Aside from quarterback and left tackle, arguably the biggest position of importance for teams is a pass rusher, whether it be from a 4-3 defensive front or a 3-4. Sunday morning, the defensive lineman and “tweeners”, or defensive lineman who are too small to play in an even front and best transition to the NFL as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, participated in a variety of drills at the NFL Combine. Luckily for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL Network’s draft analyst Mike Mayock calls this year’s draft the best for edge rushers since 2011. Coincidentally enough, that’s arguably the team’s most important need heading into 2015. Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. made his case as the best available in this year’s class, as he blazed an official 4.60 in the 40. At 6-foot-2 and a half, and 261 pounds, Mayock compares him favorably to superstar Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, arguably the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
He says he has a “hellacious” ability as a pass rusher, and can set the edge with his physicality. However, barring a trade up, Fowler will be long gone by the time the Steelers get on the clock. He is exactly what they’re looking for though, with his ability to play the Elephant role in Keith Butler’s hybrid 3-4 defense.
Another name circulating prior to the combine as a potential Steelers pick is Clemson’s Vic Beasley. His biggest criticism was his weight, as he reportedly played in college around 225 pounds, and scouts questioned whether he’d get pushed around and engulfed by the larger offensive linemen he’d be facing in the league. However, he quoted those critics by weighing in at 246 pounds at the combine and showed how well he could carry it by blazing an official 4.53 in the 40, tops among the first group. Mayock labeled him as being able to “win with outside speed” but he showed his power as well, posting 36 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press. This shows he can translate that speed to power, and he’s very similar to Von Miller or Bruce Irvin, both in terms of size and his athleticism. After wowing everyone at the combine, it may also be likely Beasley has vaulted himself out of the reach of the Steelers.
Although a sleeper for their first rounder, I have seen a few mocks mentioning Virginia’s Eli Harold as a possibility at 22, and he showed off his athleticism with his 4.60 40. He’s not yet a finished product, as he needs to get better against the run, and his motor also runs hot and cold.
Missouri’s Shane Ray did not work out due to a foot injury, while Nebraska’s Randy Gregory also wowed with a 4.64 official 40 yard dash. At 6-foot-5 and a surprisingly light 235 pounds, he reminds many of an Aldon Smith-type, and Mayock calls him “twitchy and quick off the edge.”
As always, teams will fall in love with the combine performances, and may not become enamored enough with the game film. In a draft top-heavy with pass rushers, it’s likely one of the top ones may begin to slide to Pittsburgh at 22. As Kevin Colbert has stated, a trade up or trade down is never out of the question. It’ll be interesting to see what Ray does at his Pro Day, as he could add to the logjam of pass rushers in the top half of the first round. Or, if a run on the position or another one begins and teams start to panic, and reach, then the Steelers could have their pick of the litter at the cornerback position, and wait until round 2 to grab their pass rusher.