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The 2017 draft in a word: unpredictable

Usually, they can go into it knowing who will be the first player picked. If not that, then usually they can start off knowing who will be the first quarterback picked.

Usually is not this year.

The 2017 NFL Draft begins today at 8 p.m. with the picking of Round 1, an exercise that lasted three hours and 29 minutes last year. Starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, Rounds 2-3 will be picked, and then things conclude on Saturday starting at noon when Rounds 4-7 will be picked. Teams have 10 minutes to make their first-round selections; the time limit drops to seven minutes for second-round picks; picks in the third-through-sixth rounds must be made within five minutes; and the time limit for seventh-round picks is four minutes.

Those time limits are established for teams to make decisions once they're on the clock, but months already have passed without much of a consensus as to how the top of the first round of this draft might unfold.

"We have been talking in recent days. A lot of times, going into this part of the draft process, we have a pretty good idea about where this thing could go, but this year, it's really an unpredictable draft. So many different variables that we see could happen around the league," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "I think it all starts with the quarterback position. We think there are so many different opinions on who the quarterbacks are and which team is going to take which player, and where. Really, it doesn't matter to us, but I just think it leads into the unpredictability, because I think you are going to see more trade-up and trade-down possibilities, not so much with us, but around the league. Depending on people looking for the exact guy they want, so that part of it is unpredictable, more so than in the past."

Why the Steelers are interested in some measure of predictability is so that they can go into it with some idea of which players will be available when it comes time for them to make their first-round selection, and also if there is some predictability involved it could help them enter into it with a feel for which positions might be the first to get picked over.

The Steelers long have been adamant about not going into any draft with the idea of picking a player at a particular position on a particular round, but there also is no denying that the team has needs, and because this is a franchise believing in the draft as its primary method of roster building, those needs are going to have to be addressed over 72 hours starting today.

In assessing the talent pool, Colbert said, "On offense, there are good numbers at wide receiver. The offensive line probably isn't as deep as it has been in recent years. The tight end numbers are up some over recent years. There are good numbers in the secondary. There are good numbers for the outside linebacker candidates. Decent numbers for the defensive line, which is unusual. There aren't too many of those body types."

The Steelers have been re-making their defense over the past few years, with many of the veterans who helped the team win a lot of games and a couple of Lombardi trophies having retired. This process has advanced to the degree that the team has made the playoffs three straight seasons and got to the AFC Championship Game last season, but that outcome against New England indicated there still is work to do there.

Steelers President Art Rooney II said back in late January that one of the goals of the offseason was to improve the team's ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and this improvement figures to come from the players Colbert described as "the outside linebacker candidates."

"It's a hit-and-miss," said Colbert about drafting players the Steelers project to outside pass-rushers in their defensive scheme. "We have had some who didn't work out and some who have worked out. We have had some who played in the conventional defense, played outside linebacker, where some worked out and some didn't work out to our expectations. I don't know what the success rate will be. I just know it's the most difficult."

The selections of cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis one calendar year ago was the start of building a younger, faster secondary capable of making plays on the football, but the way NFL offenses throw the ball around a defense never can have enough of those kinds of players. Also to be considered is the percentage of time the defense is aligned in a sub-package, and therefore there is a need for hybrid players who would allow the unit to defend either the run or the pass without having to make wholesale personnel changes.

With four picks over the first three rounds, and with those four picks coming in the first 105 selections overall, the Steelers will have a chance to take advantage of the numbers within the outside linebacker candidates and the apparent depth of talent among the defensive backfield prospects.

On the heels of Martavis Bryant being conditionally reinstated, things apparently are set up to allow the Steelers to concentrate on defense during the first two days of the draft, but nothing is an absolute. Before the three days of picking are concluded, the Steelers are expected to add reinforcements to their depth chart at running back and wide receiver, even though the urgency at receiver has been lessened somewhat by Bryant's reinstatement, and the potential also exists for the team to utilize the later rounds to add competition everywhere.

"I think at this juncture we're just trying to improve all of the areas of our team," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "Obviously, there are certain areas that we've identified and talked about repeatedly throughout the offseason, Kevin and myself. But just in general as I sit here, I don't believe that we're closed to improving in any area as we move closer to draft day."

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