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The Upsiders: Late-round sleepers who could be the future for the Steelers at free safety

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Safety is deep in the 2017 draft, and there are several sleeper prospects projected to be picked on the final day of the NFL Draft who could help the Steelers from Day One.

NCAA Football: Arizona vs Brigham Young Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s face it: Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell isn’t getting younger.

He’s not particularly old, really, but he’s also going to be 30 when the 2017 NFL season begins. For someone who seems to have plateaued — albeit at a pretty decent level — that’s pretty old.

Next off-season is going to be a big deal for Mitchell. If the Steelers think they have their future free safety under contract, dumping Mitchell’s $5 million salary to clear cap space could be a wise — and desireable — move to make. The 2017 NFL Draft could be, for all intents and purposes, a big deal for the Steelers and Mitchell, to the tune of several million dollars. But, with other needs, a high pick at safety may not be in the cards unless an absolutely perfect fit is available. That’s okay, though, because there are a few guys who are expected to be day-three picks or undrafted free agents who could be early contributors, despite their lowly draft predictions.

Kai Nacua - Brigham Young University

6’-2”, 215 pounds

The first thing that jumps out at you when you watch Nacua on film is that he is constantly moving. He plays with a lot of energy, and that’s rarely a bad thing for any player.

If you watch just his highlights, you’d see that the ball found him an awful lot, rather than him finding the ball. But a closer look shows that those were usually opportunities he created by taking positioning away from the receiver. He’s a cerebral, instinctual player who reads the receiver extremely well.

In fact, he’d probably be a third- or fourth-round pick if not for a perceived lack of straight-line speed that could hurt him against athletic tight ends in the NFL. I say “perceived” because he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at his pro day in March, which is pretty decent for a 215-pound safety.

As a free safety, he would have the quickness and instincts to play very solid football in cover two or cover three. Prior to his pro day, he wasn’t thought to have enough speed to play single-high, but his 40-yard dash may have dispelled that and given him what he would need to be drafted by a team like Pittsburgh, who regularly use their strong safety near the line of scrimmage, leaving the free safety on an island.

Oh, and he’s also a lot of fun to watch with the ball in his hands. Reminds me a bit of that Troy Polamalu guy, at times.

Jadar Johnson - Clemson

6’-0”, 206 pounds

Johnson is an interesting case. He is solid in almost every aspect of the game, but not really spectacular anywhere. He has good instincts and better-than-adequate ball skills, but he can be a liability at times if he doesn’t get his hands on the ball. He’s a willing tackler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good tackler, and he often takes poor angles in pursuit.

He does a great job, however, of getting through traffic in the run game. He just doesn’t break down and tackle all that well.

But it’s not all bad, or even so-so. One area he excels is playing all alone in the defensive backfield, where his instincts are on full display. In fact, he’s likely to be a pretty doggone good centerfielder somewhere. The question, then, is whether or not that’s the kind of player the Steelers would want in their next safety. He doesn’t have the straight-line speed of some more notable safeties, but he has great closing speed and changes direction well, which eliminates most of the problem, except on go routes. His solid play recognition would help to take care of that.

Fish Smithson - Kansas

5’-11”, 190 pounds

Smithson is a bit on the smaller side, especially in this draft, where most of the safeties are measuring out close to ideal. Despite it only being an inch or two, it actually seems to show in his stature. He just lacks the upper-body bulk of many others who will be available, and that’s going to hurt his stock. But he makes up for a lot of that with excellent instincts and top-notch ball skills. He reads, reacts, and high-points jump balls -- and he has very good hands, too. He’s fast enough, quick enough and skilled enough to play with the majority of receivers in the NFL.

That lack of size and bulk, though, are going to drop him down draft boards in a crowded field. It shows most in run defense, where he plays flat-footed and tackles passively a lot of the time. He gets to the runner just fine, but lacks an aggressiveness that is critical to stopping pro runners. Guys like Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliot and Marshawn Lynch will eat Smithson alive if he doesn’t address those shortcomings.

Like Johnson, Smithson’s greatest assets would have him playing well off the line of scrimmage most of the time. His issues, however, are potentially more fixable than Johnson’s.

In the end, Nacua looks like the best day-three option at safety for the way the Steelers use the back half of their secondary. He can play coverage or at the line, which gives him an advantage over Johnson and Smithson, based on how the Steelers have used their safeties under defensive coordinator Keith Butler. But, if a change was desired, either Johnson or Smithson could be the cover safeties that might fit a new scheme.