NFL draft’s enormous depth, quality likely will play into Steelers’ hands

INDIANAPOLIS — When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said last week that the 2014 NFL draft is as deep as any he has seen in 30 years, he was not a lone voice in the wilderness. Many other general managers and draft evaluators have similar views about this group of college prospects.

“From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class in 10 years,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “That has been reinforced by most general managers and scouts in the league. They say having a top-20 pick this year is like having a top-10 pick last year.”

That’s good news for the Steelers, who have the No. 15 pick. Starting today, the Steelers and every other team in the league will descend on Lucas Oil Stadium for the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where more than 300 draft hopefuls will jockey for position in the draft.

Why is this draft so good? It comes down to college players wanting to get paid.

There are 98 underclassmen eligible for the draft, and 85 were invited to the combine. The number of underclassmen declaring early has skyrocketed in recent years.

A year ago, 73 underclassmen declared for the draft. In 2010, the number was 53. And those who choose to do so rarely are disappointed.

Sophomores and juniors are drafted early. A year ago, half the first-round draft picks, 16 of 32, were underclassmen.

This has created a double-edged sword for NFL teams. More elite talent is at their disposal, but they know less about younger players because there are not as many games to review. There also is the possibility some could use more seasoning, a redshirt year in effect.

“It’s interesting,” Mayock said. “There are a lot of mixed emotions on that around the league. I think it’s easier to evaluate a guy after four or five years in college. You get a more mature football player, so you’re taking some of the variables out of play.

“I think there are more risks,” he said with so many underclassmen available. “However, there are better football players out there. It’s a mixed bag. In a perfect world, there would be fewer coming out. But the NFL can’t do anything about it. You just do your best to evaluate them.”

The Steelers are doubly fortunate this year because, in addition to the number of elite players in the first round, this draft is deep and talented at positions where they have needs.

Mayock said this is the best draft for receivers in years. Sammy Watkins of Clemson is expected to be drafted in the top five, but Mayock said the Steelers, if they wanted to go that route, would be able to get one of the other top three receivers at No. 15. His top three receivers after Watkins are Marquise Lee of Southern California, Mike Evans of Texas A&M and Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, in that order.

All three are underclassmen. Evans and Benjamin are third-year sophomores and Lee is a junior.

Mayock also touted the depth at cornerback and offensive tackle, two other positions the Steelers could be looking to fill in May.

“There is more quality in the top end of the draft than there has been in a long time,” Mayock said. “You can go three or four rounds deep and get a starting tackle.”

Interestingly, one position Mayock is not as confident in this year is quarterback, which poses some problems for teams at the top of the draft.

Several teams drafting in the top 10 need quarterbacks, but Mayock is not convinced any of the prospects in this class will develop into All-Pros.

Mayock’s top quarterback is Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville followed by Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Blake Bortles of Central Florida.

“None of them are Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck,” Mayock said.

“The more I watch all three of them the more questions I have. I don’t want to overanalyze them, but I can pick apart all three. I could not pick apart Andrew Luck.”

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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