players available with Byron Jones off the board. The Steelers do not have a history of trading up in the draft in order to pursue a certain player, but that is one of the options for the team this year as they look to continue their defensive rebuild with young impact talent that can disrupt opposing passing games.