Yesterday, the University of Texas held their annual Pro Day workout for their N.F.L.-hopeful prospects. On hand at the event were two of the Steelers’ most important figures: Head Coach Mike Tomlin and G.M. Kevin Colbert. Although a number of players took part in the event, I would have to guess that Pittsburgh’s brass wanted to scout two guys in particular: safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end/outside linebacker Alex Okafor.
Unfortunately for Vaccaro (6′ 214 lbs.), he was limited during workouts due to a hip flexor tendon injury. In spite of his ailment, Kenny still performed his positional drills yesterday according to Gil Brandt of NFL.com.
Although I am a bit more partial to Matt Elam of Florida and D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina, I would still be happy to see the Steelers draft the former Longhorn. A starter for two and a half years during his career at Texas, the safety performed in a variety of roles in Texas’ defensive backfield. Kenny started games at free safety, strong safety, and even helped to cover slot receivers in man-coverage. A tough tackler and a solid “in-the-box” defender against the pass and run, Vaccaro led the team in said category last year with 107 last year and forced 5 turnovers total (2 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles).
Granted, Vaccaro is not likely to wow anybody with his straight-line speed (4.63 40 time at The Combine). Furthermore, he is not what one would consider an instinctive “centerfielder” type of safety who can roam freely on the back-end of the defense and collect turnovers. Nevertheless, what Kenny can bring to the table in terms of his skill-set is not only impressive, but it could give the Steelers’ defense a much needed “added-dimension.”
Vaccaro can pack a wallop as a tackler, cover shifty pass-catchers (especially in man situations) in the slot (4.06 20 yard shuttle at The Combine), and line up in a number of places in “Big Nickel” schemes to counteract opposing tight ends. At least to me, Vaccaro has the potential to give the Steelers a legitimate chess piece to employ in sub-packages in the present, and then again at strong safety once Polamalu retires.
While Vaccaro has garnered quite a bit of attention from Steelers fans over the offseason, do not discount Alex Okafor (6’4.75″ 265 lbs.) as a player who is on Pittsburgh’s radars right now either. In my opinion, I feel like the former Longhorn defensive end is a Top 40 prospect who has the potential to be an effective pass-rusher at the next level.
Like Vaccaro, Okafor started for two and half years as a Longhorn and shined during his junior and senior campaigns. In 2011, the defensive end recorded 58 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Last season though, Alex racked up 68 tackles, 18.0 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 interception! What made last season’s numbers even more impressive for Okafor was the fact that he set or tied career highs in those categories while his fellow defensive end, Jackson Jeffcoat, spent most of the season on the sideline due to a pectoral injury.
Although Alex is not a Barkevious Mingo type of player as a “speedster pass rusher,” he still possesses enough speed (4.88 40 yard, 4.40 short shuttle times at Pro Day) and quickness to collapse the pocket from the outside for a player his size. Okafor is at his best when he uses his strength and larger frame to his advantage to gain leverage against opposing offensive linemen when he goes after the opposing signal-caller though.
While some scouts believe that Okafor is better suited to stay as a down-lineman at the pro level, I feel that he could still be an effective player as a strongside outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme (see his Sacks against Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl). Of course, Okafor must prove that he can consistently anchor himself better and set the edge against the run game. Moreover, Alex must also show that he can be a non-liability in pass-coverage, and illustrate that he can cover an ample amount of ground in zone schemes.
I should also add that the Steelers would benefit from adding a player like Okafor to their roster for one important reason: LaMarr Woodley has been nothing short of an injury-prone failure since he inked his 6 year $61.5 million dollar deal during the summer of 2011.
Woodley will not only turn 29 in November of this year, but his bloated contract is an enormous salary-cap destroying “albatross” which hangs around the franchise’s neck. If the Steelers unable to get any production from the former Wolverine in 2013 or 2014, I would hope that Colbert & Co. would do the smart thing and release the underachieving pass-rusher who was deemed “awful” by an unnamed teammate last year. In the event that LaMarr has nothing left to contribute, drafting a player like Okafor would give Pittsburgh’s defense some much needed insurance at strongside outside linebacker if and when the former Pro Bowler fails to perform up to par once more.
Vacarro could and likely will garner a large amount of interest from teams in front of and behind the Steelers in Round 1 due to his versatility and skill-set. If he is available for Pittsburgh to take at #17 overall, I would have to believe that the Steelers’ brass would make him their pick. As far as Okafor is concerned, if he is around early in Round 2, I would have no qualms if Pittsburgh traded up to acquire him to help their inconsistent pass-rush.
Even if the Steelers are not interested in Okafor or Vaccaro though, I am sure that Colbert & Co. will try to acquire a safety and an outside linebacker at some point in next month’s Draft.