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3 final thoughts as the Steelers plunge into the 2022 NFL Draft

The NFL world is about to descend on Las Vegas for the 2022 NFL Draft, and here are some final thought on the Steelers as they prepare for the three day event.

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After months of writing about it, reading about it and talking about it, the 2022 NFL Draft has finally arrived. We can all stop playing pretend-general manager and put away our mock draft simulators until next year. It’s time to sit back with our fingers crossed while Kevin Colbert and company get down to business.

Before it all kicks off, I wanted to share some final thoughts as we plunge into the greatest non-sporting sporting event known to man. Here are 3 thoughts on the draft, and on the offseason that has preceded it, for the Steelers.

1. Kevin Colbert nailed his final free agency period

Take a look at the following lineups. The first is Pittsburgh’s starting personnel for their final game of the 2021 season in the Wild Card contest at Kansas City:

OFFENSE: Roethlisberger (QB), Harris (RB), Claypool (WR), Johnson (WR), Smith-Schuster (WR), Freiermuth (TE), Hassenauer (C), Turner (G), Leglue (G), Moore (T), Okorafor (T)

DEFENSE: Heyward (DT), Wormley (DE), Adams (DE), Schobert (LB), Bush (LB), Watt (OLB), Highsmith (OLB), Haden (CB), Witherspoon (CB), Edmunds (S), Fitzpatrick (S)

The next one is what the Steelers look like today, just days before the draft. The names in italics represent players they have added or resigned since the beginning of free agency in March:

*OFFENSE: Trubisky (QB), Harris (RB), Claypool (WR), Johnson (WR), Freiermuth (TE), Gentry (TE), Cole (C), Daniels (G), Dotson (G), Moore (T), Okorafor (T)

*There are two tight ends because I expect the Steelers to base largely out of 12-personnel.

DEFENSE: Alualu (DT), Heyward (DE), Tuitt/Adams (DE), Jack (LB), Bush (LB), Watt (OLB), Highsmith (OLB), Wallace (CB), Witherspoon (CB), Edmunds (S), Fitzpatrick (S)

That’s eight projected starters who were either signed or resigned during free agency. A ninth, Gunner Olszewski, is expected to replace Ray-Ray McCloud as the team’s punt and kick returner. Assuming Stephon Tuitt returns, none are backups masquerading as starters, as J.C. Hassenauer, Kendrick Green, Chris Wormley and Montravius Adams were last season. And, the signings of Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Cole, James Daniels, Myles Jack, Levi Wallace and Olszewski all represent upgrades from the players they are replacing from the 2021 lineup. It’s quite an improvement.

The credit for these moves belongs to Colbert. Colbert did a wonderful job of using Pittsburgh’s rare abundance of salary cap space to fill needs with solid players on team-friendly contracts that don’t hamstring them for years to come. It was an impressive final foray into free agency for the veteran general manager, who will step away from the job after the draft. If Colbert aces the draft the way he aced free agency, it will represent a masterful closing statement for a man whose tenure in Pittsburgh makes a strong argument for Hall of Fame consideration.

2. Patience is a virtue

While Colbert did a stellar job of plugging holes in free agency, that doesn’t mean the Steelers are a complete football team. There are areas where Pittsburgh is thin, and others where they have future concerns. So, while this is not a draft like 2021, where the Steelers needed starter-ready talent, it is one where they must find players who can provide solid depth now and become starters down the road.

Cornerback, safety, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive line, offensive line, quarterback and wide receiver are all areas that can be addressed. Late in the draft, they could even add a third tight end or a versatile running back. There’s not a position group on offense or defense they shouldn’t consider at some point.

Most draft analysts have remarked that while this draft is devoid of superstar talent at the top, it’s a deep draft, with quality players available into the middle rounds. In other words, it’s a great draft for teams like the Steelers who are looking to build depth with players they don’t need to press into starting roles right away.

There’s been a lot of talk about Pittsburgh moving up to select a quarterback. Some have speculated they will try to get in front of Seattle in Round 1 to take Malik Willis. Others have said they could move up in the 2nd for Desmond Ridder. Normally, I favor an aggressive approach. I believe if a team loves a particular player, like Mike Tomlin is said to love Willis, they should explore every option in trying to acquire him. But the resources they’d have to spend to make such a move are too expensive. In this draft, where the quarterbacks look ordinary, and where the depth means the Steelers can acquire quality players in almost every round, the smart move is to stand pat, trust their big board and let the draft come to them.

3. The top pick should be...

This is the third draft for which I’ve been a staff writer at BTSC. In each of the first two, I wrote an article on my preferred top pick for the Steelers.

In 2020, they didn’t have a 1st Round pick, so their initial selection came in Round 2. The Steelers were picking 49th overall and I narrowed my focus to three players — LSU guard/center Lloyd Cushenberry, Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn and Penn State wide receiver K.J. Hamler. Cushenberry and Chinn have become excellent pros while Hamler has been slowed by injuries. Chase Claypool, whom the Steelers drafted three picks after Denver took Hamler, looks like a better overall receiver. But, if I could re-draft for the Steelers, Chinn would be my preference.

Last year, I was all-in on the running backs. I oscillated between Najee Harris and Travis Etienne before opting for Etienne. Both were available when the Steelers selected. Harris had a stellar rookie campaign in Pittsburgh while Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury in preseason and missed the entire year. Harris was the better choice in the short term, and should be in the long term as well.

Which brings us to this year. With no glaring need to fill, the pool of candidates from which the Steelers could choose in Round 1 is large. Initially, I had about a dozen players on my list, but for the sake of brevity, I’ve cut it in half. The first three are players who will likely be gone by the time the Steelers pick, but if they aren’t, Pittsburgh should run to the podium to select. The second three are players who will more realistically be around at 1:20.

One note about how I arrived at these players. When evaluating talent, the important question to ask isn’t “How good was he in college?” It’s “How good could he be in Pittsburgh?” To answer that question, another must be asked: “What, specifically, would the Steelers need him to do?” Success in the pros is as much about scheme fit as it is about ability. These guys, for me, are the best combination of the two.

Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama

The Pittsburgh offense is shaping up as a diverse unit that can attack a defense in a variety of ways. It now has a mobile quarterback, a fleet of big receivers, a precise route-runner in Diontae Johnson, and a bell-cow running back. It’s missing just one thing: a home run hitter.

That’s what attracted me to Hamler and Etienne. Each possesses an explosiveness I believe the Steelers need in order to get more sudden on offense. By “sudden” I mean a player who poses a threat to take the football to the house any time it’s in his hands. The Steelers have fast players but no one who is particularly dangerous.

Jameson Williams is that player. Prior to the ACL injury he suffered in the national championship game against Georgia, Williams was projected to run a sub-4.3 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Unlike some players whose sprint speed doesn’t translate to the field, Williams plays as fast as his 40 time indicates. His ability to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically and to make defenders miss in space would add an element the Steelers have lacked since Antonio Brown departed.

The injury makes Williams a risk. But the game-changing speed and elusiveness he possesses is too enticing to ignore.

Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame

Hamilton was once projected as a Top 5 pick but is now being mocked somewhere in the teens. It’s not inconceivable he could fall to the Steelers. At 6’4” 220lbs., he’s built like Chinn, but with better range. He has a high football IQ and excellent instincts. Hamilton would be an extraordinary box safety with coverage skills to boot. He and Minkah Fitzpatrick would form a safety duo for the ages.

Malik Willis, QB, Liberty

While I don’t think the Steelers should trade up for Willis, I believe they should take him if he slides. He’s the one quarterback in this draft who seems a perfect fit for what they want to do on offense. With Trubisky in the fold, they could bring him along slowly without having to force him into action before he’s ready. That’s the luxury they’ve created by filling so many voids in free agency.

Devonte Wyatt, DT, Georgia

I’ve written about Wyatt previously. You can read below why I think he’d be a great fit along the defensive line.

Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa

The Steelers rarely draft tackles in Round 1, and rarely take players from non-Power 5 schools. But Penning, at 6’7-325, is a huge, athletic prospect who was described as someone “with a level of disgust for anyone lining up against him who seeks out violent block-finishes when possible.” That sounds perfect for a Steelers’ team trying to get more physical up front.

Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas

Burks is a 6’2” 225lbs. Swiss Army knife who can line up out wide, in the slot or at running back. His versatility is ideal for Matt Canada, who could use him in a variety of roles. For those who may be having Jaylen Samuels flashbacks, Burks is not Samuels. He’s a receiver by trade and a running back by form. In that sense, he’s more Samuel, as in Deebo, than Samuels. Burks doesn’t have elite speed but is a big-play threat with the ball in his hands. He’s a very different player than Jameson, but both possess the “suddenness” this Pittsburgh offense needs.

There you have it — my short list for the first pick. No matter who the Steelers take, it promises to be an exciting couple of days for fans of the Black and Gold. Let’s Go Steelers!