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Defense could make case for Steelers in draft

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 12:06 a.m.

There is nothing simple about the NFL Draft, but don't expect the Steelers to complicate matters when they're put on the clock with the No. 15 pick Thursday night.

The Steelers, 8-8 the past two seasons, will have plenty of options because they have a need at nearly every position.

The Steelers need to shore up three positions: cornerback, defensive tackle and inside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has watched his once-impregnable and experienced unit transform into a vulnerable and inexperienced unit that was ravaged by injuries, age and free agency the past three seasons.

However, former Steelers running back and current ESPN NFL analyst Jerome Bettis said not to discount the possibility the Steelers will select an offensive tackle with the first of seven selections.

That could be moot if other teams eye their targets, Taylor Lewan of Michigan and Zack Martin of Notre Dame. While Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio and Virginia's Morgan Moses still may be available, the Steelers at that point might not value either as much as a defensive tackle or cornerback.

“They might not have to hit a home run in every round, but the first three they need to find productive players the next five to seven years, especially on defense,” Bettis said. “Whether it's depth or starters, those picks are going to be important.

“They have needs on all three levels defensively. So it gives them the ability not to have to target one particular position and get the best available player.”

Bettis prefers a defensive tackle who could be turned into a nose tackle, mostly because the Steelers were 21st in defending the run after being second in 2012 — an alarming decline for a defensive line that is tasked with funneling running backs to the linebacker corps.

“The run stopper is going to be critical,” Bettis said. “They need a big defensive tackle capable of playing nose tackle.

“But not far behind is an impact linebacker who can play inside or one who can play on the outside to provide depth. The Steelers have always had depth at outside linebacker, but right now they don't have it.”

The Steelers have lost four starting linebackers since 2011: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Larry Foote. They will need to find an inside linebacker to pair with Lawrence Timmons. There are several second- or third-round candidates, including Chris Borland of Wisconsin, Shayne Skov of Stanford and Christian Jones of Florida State.

However, the loss of Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and possibly veteran Brett Keisel could vault defensive linemen atop the Steelers' draft board. The Steelers are taking a long look at Notre Dame's Louis Nix (6-foot-2, 331 pounds) and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman (6-6, 310).

“Hageman is the kind of guy who can stop the run and give you help at nose tackle,” Bettis said. “Nix is possibly a big-time nose tackle who certainly appears to be attractive pick if he's still available.”

Also, the Steelers will have to resolve issues in the secondary when they arrive for training camp at St. Vincent College in July. It appears second-year safety Shamarko Thomas will replace Ryan Clark, but the Steelers need depth, considering Taylor's age and Cortez Allen's bout with injuries.

It's conceivable that one of the four top-rated cornerbacks — Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State, Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and Bradley Roby of Ohio State — could be available midway through the first round.

“Dennard is a very attractive pick because he's solid in man coverage, which is important for the Steelers, who will use him on the back side of their defense,” Bettis said. “He is a press, in-your-face kind of guy who has good size, but the downside might be a lack of super speed (4.5 in the 40).”

For Bettis, it's a toss-up between offensive tackle Lewan and defensive tackle Hageman or cornerbacks Dennard and Gilbert. But if none is available, the Steelers still have plenty of options.

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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