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How Free Agency has changed the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive draft needs

Free agency can, and will, show a team's intentions and needs leading up to the draft. After last week's article on draft needs of Pittsburgh's offence, this week let's look at the defensive side of the ball.

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At this point in NFL Free Agency, Pittsburgh has lost Steve McLendon (DT), Antwon Blake (CB), Terence Garvin (ILB) and Sean Spence (ILB). Coming in is Steven Johnson (ILB), as well as the re-signing of William Gay (CB) and Robert Golden (S). From this, Pittsburgh has overall lost out at Inside Linebacker, Cornerback and Defensive Tackle. Coupled with pre-existing needs at Cornerback, Safety and Outside Linebacker, the Pittsburgh defense is looking to the draft to fix its problems. Where should they be looking?

With the losses of both Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, despite the signing of Steven Johnson, Pittsburgh may well be looking for a new ILB in the draft. With Ryan Shazier (injury prone) and Lawrence Timmons (29 years old, and therefore not completely long-term) as the current starters, Pittsburgh could get some depth here.

Myles Jack (UCLA), Reggie Ragland (Alabama) and Leonard Floyd (Georgia) could provide this depth. Jack is a super athletic. His speed could really come in helpful. As well as that, his coverage skills are great and his abilities work well against the new trend of speedy and athletic tight ends. He would be an asset. Ragland is a beast and reminiscent of Timmons. He can pass rush well, as shown at the Senior Bowl, but does not quite have the athleticism of Jack, or a starter. Floyd is undersized but incredibly explosive, earning him comparisons to Von Miller. His frame can handle more weight if needed too, and is a hybrid player that would flourish in a creative defense, like that of Tomlin and Butler and so would be probably the best fit of the three. Despite how great it would be to see these three guys in black and yellow, I can't see any coming to Heinz field because they all seem to be likely to go in the first round. With Pittsburgh having bigger needs elsewhere, I doubt the pick would be used on any of them. It's a nice thought though, and an ILB with any of their capabilities in later round would still be a good pick. And who knows, the draft is full of surprises.

Outside linebacker is another area of interest. Pittsburgh has four OLBs on the roster who have all proven capable, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and of course James Harrison. But it only has four, and that is not enough depth. Picking up an OLB could be useful.

Scooby Wright III (Arizona), Terrence Smith (Florida) and  Alex McCalister (Florida) could be fixes for this. With Wright projected to go in the 4th, and Smith and McCalister possibly going as late as the 7th or even unsigned, these guys are much more likely targets than the three above. Let's start with Wright - he can play ILB (therefore solving the problem witht the three buys above), he won the Nagurski award for best linebacker in 2014, is incredibly productive, is tough and has a good IQ. The downsides here are that he suffered a series of knee and foot injuries, so he missed all but three games of 2015, has little speed, is short, has short arms and is swallowed by blockers. A little training with the current linebackers would help solve some of these problems, as well as building muscle in the right places.Smith has wheels, with his background in high school track sprinting so he can do run-and-chase and sideline to sideline pursuits. He is an inconsistent tackler however, but technique can be taught and his athletic ability is rare. He should have been predicted higher than he is too, but due to a high ankle sprain his 2015 season was not a prolific one and a tweaked hamstring kept him from showing his full ability at the shrine game. McCalister is another interesting prospect, showing ability at DE as well as OLB. He put up some amazing numbers at the combine, and averaged a sack per game in his final year. The problem with picking him, and likely why he is ranked so low, is due to some off field issues. He got himself a first game suspension this year and was allegedly dismissed from Florida's program all together. These three could be the gem at OLB that Pittsburgh could use.

Losing McLendon did not put Pittsburgh in a fantastic position. Pittsburgh now has little to no depth at DT, and will almost certainly use a pick here. In my opinion, I think a high (maybe even their first) pick on a DT would be likely.

Andrew Billings (Baylor), Vernon Butler (Louisiana Tech) and Hassan Ridgeway (Texas) are where Pittsburgh should be looking. The question is which round would the Steelers be willing to spend? Billings is predicted in the 1st, Butler in the 1-2nd, and Ridgeway in the 4-5th. Billings is big at 311 lbs. And for a big guy, he's fast. He can pass-rush well, and is young having only just turned 21. This guy is not only built right, he's still moldable. This is what Pittsburgh would look for. However, that's also what other teams look for, and so may not be available at the 25th pick. If he is, Pittsburgh should go for him. Butler would be a great pick if Billings is not available. For a start, the Steelers met him at the combine, so the interest is already clear. He's bigger than Billings, at 6'3" and 323 lbs, and is still quick with a big reach - exactly what Pittsburgh wants. His downside is that he plays a little high, and therefore would need coaching, which would be a commitment to future returns, when Pittsburgh could do with results now. Finally, Ridgeway could be where the Steelers go if the Steelers don't pick Billings or Butler after all. Versatility is what marks Ridgeway out from the rest - he can play DE and DT, 3-4 or 4-3. His stats are good, but not amazing and has been nagged by an ongoing injury. He also lacks conditioning, but that can be solved by time in the NFL. As well as this, many of his downsides are related to his youth. Either way, any of these three would prove good in the NFL, especially the Steelers.

Safety has been a position that the Steelers have needed some kind of revitalization since before the retirement of Troy Polamalu. With Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas and Will Allen as the top guys, the depth chart looks a little lack luster. Pittsburgh should be concerned, and therefore there should be moving to get a safety in the draft.

Jalen Ramsey (Florida State), Karl Joseph (West Virginia) and Darian Thompson (Boise State) would all perform well at Pittsburgh. With Ramsey to go in the 1st round (maybe even 1st pick),  Joseph in the 2nd, and Thompson in the 3rd, Pittsburgh would need to spend high and be sure about the pick's value. Ramsey seems without compare - great athletically and able to understand the intellectual subtleties of technique and the game, he will only get better in the NFL. If, and that is a big if, he is available, I think that Pittsburgh would jump at the chance to draft him. More likely is that they draft Joseph. Joseph grew up playing soccer, so he has got some great footwork and coverage skills. He's not afraid to tackle, and can hit like a truck. That's something Pittsburgh likes. However, his draft stock has suffered due to a non-contact related knee injury, which could influence his ability to play in his rookie season. It wouldn't be surprising to see him fall lower than the second. Thompson is the more likely of the three. Pittsburgh have already shown interest which proves this. He has good coverage skills, as he used to play Corner, and can play both strong and free safety. He played well in the Senior bowl, which could push him out of reach, but his tackling ability and not so standout athletic ability could solve this. Pittsburgh not only wants, but needs one of these players.

Finally, Cornerback. Cornerback is a position that often comes up in comment sections as a "must draft" position. And not without justification. Not only did Pittsburgh lose Antwon Blake in free agency, but it was already a position of need, being as there are no standout players on the roster at this position. Pittsburgh will draft a CB.

Eli Apple (Ohio State), William Jackson III (Houston) and Artie Burns (Miami) are clear targets for Pittsburgh. Apple is predicted to go in the 1st round, Jackson in the 1st or 2nd and Burns in the 2nd, meaning that these are valuable players for any roster. Apple met with Pittsburgh at the combine, and for good reason: he's fast, he's got good field skills and he's aggressive. He's physical, he's got a good size and has great skills in run support. He's in a word - great. He's young too, and won't turn 21 until August. This means he's malleable, but it also means that his ability to understand the game comes under question. This won't faze Pittsburgh, or other teams showing interest, because he can and will learn all this in the NFL. He's a project player, but one with an irresistible payoff. Jackson is another prospect that has met with Pittsburgh. This is because he's smart - he has shown he understands man-coverage, zone concepts and how to use the boundary to his advantage. He has got great length, reaction time and can catch (and therefore intercept) well. He has questions over his long speed, and like all corners in the draft, talent is not everything, being able to use your brain is what makes Corners standout. His understanding makes up for this however, and so reduces his risk - my instinct tells me this is why Pittsburgh has shown so much interest and why Pittsburgh is likely to draft him. Artie Burns is another player who has shown he is willing to work hard. He is quick, he has good hands and can tackle well. Despite this, his tackling isn't perfect, and will need work to get to NFL standard, he is a long-strider so will want to settle in as a boundary corner and can sometimes just look lost. What makes up for that is that he can play FS and KR too, which Pittsburgh also need. Finally there is strong reason to believe he will give the game his all - his mother died last year and his father is in prison, so he is the one keeping a roof over his family's heads, and likely why he declared for the draft as a junior. This points to the fact that this guy will want to perfect his craft - and therefore an asset to any team. All three of these players would be a great selection to the Steelers.

Free agency has been detrimental to Pittsburgh's already imperfect defense. This is where the Steelers will concentrate in the draft. That is why the positions and players above have been highlighted as targets for Pittsburgh, as any and all of these players could, and hopefully will, prove to be invaluable to the Steelers defense in the coming season.