Defensive players to watch at NFL Combine

Ryan Shazier still has the goal of returning to the Steelers and resuming his career as a Pro Bowl inside linebacker. But while they aren't going to do anything to quash that noble pursuit, the unfortunate reality for the Steelers is that they have to prepare for 2018 as if they won't have Shazier available.

With that in mind, the Steelers will head to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next week with a keen eye on the inside linebacker prospects.

With Mike Mitchell expected to be asked to take a massive pay cut or be released, along with backup J.J. Wilcox, at a savings of $9.5 million in salary cap space, free safety will be another position the Steelers will keep a close eye on.

But those won't be the only two spots the Steelers scout carefully as they try to improve a defense that faltered down the stretch and in the playoffs without Shazier on the field.

With the team also highly unlikely to pick up the fifth-year option on Bud Dupree and the team wanting more coverage from the position, another outside linebacker would seem to be a need, as well.

Earlier in the week, I took a look at some offensive players to keep an eye on next week. There's a good chance one or two of these guys end up as Steelers. Here are the defensive players to watch:


First Round: Rashaan Evans, Alabama; Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State. Expect Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edwards to be long gone before the Steelers pick, so unless they want to make a big move up in the first round -- probably into the top 15 -- Evans (6-3, 234) and Vander Esch (6-4, 242) could be two players the team targets. Evans is a thumper who also is good in coverage, drawing comparisons to a young Lawrence Timmons, who also happened to be Mike Tomlin's first first-round draft pick with the Steelers. Vander Esch is an intriguing prospect who could play inside or out, much like a young Timmons. He missed most of 2016 with injuries, but was outstanding last season with 141 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles. His change of direction is special.

Second Round: Darius Leonard, South Carolina St.; Jerome Baker, Ohio State; Tegray Scales, Indiana: Leonard (6-2, 213) and Baker (6-1, 225) are cut from the same mold as Shazier. The combine will be big for both. If either can run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash and show good agility and explosiveness for their size, they could see their stock rise. Scales (6-0, 230) is smart and led the nation with 23.5 tackles for a loss last year. But his frame might be maxed out. He will need to run well.

Middle Rounds: Josey Jewell, Iowa; Skai Moore, South Carolina; Dorian O'Daniel, Clemson: It's unlikely any of these guys would start right away, but they all have some potential as playmakers. It's also unlikely the Steelers will wait until later rounds to address this need.


First Round: Ronnie Harrison, Alabama: Derwin James of Florida State is going earlier in this draft, but Harrison could certainly be available. If the 6-3, 214-pound Harrison is on the board, the Steelers will be tempted. That might mean Sean Davis moves to free safety and Harrison plays more of the strong side, but that's fine.

Second Round: Justin Reid, Stanford; Armani Watts, Texas A&M: Reid is a true centerfielder with great ball skills. He had 94 tackles and five interceptions last season. Watts was a four-year starter at Texas A&M and should run well. He has solid ball skills, though not at Reid's level.

Later Rounds: Quinn Blanding, Virginia: Jordan Whitehead, Pitt; Marcus Allen, Penn State; Jessie Bates; Wake Forest: Every one of these guys is going to have to run well at the combine to have a chance. But they all have their pluses and minuses. Blanding is a playmaker but might be a tick slow. Whitehead and Allen might be best suited to play in the box in a league that no longer values those type of safeties as much.


Middle Rounds: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Oklahoma; Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss; Fred Warner, BYU: Okronkwo, or Obo, is a 6-1, 242-pound high-motor player who can do everything pretty well. Warner (6-4, 230) only had 7.5 career sacks, but had seven interceptions. He also could be in the mix as an inside linebacker. Haynes (6-3, 235) was the winner of the Chucky Mullins award at Ole Miss, the same award bestowed upon Mike Hilton when he was a senior. He had 32 sacks and 12 forced fumbles in four years at Ole Miss, but is adept dropping into coverage, as well.


Middle Rounds: Jalyn Holmes, Ohio State; Derrick Nnadi, Florida State; B.J. Hill, N.C. State: A little bit of everything in this group. Holmes (6-5, 270) will need to get stronger, but he's got the frame the Steelers look for in defensive ends. He also played for their farm team and should be schooled in their techniques. Nnadi (6-1, 312) is a true nose tackle and a ball of energy who had 56 tackles, 10 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks last season. Hill (6-4, 315) is athletic and moves well for a man his size. He's not a natural pass rusher with only eight sacks in 48 career games. But he's solid against the run and could be a nice developmental player who could see early playing time as a rotational player.

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