Ohio St. quarterback Cardale Jones speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine Thursday in Indianapolis.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
INDIANAPOLIS — The drive from Columbus, Ohio, to Pittsburgh is a fairly easy one, about three hours east, mostly on Interstate 70. But that isn’t the reason so many Ohio State players have found their way to the Steelers.
Since general manager Kevin Colbert joined the organization in 2000, the Steelers have drafted eight Ohio State players, double the number the two Ohio-based franchises — Browns and Bengals — have selected in that time. Six of those players were defenders, including two starters who were No. 1 draft picks — defensive end Cam Heyward and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if they added another this year.
Ohio State has two defensive backs who are considered first-round selections, either of whom could interest the Steelers — cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell. Apple is considered among the top-five corners in the draft; Bell is one of the two best safeties, according to NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock.
The Steelers couldn’t go wrong with either Apple or Bell in their attempt to restock and improve a secondary that was among the third-worst statistically in the league in 2015. The duo helped create a tough secondary to solve at Ohio State.
“Everybody on our defense is an NFL prospect,” Apple said Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. “You could take our whole Ohio State defense and put them on an NFL team and you could win the Super Bowl like that.”
Why the connection with Ohio State?
It isn’t just that players such as Heyward and Shazier are talented and received high first-round grades from the Steelers. They also are good fits for the Steelers defensive scheme because the Buckeyes use many of the same defensive concepts in their program.
It goes back to when Dick LeBeau, an Ohio State alumnus, was the Steelers defensive coordinator. There were many occasions when Ohio State coaches would come to Pittsburgh or training camp in Latrobe to get tutored in the nuances of LeBeau’s scheme.
That allowed players such as Heyward and Shazier to make an easier and quicker transition when they got to the Steelers.
“It’s just the physicality, being able to come up and impact the run game,” Apple said about the similarity with the Steelers. “Being able to hit and be physical out there.”
Cornerback would appear to be a more of an urgent need for the Steelers because of a lack of talent and bodies. Three of their top five corners —William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin — are unrestricted free agents. The Steelers have just started the process of which of those players they might re-sign, but nothing is imminent.
The top cornerbacks in the draft are Jaylen Ramsey of Florida State and Vernon Hargreaves of Florida, both of whom should be gone by the time the Steelers select at No. 25. The most likely top prospects in their range are Apple, Mackensie Alexander (5 feet 11, 195 pounds) of Clemson and Kendall Fuller (6-0, 197) of Virginia Tech.
Alexander is at the combine but will not participate Monday in on-field workouts because of a hamstring injury. Fuller, a three-year starter, is considered a better prospect than his three older brothers who starred at Virginia Tech and were drafted into the NFL.
A player on the rise is Houston’s William Jackson III (6-0, 189), a former junior-college transfer who led Football Bowl Subdivision with 14 pass break-ups and had three interceptions, including two for touchdowns, in 2015. He considers himself a press corner who needs to work on his tackling.
“I have great ball skills so I feel I can match with any tall receiver on the outside. I feel I can compete with those big guys,” said Jackson, who met informally with Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake at the combine. “I have to stop trying to go for the big hit all the time, kind of [learn to] wrap up. I need to get that habit out.”
Apple (6-1, 200) is a long, rangy bump-and-run corner who had 22 pass break-ups the past two seasons at Ohio State. He is considered a big hitter and strong tackler.
The Steelers would like to get a bigger cornerback for their defense, especially if they decide to release the only one with any real length — Cortez Allen, who has dropped out of favor with the coaches and will count $5.75 million against the salary cap in 2016. A bigger, more physical corner who will attract interest because of his size is Virginia’s Maurice Canady (6-2, 195), who Ohio State’s converted receiver Braxton Miller said was the best cornerback at the Senior Bowl.
But, while acknowledging the need to defend bigger receivers, Colbert said the Steelers use a different litmus test when evaluating cornerbacks.
“We always try to evaluate a corner on if he can cover Antonio Brown,” Colbert said. “Size isn’t necessary to cover Antonio Brown; superior athletic ability and skill is required. That’s the standard we try to hold, can this guy cover Antonio. And if it’s negative, there are a lot guys who aren’t able to. But, that’s more what we look for than just stereotyping and saying that we need length.”
NOTES — Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd did not impress in the 40-yard dash, posting an official time of 4.58 seconds. He was timed unofficially at 4.59 and 4.61 in his two runs. ….. The Steelers met with Penn State defensive end and Lombardi Award winner Carl Nassib Saturday. Nassib (nearly 6 feet 7, 277 pounds) led FBS with 15½ sacks in 2015. The Steelers are looking for depth on the defensive line in the draft.
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