Every year the types of available talent twist the draft into a unique shape. Lucky teams have wants and needs at position that align with that talent in the areas where they will be picking. The 2015 Steelers can expect to be one of those lucky teams, since Pittsburgh's needs coincide with two of the draft’s richest positions (edge rusher and corner) and at least a few of Pittsburgh's wants coincide with what ought to be a wealth of mid-round talent (running back and offensive line depth). The teams with "needs" at safety, tight end, and quarterback are much less happy with their choices.
One of the most interesting positions in the draft has gotten surprisingly little attention up to now – the defensive line. This class includes a solid half-dozen candidates who arguably have the talent to go not just in the 1st, but in the top of the 1st before the Steelers pick at #22. Then there’s another band who will be gone by the end of the 2nd unless good sense flies completely out the window. But enough with the generalities. Let’s look at the specifics.
Leonard Williams, DE, USC - 6’4-1/2", 302 lbs. with arms like a gibbon (34-5/8") and hands to match (10-5/8"). Watch the NFL Network and you will regularly hear Leonard Williams called "The most talented player in the draft." He is a top-5 lock who can literally play and dominate at any position across the defensive line. This scouting report will give you a good start on understanding why.
Danny Shelton, NT, Washington – 6’2-1/8", 339 lbs. with 32" arms and 10-3/4" hands. Shelton is as good a prospect for the 0-technique as we’ve seen in years. The best analysts in the business are united in the opinion that Shelton belongs in the top-10 and would be a steal thereafter. Aside from everything else, he’s athletic enough to create real pressure up the middle on passing downs and has enough endurance (remarkable at his size) to play 80% of Washington’s snaps in 2014. The only issues on Shelton seem to be clubhouse things. A "selfish" attitude wouldn’t fly in Pittsburgh. OTOH, it’s probably not a coincidence that Washington's two biggest defensive starts, Danny Shelton and Marcus Peters, both had ongoing run-ins with the coaching staff that replaced the guys who recruited them, and I’ve heard no hint of "character issues" as the process has moved forward. He’s promising enough that the nasty rumors are likelier to find their root in a desperate NFL front office than any reality that occurred in college.
Eddie Goldman, NT/DE, Florida State – 6’4", 336 lbs. with 33-1/8" arms and 10-1/8" hands. The Ravens got a lot of mileage out of last year’s Florida State lineman, Timmy Jernigan. By all accounts Eddie Goldman is bigger and better than Jernigan in just about every way. Like Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown, he also has enough mobility in his game to potentially claim a genuine role on pass rushing downs as well. Shelton has sucked up the spotlight because he’s a "top-10" talent as opposed to a "top-15," but that’s a darned slim line when you come right down to it. This scouting report from the reliable seahawksdraftblog.com is doubly useful because it doubles as a comparison to a young man named...
Malcom Brown, NT/DE, Texas – 6’2-3/8", 319 lbs. with 32-1/2" arms and 10" hands. Eddie Goldman and Malcom Brown are top-15 peas in a pod. There are differences, sure, but they amount to different ways of achieving the same result: a gigantic run-stuffer in the middle who has enough mobility to play on pass-rushing downs as well. This is a good ESPN article on Brown-the-man, while this link goes to one of the high-quality scouting reports at Football Insiders.
Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon - 6’7-1/8", 292 lbs. with 33" arms and 10-1/2" hands. Here is the BTSC scouting report. As good a prospect for the 3-4 defensive end position as we’ve seen in years – even better than Stephon Tuitt was last year, which is saying something because we were all talking about Tuitt as a realistic option for the Steelers 2014 pick at #15 overall.
Michael Bennett, 4-3 DT, Ohio State – 6’2", 293 lbs. with 33-5/8" arms and 10-1/4" hands. Bennet is a great 3-technique (i.e., a penetrating defensive tackle for a 4-3 team) who is almost but not quite great enough to trigger the Aaron Donald ‘who cares about position?!’ reflex. Here is a great scouting report if you’re curious. As with Aaron Donald last year, the comparisons are all to Geno Atkins.
Every one of those six players has top-15 talent. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily go that high – Stephon Tuitt is the perfect example of a top-15 talent who fell all the way to the middle of the 2nd – but it’s safe to say that any G.M. who gets one from #16 onward will be chuckling his way to bed that night.
After that thick band on top there are two names earning universal late-1st or early-2nd grades.
Jordan Phillips, NT, Oklahoma – 6’5-1/4", 329 lbs. with 34-3/4" arms and 9-3/8" hands. An enormous man who played Nose Tackle in a college 3-4 with much quicker feet than you’d expect. Here is a pre-Combine scouting report, and a Bleacher Report article comparing him favorably to Danny Shelton (who Phillips at least matched on the numbers at the Combine) He’s not quite as explosive on the inside as Shelton, Brown and Goldman but he has better length than any of them and would probably have an easier time shifting out to play the 5-technique if a need for that should arise. You could not design a better utility backup for a team like the Steelers than Jordan Phillips. With the possible exception of...
Carl Davis, NT/DE, Iowa – 6’4-1/2", 320 lbs. with really long, 34-5/8" arms and ridiculous 11" hands. Davis is an oddball who seems to fit at almost any position across the defensive line, and who falls down boards because "versatility" and "lack of fit" are two sides of the same coin. But the bottom line is that he’s a solid run-stuffer who dominated at the Senior Bowl (which resulted in this article/scouting report that’s worth a read) and would be an ideal swing player for just about any defense. In many ways he reminds you of a Steve McLendon with a bit more natural talent.
Now I want to be clear about something. I do not think defensive line is a major priority for the Steelers going into the draft. Just like its offensive counterpart, Pittsburgh has stocked the defensive line with two very high draft picks (Cam Heyward in the 1st and Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd) who are living up to expectations, and has a quality starter (Steve McLendon) and a promising backup (Dan McCullers) for the third slot. There’s even some discernable talent in the pipeline with Ethan Hemer, Joe Kruger, and Matt Conrath. The Steelers have a genuine "want" for defensive line depth – and especially for someone who can provide quality back-up play across the line – but no actual "need" for anything more.
On the other hand... Pittsburgh prides itself as a team that drafts the Best Available Player with an eye more toward the future than any present needs. As a matter of pure talent it would be hard to argue that any of the "big 6" listed above wouldn’t be the BPA at #22, based on pure talent, in any scenario that tempt the Steelers to pick any position other than edge rusher or cornerback. (Okay, maybe not Bennett because of scheme fit, but certainly Williams, Shelton, Goldman, Brown and Armstead). I’m a Steve McLendon fan, but he does have a history of getting dinged up. If the Steelers ended up with an Eddie Goldman, Malcom Brown, or Jordan Phillips and then lost McLendon to an injury (or to free agency after 2015), Kevin Colbert would look like a conquering prophet. Armstead... a rotation of three long, powerful, elite-level defensive ends to keep them all fresh and healthy throughout the season? Who could complain about that?
I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. Either (a) the defensive tackles go in the draft where their talent level dictates they "should," in which case Pittsburgh is bound to see a huge bargain at some other position of need, or (b) something like 6-7 pass rushers and 3-4 corners will have gone earlier than expected, bringing several of these guys (and other off-position bargains) into reach at 1:22 and probably more than one at 2:24.
One final note: there is also a real downside to the defensive line class. Once you get past Round 2 the number of prospects plummets almost to nothing. It’s one of the ways in which this class does not conform to the Steelers’ ideal world. A made-to-order draft class would provide great OLB and Corner prospects in the first two rounds and then have a pool of running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen, and defensive linemen waiting for rounds 3-6. The running backs will be there and the offensive linemen may be, but tight ends and defensive linemen will be thin on the ground. The main defensive linemen who look viable in that range are Stanford’s Henry Anderson (a pure 5-technique who will probably get drafted in or around the 3rd), and then a number of players who would fit more naturally into a 4-3 though they might be shoehorned into the Steelers’ hybrid sub-packages. Tyeler Davidson of Fresno State, Grady Jarrett of Clemson (interviewed by the Steelers), Corey Crawford (also from Clemson), and Christian Covington from Rice would be the names to watch for, all of whom will likely go by the end of Round 5. From that point on you get into the world of genuine longshots.
So what’s the bottom line? This defensive tackle class has a thick crust of superb talents at the top, which will either push more desired positions down to the Steelers at 1:22 and/or 2:24, or present the team with some very enticing possibilities. Once you get past Round 2, however, it’s either the kid from Stanford in Round 3 or a bet on someone being able to mesh into a system that nature didn’t design him to fit. Interesting stuff!