I’m just as mad as the rest of you regarding how the Steelers’ season ended, but this is no time to look back on the ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shouldas’ of the season. Instead, it’s time to look towards those collegiate players who can help get this team get over the hump by shoring up their areas of weakness.
It’s that time of the year again.
It’s NFL Draft season.
Today, I’ll be looking at some prospects who could be potential first-round picks for the Steelers, which area of need they’ll most likely target at this stage, and who my favorite candidate is.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
If you follow me on Twitter, chances are you’ve already seen me pumping up the linebacker from Boise State on multiple occasions. I’m very impressed with the obvious athleticism on film from the former high school track, football and basketball athlete. Vander Esch shows sideline-to-sideline range for closing to the outside, along with fluid hips and the speed to turn and carry athletic tight ends, as well as some slot receivers. He also shows the ability to stick with RBs in man coverage.
It’s his instincts and play recognition, though, which are where he really shines among this year’s LB class. You can tell he really grinds in the film room and has the ability to diagnose plays well before they develop. The guy looks like a special football player, and one I expect to hear a lot of buzz about in the days to come. FWIW, my buddy Jonah Tuls mocked him to the Steelers, and also is a massive fan of his game—understanding how good the fit would be.
I expect LB to be the biggest priority for the Steelers in this upcoming draft, and it will no doubt be addressed in the first two rounds. Ryan Shazier’s injury is awful, but the Steelers need to be ready to face whatever lies ahead, whether with Shazier or not.
Ronnie Harrison, Safety, Alabama
This one is going to be very popular, and for good reason. Ronnie Harrison is the leader of the Crimson Tide defense, and plays with great physicality. Harrison will garner comparisons to players like Kam Chancellor throughout the process because of their big and intimidating presence in the box.
Harrison was utilized more as a strong safety in the Alabama defense, and showed some ability in man coverage. He can play deep in a two-high look, but given how much Cover-3 the Steelers run, plus the importance of having a single-high safety, this would most likely mean moving Sean Davis to Free Safety.
Not that I’m opposed to the move, but it’s a projection move which could go either way. Steelers need a safety they can trust to have that range in single-high looks and to be able to make plays on the ball. Mike Mitchell was a solid player, but this season showed regression that cannot be ignored at his age (turning 31 in June).
I’m not opposed to picking Ronnie Harrison, as I’m all for drafting good players, but he doesn’t look like the answer to the Steelers’ centerfield issues.
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
I’m not ruling this one out because the Steelers have been very invested in scouting QBs during this college season and, at this juncture, Lamar could make a lot of sense. It makes sense particularly from a future perspective and being ready for life without Ben Roethlisberger.
The problem, of course, comes with regard to the team’s more-pressing needs. How can you address all your needs while also making a high-pick investment at QB? Is there a player already on your roster who could address that need? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered.
So, let me get this out of the way. Lamar is my QB choice at this juncture because I see Josh Allen going high, thank goodness. Lamar isn’t perfect, but I think he can fix a lot of problems stemming from one root cause: his base.
A lot of QB prospects coming out of college have a similar flaw, but this one is different than most. Deshone Kizer and quarterbacks like Jameis Winston had wide bases which caused plenty of problems with consistency for them. Unlike those quarterbacks, though, Lamar has a narrow base that causes him to lose control of some of his throws, usually leading to sailing passes high over his receivers.
How fixable this is remains to be seen, but he’s someone I’m going to breakdown extensively this draft season, and he’s a realistic option who might be available at the No. 28 pick.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
If I had to choose a guy that wouldn’t be my favorite choice, but someone I could understand the Steelers picking, it would be Malik Jefferson. He’s Super athlete and a versatile player, but he’s really raw from a recognition and instincts perspective. He doesn’t always see what’s happening in front of him and developing that capability could take some time.
If I’m the Steelers, I don’t have time to waste with a first-round pick, unless I’m picking a QB. They need to get a contributor on defense right away. While Jefferson could be that guy, he’d have a lot of growing pains that could be hard to deal with. The Steelers’ Super Bowl window is getting close to closing, and they can’t wait on Shazier, let alone a rookie like Jefferson. But if this pick happens, I wouldn’t be shocked at all.
The popular not-gonna-happen prospect
I’m telling you now Steelers fans—don’t get your hopes up for Rashaan Evans, especially if he tests the way he did coming out of high school.
He hasn't tested like this at Alabama lately, but I'm just saying, if he tests like this there's no way he's there. pic.twitter.com/pW1TVZuO5J— The Mick Nartin™ (@themicknartin) January 21, 2018
When I watch his film, I don’t always notice his 40, but I do notice that vertical jump when he plants his foot in the ground and goes. Just explosive and at times on blitzes it looks like he’s being shot out of a cannon.
Trap runs don't work on Evans.— The Mick Nartin™ (@themicknartin) January 21, 2018
Probably my favorite play of Rashaan Evans. I remember when Myles Jack would knock linemen on their butts like this. Heads up play to get in on the tackle and strip the ball out. pic.twitter.com/5vWKyLBeUd
Evans didn’t put up massive numbers of tackles, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story on the impact he had on the Crimson Tide defense. He would move around a ton, and plenty of times he was used on the edge, as he had six sacks on the season. He also dealt with a nagging groin injury that caused him to miss two games and took him time to completely work back from.
I’m just saying, Steelers fans, he’s being mocked to Pittsburgh now, but there are a lot of teams in front of us, like the Lions, who need a LB. Then there’s a team like the Raiders who will be in the Roquan Smith hunt, and a team like the Dolphins who could use a guy like Tremaine Edmunds. Given how good the top of this LB class is, and the demand in front of the Steelers, don’t get your hopes up.