The 2016 NFL Draft is awash in talent on both the defensive line and in the secondary. In fact, it may be historically deep in both of those areas.
If those two are this draft's strongest positions, linebacker may be one of its weakest. And despite the glaring holes for the Pittsburgh Steelers at defensive tackle, cornerback and safety, there are also some gaps in the lineup that need filled in the second level of the defense.
Longtime star James Harrison is probably returning for 2016, but that's also probably the end of the line for him. Jarvis Jones has been solid, but hasn't lived up to expectations as a former first-round pick. Arthur Moats is solid depth, but can't be looked at as an option for a full-time starter. Bud Dupree is the only one showing true star potential who is likely to be around a while.
History has been kind to the Steelers, though, when it comes to finding edge-rusher talent in unexpected places.
Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter, a former star outside 'backer for the Steelers, was a 1999 third-round selection. Harrison was an undrafted player who was cut five times between the Steelers and the Ravens before barely latching on, only to eventually become the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Clark Haggans was a fifth-rounder in 2000. Mike Vrabel, in the third round of the 1997 draft. Jason Gildon? 1994, third round.
Knowing that, here are three day-three options for the Steelers to fill a growing hole amongst their edge rushers.
Dadi Nicolas (Virginia Tech)
Nicolas is intriguing to me because of his athleticism. Last year, we raved about Dupree's first step and his burst off the line; Nicolas is in a similar mold. That's about where the similarities stop, though. Nicolas lacks the mass to be very effective against the run. Against Ohio State in 2015, he actually did a pretty good job of diagnosing plays quickly and staying home when the Buckeyes ran the ball, but he was simply pushed around.
As a pass rusher, though, he could excel. As our own Big Board pointed out, NFL.com's Mike Mayock compared him Bruce Irvin, who racked up 22 sacks in four seasons with the Seahawks before signing with Oakland last month. There are worse people to be compared to.
Nicolas does a great job of getting small to fit through gaps. Combined with his quick first step, that could be a huge asset. He also shows excellent balance, absorbing hits without being knocked down or even breaking stride most of the time.
His biggest weakness, besides being just 235 pounds, is that he doesn't use his long, long arms very well. He loses the hand battle a lot, and fails to use that length to keep blockers from getting a hand on his chest. At his size, he's basically being removed from the play as soon as that happens.
Victor Ochi (Stony Brook)
If you want to compliment an outside linebacker, tell him he's built a lot like Joey Porter. For an edge rusher, that's a great place to start.
At 6'-1" and 246 pounds, Ochi looks the part. While he's two inches shorter than Porter, they carry their mass the same way. From a physical standpoint, Ochi is already halfway to being an NFL 3-4 outside linebacker.
But let's not kid ourselves, because the comparison stops there, at least for now.
Porter found great success in the NFL because he had numerous moves with which to get to the quarterback. If we are being generous, we can say that Ochi has two. He has a great bull rush, and when that get's stifled, he does one of two things: he either spins away (rarely), or he keeps pushing against a brick wall (usually). He also has long legs with stiff knees. That leaves him doing most of his bending at the waist, giving him a high center of gravity at the snap when coming out of a three-point stance. The good news there is that he would rarely play with a hand in the dirt in Pittsburgh.
There's a lot to like about him, too. He does a great job against the run, and has the mass to set and hold the edge, forcing runner back inside. He doesn't tend to overrun plays, another key to setting a good edge.
Against the pass, one thing that cannot be denied is that he produces. While it wasn't exactly against top (or even middling) competition, he did end 2015 with more sacks than the much more ballyhooed Noah Spence, while playing against more-or-less identical competition. Even with just a bull rush, he has the strength to get into the pocket to disrupt plays. With Porter's coaching, he could really put t all together.
From a physical standpoint, Judon could be Dupree's twin.
He's an interesting case: he has a round-one physique, but round-six production. Something is missing, but it's hard to pinpoint. He bends well, likely a product of a build that Michelangelo couldn't have sculpted much better. He's got plenty of strength to hold an edge, and the speed to run down plays from behind. He has just about every physical asset you could want in an edge rusher.
It could be, perhaps, that he's simply too aggressive. That's understandable when you look like a man among boys on a Division II football field. But, while he should excel against that level of competition, his play just doesn't stand out like it should. With nearly 34-inch arms, he shouldn't be letting offensive linemen get the first punch, but he does. And he runs himself out of too many plays with his aggressive, downhill style. The good news? Those are both coachable traits. The bad? Well, honestly, with a grade that puts him somewhere in the fifth or sixth round, the only real negative to taking a flyer on Judon is that the Steelers could miss out on him, thanks to not having a fifth-round pick this year.
If I had to pick one of these guys, I'd have to go with Ochi. He is the best of the three against the run, and he produces against the pass. Judon would be a close second, but Ochi is the closer of the two to being ready for the NFL.