Labriola On

In Round 1, consider the possibilities

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A cornerback. It's certainly going to be a cornerback. Has to be, right? Unless it's an outside linebacker, an edge rusher. That makes sense, too, because the pass rush hasn't been what it needs to be, either.

Back in the day when it was nothing but a bunch of team executives sitting in a smoke-filled room picking college players from old issues of Street & Smith, it was referred to as the NFL's Annual Selection Meeting. Based on the 45.7 million people who tuned in over three days on three different cable networks last year, the 2015 NFL Draft will be conducted with much more ceremony and accompanied by even more hype.

View some of the top 2015 NFL draft prospects at the cornerback position.

But the purpose remains the same, and for this particular group of Steelers it sure seems as though the primary purpose of this draft is to improve its defense. All of the hints have been there.

It started back in January with Steelers President Art Rooney II saying, "In a lot of ways the rules have allowed teams to be offensively dominant, if you will. I still think it's important to be able to play good defense. From the standpoint of our identity, I would say we still strive to be a team with a strong defense. That's something we will always try to have … That's something we need to be focused on in the offseason, how to get better on defense."

Then at the NFL Owners Meetings in late March, Coach Mike Tomlin said this about the Steelers defense: "Our goal is to be the very best, or at least be in that discussion, depending on how you define it. Obviously, the last couple of years I don't think we've had a legitimate argument in that discussion. We have for a great number of the years I've been here and that's our intention, to be back in that discussion no matter how you shape it or cut it."

And finally there was this from General Manager Kevin Colbert just 72 hours ago: "I think the cornerback group is good. The outside linebacker types, which for us is a 4-3 defensive end for some 4-3 teams, this is probably as good a group at that position as I've seen in 10-15 years. It's really an exceptional group with a lot of impact-type guys."

There it is. Clear as day. It's going to be a cornerback or an outside linebacker for the Steelers today when they get around to making their first-round draft pick.

Unless it's not.

Because this is what Tomlin said just a couple of days ago on the subject of drafting for needs: "I think when you (take that stance) you're not doing your due diligence in terms of the possibilities, and we're open to the possibilities of great players falling in our lap, or great opportunities falling in our lap. I think if we don't take that approach then we're missing the boat."

And Colbert concurred. "Again, first round, second round, third round, if we pass up a great one to fill a position of need it will be a mistake and it will bite us. Somewhere, somehow we'll regret that move."

It's true that sometimes need and best available athlete come together, and based on what are being projected to be the particular strengths of this draft class, 2015 sure looks like one of those times when the planets are aligned for the Steelers. But what if, say, the first-round caliber cornerbacks and outside linebackers left on the board when the Steelers' turn comes at No. 22 have some off-the-field warts the team is reluctant to accept?

Randy Gregory and the failed marijuana tests at Nebraska and then at the Scouting Combine. Shane Ray and the foot that may/may not require surgery plus the three-days-before-the-draft arrest for marijuana possession. Marcus Peters and the whole getting kicked off the team for insubordination thing. Jalen Collins and the leaked report of "multiple failed" drug tests combined with foot surgery in March.

What happens then? There never have been three cornerbacks picked before the 22nd overall selection in any draft of the 2000s, but what if there's an unprecedented run at the position tonight? What if the quest for edge rushers becomes so widespread that the group of 4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs is seriously picked over? Perhaps this scenario never plays out, but if those aforementioned four players are the choices at No. 22, and it has to be a cornerback or an outside linebacker because that's what the team needs more than anything, the Steelers either gamble or reach.

Or, maybe they allow themselves to "be open to the possibilities of great players falling in our lap." A stud offensive lineman. A dynamic wide receiver. A playmaking safety.

In 1974, the Steelers entered that draft as a team having taken a step backward in 1973 following a magical 1972 season culminating in the Immaculate Reception. Their needs were being identified as offensive tackle, because their quarterback had been sacked once for every 10 pass attempts in 1973; tight end, because their starter was just a guy and there was no obvious No. 2; and punter, because theirs had gotten three kicks blocked over the previous two seasons.

Back then, the first five rounds of the draft were held on Jan. 29, with the remaining 12 rounds coming the next day. It's NFL legend that on the first day of the 1974 draft, the Steelers picked Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Jimmy Allen, and Mike Webster.

When the city awoke on the morning of Jan. 30 and turned to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an account of the Steelers' first five draft picks, this was what they read from the newspaper's top sports columnist:

"The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn't get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn't get a punter, although none of the nation's best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn't get an offensive tackle who might've shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks."

Yes, it's most likely a cornerback or an outside linebacker when the Steelers make their first-round choice tonight. Unless it isn't, because it's always best to be open to the possibilities.

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