Normally, I don’t spend as much time studying draft prospects as some of the other writers at BTSC. But with more down-time than usual these days (thanks, coronavirus), I’ve had a chance to dig a bit deeper. Not “seven-round mock” deeper, but deep enough to have determined which three players I would target if I were making the call when the Steelers are on the clock with their first selection Friday night.
This is not a draft like last year’s where the team has a glaring hole they need to fill. As such, they can truly go best-player-available at 2:49. Still, best-player-available has some parameters. The Steelers will undoubtedly have a list of needs they would like to fill. They may believe the best-player-available when they select at 2:49 is a corner. However, their big board might indicate that another player who fits a more pressing need, or who is a better bet to contribute sooner, is close enough in their evaluation process to warrant selecting instead. Best-player-available doesn’t have to literally mean the best remaining player; it can mean the best player in an area the Steelers are looking to address.
What are those areas? Frankly, most of them. The Steelers could use depth at almost every position group. Only tight end, with Vance McDonald, free agent signee Eric Ebron, second-year developmental project Zach Gentry and, in a pinch, new fullback Derek Watt, and quarterback, with a returning Ben Roethlisberger and four backup candidates on the roster, seem unlikely at 2:49. Every other position group is on the table.
The three players I’ve targeted are players who, based on most projections, are likely to be drafted somewhere between picks 40-60. A player like TCU receiver Jalen Reagor, who many see as a good fit for the Steelers, is routinely being mocked in the 25-40 range, with Green Bay at 1:30 and Indianapolis at 2:34 (also 2:44) the most common destinations. Reagor may fall to 2:49 but I don’t expect him to. I’ve limited my pool of candidates to those I anticipate will be available.
Before we get to those three, here are some players I think the Steelers should jump at should they fall to 2:49. I don’t expect any of these players to last that long, however, so I am not considering them:
Jalen Reagor, WR, TCU
Cesar Ruiz, C/G, Michigan
Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma
Here are some others I considered, and who may be available, but I inevitably excluded:
Johnathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, LSU
This trio of talented running backs are all tempting, especially given James Conner’s injury history and contract status. I ruled each player out in this spot, however. Taylor played in a 22-personnel, gap-oriented offense at Wisconsin that doesn’t mesh with how the Steelers operate behind Roethlisberger. Dobbins is a shiftier version of Conner but not as good as a receiver. Edwards-Helaire is a nice compliment to Conner and Benny Snell Jr. His style is different (smaller, more of a slasher) and he’s a better receiver out of the backfield. But I like Zach Moss from Utah almost as much and I think we can get Moss with our pick at 3:102 if we want to go this route. Plus, I’m not convinced the Steelers are giving up on Jaylen Samuels yet, especially with his old college OC (Matt Canada) in the house. I’m passing on a running back in this spot.
Willie Gay Jr, ILB, Mississippi State
Gay is an electric linebacker whose 6’2-240 frame, 4.46 40 time and elite coverage skills make him an ideal candidate to fill the void at backer in the team’s nickel and dime packages created by Mark Barron’s departure. Putting a player who has been described as having “Bobby Wagner potential” next to Devin Bush in the nickel, which has become Pittsburgh’s de facto base defense, is a tantalizing prospect. But Gay was suspended for five games in 2019 for an academic cheating scandal and had two other incidents with teammates. He is described as a player with a low football IQ who may take a while to learn NFL schemes. When I consider the complexity of Keith Butler’s defense, this makes me pause. Gay is a phenomenal athlete and could be dynamic next to Bush in our sub packages. But the red flags scare me too much.
There you go. Call them the “Not Quite” candidates. On to the finalists, then. Here are the top three likely-available players I’d select with the Steelers’ pick at 2:49.
Jeremy Chinn, LB/S, Southern Illinois
The Steelers have spent their first pick on a defensive player in seven straight drafts. But with a big hole at sub-package linebacker and an athlete of Chinn’s caliber on the board, it might become eight.
For those who are saying, “Who the heck is Jeremy Chinn?” trust me, you are not alone. I had no idea who he was until about two weeks ago, when a friend sent me a link to an article about him and asked what I thought. I started to look at Chinn’s film, the scouting reports on him and how he projects in the Steelers scheme and quickly found myself intrigued. Then I read about how Chinn is shooting up draft boards. If we want the kid, we’re going to have to take him at 2:49.
Why would we want him? For many of the same reasons we’d want Gay, but with better intangibles. Chinn is listed as a strong safety but, at 6’3-224, is built more like a linebacker. He can both hit and run (4.45 at the Combine) and he has the size and tackling chops to fill the nickel and dime backer roles.
Watch Chinn in the clip below. First, we see him circled in the still-frame in a defensive look that resembles something Keith Butler would throw at an offense. Plug in linebackers for the guys up front with their hands on the ground and this could easily be a nickel look from the Steelers with Chinn in the middle of the field:
Now watch what he does. He comes from depth as the sixth rusher on a blitz with tremendous closing speed. He’s a bit too high and will need to get skinnier as he approaches but his explosiveness is evident. The Steelers like to blitz from a variety of angles and Chinn is a guy who can get there:
Coverage-wise, Chinn is a natural safety who is more than capable of defending tight ends and backs in sub-packages. At SIU, he displayed great ball-skills and surprisingly good range for his size (13 career interceptions, 31 pass breakups and 6 forced fumbles). He’s also a solid tackler who is fundamentally sound. He wraps players up and anchors his hips to the ground when taking them down. His film against North Dakota State, the FCS champion and a team that has knocked off multiple Power 5 schools in recent years, is great. Chinn was also one of the standouts at the Senior Bowl. That’s an encouraging sign and suggests he will elevate against better competition.
Chinn’s selection in this spot would be a surprise for the Steelers given he’s from a smaller school and will likely need some time to develop. For those with longer memories, he could conjure reminders of the great Scott Shields debacle of 1999. But that was another era. Physically, Chinn is light years beyond Shields and has more of a Kam Chancellor feel about him. In today’s game, the combination of Chinn’s athleticism and how well he fits the Steelers scheme is too good to ignore.
Lloyd Cushenberry, C/G, LSU
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Lloyd Cushenberry. Whereas Chinn is a tantalizing athlete with boom or bust potential, Cushenberry registers low on the excitement meter but is a safe bet to succeed at the next level. Pittsburgh’s starting five up front will be the oldest unit in the league in 2020, and they haven’t exactly stocked the cupboard with stud reserves. Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner have yet to prove they are starting-caliber players while Stephen Wisniewski, who was signed as a free agent in March, is a solid player but getting long in the tooth as well. The unit is an injury or two from being a liability and could use an immediate upgrade.
With Michigan’s Ruiz and the draft’s best tackles likely off the board, the player who can provide that upgrade at 2:49 is LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry. The Steelers like experienced players from big-time programs with their top picks and Cushenberry more than fits the bill. He’s the best lineman from the best offensive line in the country and a national champion. How’s that for pedigree?
Cushenberry was under-recruited out of high school, told he was too small (6’4-312) to be a big-time prospect and red-shirted at LSU with no promise of being promoted. All he did was work himself into becoming a team captain and one of the best linemen in the country. That sort of chip-on-the-shoulder mentality bodes well for the type of player he will be in the NFL. He is a smart, physical lineman who can play both guard and center. With long arms and good core strength, he should hold his own against some of the better defensive tackles in the league. He is not a great puller at present but his mobility isn’t a liability the way Ramon Foster’s was the past couple of seasons. He is described as a player best-suited for a zone-heavy run scheme, which the Steelers favor. He rates highly as a pass protector as well.
In Pittsburgh, Cushenberry could initially provide depth behind Wisniewski, which would allow Matt Feiler to stay at right tackle and wouldn’t force Okorafor or Banner into the starting lineup prematurely. He could then be groomed to take over at center when Maurkice Pouncey retires, where he would continue a tradition of excellence at the position. His selection might not make people jump for joy but it’s a smart, safe choice that solidifies the most important position group (other than quarterback) in football.
KJ Hamler, WR, Penn State
Of these three players, I’d take Cushenberry over Chinn but I’d take Hamler over both of them. I will now pause so the screaming can commence:
Before you get out the pitch forks, let’s look carefully at Hamler. First off, yes, he is on the smaller side. Hamler measured 5’9-178 at the Combine and will certainly need to bulk up some to handle the physicality of the NFL. He did play in the Big 10, however, one of the most physical conferences in college football, where he did not miss a game in his two seasons in the lineup. You often have to get hit to get injured and hitting Hamler is a problem. To say he is quick is a colossal understatement. Hamler tweaked a hamstring while training so he didn’t run the 40 at the Combine in February. But he was clocked in the 4.3 range while at Penn State. He also wore a GPS tracker in practices that measured his sprint speed at 21.76 miles per hour, which would have ranked among the top 13 fastest sprints in the NFL last season. Hamler also hit 225 pounds for fifteen reps on the bench press at the Combine, which is impressive for a player his size. He is not thickly-built like Julian Edelman or Steve Smith. But his combination of speed and strength indicates he will be more durable than the eye-test suggests.
When we consider the Steelers offense at present, it’s important to ask, what does it lack? Yes, there are depth issues on the line and, perhaps, at running back. But the most obvious need is a quick receiver to play in the slot. The Steelers have three young receivers on the roster, all of whom have high ceilings potential-wise, and all of whom are best suited to play outside. Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson all operate best at the X or the Z. Smith-Schuster can play in the slot if necessary but it’s not his best fit. Same for Johnson. Tight end Eric Ebron is expected to operate a good deal out of the slot this season, especially when the Steelers go to 12 personnel packages. Ebron is a big target and moves well for a tight end but he lacks home-run hitting ability. The only pure slot player on the roster at present is Ryan Switzer, whose ceiling is low. Hamler, who is regarded by many as the second-best slot receiver in the draft behind Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, makes sense from a positional standpoint.
Hamler also fills the need for speed on offense. None of the receivers mentioned above are elite speedsters. Smith-Schuster and Washington are more powerful than fast while Johnson is a quick-twitch guy and a precise route-runner but not a speed demon. The Steelers will have to be creative in moving Hamler around to free him from press coverage but once he’s free he’s going to be a nightmare to cover in space. Unless teams have a fast nickel player with great cover skills, Hamler’s speed will present problems. If they play him with a safety over the top, it will create one-on-one opportunities elsewhere.
Speed alone isn’t enough to be a great NFL wide receiver, of course. But Hamler isn’t some track kid trying to catch balls. He caught 98 passes for 1,658 yards (16.9 ypc) and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and sophomore at Penn State. In four games against Ohio State and Michigan, the best defenses Hamler faced, he went 14-310 for a whopping 22 yards per catch. As a redshirt freshman and sophomore.
Here he is splitting the Ohio State defense for a 93 yard touchdown in 2018. While Diontae Johnson has similar quick-twitch release ability at the line of scrimmage, no one on the roster has the long speed Hamler possesses. Good luck to teams playing one-high man coverage if he gets the ball with room to run. Hamler does a great job of catching with his hands in that clip, too, which is something he will need to do well as a smaller target. Once he masters that part of the craft, watch out.
For those who believe a fourth receiver doesn’t make sense because there won’t be enough playing time for everyone, I remind you of what Emmanuel Sanders said about the receiving room in Pittsburgh when Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown were here. “We all wanted to be the best,” Sanders said. “Competition brought out the best in each of us.”
Competition is indeed a beautiful thing. Besides, a Steelers receiving corps of Juju, Johnson and Washington outside with Ebron and Hamler in the slot and McDonald as the in-line tight end would be the most complete set of weapons Ben Roethlisberger has had since the Young Money years. If the Steelers are going to roll with Big Ben, giving him the weapons he needs makes sense. Hamler is no doubt a weapon. He presents something the Steelers lack: a home-run hitter in the DeSean Jackson mold whose ability to return kicks and punts adds value as well. The Steelers have not had a player like him in ages, if ever. If he’s available at 2:49, they should send his name to the (virtual) podium.
As an aside, this was the most challenging article I’ve written at BTSC. All of my previous pieces that are heavy on X’s and O’s and football analysis were cake by comparison. The chore of finding the right person at the right spot while playing the roulette game of who might be available was exhausting. The GM’s who get it right are simply great at their craft. Kevin Colbert gets it right more often than most. If nothing else, writing this article helped me to appreciate him more than I previously did.
Let’s have a great draft this weekend. Go Steelers!