6’1″ 241 lbs.
Projected Rounds: 4-5
If the Steelers are unable to acquire Dont’a Hightower, and are willing wait a year or two with Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester at ILB, they could take a chance on James-Michael Johnson of Nevada.
A four year starter, Johnson got better each and every season at Nevada, and his statistics reflected his steady improvement. Johnson saved his best performance for his Senior season where he notched 100 Tackles and 1.5 Sacks. Like the other prospects I’ve discussed, Johnson played both Inside (2 years) and Outside Linebacker (2 years) during his collegiate career, and his versatility could be coveted by the Steelers if they are still in the market for an ILB.
At 6’1″ Johnson could probably add a little bit more weight to his 241 lb. frame if it does not interfere with his speed or agility. Johnson could also stand to get a bit stronger to deal with the bigger Interior Linemen so he can take on/shed blocks at the pro level. Nevertheless, like all prospects on this list, Johnson is a tough cookie that did a nice job “In-The-Box” making Tackles and Tackles for Loss (38.5 career) as a college player.
Like Wagner, Johnson will likely have to get used to the rise in competition from the WAC to the National Football League. The speed of the game might throw him off just a tad at first, and like all prospects transitioning to ILB at the pro level, it couldn’t hurt for him to learn the nuances of and improve his game in pass coverage before he plays regularly. But if Johnson is brought along for a year or two, Johnson should be ready to contribute on a consistent basis on the Defensive side of the ball by mid-late 2013.
(North Carolina State)
6’4″ 246 lbs.
Projected Rounds: 4-5
Like Johnson, Audie Cole could be an ILB available for the Steelers to take in Rounds 4-5. One of Cole’s biggest assets when he gets to the pro level will be his overall size. Cole is a stout 6’4″ 246 lbs., and last season proved himself to be a terrific “In-The-Box” Defender for the Wolfpack. Cole had a nose for the football during his collegiate career, and led NC State in Tackles in 2009 (85) and 2011 (108), and tied for the team lead in 2010 (97). Cole’s large frame delivered the blows as well as absorb them on a consistent basis at NC State, and his physical nature should translate well to the pro game.
Tackles aside, Cole’s most impressive statistics from last season were probably the 13.5 Tackles for Loss and 5.5 Sacks which he registered in 13 games. Granted, Cole won’t be blitzing often from his ILB spot, but having a guy that has displayed that he can least attack the QB and make plays in the backfield is always a plus.
Much like Wagner, Kendricks, and Johnson, Cole displayed his versatility in college by playing Inside and the Outisde for the Wolfpack. While he played the Middle and the Strongside LB for the Wolfpack in a 4-3, Cole’s ability to compete at a high level at both positions is definitely something that scouts of 3-4 teams will keep in mind come the middle rounds of the Draft.
Straightline speed (4.81 40 at Combine) and overall athleticisim could be one of Cole’s biggest issues when it comes to pass coverage though. As disciplined and experienced of a player as Cole is, he could be a liability when matched against speedy Backs and Ends in 3rd and 5-8 Yard situations. We saw what Ray Rice and the Ravens’ TE’s did last season to the Steelers, and James Farrior was exploited a multitude of other times when forced to cover much faster players. Hopefully if the Steelers draft Cole he can use his instincts well and do a serviceable job when asked to in pass coverage against better athletes.
As I stated before, I’m a Hightower fan and I hope the Steelers look his way in Round 1. Hightower has all the makings of a terrific player and he would fit in well playing alongside Timmons for 7-10 years. Nevertheless, Draft Day is always wacky, and trades and players sliding/being picked could force the Steelers to look in later Rounds for an ILB.
In the event that the Steelers do not select an ILB in Round 1, they would likely have a shot at selecting Wagner or Kendricks at the bottom of Round 2 with the 56th overall pick. I personally do not see either Wagner or Kendricks lasting until the late 3rd Round where the Steelers are, and if the Steelers failed to trade back in Round 1 or traded up into the top/middle of Round 3, both will probably not be there.
Johnson and Cole however should be available in Rounds 4-5. And depending on which guy the Steelers like more, they could get themselves quite a bargain if they believe that they can develop Johnson, or Pittsburgh feels that Cole can defend some of the more athletic TE’s and Backs the team will run into down the road.
I have complete and total faith in Colbert and Co. with regards to the Draft process. If they go Hightower in Round 1 I will be stoked, no doubt about it. But if they aren’t able to acquire him, or another talent at another position is available, or they decide to trade, I won’t lose any sleep. There are still some fine options available for the Steelers to take at ILB.