Steelers looking to fill a tall order in NFL draft
February 21, 2014 11:49 PM
Detroit's Calvin Johnson, shown here pulling in a pass for a touchdown in front of Ike Taylor, has become the standard-bearer for tall receivers in the NFL; the Steelers might like to add a component like him in the 2014 draft.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS — If the Steelers are in the market for a big wide receiver for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they won’t have to look hard to find one at the NFL Scouting Combine.
There are several that literally stand head and shoulders above the others.
In fact, two of the top-rated receivers in the draft have that Calvin Johnson body-type that is becoming more prevalent — and more desired — in the NFL. And both of them could be in range for the Steelers with the 15th overall pick.
Mike Evans was the other half of the aerial circus at Texas A&M that featured former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. And Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin elevated his profile with his winning, body-twisting touchdown catch in the national championship game against Auburn.
NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock has Evans (6 feet 4, 231 pounds) and Benjamin (6-5, 240), a pair of redshirt sophomores, among his top four receivers in the draft. That would make them the most likely “big” targets for the Steelers.
“In today’s NFL, with the back-shoulder fade, it has changed the way teams play,” Mayock said Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the six-day combine. “In the draft, those two guys make a lot of sense.”
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said a receiver doesn’t have to be tall to play big, and he cited San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin, who is 6-1, as an example.
But there is little question the Steelers would like to find a tall receiver to pair with smaller receivers Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton. They think a tall receiver will make it easier for Roethlisberger to complete passes downfield and give them a better target in the red zone.
“Tall is a relative term,” Colbert said. “Height is not necessarily the be-all, end-all for finding a receiver who can play big. Jerricho Cotchery did a nice job for us last being that big receiver because he can play big, especially in the red zone. I don’t want to just narrow it down.”
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is generally considered the best wide receiver in the draft and is expected to be long gone before the Steelers pick at No. 15. But, at 6-1, 205, he lacks the physical measurables of Evans and Benjamin.
His Clemson teammate, Martavis Bryant, is 6-4, 210 and runs a 4.38. Bryant mostly was overshadowed by Watkins while catching 42 passes for 828 yards and seven touchdowns last season. But he opened eyes when he caught two touchdowns in the Orange Bowl and is one of those players who has a chance to improve his draft stock at the combine.
Another candidate is Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews, who has the size (6-3, 213) but lacks the speed (4.55) to be a top selection. Matthews is the nation’s all-time leader in career receiving yards and has been compared to another former Vanderbilt receiver, Earl Bennett of the Chicago Bears.
“If you asked me, I feel like I’m the best guy here,” said Matthews, one of the few seniors among the top receivers. “I felt when I ended college I was the NCAA’s active leader in receiving yards so the numbers speak for themselves. I plan to do that at next level, too.”
None of them, though, has the chance to land with the Steelers as much as Evans or Benjamin. At least on the first round.
Evans even received a huge endorsement from Manziel, with whom he teamed to catch 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as a redshirt sophomore. Evans, a former basketball player, averaged 20.2 yards per catch and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
“Mike Evans is really one of the most physical, one of the best, receivers I’ve seen play college football,” Manziel said during his 20-minute news conference at the combine. “The guy is 6-5 and goes up and gets any ball you throw his way. On top of that, he’s an extremely hard worker and a guy I would really, really do anything for.”
Mayock has Benjamin dropping into the middle or later stages of the first round because, despite his size and game-winning catch in the national championship game, he drops too many passes.
“He’s got really good hands and he makes the spectacular catch, but he has too many drops,” Mayock said. “Some people say that’s just a concentration drop; I say that’s 15 yards. That’s the only thing that worries me about him.”
Benjamin, though, is a physical marvel. He has 4 percent body fat and hopes to run a 4.3 in the 40 at the combine.
“It just opens the door for younger guys who are that big,” said Benjamin of Florida State, who, like Evans, was a redshirt sophomore. “But it’s not the size of the receiver, it’s the heart, the work ethic.”
The Steelers discovered firsthand the difficulties of trying to defend a big receiver last season.
Detroit’s Johnson (6-5, 236) had 179 receiving yards and two touchdowns on six catches against them at Heinz Field. A week later, they watched Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (6-3, 225) catch 14 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown.
Earlier in the year, Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 216) and Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) combined for 12 catches and 103 yards against them.
“They’re a physical mismatch,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has three receivers 6-4 or taller among his top five pass-catchers — A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals’ other two receivers — Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu — are 6-2.
“He has a bit of an advantage because he’s able to go up and physically make the contested catch more often. With the evolution of some of our rules, it makes it slightly easier for that guy as well. You can’t hide from that,” Lewis said of the tall receiver.
“That guy has the opportunity to catch the football without being impeded, without being hit in certain areas. That’s important And when you get down in the red zone, it provides a bigger target.”
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