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An in-depth look at the NFL Draft prospects who have met with the Steelers

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The Steelers only interview players they’d be willing to pick. What patterns can we see from the meetings to date?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Any Steeler fan who follows the draft knows that player meetings are the single best indicator of who the team is likely to pick. In my experience at least half of all draft picks met with the team beforehand, with the percentage going up for the earlier rounds. We don’t always know about the meetings, such as Juju Smith Schuster’s Combine “speed date,” but the pattern holds.

What follows in a list of the prospects with whom the Steelers have met. All grades are drawn from the BTSC Big Board. The descriptions are too but have been greatly abbreviated. See those articles for fuller information and useful links. A close look at those grades and who the team has met reveals some pretty clear patterns.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The team has met with two budding stars they probably want to know for future reference. They seem like unlikely picks unless some miracle dropped them toward 2:28. Both can be fairly compared to Cam Heyward.

The bigger cluster is several athletic Round 5 prospects in the “Javon Hargrave Lite” mold. This is at least in part because monstrous immovable objects are few and far between this year, but also shows how the team views its future approach to this position.

Two likely free agent targets round this group out.

  • 2:12 DL Da’ron Payne, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’2”, 311 lbs. Imagine a player you really, truly believe will be the next Cam Heyward.
  • 2:12 DL Harrison Phillips, Stanford [COMBINE]. 6’4”, 307 lbs. Another top prospect who could grow into a legit challenger to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
  • 5:01 DL/NT B.J. Hill, N. Car. St. [VISIT]. 6’4”, 315 lbs. A NT who could 2-gap in a pinch but is much closer to Hargrave than Hampton.
  • 5:01 DL/NT Kendrick Norton, Miami [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 314 lbs. A NT who could 2-gap in a pinch but is much closer to Hargrave than Hampton.
  • 5:16 DL/NT Derrick Nnadi, Florida St. [COMBINE]. 6’1”, 317 lbs. And again: A NT who could 2-gap in a pinch but is much closer to Hargrave than Hampton.
  • 5:16 DL Deadrin Senat, USF [COMBINE]. 6’0” 314 lbs. And a fourth: NT who could 2-gap in a pinch but is much closer to Hargrave than Hampton.
  • 7:99 DL Curtis Cothran, Penn State [PRO DAY]. 6’5”, 301 lbs. More a general Defensive Tackle than a Nose Tack. He’ll need to spend a year in an NFL strength training program before trying to compete for a job.
  • 7:99 DL Joshua Frazier, Alabama [PRO DAY]. 6’4”, 324 lbs. An immovable object to compete with Dan McCullers.

EDGE RUSHERS

There is a contingent of Steeler fans who adamantly believe a certain young OLB has played below the line. Prepare for disappointment because the front office has shown no interest in meeting potential challengers. Nor has it shown any interest in looking for additional depth despite a nice cluster of talent that could be available at 2:28.

  • 7:99 OLB Macklin Weaver, Eastern Illinois [PRO DAY]. 6’5”, 260 lbs.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

The team clearly views this position with just as much urgency as the fanbase. The two dream picks (Edmunds and Smith) have not even been interviewed, so it’s fair to say that the more optimistic fantasies aren’t worth even that minimal cost. It also suggests that the team has little or no intention of trading up.

A huge amount of attention has been paid to LVE and relatively little to Rashaan Evans, the other prospect that most mocks send our way. But that may not say much because Evans has put up an enormous amount of tape. He was a much more known commodity and the front office may simply be content that meeting at the Combine was enough to confirm that the young man was who they thought. It may also reflect the heavy emphasis on lighter Mack/Nickel types. LVE has a much bigger build and it’s hard, in the abstract, to believe he’s fleet enough to replace Shazier. No one would buy that if not for the athletic testing. LVE also has vastly less than Evans in the way of technique and thus requires more care in any projection.

The team has looked at a trio of Mack/Nickel types graded from 2:24 to 3:12. Malik Jefferson has the clear edge athletically but is very divisive in the draft community. “Round 2 steal or Round 5 consolation prize?” [I offer his name as a prime suggestion for any of our BTSC film watchers are looking for a prospect we really ought to know better.] Fred Warner is a late riser in the process who might not be a bargain at 2:28 but is very unlikely to fall much further. And my draft crush Shaun Dion Hamilton offers an easy Round 2 bargain for quality, but significant question marks when it comes to durability. The Big Board contains two or three other players in this general band who have yet to be interviewed so far as we know.

The Big Board has five Mack/Nickel types with Round 4-5 grades and there are many others in the general Day 3 range who I did not take the time to list. The team has met with exactly one player in this tier. That sends a strong signal that ILB will be addressed no later than Round 3, and won’t get a double dip unless there is an incredible bargain (a Round 2-3 talent available in Round 5).

OTOH, the list of meetings with Round 5 talent focuses heavily on players who excel at special teams. There may well be an oversized Safety in the mix who ought to have the ability to double as a Dime LB in the mold of a Morgan Burnett. This is discussed in more detail below.

ROUND 1 ILB PROSPECTS

  • 1:20 Mack/Buck Leighton Vander Esch, Boise St. [COMBINE, DINNER, PRO DAY, VISIT]. 6’4”, 256 lbs. See Tremaine Edmunds and then make him vaguely human. OTOH, he is all potential with vastly less polish than you’d like to see. The risk of projecting that far would be why he falls to 1:28 and yield the team a bargain, but make no mistake: it is a risk.
  • 1:20 Mack/Nickel Rashaan Evans, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 234 lbs. The NFL.com scouting profile compares him to a young Lawrence Timmons who played through a nasty groin injury for all of 2018. Some BTSC posters have expressed doubts but the pundits all seem to agree with that.

ROUND 2-3 ILB PROSPECTS

  • 2:24 Mack/Nickel Fred Warner, BYU [SENIOR BOWL]. 6’3”, 236 lbs. Fast, fluid, and built to play the role occupied by Ryan Shazier, albeit at an “excellent NFL athlete” level instead of comic book land.
  • 3:12 Mack/Nickel Shaun Dion-Hamilton, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’0”, 230 lbs. Another fast, fluid but undersized LB in the mold of Ryan Shazier. Possesses a brilliant football IQ and wonderful leadership skills, but also had both his 2016 and 2017 seasons ended prematurely by injury. The injuries are unrelated, but two years has to raise durability concerns nevertheless.
  • 3:12 Mack/Nickel Malik Jefferson, Texas [VISIT]. 6’3”, 236 lbs. Fringe-1st physical talents offset by persistent rumors of a suspect football IQ. If we knew that he interviewed well he’s be graded around 2:01. If we knew the rumors were true he’d be down in Round 5.

ROUND 5 ILB PROSPECTS

  • 4:16 Nickel/Dime Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson [VISIT]. 6’1”, 215 lbs. See the Special Teams section.
  • 4:16 Mack/Nickel Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe, W. Kentucky [VISIT]. 6’1”, 229 lbs. A solid, not flashy, mid-round Mack.

ROUND 7 & F.A. ILB PROSPECTS

  • 6:16 MACK/NICKEL ILB Jermaine Carter, Maryland [VISIT]. 6’0”, 228 lbs. See the Special Teams section.

INTERLUDE – SPECIAL TEAMS AND SUB-PACKAGE TALENT

There is a pattern in the meetings that makes me believe the Front Office has offered Coach Danny Smith a handshake promise as recompense for cutting his special teams captain, Robert Golden. “We will pay special attention to your needs with our mid-round picks.”

Look at the following list of meetings! These are all players who would be absolute gifts to Coach Smith. Some of them have the promise to grow into other roles while others face a steeper road, but there are so many of them that I think it’s all but guaranteed. If they don’t spend the Round 3 pick on a teams-and-other player, the Steelers are going to devote at least one of their Round 5 picks and perhaps a Round 7 pick to lunatics that love to careen into their peers with a 40 yard head start.

NOTE: I give 3:12 SS/Dime ILB Marcus Allen, Penn State honorable mention here. There has been no reported meeting but Allen fits the profile to perfection and is local enough that a de facto meeting might have occurred outside of and/or before the draft season channels we know about.

  • 2:24 SS/Dime ILB Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech [TOMLIN & COLBERT BOTH AT PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 220 lbs. Portrait of a SPARQ-score superstar: the size of a huge, almost-linebackerish Strong Safety wedded with the exceptional speed and athleticism of a true Free Safety. His tape would only justify a Round 3 grade, but his potential and his guaranteed use on special teams bumps him up.
  • 3:01 SS/Dime ILB Kyzir White, W. Va. [VISIT]. 6’2”, 216 lbs. 100% football player, and a classic example of “Too slow to play Safety and too small to play Linebacker.” Great fit as a sub package role player and special teams ace, plus a chance to be even more.
  • 4:16 Nickel/Dime Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson [VISIT]. 6’1”, 215 lbs. Another member in the TToo slow to play Safety and too small to play Linebacker” club, but this time from the LB direction. He was a legendary special teams ace in college and might really help as a sub package role player.
  • 5:16 Buck/Mack Chris Worley, Ohio State [VISIT]. 6’2”, 230 lbs. A 100% football player who lacks the speed to play Nickel but has that “likely to find a way” air. Major team leader who should be ideal for special teams.
  • 6:16 MACK/NICKEL ILB Jermaine Carter, Maryland [VISIT]. 6’0”, 228 lbs. A two-year captain who projects to be a special teams and sub package specialist. This brief scouting profile catches the essence: a “short, stocky, high motor… heart and soul of the defense” type.
  • 7:01 WR Russell Gage, LSU [VISIT]. 6’0”, 184 lbs. A tough, competitive, junk yard dog of a special teams player who doubles as a Wide Receiver.

SAFETIES

The team has looked at Round 2-4 talent and that’s about it. This probably reflects a weakness in the class more than intent. There are two real clusters. The first is a trio of players with early Round 2 grades. They are the most likely “consolation prizes” if the Board goes utterly wrong in Round 1, and the most likely dream picks for 2:28.

The Round 3-4 grades are mostly up above because they double as special teams demons and I think it is fair to call that their primary position. The guy stuck in the middle is Terrell Edmunds, who I’ve put in both spots because I simply couldn’t decide.

ROUND 1, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

1:01 FS/CB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama [COMBINE]. I can’t explain it except as general research. Don’t dream, it Ain’t Gonna Happen.

ROUND 1-2

  • 2:01 FS/SS Justin Reid, Stanford [COMBINE & VISIT]. 6’1”, 204 lbs. The model of a modern Steelers Safety. Might be seen as a slight reach at 1:28 but a major bargain if he falls to 2:28. Would make a great special teamer too but only until he develops enough to claim a starting role.
  • 2:12 FS Jessie Bates III, Wake Forest [COMBINE & PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 195. A classic centerfield Free Safety who plays bigger than he is.
  • 2:12 SS/FS Ronnie Harrison, Alabama [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 214 lbs. A size XL version of the Model Steeler Safety. Another special teams ace who will grow out of that role when he claims a starting job.

ROUND 3

  • 2:24 SS/Dime ILB Terrell Edmunds, Virginia Tech [TOMLIN & COLBERT BOTH AT PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 220 lbs. See the entry under Special Teams.
  • 4:16 SS/FS Trey Flowers, Okla. St. [COMBINE]. 6’3”, 202 lbs. He wants to be a special teams ace and Kam Chancellor type, but right now he’s an oversized reed. It’s hard to project where he’ll end up.

CORNERBACKS

There are very few visits, which reflects the general opinion that Pittsburgh has a load of young talent at the position with only the normal question marks you’d expect from players who “ought” to succeed but haven’t done it yet. The only pattern is style. The Day 1 & 2 meetings are all with players who have reputations as tough and efficient tacklers, tied to at least adequate physical skills. NOTE: All of these grades are lower than they would be for a team with bigger holes at the CB position.

  • 1:20 CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville [Tomlin & Colbert at Pro Day but likely for other players]. 5’10”, 196 lbs. Combine superstar and apparently the player the only Corner who might fall to 1:28 and actually get considered. But it would also take a really weird 1st round for Alexander to be available. He’d be at 1:10 if Haden and Burns got kneecapped by some rogue, not to be named linebacker headed up the river from Cincinnatti on his way to a four game suspension.
  • 3:01 CB Duke Dawson, Florida [VISIT]. 5’10-1/2”, 197 lbs. A football player who happens to play Corner. Solid Round 2 value for most teams and a 3:28 steal that Pittsburgh might go for if he drops that far.
  • 3:01 CB M.J. Stewart, N. Carolina [VISIT]. 5’11”, 200 lbs. Rinse and repeat. A football player who happens to play Corner and steal at 3:28 - which should not happen in any normal scenario.
  • 7.16 CB Trey Johnson, Villanova [PRO DAY]. 5’11”, 187 lbs. Team attends pro day with whatever initial impression. Prospect runs a very surprising 4.33 dash and a 4.20 short shuttle. Teams says, “We need to know more...”

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Pittsburgh Steelers are doing their due diligence but aren’t seriously looking for help at these positions. The only prospect with a Day 1 or 2 grade is a local kid brought in for a no-cost meet and greet.

  • N/A OT Brian O’Neil, Pitt [VISIT/LOCAL]. 6’7”, 305 lbs. The NFL.com scouting profile ends with a Round 2 grade.
  • 5:16 C/G Tony Adams, N.C. State [PRO DAY]. 6’2”, 322 lbs. The NFL.com scouting profile ends with a Round 5 grade for a prospect with a very good build, good quickness, but desperate need for an NFL strength training program. This scouting profile from our sister site for the Giants points out that Adams was once a Top 20 tennis player in New England.
  • 7:16 OT Jordan Mailata, Rugby Player [VISIT]. 6’8”, 346 lbs. A miracle athlete who’s never played a snap of football in his life.
  • 7:99 OG R.J. Prince, North Carolina [PRO DAY]. 6’6”, 311 lbs. Makes a lot of sense as a free agent target.

QUARTERBACKS

One kid who’d be a potential steal at 1:28, and won’t be there unless the Board has gone so loopy that most of the Steelers intended targets are likely gone. A second prospect who fits that exact description for Round 2. And then an obscure but good looking boom-or-bust prospect for Day 3.

It sounds like the Steelers really want to see what Josh Dobbs has to offer before taking the next step in the search for an Heir to Ben.

  • 1:15 QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville [COMBINE & Tomlin/Colbert both at Pro Day]. 6’2”, 216 lbs.
  • 2:12 QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma St. [COMBINE & Tomlin/Colbert both at Pro Day]. 6’5”, 235 lbs. He fits the physical profile to a “T” and has been a good, steadily improving pocket passer throughout his college career. Generally viewed as the clear #6 prospect in the class.
  • 6:01 QB Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan. [VISIT]. 6’3”, 220 lbs. As explained in this scouting profile, Roback is a small school star with decent size and a lot of talent. A similar story is told in this scouting profile.

TIGHT ENDS

There is a mort of Round 2-6 talent in this year’s class. The Steelers seem to be focused on prospects who’d be particular bargains at 2:28, 3:28, and in Round 5.

  • 2:12 TE Mike Gesicki, Penn St. [COMBINE] 6’5”, 247 lbs. Check out this spider-graph at Mocktable.com. Mike Gesicki is a SPARQ-score monster who makes Vance McDonald look slow and clumsy. But he isn’t a blocker and isn’t likely to become one because he’s isn’t all that stocky.
  • 3:12 TE Ian Thomas, Indiana [COMBINE]. 6’5”, 248 lbs. The second highest SPARQ score in this year’s class after Gesicki, which ranks him in the top 20% of all NFL TE’s (Gesicki being in the top 1% with room to spare).
  • 4:16 TE Will Dissly, Washington [COMBINE]. 6’5”, 257 lbs. A converted Edge Rusher. His SPARQ-score was lousy, but mostly due to really bad marks on the bench and in the leaps. Mike Mayock called him “the best blocking TE in the class”, he has a Steelerish tough-guy attitude, and he excelled in the C.O.D. drills where no one thought he would.
  • 4:16 TE Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin [COMBINE]. 6’6”, 248 lbs. A big, receiving-oriented Tight End with fabulous hands, good route running skills, lots of grit, and a knack for getting open despite average athleticism.

RUNNING BACKS

Steeler Nation needs to get over it. The front office clearly views Lev Bell as its long term plan. This is a very strong draft for RB’s with a lot of dream talent that could fall to 2:28 (Sony Michel, Ronald Jones); a long list of players who should be very fine value at 2:28; and a third, equally long list of prospects who’d be great value at 3:28. The team has interviewed exactly two of the top 20 Running Back prospects: the guy who should not fall all the way to 1:28 unless the draft takes a drastic left hand turn somewhere, and the lifelong Steeler fan who falls in that 2:28 belt. The only other prospect is a late round boom-or-bust candidate.

I admit it. I have been pounding the “back for when Bell leaves” drum as much as anyone but the meetings say it Ain’t Gonna Happen.

  • 1:20 RB Derrius Guice, LSU [COMBINE, DINNER]. 5’10”, 212 lbs. Derrius Guice is solid late-1st value. That doesn’t make him the best pick if other top talents are on the Board but it wouldn’t be a waste in any sense. The constant comparison is to a young Marshawn Lynch.
  • 2:12 RB Kerryon Johnson, Auburn [COMBINE]. 6’0”, 212 lbs. Johnson has every asset you want in a running back except breakaway speed and bone-crushing power. He’s shifty, sudden, hard to tackle, plenty fast enough, a good blocker, a hard worker, etc.
  • 6:16 RB/WR Reggie Bonnafon, Louisville [VISIT]. 6’2”, 210 lbs. A superb athlete who converted from QB to WR in 2016 when it became clear that Lamar Jackson was The Man, and then to RB in 2017.
  • 7:99 FB/TE John David (“J.D.”) Moore, LSU [VISIT]. 6’4”, 236 lbs. Every year LSU awards #18 to high character tough guys the locker room admires. J.D. Moore was the most recent.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Steelers appear to be bargain shopping with a serious intent to draft a receiver. Six meetings is a lot. There is no particular pattern beyond that except an observation that they’ve interviewed two of the premier super-bug prospects. And then four who were “other.”

3:01 WR James Washington, Okla. St. [COMBINE & PRO DAY] 5’11”, 213 lbs. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award (best college WR) who should by rights be given a fringe-1st grade. There’s a chance he’d be a shock-pick at 2:28. At 3:28 they couldn’t resist. This very unfair grade reflects the lack-of-need discount.

5:01 WR Justin Watson, Penn. [VISIT] 6’3”, 215 lbs. The NFL.com scouting profile describes a receiver with great hands, character and size who utterly dominated the Ivy League. But come on, the Ivy league? Then came the SPARQ-score data from his pro day and those results suddenly looked real.

5:16 WR Richie James, Middle Tenn. St. [COMBINE & VISIT] 5’9”, 178 lbs. An undersized, super agile, sneaky fast, punt returning Jack Russell Terrier of the football world.

6:16 WR Devin Gray, Cincinnati [PRO DAY]. 5’11”, 183 lbs. Very good 4.4 speed. Supposed to have good hands too but was held back by poor QB play.

6:16 WR Quadree Henderson, Pitt. [LOCAL VISIT]. 5’8”, 190 lbs. A punt/kick returner who doubles with less success as a Wide Receiver. A good bit bigger but not as scrappy as Richie James.