The 2016 NFL Draft is just days away, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for a very defensive focused draft class based on their team needs. Experts across the national, and local, media scene have projected a number of players to be selected in the first round for the black and gold, but what seems to be the constant among all these experts are the projections stating the team will pick a defensive back -- a cornerback or safety -- in the early rounds.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. is one of the more talked about experts leading up to the draft, and he just released his most recent 3-round "Grade A" mock draft for ESPN Insider. You might not fork over the money for the Insider feature, but have no fear, BTSC has you covered.
See who Kiper has projected to the Steelers in Rounds 1-3:
Round 1 (25): Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State
Round 2 (58): Christian Westerman, G, Arizona State
Round 3 (89): Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
Analysis: The secondary is the top priority in this draft if I'm drafting, and the availability of Apple late in Round 1 makes him an easy call. He has length, outstanding athletic ability and a willingness to tackle. He needs to refine his cover skills, but that goes for just about any young cornerback, and Apple has tremendous talent. Westerman fills a need at guard where the Steelers could use a rookie with the ability to compete for a starting spot, and Cash is an outstanding box safety. The secondary could be the difference between playoff contention and Super Bowl contention, so I'm hitting it hard.
Looking at the picks, Seeing Eli Apple available at No. 25 is somewhat of a surprise, but Apple is certainly a polarizing figure leading up to draft day. Some have him being a Top 15 pick, while others have him slated in the back end of the first round or even in the early second. The Steelers love Ohio State players, and that shouldn't be ignored in all of this, but if Apple was selected he would certainly have the chance to thrive in the thin Steelers secondary.
As for the second round pick, I disagree with Kiper's philosophy on the team drafting a guard who could "compete for a starting spot". Since the team re-signed Ramon Foster to a new contract prior to free agency, there is no immediate need for a guard who is ready to step in and start from Day 1. Westerman could be quality depth behind Foster and David DeCastro, but does the team really want to use a 2nd round pick on a back up player?
Lastly, Jeremy Cash in the third seems a bit unrealistic. Many boards have him being a 2nd round player, but if he fell to the third and the Steelers hadn't addressed the safety position yet, the pick makes sense. Nonetheless, his lack of coverage skills is worrisome. Cash is a tremendous "in the box" safety known for his ability to chase down the ball and make tackles, but when covering in space he could be a liability, and the last thing the Steelers need in their secondary is another coverage liability.
The Steelers have plenty of needs, but will their wants trump those needs? History says no, but when so many defensive positions need filled, it will be interesting to see who the team picks in the early rounds.