This mock is, as much as anything, a discussion piece; while I believe the players I’ve picked here are all worthy of their draft position in this mock, they aren’t necessarily my top choices in any given round. In the first, for example, I’d be perfectly happy if the Steelers landed Te’o, but I’d be a little perplexed if they did so while Warmack, Patterson, Vaccaro or some of the elite pass rushers were still on the board.
Instead of trying to predict what will happen (nearly impossible even for people far more dedicated than I am), I wanted to use this mock to highlight some of the riskier options presented by the draft, and to perhaps inspire discussion on the value of taking the "safe" pick or the "plug-and-play" guy versus drafting players that are "boom-bust" picks, guys with injury concerns or talented performers with off-the-field question marks that might affect their draft stock.
Manti Te’o, ILB (Notre Dame)
Thanks to media saturation, both the risks and rewards of pick 1-17 are well known...
- Risk: Is he a liar? Are his character and locker room presence -- major selling points just three months ago for a guy easily predicted to go in the top ten or fifteen picks -- now liabilities or potential distractions? The perception of Te’o off the field changed drastically during girlfriend-gate, and the perception of his on-the-field play took a hit after a national championship thumping at the hands of Warmack and some aggressively rolling Tide. Is he the solid, three-down backer everyone predicted he would be, or a head case who can’t be trusted against NFL caliber talent?
- Reward: Te’o has four years worth of quality tape at the college level, in which he displays pretty much everything you’d look for in an inside linebacker, and does so with the polish you’d hope for from a senior. From taking on lead blockers to getting picks in coverage to thumping ballcarriers, he’s displayed an an ability to play the pass and the run at a high level. What’s more, Te’o was the undisputed leader of a superior college defensive unit, and prior to his bizarre scandal had maintained a sterling character reputation as well. Once considered one of the safest picks in the draft, Te’o may very well have a team picking in the second half of the first round thanking their lucky Lennay Kekuas if he falls that far.
The scandal that has rocked Te’o is weird and fascinating...and overblown. Every year, teams take chances on players with serious legal, NCAA violation or injury issues. Don’t believe me? Check out the Steelers’ last draft. Whatever Te’o did or didn’t do regarding his imaginary friend, he’s got solid tape at a position of great need for the Steelers (yes, I think it’s more pressing than DL or OLB).
Matt Elam, S (Florida)
For our fearless leader’s take on pick 2-17, check out this great review...
- Risk: The word I think of when watching Matt Elam is mercurial. One minute he’s charging up to the line with the anticipation and acceleration of Troy Polamalu to stop a run for a loss. Then next minute, he’s jogging over to teammates struggling to finish off a tackle. Two plays after fighting hard in man coverage against a bigger tight end, he’ll half-ass a tackle by lunging with his shoulder, letting the runner escape for a big gain. Put simply, Elam is inconsistent, and the question of whether he has the technique or fire to harness his considerable physical gifts is a pressing one indeed.
- Reward: Did you catch the words "Troy Polamalu" in the previous paragraph? For those who don’t know me, said words are sacred, and are never to be uttered lightly. I can’t imagine him panning out to be anything approaching His Hairness at the next level, but when watching Elam’s highlight reel, it’s hard not to notice the resemblance his acceleration, anticipation and explosion bear to a certain Steelers safety. Florida noticed too, as they’ve use Elam as a wild card in their defense: playing single high, lining up in the box to play the run, manning up on a tight end, blitzing from the slot and blazing down the field on special teams. There’s ample tape of him excelling in all areas. Problem is, there’s also tape of him falling short.
While Neal’s analysis of Elam focused on his inconsistent effort, it’s his inconsistent tackling that worries me most. He seems far more interested in creating a highlight than he is in wrapping up, and too often his knack for being in the right place at the right time is wasted because of his inability to get the ballcarrier on the ground.
It’s also worth noting that if his athleticism pops at the combine the way I expect it to, Elam will probably solidify late-first round status and will become someone else’s tough decision. I think he’s good value at 2-17, especially if he gets a chance to learn from Ryan Clark and Polamalu post-draft, but I feel like he’s prohibitively risky much higher.
Marcus Lattimore, RB (South Carolina)
Another well-known prospect at 3-17; Lattimore’s recently been making headlines with his self-proclaimed great recovery from his most recent gruesome knee injury...
- Risk: The epitome of injury risk, Lattimore’s had two successive seasons derailed by knee injury, and he plays the position most vulnerable to wear-and tear in the NFL. Marcus was never a burner before his injuries, and one has to question what kind of speed and acceleration he can provide on the field if he returns healthy, not to mention whether his knees can hold up to the increase rigors of NFL play.
- Reward: In a draft class bereft of every-down talent at the RB position, Lattimore is one of the few candidates who’s proved he can do it all. His exceptional vision and quick feet made him an elusive college runner who was rarely tackled for a loss. An able body in pass protection, he also displayed soft hands catching the football, making him a viable addition to the passing game (something many college RBs need time to adjust to at the pro level). Projected as a good candidate for a zone blocking scheme, Lattimore appears to be one of the most complete and talented backs in the draft, which could make him a steal that would perfectly complement the talent already on the Steelers’ roster...if he can stay healthy.
Predicting Lattimore’s draft position is tricky right now; a lot depends on his meetings with doctors leading up to the draft. I’ve seen him mocked anywhere from the third to the sixth round, positions that I imagine reflect varying degrees of certainty regarding his health.
My assumption here is that his recovery will be declared ahead of schedule (which is what he’s saying publicly right now), and that some team will take a chance on him early in a year that’s relatively weak for RBs.
Marquess Wilson, WR (Washington State)
Pick 4-17 has also made the news in recent months...
- Risk: Wilson’s 2012 Junior season at Washington State fell apart due to conflicts with new coach Mike Leach. Wilson was benched for attitude and practice habits, then suspended for team violations. Wilson quit the team two weeks later, then accused Leach’s staff of preferring to "belittle, intimidate and humiliate" players rather than coach them, going so far as to label the team’s coaching "abuse." The latter term wasn’t an accidental word choice -- abuse allegations dogged Leach before his firing from Texas Tech -- and it is now up to NFL teams to decide if the abrupt end to Wilson’s college career reflects his erratic coach or his own immaturity.
- Reward: Wilson has the height/speed combination you look for in a wide receiver, and setting his school’s all-time receiving yardage record demonstrated he knows how to use it. From separating in his routes to high-pointing jump balls to finding soft spots in zone coverage, Wilson has displayed flashes of greatness, even playing on an inconsistent Washington State offense. He’s even proved himself to be a willing (though not terribly effective) blocker in the running game. In short, he’s got all the tools to be very, very good at the next level. If his head’s on straight, he could very well be the big, talented target Ben has been looking for since Plaxico’s first stop in Pittsburgh.
Criticism of Wilson highlights all the things you don’t want in a football player -- effort issues, immaturity and attitude problems. History suggests that these problems don’t seem to go away at the next level, especially at a WR position prone to diva personalities.
That said, getting quality WR that can impact the game right away is a real priority for the Steelers this offseason, and if they wait until the fourth round to address it, a guy like Wilson might well be the best talent left by a wide margin.
Trevardo Williams, OLB (Connecticut)
Pick 5-17 seems to be one of BTSC’s late-round favorites (there are a couple every year)...
- Risk: It seems like every year, the Steelers take a late round or UDFA flier on a tweener DE/OLB prospect who needs some time to adjust to a new position in the NFL. And in the past, it’s worked like a charm! The risk, however, is that these days, the perennial picks seem to go to waste more often than not. 2010’s Thaddeus Gibson (no longer with team), 2011’s Chris Carter and 2012’s Adrian Robinson all have yet to affect the defense in any meaningful way. Indeed, even as Harrison ages and Woodley becomes less effective, these late-round picks have yet to move into even a permanent backup role. With that in mind, should the Steelers really be investing yet another pick into the OLB position that may not yield starting caliber talent?
- Reward: Trevardo Williams is one of the few late-round tweener types that seems to stack up well against the run as well as the pass. In that capacity, he’s a sure tackler who hits hard and follows the ball well, and seems to hold up the point of attack well against all but the largest of lead blockers. As a pass-rusher, he shows great motor and a tomahawk chop that lets him jar loose his fair share of fumbles. He seems comfortable beating guys with speed to the outside and with quickness and hands to the inside, and was lined up all over the field in standing and 3-point stances to put him in better position to rush the passer.
This seems like a Steeler type of pick, so I think it’s appropriate to mock. That said, I have real questions about them pursuing yet another one of these tweener types at the same point in the draft.
Don’t get me wrong; Williams certainly looks capable of developing into a usable pass-rusher, though he’s going to need to develop better skills in coverage to play as an OLB in the Steelers system. But the lack of talent culled from recent late-round pass-rushing picks suggests one of two things: 1) the Steelers need to invest picks in the higher-round talent, or 2) the Steelers need to give their recently drafted/undrafted talent more time to develop before cutting them loose for other prospects. In either case, it’s hard to justify adding yet another one of the same type of player.
Lamar Mady, OG (Youngstown State)
Pick 6-17 is less well-known, but as much of a wild card as any selection in this mock...
- Risk: Lamar Mady hasn’t spent much time playing against a high level of competition. Want proof? I can’t find any tape online to actually watch on him and form my own opinion of his play. A junior college transfer to an FCS program at Youngstown State, Mady doesn’t have great size or dominant strength. Without evaluating his skills against bigger and more talented competition, it’s tough to project his effectiveness at the next level.
- Reward: Mady has developed a reputation as an athletic and quick lineman well-suited to a zone blocking scheme. He’s supposedly mobile enough to pull, to trap and to run-block in zone situations, and he has demonstrated the position flexibility the Steelers seem to value in their offensive linemen (he’s played every offensive line position except left tackle, though his primary position is left guard). As a projected late-round pick, Mady could very well end up out of the league in a few years, but his strengths seem to perfectly suit a team looking to build depth and embrace a new, mobility-based offensive line scheme. (Sound like anyone we know?)
Late round fliers are always hit-or-miss, but Mady could present real value in the sixth round. With the Steelers potentially cutting ties with last year’s starter (Willie Colon) and top backup (Ramon Foster) at LG, they need to rebuild their depth at the position. Mady’s mobility and flexibility are the icing on the cake that make me think this pick might be worthwhile. Of course, it would be great to actually see him play...
Montori Hughes, NT (Tennessee-Martin)
At 7-17, our final mock pick addresses one last position of need...
- Risk: Montori Hughes has experienced academic troubles and discipline issues for most of his collegiate career. Recruited by Tennessee, he was unable to overcome these problems and eventually found his way onto the field at Tennessee-Martin, another FCS program. He’s played well enough there to entertain draft consideration, but there are still questions about his maturity and work ethic, not to mention the level of competition he faced.
- Reward: at 6’4" and 330 lbs. Hughes possess the size you look for in an NFL defensive tackle. While he didn’t play in a 3-4 base defense, Hughes displayed the strength to absorb double-teams at the point of attack. He also seems surprisingly quick moving along the line, with the agility to swim and spin when pass rushing.
Whether the Steelers decide to retain Casey Hampton for one more year or choose to cut ties with the veteran, the depth at NT is young and unproven. Steve McLendon hasn’t yet proven his ability to start at the position, and Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo haven’t even shown themselves to be capable backups. Adding depth at NT will promote competition from the ground up, hopefully improving the entire unit.