As of right now, many Mock Drafts (including NPC’s) have the Steelers selecting the talented ILB Dont’a Hightower in Round 1 of the upcoming N.F.L. Draft. I mean, it makes complete and total sense from my perspective. The Steelers have a need at ILB now that James Farrior is gone, and an upgrade over Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester is absolutely necessary.
Hightower being a good fit for the Steelers at #24 aside, there is an outside chance that he might not be the ILB the Steelers end up selecting this April. As of now there exist a number of possible factors which could force Pittsburgh to look elsewhere besides ILB in Round 1 such as: Cordy Glenn falling, Mark Barron being the #1 guy on the Steelers’ board, the Steelers trading up/down, etc..
But even if Pittsburgh decides to pass on/not select Hightower in Round 1, they will still be in the market for an ILB this offseason. And unless the cash-strapped Steelers make a play in Free Agency for ILB help, they are probably going to need to draft Farrior’s replacement this season. So which guys could the Steelers target in the event that Hightower isn’t “their guy?” Well, I made a short list of ILB prospects which the Steelers’ Front Office and scouts could have their eyes on come Draft Day. Let’s take a look shall we:
6’0 240 lbs.
Projected Round: 2-3
Bobby Wagner is probably the Top Ranked ILB behind Luke Kuechly and Dont’a Hightower in this Draft Class now. A versatile player, Wagner started on the Inside and the Outside during his collegiate career. In addition to his versatility, Wagner was a 4 year starter for the Aggies, and anchored the LB corps since his Freshman year in 2008. In terms of personal accolades, Wagner earned All-WAC honors from 2009-2011 and had himself a career year in 2011 by amassing a stat line of: 147 Tackles, 4.0 Sacks, and 2 INT’s over a 13 game span.
Probably Wagner’s biggest asset to a team is his ability to Tackle and play near the line of scrimmage. As I stated in my Mock Draft, Wagner was a: “Tackling Machine,” and during his career at Utah State, Wagner did a tremendous job at not only finding the guy with the ball, but putting him flat on his butt. Wagner racked up 115 Tackles his Sophomore season and 133 his Junior campaign, and possesses the tenacity to play on the Inside and find the ball carrier.
Wagner also has some upside in pass coverage as well, as he picked off 4 passes in his Aggie career. While he might not be the most cat-quick ILB, Wagner is a smart player and with a little coaching should be able to be solid on passing downs if asked to cover Backs and Ends.
In terms of weaknesses, Wagner’s biggest issue will be keeping his weight up if he is indeed drafted into a 3-4 scheme. His Senior Bowl (Wagner won the North’s Most Outstanding Player Award with 7 Tackles and 1 INT) weigh-in numbers were great (6’0 241 lbs.), but his playing weight in Logan was somewhere in the low 230′s. To take a pounding, fight off blockers, track the ball, and deliver blows is a must in the N.F.L. at ILB, and someone with his stature might run into trouble. There’s no doubt amongst scouts that Wagner is tough enough to sustain the rigors of the N.F.L.. Yet if he fails to keep his weight up and cannot leverage himself on a consistent basis, he could be manhandled by some of the more strong and drive blocking Interior Linemen if he cannot use his weight/leverage effectively to shed blocks at the pro level.
5’11″ 240 lbs.
Projected Round: 2-3
After a great showing at “The Underpants Olympics,” Mychal Kendricks’ stock has been steadily rising in recent weeks. Kendricks shot up draft boards after a Combine workout saw him run a 4.47 40 Yard Dash, a 4.19 Shuttle, and reach a 39.5” Vertical Jump. And right now, scouts are starting to take notice of the 2011 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and his upside could put him in 2nd-Round consideration.
An experienced player (29 starts over his college career), Kendricks had himself a career Senior campaign with the Golden Bears in 2011. Kendricks made 107 Tackles, 14.5 Tackles for Loss, and 2 INT’s in his first season at Inside Linebacker as Cal went to the Holiday Bowl. While his experience on the Inside may be a bit limited, he did happen to play in a 3-4 Defense under Clancy Pendergast at California and having versatility is a major plus for anybody that plays Defense for the Steelers.
Probably the part of Kendricks’ game that I am the most intrigued by is his ability to blitz and attack the QB. When he started at OLB for the Bears in 2010, Kendricks registered a team leading 8.5 Sacks. And while last season (when he was moved to ILB) he only made 3.0, the ability of Kendricks to get to the QB is there. and it could be an added bonus for Dick LeBeau to use on in some A-Gap blitzes and in some of his exotic sets.
Kendricks is in sort of the same mold as Wagner in terms of his body type. Standing at 5’11 and 240 lbs., Kendricks is on the small side, but is a tenacious and aggressive player between the Tackles. Nevertheless, his 5’11″ frame could cost him in pass coverage against some of the League’s more physical and athletic TE’s which could out-jump him for the ball. But then again, Kendricks’ 39.5″ vertical jump put on display at The Combine could come in handy, and Keith Butler would be salivating over the raw athleticism which Kendricks possesses.
Much like Wagner as well, Kendricks could struggle at times as an “In-The-Box” Defender at the pro level. Kendricks does not possess the size or strength of a Dont’a Hightower and will need to prove that he can play every-down, especially in run situations, “In-The-Box.” It will thus be very important for Kendricks to maintain a weight in the 240’s and/or build more upper-body strength to combat bigger Interior Offensive Linemen, otherwise teams could exploit his speed and aggressiveness if he gets sloppy with his leverage and/or technique.