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5 for Friday: Versatility a key for Steelers

It's no secret the Steelers value versatility among their players.

Just in case anyone had forgotten, general manager Omar Khan brought it up again at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year.

"Position flexibility has always been important to me," Khan said in Indianapolis in February. "We have guys who are center capable. But that doesn't mean we aren't going to look at free agency, the trade market and the draft process. There are good players in every one of those areas."

The Steelers made some overtures to players at the start of the free agency period at the center position. Those things didn't work out.

The trade market? That's still a possibility.

But the NFL Draft comes up next week, and that is the next opportunity for the Steelers to perhaps bring in competition for Nate Herbig, currently penciled in as the starter after Mason Cole's release, at the center position.

At this point, Herbig's career at the center position consists of 47 snaps he played there for the Eagles in 2021 and two more he spent at the position there for Philadelphia in 2020.

So, of his more than 2,000 career snaps played, less than 50 have come at center.

That being said, Herbig has played the position in the NFL. That will be 49 more snaps than anyone the Steelers might select in the draft has played at center.

Left guard Isaac Seumalo also played center at Oregon State, though he has lined up at that position for just 34 snaps in his career, all coming with the Eagles.

Right guard James Daniels, meanwhile, played 508 snaps at center in 2019 for the Bears, and also primarily played that position collegiately at Iowa.

In fact, in 2018, Daniels was considered one of the top center prospects in the NFL Draft.

In that draft, even though Daniels was the seventh pick of the second round, he was the fourth center selected after Detroit took Frank Ragnow 20th, the Bengals picked Billy Price 21st and Cleveland made Austin Corbett the first pick of the second round.

With Jason Kelce's retirement, Ragnow is arguably the best center in the NFL. Price, meanwhile, was a colossal flop, appearing in just 69 games before last playing for the Cardinals in 2022. And Corbett was jettisoned by Cleveland in his second season, getting traded to the Rams, where he became a guard. He's now a starter at that position for the Carolina Panthers.

Even 2023 seventh-round draft pick Spencer Anderson has some center play in his background in college at Maryland.

Why bring this up?

Because many Steelers fans and pundits are locking in on the Steelers selecting a center early in this draft. And they've centered in – no pun intended – on Duke's Graham Barton, Oregon's Jackson Powers-Johnson and Zach Frazier of West Virginia.

Now, certainly, those three players could certainly be in consideration for the Steelers with a first or second-round draft pick. But if they're not selected, that doesn't mean the Steelers have struck out.

Remember Kelce? He was a sixth-round pick in 2011. He could very well wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That brings us back to Khan's statement about valuing position flexibility.

The Steelers could covet a player who is strictly a center. But they also could look at a player who also could play guard and/or tackle.

They have multiple players on their roster who have center play in their background. They could certainly add another such player in this draft. But if they don't, it's not devastating because of their collection over the past couple of years of flexible players up front.

• Two of the more versatile players available early in next week's draft are Duke center Graham Barton and Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean.

Barton started at center at Duke as a freshman but moved to left tackle the past three seasons because he was Duke's best lineman.

"I think he has legit 5-position flexibility," said draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "He can move around and do different things. I think he's best at center, but he can survive at tackle if you need him to. I think he's fully capable of playing guard, as well. He's the best (center in this draft) in space, change of direction, just overall athleticism. He's really, really talented there."

As for DeJean, he's played safety, outside cornerback, nickel cornerback and even passing down linebacker in Iowa's defense, as well as being an outstanding punt returner.

DeJean intercepted seven passes in the past two seasons, returning three for touchdowns in 23 games. He also returned a punt for a touchdown.

"This guy's a special player," Jeremiah said on Glenn Clark radio recently. "You can move him all over the board."

• The new kickoff rule implemented by the NFL for the 2024 season is, in fact, causing some teams to dig deeper into return men in this draft.

"I was talking to a GM the other day, and he was going through the process of pulling returns on guys from like their freshman year," said Jeremiah. "(It was) like the stuff we used to do a lot of in scouting that you really haven't had to do over the last few years as the return game has kind of diminished. But now, they're like, 'OK, we're close on these two corners. This one was a kickoff returner two, three years ago.' They're going back and watching all these returns because now that has a little bonus to it, a little added value. I think it impacts the draft, absolutely.

"I think especially this year, not knowing, I think there are teams and decision-makers that want to be ahead of the curve a little bit and view that as (something) that could be a difference-making play again."

That is one thing that could certainly happen. Players with return skills in their background could be valued a little higher.

But former Patriots head coach Bill Belichick thinks it also could affect who is on the field beyond the return men.

"There will be more of an emphasis on size players in the return game than speed," Belichick said this week on the Pat McAfee Show. "You just need guys who can play at the point of attack, shed blocks and defend their space because of the new alignment. So, I think it will increase the size of the players that are on the field. And I do think that because everybody is spread across the field, if these returners, if they hit a little bit of space, they're gone."

Linebackers, tight ends and maybe even some agile linemen could be used on both sides of the ball on returns.

The Steelers have a history of putting some bigger bodied defensive and offensive linemen on the field on kick returns, from Orpheus Roye to Brett Keisel to Chucky Okobi. But because of the banning of wedges on returns, they have gotten away from doing that.

But it could become en vogue again.

• The Steelers have seven selections in next week's draft, picks 20, 51, 84, 98, 119, 178 and 195.

If history holds true, there's a good chance they'll spend four picks on defense and three on offense – or vice versa.

Last year, they used four picks on defense and three on offense. In 2021, it was 4-4, with a pick also used on a punter. In 2020, it was a 3-3 split. In 2019, it was 5-4 in favor of the defense.

Lolley is a Contributing Writer/Editor and co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. His opinions do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.

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The only outlier in that time came in 2022, when the Steelers leaned more heavily on the offensive side of the ball, taking two quarterbacks – Kenny Pickett and Chris Oladokun – with their first and last picks, respectively.

• The Steelers finished up their permitted pre-draft visits and according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, those included 14 offensive linemen, seven defensive backs, six wide receivers, six defensive linemen and two linebackers.

That gives pretty solid insight into what the team's intentions happen to be heading into next week.