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Steelers analysis: CB Dennard makes sense in 1st round — if he's there

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:39 p.m.
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Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard brings down Michigan's Devin Gardner on Nov. 2, 2013, in East Lansing, Mich.

This is the draft that will define the Steelers for the rest of the decade.

Maybe, too, the tenure of general manager Kevin Colbert.

Yes, it's that important.

This universally is considered to be the best draft class of the 2000s. The talent level is so high, Colbert said, that each selection beyond the first round equates to that of a round earlier in previous drafts.

That's why the Steelers can't whiff on this one. They have gone 8-8 the last two seasons, and they haven't had three consecutive nonwinning seasons since 1969-71, or Chuck Noll's first three years on the job. But a third such season could bring changes, and not necessarily minor ones.

Colbert and Bill Cowher/Mike Tomlin drafted exceptionally well for years (see Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Maurkice Pouncey), and it showed up in three Super Bowl appearances in six seasons. But that drafting expertise has begun to wane, and no players remain from the 2008 and 2009 drafts.

As a result, they're especially thin at linebacker, in the secondary, along their defensive front and at wide receiver. Those depth issues forced them to sign players off the street to start when Pouncey and inside linebacker Larry Foote were injured in the 2013 season opener.

To stop the slide and start replenishing the talent to a Steelers-like level, they have got to hit this draft out of the park.

Only the Ravens and Jets have gone heavier on offense than the Steelers in recent drafts, but this draft is likely to be defense-driven. The Steelers finished an uncharacteristically low 13th overall and 21st against the run (down from No. 2 in 2012) last season, and they need help across the depth chart.

There are a half-dozen first-round-quality cornerbacks, but the talent drops significantly after that, so it seems likely they will target that position in the first round.

Darqueze Dennard, the Jim Thorpe Award winner from Michigan State who excels in press coverage, seems to be a natural fit for a Dick LeBeau defense — especially given Ike Taylor is 34 and likely is entering final season.

Cornerbacks Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State, Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech and Bradley Roby of Ohio State also could go on Day 1.

But this draft is so unpredictable, a player they have no expectations of seeing at No. 15 might cause some last-minute debate in the Bill Nunn draft room as commissioner Roger Goodell awaits the Steelers' pick.

If they go for a cover corner on the first round, receiver seems a natural fit in the second round given they have yet to replace Emmanuel Sanders.

Martavis Bryant, the play-making counterpart to No. 1 receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson, is likely to be there even if they trade down. And the Steelers probably are crossing their fingers that 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State is still on the board.

The draft is deep enough that the Steelers probably can wait and still get immediate help at defensive end and linebacker — and maybe an offensive player — in the mid-rounds. If the first-round draft board falls apart, defensive end Dee Ford of Auburn could be a sleeper pick.

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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