The draft means different things to different franchises. For some, it’s the opportunity to land an essential franchise quarterback. For others, it’s a chance to fill a glaring need. Some draft for speed or for smarts, others to fit a particular scheme. Many simply take the best player available. A few appear to throw darts at a figurative dartboard and choose whomever they hit.
This year, with no obvious immediate needs but several positions at which they could use depth or a player to fill a role, the Steelers entered the draft with a wide-open pool of candidates. This gave them the luxury of eating off of the entire menu, so to speak, with only quarterback and tight end as position groups that seemed off the table. It made life difficult for pundits and mock-drafters trying to predict whom they might select. But it allowed the Steelers to search for players with specific strengths without having to worry if they could start right away.
After sitting out day one of the draft (Minkah! Did you know we got Minkah!), the Steelers attacked day two with a mantra lifted from the classic Talking Heads song “Once In A Lifetime.” By drafting a wide receiver and a linebacker, their philosophy remained the same as it ever was. The selections of Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool and Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith made it six out of the past eight drafts where they went WR/LB with two of their first three picks. Death, taxes and the Steelers drafting a wide receiver and a linebacker in the first few rounds - these are life’s inevitabilities.
Reaction throughout Steeler Nation seemed mixed towards the Claypool and Highsmith selections. Neither fortifies an immediate area of weakness and many debated whether they were the best players available at their respective positions. Claypool is interesting for his size and speed and will give Ben Roethlisberger another big target in the passing game while adding physicality as a run blocker. Highsmith is most likely a special teams contributor in 2020 while being groomed as the possible successor to Bud Dupree should Dupree leave after playing out his franchise tag. Beyond the Steelers love of drafting receivers and linebackers early, the question many asked is why they opted for those players in those particular draft slots.
Day three of the draft, where rounds 4-7 are conducted, brought a different atmosphere and level of expectation. Whereas teams are compelled to produce starters in rounds 1-3, rounds 4-7 is where, ideally, depth pieces and role players are added. Those who were not overwhelmed by the Steelers’ first two selections should take comfort in what the team was able to do with their next three. Their picks in round four, running back Anthony McFarland and guard Kevin Dotson, and round six, safety Antoine Brooks, are the types of picks that round out a roster like Pittsburgh’s. None are complete players but all bring necessary skill sets. Each player fills a specific role or provides a trait that was lacking. All have a great chance to both make the squad and contribute, if not in 2020 then in seasons to come. This trio of smart selections solidified an effective draft for the Steelers.
Here’s a quick look at how each fits the roster and at what they might contribute:
Anthony McFarland, Maryland, RB, 5’8-208
For those who loved LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire or, like me, Utah’s Zach Moss as fits for the Steelers, McFarland is not far off. He resembles Moss and Edwards-Helaire in stature and he combines the power to run inside with a shiftiness possessed only by Kerith Whyte on the running back depth chart. Whyte showed some promise as an outside runner and kick returner last season but struggled to run between the tackles. McFarland pairs Whyte’s burst to the edge with a more physical inside game. He is potentially a dangerous kick returner as well. His presence is likely to mean the end of Whyte’s time in Pittsburgh.
McFarland’s calling card is his burst. He has good vision and cuts decisively. Once he gets vertical, he has home-run hitting ability like no one in the Pittsburgh backfield. Watch him jump-cut to his right on this inside zone run and then sprint away from the defense:
McFarland has what my college roommate would call “schwoogie,” an entirely made-up word used to describe a player whose elusiveness can make an opponent look foolish. Case in point - the Wisconsin edge defender in the GIF below:
Scientifically-speaking, the Steelers backfield prior to the draft suffered from a low quotient of schwoogie. McFarland will remedy that.
McFarland is not a threat to supplant James Conner as the every-down back (this year, anyway) but he could push Benny Snell for reps as the primary backup. He is also a good candidate to play in 3rd down packages and perhaps see snaps in the slot where he could run jet sweeps and quick screens. He will have to master NFL pass protection and win Ben Roethlisberger’s trust in those situations. But McFarland has good hands and if the Steelers can get him the ball in space he has the strength and explosiveness to create plays like this:
In short, McFarland has a Darren Sproles quality the Steelers have lacked in their backfield for a long time. McFarland played under new Steelers’ quarterbacks coach/offensive assistant Matt Canada at Maryland in 2018 where, against an Ohio State team loaded with future pros, he gashed the Buckeyes for 298 yards rushing on just 21 carries. Canada will surely have some suggestions on how to get the football into the hands of the newest weapon in the Steelers’ arsenal. That, in itself, is an exciting prospect.
Kevin Dotson, OG, Louisiana, 6’4-320
Within minutes of being selected with the team’s second fourth round pick, Dotson emerged as a mini-cult hero in Pittsburgh once videos of him pancaking opponents and pulling trucks emerged. Reports of his exceptional smack talk didn’t hurt, either.
Dotson is an old-school physical lineman whose style of play should conjure memories of former Steeler brawlers Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon. He plays with a nasty disposition, finishing his blocks and seeming to revel in dominating opponents. That was easier for Dotson at low-level Division I Louisiana than it will be in the AFC North. Still, Dotson’s style of play should be a welcome addition to a unit more known for its finesse than its physicality.
Dotson might brawl like Kemoeatu and Colon but he is far more mobile than either. His 4.8 forty time at his videotaped pro day was eye-opening. Watch Dotson’s fluidity in the GIF below. Normally I’m not interested in big dudes running the forty but Dotson shows off really impressive athleticism for a man his size:
The drill tape from his pro day is equally encouraging. One thing coaches love seeing is a player’s drill work translate to the game field. The purpose of drill work is to get a player to master the techniques necessary to be successful in live action. Few things are more deflating for a coach that repping a technique over and over in practice only to see a player fail to apply the mechanics in a game. A player whose drill work translates to the game field is valuable.
Here is Dotson working a zone blocking drill at his pro day. Dotson steps correctly with his play-side foot, departs at a slight angle to stay on his track, punches on his second step, keeps his hands and elbows inside the frame of the defender and moves him off the ball with short, choppy steps. This is near-perfect zone blocking technique:
Now check out his game tape. Dotson is the right guard here. This is a wide zone run so his departure step is more horizontal than it was in the drill. Everything else is the same. Dotson punches on his second step, keeps his hands inside, takes choppy steps to displace the defender and then runs him off the line of scrimmage. He finishes the block properly with a shove. This block is athletic, it’s physical and it mirrors the drill work. Anyone who enjoys offensive line play should be excited watching this:
In my piece last week, I floated LSU’s Lloyd Cushenberry as a potential guard prospect for the Steelers. One of the things I liked about Cushenberry was the fact he had been under-recruited out of high school and told he was too small to be a big-time prospect. Cushenberry used those snubs as fuel to help him become a team captain and the best lineman on the Tigers’ national championship team. Similarly, Dotson wound up at Louisiana because he was not a big-time high school recruit, was overshadowed in his time there by teammate and fellow guard Robert Hunt, and, despite making 56 consecutive starts and earning first team All-American honors this past season, was not invited to the NFL Combine. Dotson may resemble Cushenberry for the chip he carries on his shoulder. Players with that “something to prove” mentality tend to be hungry and driven.
In Pittsburgh, Dotson will have time to develop. He will back up whomever starts at guard opposite David DeCastro (Matt Feiler or Stephen Wisniewski are the likely candidates) and will work on developing as a puller, which is his biggest weakness. He is a more complete player than the line picks the Steelers have made in recent years (Derwin Gray, Chuks Okorafor and Jerald Hawkins) and looks like an eventual starter. Dotson may represent the future of line play in Pittsburgh in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era: a physical run-blocker who can transform the nature of the unit as the Steelers transition to their next franchise QB. If Dotson can be the hammer here that he was in college, he will cement himself as a fan favorite.
Antoine Brooks, SS, Maryland, 5’11-220
Brooks has the highest boom or bust potential of the three players profiled here. He is a terrific tackler, as evidenced by the fact he led the Terrapins in solo tackles in 2019 and recorded 237 total tackles for his career. He aggressively attacks ball-carriers and does a great job getting low and running his feet on contact. His film is replete with highlights like the one below, where he eludes the block of the slot receiver to make a tackle for loss on a bubble screen:
Here’s another, where Brooks (lined up on the hash to the top of the screen) man-handles the slot before playing off of him to make a perfect form tackle on the back:
Brooks’ weakness is in coverage, where scouting profiles describe him as tight in the hips and displaying only average ball skills. There are not many clips of Brooks playing two-high safety on his highlight reel. Almost every stand-out play he makes comes when he is rolled up in the alley or at the second level somewhere. This may be where Brooks potentially “busts” on the boom or bust spectrum. A safety with weak cover skills doesn’t last long in the NFL. That could indeed be the case with Brooks, and is likely why he was still available in the 6th round.
My sense, however, is the Steelers did not draft him to be a traditional deep safety. At 5’11-220, he has the frame to handle in-the-box duties at the second level. His blend of speed, toughness and tackling ability make him a great candidate to fill the nickel and dime backer role occupied last season by Mark Barron. This is the one area of immediate need on the defense and the Steelers do not have a player in-house to fill it. Ulysses Gilbert III, Marcus Allen and perhaps Terrell Edmunds are all candidates. But Gilbert and Allen are as unproven as Brooks and the Steelers seem to prefer keeping Edmunds at safety as much as possible.
Brooks’ case for the job resides in the fact he is faster and a better overall tackler than Allen and, at the second level, is likely a better coverage player than Gilbert. Brooks is also said to be an excellent blitzer. His closing speed certainly hints at potential in that area. Brooks may not lock down the job out of the gate but his tackling makes him a great candidate to play special teams while he learns the sub-package linebacker role. I would not be surprised if by mid-season he had worked himself into the rotation. He could develop into a younger version of Barron, which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
A speedy running back unlike any other on the roster. An old-school, physical lineman with chip-on-the-shoulder motivation. A thick safety with the tackling chops to fill the sub-package linebacker role. The Steelers did a great job fortifying areas of weakness on day three of the draft. None of these players may become stars but all have the potential to be important contributors. Their selections solidify what should become an effective draft in Pittsburgh.