The Steelers acknowledged they may have bigger needs elsewhere, and then drafted another linebacker in the first round because he dazzled them with his play.
Ohio State's Ryan Shazier may not be the cornerback they desperately need, but he runs faster than most corners and they feel he could be a dominant addition to the Steelers defense that is undergoing a makeover.
The 6-foot-1, 237-pounder played inside and outside linebacker for the Buckeyes. The Steelers have him pegged on the inside.
"The young man has no holes," coach Mike Tomlin said minutes after they drafted him with the 15th overall pick.
"As the offenses continue to spread out, you need speed; you need speed at your linebacker, you need speed at secondary, you need speed everywhere," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We're super excited he was there for us."
The Steelers had Shazier clocked at 4.4 in the 40, lightning fast for a man his size and a speed most wide receiver prospects cannot top.
"When you start talking about guys at the linebacker position running sub-4.5, that's rare air," Tomlin said.
It was not just his speed that attracted the Steelers to Shazier. He started his final 29 games at Ohio State and had 103 solo tackles last season, the third-best ever for the Buckeyes.
"He's a defensive playmaker," Tomlin said. " Bigger than positional needs, what we needed was a defensive playmaker."
Many figured cornerback was the Steelers' biggest need and they might draft one of those in the first round. Two already were taken when it came their turn, Justin Gilbert and Kyle Fuller. They passed on a third, Darqueze Dennard, and grabbed Shazier.
The Steelers top three cornerbacks are Ike Taylor, 34, Cortez Allen and William Gay.
Even Shazier was surprised when he saw area code "412" pop up on his phone and that it was Tomlin on the other end. Steelers sources said the Dallas Cowboys were on the phone with Shazier's agent and were ready to pick him at No. 16 if the Steelers had not.
"I did not see that coming,'' said Shazier, who paid a visit to the Steelers April 10. "I knew they liked me a lot when I visited with them. I don't know, I just didn't see it coming. I was surprised. I know we had a great visit."
Said Colbert, "You have to put the blinders on to the 'need' word. We're well aware of who we have on our team, but when we can add a player of quality it will over-ride a need any time."
In Tomlin's first draft, 2007, the Steelers also drafted a fast, playmaking linebacker with the 15th pick in the first round, Lawrence Timmons. Shazier will join Timmons and Vince Williams, a surprise starter last season after being a sixth-round pick in the 2013 draft.
"Vince Williams did do a nice job," Colbert said. "We hope Sean Spence comes back, but we can never have enough players at one position.
"His ability to make plays laterally in the backfield and tackles for losses is really important in today's defense."
Shazier was credited with 22.5 tackles for losses last season, which led the Big Ten, including six sacks.
Timmons is one of only three starters left from the 2012 defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. The others are Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu.
Over the course of the past two years, the Steelers have weeded out most of the defensive players who became household names -- Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Ryan Clark, James Farrior, Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley.
Despite that No. 1 ranking two years ago, the once ferocious Steelers defense stopped making big plays as their sacks and forced turnovers dropped precipitously. Along with that, they slipped to No. 13 in yards allowed last season and were gouged by big plays from opposing offenses.
"We just have to get rolling and get back to the old ways," Shazier said.
They hope Shazier can help put the big play back into the defense under coordinator Dick LeBeau, an old Buckeye himself.
"What we needed was a defensive playmaker, and he fills the bill in that regard," Tomlin said.
Tomlin said the Steelers will try him first at the mack linebacker position, which is where Timmons mostly has played. Tomlin said they will move things around.
Shazier is the second linebacker in a row the Steelers drafted in the first round. They selected outside linebacker Jarvis Jones of Georgia with the 17th pick a year ago.
A junior, Shazier won't turn 22 until September.
He will wear No. 56, which is LaMarr Woodley's old number.
--Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
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