Whether it was Terrell Edmunds in 2018, the trade to draft Devin Bush in 2019, or Chase Claypool in 2020, the Steelers have had a history of surprising their fanbase with their first pick in the draft.
And even though the fans and media tend to have a list of prospects that make sense for the team to draft each year, often based off of team needs, reports, or other educated guesses, Pittsburgh’s front office can often go in a completely different direction. So while there’s still a good chance that the Steelers will draft a top-rated offensive tackle or running back with the 24th overall selection in the upcoming draft, there’s plenty of prospects who could also be the pick that don’t have their names linked to the Steelers that often.
Below I’ve listed 10 prospects who may be under the radar options for the Steelers in the first round. I’ve tried to select players that really fit that description, so the aforementioned top offensive tackles and running backs will be omitted, as well the quarterbacks (who, while unlikely picks, have been the subject of much draft discussion). Top-rated prospects who could possibly fall to the Steelers, such as Micah Parsons or Patrick Surtain II won’t be included either, as the surprise would be them being available, not the Steelers selecting them.
Having defined what I mean by “under the radar”, let’s get to the list. The prospects are listed in no particular order.
Kadarius Toney - WR, Florida
Most would agree that the Steelers shouldn’t draft a wide receiver in the first round this year, but this is an “under the radar” list, so hear me out. If JuJu Smith-Schuster ends up leaving the team through free agency this offseason, Pittsburgh will likely be looking for another receiver to add to the roster, likely through the draft. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has a track record of drafting excellent receivers, but the picks are often early on the draft, even if the position isn’t much of a need. That’s where Toney comes in. One of my favorite players in the draft, he has a Diontae Johnson-like skillset, with unbelievable shiftiness and agility. However, Toney seems to be a bit faster, is more sturdily built, and has extremely reliable hands. He was fairly productive last year at Florida, and played in a scheme where he caught a lot of short passes, ran a lot of sweeps, and even lined up in the backfield at times. Kevin Colbert mentioned that Pittsburgh might be changing the way they evaluate players to fit new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme, and Toney definitely fits the mold.
Kadarius Toney might just be too good to pass up on for the Steelers in the first round. If you’re interested in reading more about him, check out a more extensive breakdown HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
Nick Bolton - ILB, Missouri
The Steelers may be looking for another inside linebacker in the upcoming draft, and if Pittsburgh chooses to address the position in the first round, Bolton would be near the top of the list. Similarly to Devin Bush, Bolton is a athletic, compactly built inside linebacker. Despite his smaller size, Bolton is a physical, hard hitter with good explosiveness when getting to the ball carrier. Bolton is solid in coverage, but size and speed issues mean he isn’t great in man-on-man, especially against larger tight ends. His size can give him problems when going up against offensive linemen as well.
Bolton has some limitations, but he plays with the ideal physicality and aggressiveness of an NFL inside linebacker. He’ll definitely be in the first round conversation, and the Steelers will likely take a good look if he’s available when they pick.
Jaycee Horn - CB, South Carolina
Cornerback is an underrated need on the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Slot corners Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are free agents, starting boundary corner Joe Haden is getting up there in age, and the overall depth is unproven. In a league where a team can never have too many good cornerbacks, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn could be a first round pick who could contribute a little bit his rookie year and slide into a bigger role in the future.
Horn is a physical outside corner with good size and length. He’s aggressive in coverage, which can be both good and bad, but he has the athletic and technical ability to play that way. Horn’s tackling can be suspect at times, but overall he's a good prospect at corner who should definitely hear his name called in the first round.
Landon Dickerson - C, Alabama
Dickerson is a familiar name on Steelers mock drafts, but usually not in the first round. With limited athleticism and a concerning injury history, Dickerson is seen by most as a second round pick. However, he’s also perhaps the best center in the class, which inflates his value. Dickerson is still a very good football player, though, as he’s smart, physical, and a great run-blocker who had a good career at Alabama. If he can stay healthy, Dickerson might actually be a good pick in the first, but hopefully Pittsburgh would attempt to trade down to select him, instead of making the pick at #24 overall.
In desperate need of a center, the Steelers may pick Dickerson earlier than expected to make sure they have their center of the future. You can read more about Dickerson HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
Joseph Ossai - EDGE, Texas
I could put a lot of different EDGE rushers on this list, such as Azeez Ojulari, Jaelan Phillips, Jayson Oweh, or even Gregory Rousseau. However, because I highly doubt the Steelers will use a first round pick on the position this year, I only chose one EDGE rusher to add to the list. Jospeh Ossai played as both a pass-rusher and an off-ball linebacker at Texas, showing the ideal versatility for the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He projects best at EDGE though, where he uses his quick first step and array of pass-rushing moves to get to the quarterback. He is fairly new to the position, which makes his mental processing a little slow at times, but overall Ossai is highly athletic, fairly polished, and plays with a high motor. He has a knack for forcing fumbles as well. Never the most productive, Ossai still had a lot of pressures that showed up on tape, and hopefully he’ll be able to hit home more often in the NFL.
Technically strong enough to contribute as a rookie, with enough athletic upside to develop into a star, Ossai is a great prospect at the 3-4 OLB position. The Steelers need another pass-rusher to supplement T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, and Ossai would be a quality player at that position, perhaps with the ability to step in at middle linebacker every now and then as well.
Creed Humphrey - C, Oklahoma
A lot of what I said about Landon Dickerson earlier applies to Humphrey. Seen by most as a second round pick, the Oklahoma center is an excellent run blocker with a high football IQ and leadership skills. He’s physical and has good technique, and played on one of college football’s better offensive lines. He’s limited athletically, and may be bit worse in pass protection than Dickerson. Humphrey does come without the injury concerns, though, which is a big plus.
Humphrey could be a surprise first round pick for the Steelers if they don’t think he’ll last to their selection in the second round. You can read more about Humphrey HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
Zaven Collins - ILB, Tulsa
Not quite as under the radar as the other players on this list, Collins has been a somewhat popular mock draft selection for the Steelers. Because of this, I’ll keep the analysis rather short.
Collins is a big, athletic playmaker at the linebacker position, with good positional versatility. He can play as a pass-rusher and an inside linebacker, and has good coverage and run-stopping ability. Some draft reports question his speed and quickness, but it’s far from a liability and impressive for a 260-pound prospect. If the Steelers are looking for another athletic linebacker to pair with Devin Bush, Zaven Collins could be the guy.
Pat Freiermuth - TE, Penn State
Pat Freiermuth used to be a very popular name in the first round of Steelers’ mock drafts. However, his draft stock has fallen a bit, likely due to missing much of his final season at Penn State with injury. Many project him as an early second round pick now. There still is a lot to like about Freiermuth though, as he’s an athletic receiving tight end with good size, soft hands, and solid route-running ability. What makes Freiermuth special is his ability to block, as he’s one of the best blocking tight ends in this class. Freiermuth still has a lot of room to develop in that area, but he has the size and strength to really be effective at the NFL level.
Freiermuth will be a weapon in the passing game and has the potential to be a very good blocker as well. He could definitely be in the first round conversation for Pittsburgh as a security blanket for an aging Ben Roethlisberger, while still having an effect on the run game. You can read a more thorough breakdown of Freiermuth HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
Alijah Vera-Tucker - OT/G, USC
I know I said I’d be steering away from the offensive tackles on this list, but Vera-Tucker projects as more of a guard in the NFL, and is rarely mentioned in Steelers mock drafts despite being projected to go in the picks 20-30 range. He’s a physical run-blocker like much of the interior offensive line class, but he has the athletic ability and pass protection skills many of his peers lack.
Guard is the one position on the offensive line where the starters are set for the Steelers next year, but if the team likes Vera-Tucker he could definitely still be their first round pick. Potentially, he could start at tackle his rookie season and then transition to guard following David DeCastro’s retirement. You can read more about Vera-Tucker HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
Rashod Bateman - WR, Minnesota
Another possible Smith-Schuster replacement, Bateman has a similar skillset to JuJu’s, with great hands, good route-running, and solid overall athleticism. He made a living in college off of contested catches, playing with great physicality and concentration. The main knock on Bateman is his speed, but he still manages to gain separation on tape (I think better quarterback play would have shown this better), and reportedly ran the 40 yard dash under 4.4 seconds at the EXOS combine, which is very impressive for a receiver of his size.
With his impressive 40 time, Bateman might actually be gone before the Steelers select in the first round. But if he is available, there’s a good chance the Steelers might be interested. A more extensive breakdown of Bateman can be found HERE on the BTSC Big Board.
The Steelers’ two biggest needs, arguably, entering the 2021 draft are center and running back. Both are fairly deep positions this year, but the best value is undeniably in the second and third rounds. The other big need, offensive tackle, should have plenty of first round talents available when the Steelers pick at #24. But the Steelers seem to be confident in Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner, and the deep nature of class may lead them to make a selection at the position in the later rounds.
The lack of urgency to pick one of these positions early on may lead the Steelers to take a more best player available approach, or they could reach to take a player at a position of need. Regardless, this could result in a surprising selection with the Steelers’ first round pick.