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Potential solutions beckon but ‘special’ stands out above the rest

You never know how a draft is going to pan out.

And you’re never really sure about the direction in which a team is headed, no matter what’s said, speculated or prognosticated in advance, until the selections actually betray what a particular team had been thinking all along.

But the suspicion here is the Steelers could do a hell of a lot worse than to wind up with these guys in these spots, for what it’s worth:

FIRST ROUND (24th overall) _ Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

He doesn’t play running back, center or offensive tackle, but given all Collins can do for a Steelers’ defense that’s more vulnerable as currently constructed than many are probably willing to admit, he might well be more impactful. Collins is perhaps as fluid as an almost 6-foot-5, 260-or-so-pound athlete can get. And he can impact the Steelers lining up next to Devin Bush at inside linebacker on first and second down (how are Devin White and Lavonte David working out for Tampa Bay?), as a rotational edge rusher on third down and on special teams. Collins can also, as he put it, “spy the ‘Q’” if necessary, and having a player with that attribute might come in handy against Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson.

I like Collins this year better than I liked Bush two years ago (and I loved Bush then and still do), and the Steelers won’t have to trade up into the Top 10 to get Bush’s much-needed running mate.

The game has changed at inside linebacker.

You need more than one and this year there ought to be a special player available when it’s the Steelers’ turn to select.

The Steelers need to take advantage of that even more than they need to improve their worst-in-the-NFL running game or protect Ben Roethlisberger better than they were capable of doing a season ago.

SECOND ROUND (55th overall) _ Michael Carter, RB, North Carolina

He’s not Najee Harris, Travis Etienne or even fellow North Carolina running back Javonte Williams. But Carter still managed to lead FBS with an 8.0 average per carry in 2020.

Carter isn’t the biggest of backs (5-7, 201), but he has a make-you-miss ability with the ball in his hands that’s dynamic. Get him in space and watch him dazzle.

Carter looks like a prototypical Matt Canada back.

He also comes from a military family and is purported to possess the highest character.

Carter keeps his feet moving in a pile and he attacks pass protection as if it really matters (he could be better there, but he works at it).

Carter looks a lot like fellow Tar Heel product Giovani Bernard (an under-rated, multi-purpose back for my money). Carter can also contribute in the return game. And he’s not too small in former NFL personnel executive and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum’s estimation.

“There’s a difference between being short and small,” Tannenbaum maintained. “He is not small. He has an NFL lower body.”

The running back box can be checked even if it isn’t addressed via a first-round investment.

THIRD ROUND (87th overall) _ Kendrick Green, OL, Illinois

He played more guard (29 games) then center (four games) for the Illini, but Green (just under 6-2, 305 pounds) looks more like an NFL center upon his transition, perhaps immediately (assuming “immediately” for these purposes means after some semblance of an off-season that includes OTAs and a four-game preseason thanks to the Steelers’ scheduled participation in the Hall of Fame Game). Green, a former wrestler in high school, projects “as a starter at any of the three interior line positions,” according to draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic. I’m envisioning the torch at center being passed from No. 53 (Maurkice Pouncey) to No. 53 (Green wore that number at Illinois).

Green’s highlights include plenty of get-to-the-second-level explosiveness (a trait confirmed by his outstanding Pro Day numbers), and also shots of him dancing in tunnels, jumping up and down on sidelines, clapping for his teammates and otherwise expressing a profound love of the game as well as big-guy athleticism. Bill Nunn used to love big-guy athleticism. This one’s for the Hall-of-Famer as well as an offensive line in need.

FOURTH ROUND (128th overall) _ Marco Wilson, CB, Florida

Kim Jones of the NFL Network assessed Wilson (5-11, 191) as the “Workout Warrior” of Florida’s Pro Day. His performance included 26 reps on the 225-pound bench press and a vertical leap of 43.5 inches. “Those two statistics got the biggest roars from his fellow Gators today,” Jones reported. She also passed this along from an anonymous scout about Wilson: “He gives you something to work with.”

Wilson, who isn’t a finished product, also ran a 4.34 40-yard dash and has a brother (Quincey) playing cornerback for the New York Football Giants.

Something to work with, indeed.

FOURTH ROUND (140th overall) _ Tommy Doyle, OT, Miami, Ohio

Another project, which isn’t an issue if you’re content to ride with Chukwuma Okorafor on the left side and Zach Banner at right tackle, as seems to be the case with the Steelers. Doyle is a raw, developmental tackle according to the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah. But Doyle is also 6-8, 320 and “nasty,” and good in the running game, in Jeremiah’s estimation. All of that can be turned into a quality offensive tackle eventually if you coach him up.

There’s a lot to work with here, as well.

SIXTH ROUND (216th overall) _ Jonathon Cooper, Edge, Ohio State

Edge rusher is less of a priority if the Steelers land Collins in Round One and if they perceive well-traveled veteran Cassius Marsh (14 sacks in 92 career regular-season games) to be a complementary piece from which production can be gleaned. Still, you can never have enough of those types.

Cooper (6-2, 253) only had 10 sacks in parts of five seasons for the Buckeyes (1.5 fewer than Everybody’s All-American, Kwity Paye, had in four seasons at Michigan; both forced one career fumble). But 3.5 of Cooper’s sacks were amassed in eight games in 2020.

There was also this from NFL Network analyst Charles Davis regarding Cooper’s performance in the College Football Playoff: “I’m not sure he got blocked in the Clemson game.”

SEVENTH ROUND (245th overall) _ Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia

This selection isn’t about the stopwatch, it’s about the production. The 4.76 40 was “unfortunate,” Jeremiah assessed. But that didn’t stop LeCounte (5-10, 196) from intercepting seven passes and breaking up 14 over the last two seasons, or from being named First-Team All-SEC in 2020. Scouts don’t care about such honors, but it still resonates that LeCounte held up well in college football’s toughest conference.

Brugler characterized LeCounte as “field-fast,” a “mean-spirited tackler,” and a “charismatic leader and very well liked in the Georgia locker room.”

“To me this is still a really good football player who I think plays much faster,” than the 40 time, Jeremiah maintained. “He is somebody that relies on his eyes and his instincts to play faster.” NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said Pro Day measurables are for “pole position,” and added of LeCounte: “This is a talented player that can absolutely get it done on the field.”

SEVENTH ROUND (254th overall) _ Naquan Jones, DT, Michigan State

Don’t take my word for it if the whole card-carrying-Michigan-State-alumni thing makes you think my objectivity is compromised; it isn’t. But if you need a second opinion consider CBS analyst Brian Baldinger’s assessment of Jones (6-3, 313) at the Hula Bowl: “When you look at him you go, ‘This is what an NFL defensive tackle looks like.’” What more do you want at 254th overall?

PFA (Priority Free Agent) _ Dylan Soehner, TE, Iowa State

Blocking and blocking alone is just fine with Soehner (6-6, 268), who only caught 26 career passes for the Cyclones (including one for a touchdown). Here’s what he told reporters after Iowa State’s Pro Day: “If there’s a job that’s typically labeled as ‘unfavorable ’in the football world, then that’s the kind of job for me. If the coach is like, ‘Man, who do we have to do this? ’That’s always been my job.” Brugler called Soehner “a hard-nosed blocker and soft-handed receiver with the right mentality for NFL work.” Sold

Thumbnail via Getty Images

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