The Pittsburgh Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with 7 picks, missing their 5th and 6th rounders have traded them last offseason for Brandon Boykin and Josh Scobee (neither of which ended up working in their favor), but getting a late 6th round pick back for the departure of Brice McCain.
With these picks the Steelers had to address several needs. First, safety. The Steelers lack both a high quality starter and sufficient depth. At cornerback, the Steelers have only one established starter, and he's aging; even if all our young prospects pan out we'd still have room for a top notch alpha dog to match up on opponents' best WR. On the defensive line, the Steelers could likely use an upgrade at nose tackle, and don't have much depth behind their stellar young defensive ends. At linebacker, the team lost a key backup ILB and has another key back up and a long-time starter coming to the end of their contracts this year.
Finally, with Martavis Bryant's suspension (and seeming inability to avoid suspensions) everyone on the WR depth chart behind him moves up. The Steelers are very deep at WR and can afford to simply promote players from the practice squad to the WR5 position, but it couldn't hurt to add a player late to keep the position really strong. After a successful season considering the many injuries, the Steelers picked 25th overall, and in general toward the end of each subsequent round as well.
So here's out it panned out...
1. Artie Burns - CB/S, University of Miami
This was a surprise to a lot of folks who had Burns rated as a late 2nd round prospect. Burns has all you could ask for as an athlete, with nearly ideal size for a CB (6'0, 190), very good speed (4.4 on the 40 yard dash), and solid overall production with 6 interceptions as a Junior last year. However, he relies really heavily on that athleticism with pretty rotten technique, and doesn't even give a consistent effort athletically from game to game. That part is a pretty big turn off for me, but he does potentially have a valid excuse. His mom died during his Jr. year and with his father incarcerated for drug trafficking that meant he had to take custody of his younger siblings.
He also was a two sport athlete who dominated the 600m hurdles, but because of that, wasn't able to focus on football during the offseason. In addition, the team sometimes rotated him to safety, which would've impeded his opportunity to learn the CB position.
The Steelers evidently decided that his technical and effort issues are fixable, and due more to his circumstances than his work ethic. If they're right, they got themselves a very good CB. If not, they wasted a pick. It's worth noting the Steelers Hall of Fame former CB Rod Woodson was also a college hurdler. Also, Eli Apple, another very raw but athletic prospect ,was taken No. 10 overall, ahead of Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, who was very polished but not quite as athletic.
Basically, the market seems to have been favoring athletic players with high upside, and given the extensive knowledge the Steelers had from interviewing Burns (as well as many of his family and friends and coaches most likely) they figured he was a good risk. It does say something for Burns' character (or perhaps the wealth of his friends) that when his mom died, the university started a donation fund that raised $40,000 in 6 hours.
2. Sean Davis - S/CB, University of Maryland
This was a surprise to a lot of folks as a number of more highly rated safeties were still available, and many regarded Davis as potentially more of a 3rd rounder. What set Davis apart is his athleticism and potential ceiling. He has plenty of athleticism, with long speed (4.4 forty yard dash) and explosion (37 inch vertical, 126 inch broad jump) with agility that's borderline for a CB but excellent for a safety.
Davis played extensively at the CB spot, especially as a Sr., as coaches tried to get creative to get all their best athletes on the field after playing primarily safety before that. Even as a CB, he played like a safety, which is to say that he wasn't very good in coverage but really enjoyed tackling. Davis tied for 2nd in the nation with 5 forced fumbles due to his explosive hitting, but he also whiffed on over 40 tackles during the past 3 years. Some of those misses can be forgiven as the 300+ tackles he did make demonstrate that many of those he missed were ones other players wouldn't have even gotten close enough to miss. He loves to tackle and with as many opportunities as he earns you're going to have more misses too, but he can certainly improve his technique.
In coverage, he struggled mightily as a CB but should be more than good enough as a safety and could potentially play CB in an emergency. Playing extensively out of position limited Davis' ability to learn his best position and develop a body of work at that position, but it shows a team-first attitude and if you look on the bright side establishes some positional flexibility that could be intriguing as a pro. Davis brings the hard hitting mentality of a safety with borderline CB coverage skills, and very little experience.
The Steelers are betting that they can harness his desire as a hitter and develop his top-notch athleticism, and if they're right they'll end up with a potential Pro Bowl safety out of the back of the 2nd round. If they're wrong, he's a backup player who will be nice to have in kick/punt coverage.
3. Javon Hargrave - DT, South Carolina State University
This was a guy many Steelers fans wanted in the 2nd round leading up to the draft. The Steelers are moving away from their base defense of 3 down linemen, as the league increasingly emphasizes a passing game that makes run stuffing nose tackles less valuable. Steelers 3rd year 350-pound former 6th rounder, Daniel McCullers, seems capable of taking over next year as the big run-stuffer, but the team would like to have a guy who could offer enough as a pass rusher to potentially stay on the field on 3rd down or to give Tuitt and Heyward a breather occasionally as multi-purpose DT/DE when we move to a 2 man front in the nickel package that was often employed last year.
Hargrave weighs in at 6'1, 309, with short arms that may limit him to the role of a one gap penetrator (3-tech) rather than the type of players the Steelers have typically drafted with the size and length to control two gaps. As a 3-technique, though, his athleticism certainly fits the bill, as demonstrated by a 35'' vertical jump. His quickness and power combined to make him virtually unstoppable against the low level of competition he faced at South Carolina State, making him one of the nation's leaders in sacks, including 6 sacks in one game against Bethune-Cookman.
He was still available in the 3rd round because the linemen he'll be going against in the NFL are orders of magnitude better than Bethune-Cookman, he's not well developed technically as all he needed was his athleticism to get by in college, and he doesn't have ideal size. He has the athleticism to compensate for his lack of size/length if he adds good technique to it, and if the Steelers are willing to find ways to maximize his talent as a one-gapper he could end up being very, very good. If he doesn't develop technically, he'll be of limited value as a 3-tech and no value in multiple gap roles.
4. Jerald Hawkins - OT, Louisiana State University
The Steelers finally grab a player on offense, and while it's not a glamour position or a major need, it's a smart pick. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and Hawkins player is a good value at this point and a good fit for the team.
LSU has been cranking out top offensive linemen for a while, and Hawkins has the body type to be just that with the proper coaching. At 6'6 and 305 he's got great size, quickness, and footwork, but he's lacking technically in some major areas. Base and pad level are big problems, and if he can't correct them he'll always struggle with consistency. The Steelers have probably the best offensive line coach in the league, however, and can give Hawkins time to work on his issues with solid starters ahead of him on the depth chart.
He doesn't play a glamorous position, and he won't contribute any time soon, but he's a very solid developmental prospect that could become very valuable as a LT down the road after our elite positional coach works on him for a couple years, and that kind of forward planning is what makes the Steelers a perennial championship contender. As a 3-year starter at a major program like LSU, Hawkins has a pretty high floor also and should be at least a serviceable backup right tackle, and could even offer some versatility as an OG, which the Steelers always like to have.
6. Travis Feeney - LB/S, University of Washington
The Steelers emphasized athleticism throughout the draft, but they may have gotten the best one here. An incredible blend of size, speed, and burst (6'4, 230, runs a 4.5 forty and has a 40'' vertical jump and almost 11-foot broad jump), and likes to make the big hit.
Feeney is a former safety converted to OLB, and should be good in coverage as well as having the burst to excel as a pass rusher. His flaws are that he's not the most reliable tackler, he doesn't have the size and strength to hold up well against the run as a LB, and he's had a series of shoulder injuries including surgeries on both shoulders in college.
The Steelers want to keep him at outside LB, and he has the best chance of contributing immediately as a situational pass rusher coming in for 2-minute drills and long 3rd downs when teams can't take advantage of his weakness against the run. Ultimately, he might fit better though moving inside where he can roam sideline to sideline and patrol the middle of the field. The biggest "if", is if he can stay healthy. With his athleticism, he could become a special player and at minimum should offer versatility as a backup and solid play on kick and punt coverage.
7.1. DeMarcus Ayers - WR/RB, University of Houston
A real head-scratcher for some fans who saw a WR who may be inexperienced (HS running back who ran a very limited route tree as a WR), but is also undersized (5'9, 182), making up for it by also being slow (4.72 in the forty yard dash). Reports later surfaced that a broken finger/hand may have hurt his take off in the 40, and if you look at his game tape he doesn't seem to lack for speed. Whatever lack of speed he may have, he made up for it with quickness, reminiscent of former 6th round pick and now best WR in the NFL, Antonio Brown who came out of college with a reputation as an electric runner and playmaker despite merely adequate straight line speed.
Ayers was recruited primarily as a kick returner, and developed into a "WR" fed a steady stream of quick passes at or near the line of scrimmage just to get the ball in his hands and let him make people miss. Ayers did display very good hands as a receiver when he was used downfield, but still has very little experience as a route runner. He does have impressive agility and stop/start action, but also seems to rely at times on exaggerated head fakes and stutter steps that will just get him crushed in the pros.
More importantly, he is so small he has no choice but to run away from contact, having to make a series of impressive cuts to take the long away around a tackler. That's tough to do in the NFL where tacklers take solid angles to cut off cutback lanes and they come much faster offering less space and time to maneuver.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley has some success with similar type player, Dexter McCluster, when he was in Kansas City, but has failed with his prior two projects, Chris Rainey and Dri Archer, with the Steelers. The Steelers have been almost miraculously good at developing WR's lately, and his size and style of play being so similar to Antonio Brown, you could go so far as to say that if Ayers is turns out to be a tremendously coachable and hard working young man he has a chance to become a solid slot receiver after a few years. He has experience as a punt returner, with a 10.5 yard average and a TD, which will give him a little more value, but realistically (especially given the depth the Steelers have at WR), he'll have a hard time making the team and will have to hope to make the practice squad and eventually earn a promotion to the active roster in a couple years.
7.2. Tyler Matakevich - LB, Temple University
First of all, you have to like any LB with a last name ending in either "vich" or "ski". So there's a lot to like about this kid. If you like college production too, then you flat out love this kid. Matakevich was in on 138 tacklers, posting 4.5 sacks, and by the way intercepted 5 passes while winning the Bronco Nagurski award as the best college football player defensively at any position. So why was this red-haired football god passed on until the 7th round? The thing is, at 6'0 and 238 he's kind of small for a LB, and with 4.8 speed he's not really fast for a LB, lastly with 22 reps on the bench at 225 pounds, he's not really strong for a LB.
In other words, he's a pretty average at best athlete who succeeded by being way better prepared mentally than his peers at the college level. He's a film room junkie who translates that study into outstanding instincts and play recognition so that he's always in the right spot at the right time. That's not always enough of at the pro level where there will be an offensive player waiting for him there who is vastly superior to him athletically, but it worked for Zach Thomas, who became a Pro Bowler with the Dolphins overcoming his physical limitations with anticipation, hustle, and grit.
Matakevich is really unlikely to become anything more than a reliable but limited backup, but he's the sort of player that will have fans chanting "Roo-DEE, Roo-DEE" watching him during training camp. Incidentally, this pick smacks of the same strategy the Steelers used in picking Safety Gerrod Holliman, named the best DB in college football, in the 7th round last year. The difference is Holliman was an amazing ballhawk who couldn't tackle worth squat, while Matakevich was productive in every phase of the game and demonstrated a willingness to work hard to become so.
Overall, aside from their last pick which continues or really establishes a trend of productivity based picks in the 7th round, the Steelers continued a trend in recent years of prioritizing athleticism in their draft picks above polish and refinement.
Last year's first round draft pick, Bud Dupree, was a workout warrior who knew almost nothing about how to play LB, having had no continuity at the coaching position and not even a positional coach until his final year in college. Tomlin and Colbert seem to counting on the expertise of their coaching staff to coach the players up and using that freedom to get the players who have the most of what can't be coached, size, speed, etc. You don't need to know how to play football to be drafted by the Steelers, you just need to be able to do so at a very high level once they tell you how. It's a kind of risky strategy, and it also means that you're not getting the most out of your rookie contracts because you're investing much of that time in teaching only to lose them in free agency once they get good.
However, it can also lead to a much higher proportion of real difference makers than focusing on "safer" prospects. Another noteworthy trend is that a number of these players have substantial positional flexibility, that may just be because they're all athletes who were available only because of their raw technique and a common cause of raw technique is playing a new position, but the Steelers historically have been willing to get creative with players in hybrid positional roles and we may be seeing more of that with this year's draft. It would be interesting for example to see for example Feeney line up at LB then drop back as a 3rd safety, or to transition from man to zone or vice versa based on how Davis lines up at safety.
In terms of whether it was a "good draft" or not. It's impossible to say. It was a risky draft in some ways, and how do you evaluate whether something was a good risk or not? If it works out well, then it was awesome. If it doesn't, then it was lunacy. You could maybe evaluated the "calculatedness" of the risk, but without access to the detailed information possessed by the Steelers front office, it's impossible to tell if they had a valid rationale, or if it was just irresponsible hunch following.
The most you can say is that they came away with help at each of the positions they needed, so in that respect they managed the draft well. The concern of a lot of fans will be they reached for players like Burns and Davis to ensure that they addressed those needs and could've gotten more value with another pick, but only time will tell if those players were a reach or not.