2013 Steelers Draft Prospects: Cincinnati OLB Walter Stewart is this year's best kept secret

Tyler Barrick

Cincinnati outside linebacker Walter Stewart carries high risk to go with his high level of potential. The Steelers are in need of pass rushing help, and Stewart, despite a medical issue, could give it to them as a low draft pick or even as a UDFA.

As a junior outside linebacker for the University of Cincinnati Walter Stewart had 44 tackles, six sacks, 11 TFL, and led the Big East with four forced fumbles. At 6-foot-4 249 pounds Stewart intrigued scouts and many predicted a big season for 2012. Yet the average college football fan has probably not heard of Stewart's name which should be leaving some of you to question "Why?"

Walter Stewart started the season off fast. He had 22 tackles, four sacks, seven tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles but played 33 more snaps of the game till he finally left the competition. When examining the injury, the team doctor had x-rays of Stewart's neck taken. While the doctor didn't find any serious issue resulting from the hit, what they did find was quite alarming.

The Risk

The doctor found that Walter Stewart was born without the poster arch of his C1 vertebra. In the doctor's professional opinion, Stewart - who has had no history of injury - was told his football career was over. Since the diagnosis Stewart and his foster family have sought the opinion of seven other doctors and their split in opinion was evident. The family even went to two NFL team doctors, one of which said he wouldn't clear Stewart medically for his team while the other said he would have no problem with clearing him. Some doctors have said that his condition would lead to further injuries: they believe his initial neck injury was actually a slight cervical fracture and more could potentially happen because his condition leaves him vulnerable.

Others argue he has had the condition his entire life with no incident, they say the neck injury and his abnormality are separate conditions and his chance of injury is no greater than any other player. Despite this differing opinion he was cleared to work out for the Combine. After months of training he had been given the notice he was accepted to partake in the Combine. With Stewart the hardest part of the draft will probably be the medical evaluation. He will be poked, prodded and examined as team doctors attempt to give an answer to the potential risks Stewart could face and therefore the team could face drafting him.

The Reward

The potential reward on Walter Stewart is enticing . At 6-foot-4 249 pounds Walter Stewart has the look of a 3-4 OLB. On tape Stewart plays like an elite pass rusher. His jump off the line is incredibly fast. Despite his 6-foot-4 frame he plays surprisingly low; this only increases his ability as a pass rusher. He shows some hand technique and will rip around the corner. Stewart has the ability to bend around the corner that is needed to get to the pass rusher. He shows no problems on tape turning the corner and flattening out his trajectory.

His non-stop motor doesn't hurt either. In the passing game his has quick feet and he is a good but not great open field player. While not the best in coverage he can be effective at what he will be asked to do in the NFL. Against the run Stewart looked strong. He is able to extend his arms and hold his ground. He has the quickness to attack when he sees his chance and was effective at getting off blocks. The following are Stewart's game against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. I included the video instead of play break down because there was just too much I am impressed with.

Against Pittsburgh

Against Virginia Tech

Conclusion

The NFL Network on Twitter posted Mike Mayock's thoughts on Stewart;

'If he checks out medically, he's a Top 10 pick.' Mayock on Walter Stewart, this year's best-kept secret.

I can't say I disagree with that statement based on his play. Walter Stewart shows everything the NFL is looking for in a pass rusher. He has a great first step, fires off the line low, uses his hands to help him get to the QB and has the flexibility and bend to turn the corner. While doctors continue to debate his medical status NFL General Managers will have to weigh the risk of drafting Stewart versus the reward. At some point the potential Stewart has to be an elite pass rusher in the NFL far outweighs the risks of Stewart's health. I don't think an NFL team would grab Stewart in the top ten with how deep the draft is at the pass rushing positions. I do think that Stewart can be great pass rusher in the NFl. If the team's doctors have cleared him a team that needs a pass rusher should strongly consider Stewart in the draft maybe a team like the Steelers.

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