The NFL Draft begins this Thursday and I could not possibly be more excited. I was not always quite so amenable to the initiation of these proceedings; in fact, I was generally fairly ambivalent and oftentimes outright nihilistic. I dumped on mock drafts for being stupid exercises in futility designed solely to drive page views (all the while leveraging my ESPN Insider subscription to consume each iteration of Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr.’s mock drafts and Big Boards, and I did so with ravenous and insatiable hunger). I felt that anyone who had a particularly strong opinion—good or bad—about a certain player was a fool. Sitting on my high horse, I wondered why anyone would forgo an evening of playoff basketball or hockey in favor of watching draft coverage. Stop feeding the omnipresent NFL machinery, man.
This mindset is obviously annoyingly pretentious, but it isn’t entirely incorrect. Mock drafts are futile and pointless, but they are worth their weight in SEO gold. And, you know, they are fun to read. Beating the draft is virtually impossible, so forming ironclad opinions about certain players is kinda dumb (for instance, I initially thought Ryan Shazier and T.J. Watt were both terrible picks, because I’m a huge idiot), but there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. The NBA and NHL playoffs are exciting and compelling, but if you wanna sit on the couch Thursday night and power through seven hours worth of draft coverage, by all means, treat yourself. I know I’ll be watching. Anyway, here are some strong opinions about the draft.
Stock up: Cornerbacks and inside linebackers and probably receivers, too— and also maybe pass rushers
The consensus among Steelers Knowers is that the team’s foremost needs are defensive back, inside linebacker, and, in light of Antonio Brown’s departure, receiver. As such, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Steelers will use their first-round pick to select a prospect who plays one of these positions.
But they have other needs, too. Bud Dupree, for instance, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has yet to manifest himself as anything close to resembling a franchise pass rusher. Should an edge defender like Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell still be available by the time the Steelers are on the clock, it wouldn’t not make sense for them to draft him. The same can be said for tight ends (Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant), defensive linemen (Houston’s Ed Oliver or Michigan’s Rashan Gary) or, heck, even quarterbacks. If the Steelers regard Duke’s Daniel Jones or Missouri’s Drew Lock as the best prospect in the draft, then, by God, that’s who they’ll pick. I realize The Steelers will probably draft a player they like a lot is not the kind of hard-hitting analysis you come to this website to consume, but it’s true.
Outside of the occasional generational blue-chip player like Andrew Luck, there is rarely an established consensus regarding the best prospects, certainly among the ones who are good, but not quite good enough to go in the top-5 or top-10. Teams don’t disclose their players rankings (duh), so in the run-up to the draft we’re left reviewing Big Boards and mock drafts to get some sort of baseline awareness of who our favorite teams ought to draft. So, whereas Mel Kiper Jr.’s Mock Draft Version 12.2 was assembled by one man, the Steelers draft board was constructed by an organizational braintrust based not only on their direct observations, but also on a dense compendium of insights from a bevy of well-trained and highly-paid professional scouts. Kevin Colbert says every year that he’s a proponent of the Best Player Available strategy, but what he actually supports is selecting the Best Player Available according to the Steelers. Sometimes, this works out fine (Watt, for example, is a defensive franchise cornerstone), sometimes it does not (Artie Burns). I am hopefully optimistic that whoever the Steelers select Thursday evening will be an All-Pro within three seasons.
Stock up: Big Ben
I’m writing this at 11 pm on Tuesday, meaning that by the time you read this article Ben Roethlisberger could have another $40 or $50 million tacked on to his existing net worth. The fact that Big Ben signed or is about to sign his third contract extension at age 37 is a stunning and remarkable development given that, a mere two seasons ago, he was purportedly seriously considering retirement (kinda funny how his desire to call it quits evaporated like a fart in the wind once Todd Haley was shown the door, but I’ll digress).
Stock down: The Steelers’ long-term competitiveness
The Steelers should theoretically remain firmly in contention so long as Ben remains healthy, but that’s a pretty big if. Ben’s manifold injury concerns are well documented, and even though he’s been lucky to avoid any significant bumps and bruises over the past two seasons, he’s currently battling the perils of inevitability. Peyton Manning—who is, without question, one of the five best quarterbacks to ever have walked this earth—had one of the greatest individual seasons of all time when he was 37, but two years later he was a shell of his former self. Manning was so grimly ineffective in 2015, in fact, that he was briefly cast aside in favor of Brock Osweiler, which is easily the worst thing that’s ever been said about anyone, ever. Unless Big Ben starts exclusively drinking alkaline water and injecting free-range iguana sperm into his jugular vein a la Tom Brady, he has, at most, two good seasons left in the tank.
This is all to say that this is a pretty dang important draft. The players the Steelers select this weekend will have two full seasons under their belts by the time Roethlisberger enters his age-39 season, and with any luck at least a few of them will be core building blocks for safeguarding the Steelers’ competitiveness in the post-Roethlisberger era.
Stock up: Speculation
Some conjecture, for your perusal:
My favorite prospect: Georgia CB DeAndre Baker. I did a write-up about Baker a few weeks ago, but if you don’t have five minutes to read another thing, the tweet-length synopsis of that blog is that Baker has not allowed an opposing receiver to score a touchdown since 2017, which is insane considering some of the competition he’s faced.
Who the Steelers should take in the first round: The Steelers should do everything in their power to draft Devin Bush or Devin White, because both fit the modern prototype for what teams expect of their inside linebackers. If defensive coordinator Keith Butler remains hellbent on using middle linebackers to cover receivers, it behooves the Steelers to find themselves a speedy linebacker. Bush and White are both widely considered to be top-half-of-the-draft prospects, so unless the Steelers manage to trade up, they will not draft Bush or White.
Who the Steelers will take in the first round: Temple CB Rock Ya-Sin. The Steelers have a habit of drafting defensive backs who fit a certain profile (big and lengthy—tee hee—physical, and capable in run support) and who kinda fly a bit under-the-radar in the pre-draft run-up.
Day 2-ish prospects to know: Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye; Alabama ILB Mack Wilson; Ohio State WR Parris Campbell; Clemson CB Trayvon Mullen; Georgia WR Riley Ridley; Penn State RB Miles Sanders; Ole Mis TE Dawson Knox
Day 3-ish prospects to know: Kentucky RB Benny Snell; Notre Dame LB Te’veon Coney; West Virginia WR David Sills; Stanford RB Bryce Love; USC S Marvell Tell; Texas WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey (full disclosure: this is 100% because of his name); Penn State DE Shareef Miller; Baylor WR Jalen Hurd
Stock up: Hope
My favorite movie ever is Shawshank Redemption. About halfway through the movie, there’s this scene where Tim Robbins’s character returns his usual lunch table in the prison cafeteria after having spent a week in solitary confinement. There, he describes to his buddies that serving time in the hole was made easier by playing Mozart operas in his head. He goes on to explain to the increasingly skeptical cohort that music is an abstract concept, something that cannot be taken away by walls or bars or guards. Music, he explains, is a reminder that there’s life happening beyond the confines of Shawshank Prison. It’s a symbol of hope. Morgan Freeman’s character, wise and cynical, responds accordingly.
The NFL Draft is so great because appeals to our collective sense of hopefulness. The draft provides bad and snakebitten franchises with the opportunity to build respectable, competitive rosters, sure, but it also provides an equitable playing field for successful teams hoping to outfox the competition by finding the one guy no one else thought to draft. There’s always the outside chance that your favorite team could unearth a Hall of Fame caliber talent in the sixth-round trash heap, but nearly every draft contains at least a handful of marginally under-valued players who ultimately—and sometimes immediately—outpaced the initial projections (JuJu Smith-Schuster, for instance, was the 6th receiver taken in the 2017 draft, and he’s miles better than the current next-best receiver from that class; there’s an alternate universe somewhere in which the Bengals selected JuJu Smith-Schuster instead of John Ross, and it’s a dark, hapless plane of existence).
Of course, as Red mentions, hope can be a dangerous thing. Hope is what convinces diehard fans that actually, maybe Artie Burns is a good pick and will turn out all right (this mindset is the spiritual equivalent of [Morgan Freeman voice] crawling through 500 yards of s$%#-smelling foulness” [end Morgan Freeman voice] only to wind up face-to-face with a an impassable cement blockade. So, temper your expectations, but enjoy Thursday’s proceedings. Check back next week for the post-draft report.