NFL Scouting Combine: Defense priority in draft process

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Inside linebacker or nose tackle? Cornerback or guard? It will be a while before the Steelers settle on which position they will attack first with the 18th overall pick in the National Football League draft.

But the process of determining which players might best fill one of those positions begins in earnest when coach Mike Tomlin, director of football operations Kevin Colbert and numerous assistant coaches and scouts attend the NFL combine that starts today at Lucas Oil Stadium. Drills, tests, meetings and medical exams are all on the menu at the league's annual meat market of college talent.

"I think the quality of the draft is excellent," Colbert said. "It's very deep defensively. Offensively, there may not be as many big-name skill positions, but there are a lot of players. It's really a good draft, it really is."

Defense would appear to be a large priority for the Steelers, especially after the manner in which the unit slipped from its No. 1 ranking in 2008 to No. 5 in 2009. And the biggest areas of concern are defensive line, where age and quality of depth are issues; inside linebacker, where there is no young replacement for James Farrior; and cornerback, where quality, not quantity, appears to be lacking.

Some of those questions, though, could be answered today if the Steelers put a franchise tag, as expected, on five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. His return likely would mean less interest in two of the top nose tackles in the draft -- Terrence Cody of Alabama and Dan Williams of Tennessee.

Colbert said "it's an unusually deep draft" for defensive linemen. "It was unusual before the underclassmen came out. And they just enhanced it."

Here is a look at 10 players about whom the Steelers have interest and will seek answers, at the combine:

NT Terrence Cody: Alabama ... He is a load in the middle (6 feet 5, 365 pounds) and his conditioning always will be an issue. But, when he wants to play, he is almost impossible to move.

ILB Rolando McClain: Alabama ... At 6 feet 4, 258 pounds, he is the best inside backer in the draft and could slip as far as the 15th overall pick. That means the Steelers might not have to move up far to get him.

DE Jared Odrick: Penn State ... A prototypical Steelers lineman who can play the three-technique or five-technique. Plays and looks a lot like Aaron Smith -- stuffing the run while collapsing the pocket.

CB Joe Haden: Florida ... It's not a good year for cornerbacks, but Haden, who will skip his senior season, likely is the best. The Steelers need someone who can play immediately. They don't need more depth.

ILB Sean Weatherspoon: Missouri ... At 6-2, 242 pounds, he is not as big as McClain, but he likely is quicker and a little more athletic and will be available. Lined behind Ziggy Hood with the Tigers.

G/T Mike Iupati: Idaho ... The Steelers need a stud who can come in and play immediately on the offensive line, and Iupati, who opened eyes at the Senior Bowl, could be the guy. He also can play two positions, which the Steelers love.

WR Golden Tate: Notre Dame ... A tough Hines Ward-type receiver with even more athletic skills who would eventually be Ward's replacement.

OLB Navorro Bowman: Penn State ... In case you haven't noticed, there isn't a lot of depth at outside linebacker. And James Harrison will be 32 next season.

DE Corey Wootton: Northwestern ... At 6 feet 6, 280 pounds, he can play defensive end in the 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Appears to have recovered from a knee injury at the end of his junior season.

G Mike Johnson: Alabama ... Not a first-round pick, but the Steelers could get him on the second or possibly even third round. At 6 feet 6, 305 pounds, he also has the position flexibility to play tackle.


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