The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 6, 2014

Steelers make most of time as draft nears

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers ticked off most of their to-do list during a busier than expected offseason.

Safety Troy Polamalu, tight end Heath Miller and cornerback Ike Taylor signed salary cap friendly contract extensions. Promising outside linebacker Jason Worilds accepted his transition tag while the team parted ways with enigmatic former Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers offset the departures of wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery by signing Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore.

All of those moves, however, were under the team’s control.

Now comes the hard part: trying to prepare for a draft that might be as unpredictable as it is deep.

Stuck in the middle of the first round with the 15th overall pick following a second straight 8-8 season, the Steelers won’t lack for options save for one. Don’t expect them to get greedy looking at the top of the draft board. General Manager Kevin Colbert doesn’t envision a scenario where the team trades up.

“There won’t be any movement up on our part,” Colbert said. “I can say that pretty sure.”

That’s about the only thing set as the Steelers attempt to figure out which direction to go. Pooling from what he called the deepest draft class he’s seen in 30 years, Colbert said the Steelers stay at 15 they’ll get a player that would have been a Top 10 pick most seasons.

Of course, a little chaos at the top of the draft could change all that. Colbert called drama surrounding the top quarterback prospects the “linchpin” of the entire first round. If Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater stick around the green room at Radio City Music Hall longer than expected, Colbert can see the Steelers playing a willing partner if another club ponies up the picks necessary to swap spots with Pittsburgh and take one of the signal callers.

“The more picks the merrier,” Colbert said.

The Steelers have nine picks total, including two each in the fifth and sixth rounds. Though Colbert insists the team won’t rule out any position in the first round, the Steelers have depth and experience issues at wide receiver, cornerback and along the defensive line.

Not that Colbert is worried, saying the abundance of top-end talent will have a carry-over effect throughout the three-day draft. Colbert anticipates being able to grab players in the later rounds that would have gone higher in the draft in other years.

Pittsburgh typically avoids moving around, particularly in the first round. The last time the Steelers swapped picks in the opening round was 2001, when they moved down three spots from 16th to 19th and earned two extra selections from the New York Jets in the process.

The draft and free agency isn’t the only way the Steelers could gain depth before training camp opens.

Coach Mike Tomlin said inside linebacker Sean Spence, who hasn’t played a snap in two years while recovering from a devastating knee injury, is “healthy and practicing” though it is too soon to determine whether he’ll be able to contribute. The same goes for defensive end Nick Williams, who missed all of last year with a left knee injury.

Tomlin and Colbert didn’t rule out a possible return by defensive end Brett Keisel, who remains unsigned. The Steelers are looking for bodies along the line after Al Woods and Ziggy Hood left and Keisel was not immediately brought back. Pittsburgh signed free agent Cam Thomas, but there is a significant drop-off in experience behind Thomas and projected starters Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon.

“We’re not done in that area,” Tomlin said. “It’s incomplete. Hopefully we’ll rectify that.”

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