Bob Smizik: Cornerback or wide receiver?

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An interesting dilemma sits in front of the Steelers today as they prepare for one of the most momentous events on the American sports calendar -- the National Football League draft.

It’s not so much which player they will take with the 15th pick tonight that is the dilemma, but which position they select. Do they go with a cornerback? Do they go with a wide receiver? Outstanding players at both positions figure to be available when the Steelers select.

Although taking a cornerback is the conventional wisdom of the day, a wide receiver remains a possibility.

Mel Kiper of ESPN.com veered sharply from the CW by predicting the Steelers would take Zack Martin, an offensive tackle from Notre Dame. Although far from infallible, Kiper is a leading authority. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Steelers taking an offensive tackle in the first round with their top three at that position returning and with them having invested so heavily in the offensive line in recent drafts.

Cornerback is probably the team’s greatest long-term need. The Steelers have three veteran cornerbacks returning: Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor and William Gay. Allen started last season and projects to continue in that role in the years ahead. Taylor is at the end of his career, and Gay is a journeyman who can start but is better suited as a backup.

A high-end cornerback would be the first step of many necessary in the rebuilding of the once-proud Steelers defense, which was awful in 2013. It makes perfect sense to go after a cornerback.

But the Steelers could move in a different direction. If they are looking for the quick fix to improve -- as opposed to the slow rebuilding process -- wide receiver is an option. The Steelers lost their second- and third-leading wide receivers -- Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery -- to free agency. They have signed free agents of their own and have 2013 No. 3 pick Markus Wheaton (six receptions for 64 yards).

None fits the description of a starter. If Ben Roethlisberger had another stud receiver to pair with Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ offense -- with LeVeon Bell at running back and a line that is at least competent but could be good -- has a chance to be outstanding.

The case could be made that the offense needs to be exceptional to make up for the shortcomings of the defense. A No. 1 pick is not likely going to give the immediate lift to the defense that it would to the offense. A wide receiver would have a better chance of breaking into the starting lineup in 2014 than a cornerback.

So do the Steelers want to make the glitzy move and go in the direction of offense? Or do they begin the grunt work of rebuilding a defense that’s not likely going to be very good regardless of what cornerback they take in the first round?

The draft is top heavy with wide receivers. In Kiper’s top 100 ranking, four of the first 14 players are wide receivers and there are plenty more behind them. Kiper’s top cornerback is ranked 16th. All of which means with the quality and quantity at wide receiver, the Steelers have a chance of getting a good one in the second round. The chances of landing a top cornerback in the second round are slimmer.

Here are the top wide receivers and where Kiper ranks them: Sammy Watkins, Clemson (2); Mike Evans, Texas A&M (7); Odell Beckham, LSU (12); Brandin Cooks, Oregon State (14); and Marqise Lee, USC (22).

Cornerbacks: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (16); Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech (17); Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (20); and Jason Verrett, TCU (26).

In all likelihood, the Steelers will select one of the first three cornerbacks listed. But a wide receiver is tempting.


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