Steelers might opt for safety valve in NFL Draft

| Monday, April 22, 2013, 11:40 p.m.

Troy Polamalu turned 32 on Friday, which isn't an advanced age by many standards but is one at which NFL teams often begin scouting for a player's possible replacement.

The Steelers might have the chance in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday to draft a highly skilled player who would be the logical replacement for Polamalu, whose multi-dimensional skills and playmaking wizardry have made him one of the league's elite players.

If they so dare to do.

Kenny Vaccaro of Texas is widely acknowledged to be the best safety of a very good 2013 class, a player that ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said has skills similar to Polamalu. The Rams need a safety and, choosing at No. 16, they could snatch Vaccaro before the Steelers can even consider taking him.

But if Vaccaro is there at No. 17, he is certain to tantalize the Steelers.

“People are starting to appreciate safeties more, now that tight ends are turning into freaks and controlling the middle of the field,” Vaccaro said. “So you've got to have a safety who can cover and come up and hit.”

Doesn't that sound like Polamalu?

The Steelers have multiple needs — though they insist they never draft for need — and are likely to stay with their proven method of taking who they believe to be the best player available on the board when they choose.

Even in the second round, that could be a safety.

“There's an elite group that are all going to go high,” Kiper said. “You're going to have a run on safeties in the second round. If Jonathan Cyprien (of Florida International) is not a first-round pick, he will be a second. Matt Elam (of Florida), if he's not a one, he will be a two.”

Kiper added, “There is a lot of depth at safety.”

Cyprien is interesting because he chose to attend Florida International rather than a high-profile school. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls him a “wild card” because he could go anywhere from the late first round to possibly early in the third round.

“I think I'm No. 1 because I can bring a lot and contribute to a team winning games, and making plays when called,” Cyprien said. “I want to shine in all that I do.”

Elam is a big hitter in a smaller body; at 5-10 he's a couple of inches shorter than Vaccaro and Cyprien. But he has been beaten in coverage at times simply because he was shorter than the receiver he was defending.

“The only downside with Elam as far as teams are concerned is there's nothing they can do about 5-10, and occasionally you're going to have to live with that,” Mayock said. “But on the positive side you get a kid that tackles, a kid that's tough, a kid that cares ... I think he's going to play a lot of years in the league.”

Elam has heard Pittsburgh mentioned as a possibility and, he said, “That would be a great opportunity.”

But only if Vaccaro doesn't beat him there first.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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