Time for Steelers to make CB draft priority

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have not taken a cornerback in the first round of the NFL draft since 1997, often finding players in the middle to late rounds they developed into serviceable to quality starters.

That will change this year for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Steelers need more help to counter passing attacks that increasingly force teams out of their base defense and demand five or six defensive backs on the field at the same time.

The Steelers addressed safety with their most significant free-agent signing, bringing in Mike Mitchell to replace Ryan Clark at free safety. They also have high hopes for 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas on the back end of their defense.

The Steelers showed interest in a handful of cornerbacks prior to the start of the free-agent signing period. But the only move they have made at that position is agreeing to a pay cut with Ike Taylor that will bring the 11th-year veteran back for one more season.

Taylor, who turns 34 in May, will help develop the cornerbacks the Steelers select in the draft -- yes, plural. One of those is likely to be Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert or Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard in the first round.

Whether the Steelers have their choice between the two players widely considered the top cornerbacks in the draft remains to be seen.

Fourteen teams pick ahead of the Steelers, and the Lions at No. 10 are among those who could go with a cornerback in the first round. One thing working in favor of the Steelers is enough teams ahead of them have such an acute need at quarterback that three or four of them could be picked early, pushing higher-rated players down in the draft.

On paper, it doesn't seem like the Steelers could go wrong with either Gilbert or Dennard.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last season while playing in the pass-happy Big 12. He burnished his pro credentials by running an official time of 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.

Dennard ran a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which isn't great but hardly raised any red flags. And the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner is the more physical corner of the two, something that could give him an edge when the Steelers assign final draft grades, because their cornerbacks also have to provide run support.

Does the fact that the Steelers have only three cornerbacks on their roster with significant NFL experience mean they are locked into the position with their first pick? Hardly, though they will have a strong group to pick from even if Gilbert and Dennard go off the board in the first 14 picks.

Wide receiver will also receive strong consideration from the Steelers, and it would be really easy to pencil in Texas A&M's Mike Evans as their pick. Johnny Manziel's favorite target at A&M is 6-foot-5 and he was incredibly productive in college.

For a team that appears to be all in as far as maximizing Ben Roethlisberger's remaining seasons as a franchise quarterback, adding a tall wide receiver to an offense that has long lacked one would be a no-brainer.

The problem is Evans ran well enough at the combine to allay any concerns about his speed, and even in a draft flush with wide receivers he will likely be gone before the Steelers make their first pick.

They could try and trade down in the draft and address their defensive line, which has a gaping hole at defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. The problem with that, as Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has noted, is a lot of teams could try to do the same thing in an attempt to collect extra picks in a draft that is unusually deep across the board.

Assuming the Steelers stay at No. 15, there doesn't appear to be a defensive lineman worth taking that high. Yes, they have and will do their homework on Pitt's Aaron Donald, one of the top linemen in the draft and one who has been compared to no less a player than the Bengals' Geno Atkins.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, Donald does not fit their 3-4 scheme as he is more of a penetrating lineman, not an immovable, hold-the-point-of-attack one.

There are still more than five weeks before the draft, an eternity for teams to fall in and out of love with prospects, and what the Steelers do with their first pick depends on how the selection process shakes out in front of them.

But cornerback is the most logical position for them to address with the 15th pick. They need both immediate and long-term reinforcements at the position. They also need playmakers there -- Steelers cornerbacks intercepted just three passes last season.

The draft is deep enough that they will find a cornerback later in the draft.

But for a team that needs to draft two cornerbacks this year, it is also time for them to take one with their first-round pick.