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QB rankings, areas of need, total points and more: SIS’ Nathan Cooper talks Steelers

Before Thursday’s Draft, read what Cooper, a senior football scouting analyst for Sports Info Solutions, has to say about Pittsburgh’s draft plan and his favorite prospects.

NFL: APR 25 2019 NFL Draft Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the day of the NFL Draft finally approaches, it’s a truly rewarding moment for all of us: fans, front office personnel, reporters and especially scouts.

Experts have been poring over the film of some 20-year-olds for almost a year (sometimes even more) and finally get to see their diligent work and days scouring tape come to life. Chatting with a draft analyst truly opens one’s eyes to the amount of time and detail attributed to each prospect — there’s nobody with better perspective.

If you’re a real die-hard here at Behind the Steel Curtain, you might recall a Q&A we ran last April about who Sports Info Solutions’ Nathan Cooper thought was in play for the Steelers at Pick #24 and beyond. The interview was so well-received that we brought it back for another year!

You can access all of the outstanding, meticulous work that Nathan and the rest of the SIS football team have put together regarding this year’s draft here, including big board rankings, in-depth team looks and prospect reports. The site will continue to be updated with prudent information; I could not recommend highly enough poking around to deepen your Steelers and NFL nerdiness.

To learn more about SIS’ grading process, Nathan’s thoughts on top quarterbacks/receivers/late-round targets, some first-round sleepers and much more, read on below.

Question: Could you explain a little bit more about SIS’ Sonar Depth and Total Points metrics?

The Sonar Depth chart, probably one of the cooler features that we have. Obviously, you can’t get something like that in the book. It’s all interactive. It’s based on the depth charts that we accumulate and set up in our own system. And based on the depth chart, and who the starter is, at every position, it pulls out the total points per game for that player from last year. And based on what that that number is, you have sort of five tiers. You have a top tier and then obviously a bottom tier and a couple spots in between there. And it’s more of like a visualization type of tool to show you like, hey, these positions were really good last year, or these positions, they could go either way, or this position was really bad; we can use this as an upgrade. [It’s] not specifically a “team needs” type of thing.

It’s not a perfect science. Obviously, it doesn’t take into account like injuries or young guys that maybe he was a rookie last year. And that’s not factoring in snap counts and things like that. But it’s an awesome tool to kind of get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your your current team.

Q: What is the difference between total points and EPA (expected points added)? For example, why is John Leglue’s total points almost the same as Minkah Fitzpatrick’s?

With EPA, a really good play is going to be positive; a really bad play is going to be negative. And that sort of happens on every single play. With total points, we basically take every single data point that we collect, and it sort of works off of the EPA framework. And it is more like a proprietary player value metric, essentially. So you’re saying how many points this guy brings, how many points this guy is against your team or something like that. So if you think of it in baseball, like the WAR (wins above replacement) metric, it’s kind of along those lines except for football.

Whenever you look at total points, if you click on quarterbacks, quarterbacks are going to be by far and away your your top total point-getters. Usually, you’re going to be in the 100s there, and then you’ll work down. Your offensive lineman, your solid defensive players, those guys could be in the 40s, 50s, 60s, but it kind of works down from there. How football is nowadays is a very passing-centric league. Your offensive line is going to be solid, and especially if they’re good pass-blockers.

Your receivers can go either way. It’s going to take into account your depth of target and things like that. If you’re not always getting thrown the ball 30 yards down the field, if you’re just dinking and dunking, you’re not gonna really have a high total points number because we feel like a lot of a lot of receivers can do something like that.

But yeah, safeties, it’s tough. If you look at a guy like Trevon Diggs, who last year had 11 interceptions, his total points number actually isn’t very high. Because if you take those away, you can see all the time that he was getting beat aside from that. So it kind of goes back and forth a little bit there and obviously, helps the passing game. And that’s why you see the quarterback so high, and the rest of it’s kind of mediocre in essence.

Q: In free agency, the Steelers signed interior offensive linemen James Daniels and Mason Cole, but Sonar Depth still views the team’s guards/centers as a weakness. Should they still try to bolster the IOL?

For me, I think especially with offensive line, you can never have too many of them. So I think trying to get another, versatile guy. Obviously, Mason Cole [and] James Daniels [are] two versatile guys that can kind of play that center and guard position. But I don’t think it’s out of the realm to go out and get another one of those guys as well. I think there’s some guys that you can go get this year. I mean, overall, James Daniels, 25 total points last year; Mason Cole, only eight. How the sonar chart works is taking that and looking at it on a per-game basis. And whenever you just look at the rest of the league, they’re a little bit lower, but again, you kind of have to take everything else with it as well, not just strictly like, ‘Hey, here’s total points.’ You gotta look at some snap count percentages and how he was used and things like that as well. So if you’re just strictly looking at that number, it’s a little bit below league average, but I think those are two solid pickups. But again, I’m not against going out and getting another guy in the draft this year.

Q: What are some areas that you think the Steelers should try to reinforce?

Obviously. quarterback is one of them. We won’t get into that too much just yet, but I don’t hate going out and getting another receiver. Losing JuJu (Smith-Schuster), trying to build that up for whoever the quarterback is going to be. I think going out and getting another another receiver — maybe it’s an Alec Pierce from Cincinnati, I think is a good guy. A long, fast athletic guy [that] can play on the outside, can play on the inside, catches really well. Big, wide catch radius. It could possibly be a Josh Johnson out of Tulsa, too. A guy who we see as more like maybe a number four type of receiver, but probably more of a slot player. Maybe can play the outside on occasion but [a] sudden route runner who I think would be really good kind of opposite of like a Diontae Johnson in Pittsburgh.

But besides that as well, corners and edges to me are probably two of the deeper positions in this in this class or this whole class. So I’m definitely not against trying to go out and help the corner room and maybe get another edge behind (T.J.) Watt and (Alex) Highsmith.

Missouri v Arkansas
Arkansas’ Treylon Burks has seen his stock drop since running a 4.55 40-yard dash. Even then, Cooper feels his dynamic playmaking and spectacular hands would be a terrific fit on the Steelers.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Q: What are some names that Steelers fans should monitor for the first round?

If you’re looking at receiver, I think there’s a there’s a ton of really good receivers in this top mix. It’s probably going to happen to where Garrett Wilson is probably gone, Jameson Williams is probably gone. But some guys that you can look at [are] Treylon Burks if he falls to this spot, I think would be a great pickup. Big, athletic guy; not the burner a lot of these other guys are, but just his effectiveness when the ball comes his way. He’s almost always catching the ball. A guy like that.

Jahan Dotson out of Penn State, keeping it in Pennsylvania. Another versatile guy. Really good hands, really good route-running ability, can kind of play him on the outside or inside.

And then obviously, we’ve got to go back to the quarterback position. I think that’s something in terms of Malik Willis being tossed out there or Kenny Pickett being tossed out there. I think those guys have to be in the mix in the first round.

Q: If you had to choose one of the players you mentioned to be the pick at #20, who’s your guy?

The quarterback position is is interesting. In terms of Willis and Pickett, they’re our two highest-rated guys, but we don’t have them as like a solid starter-level grade. I mean, I don’t trust trying to go get one of those guys and feel good about it, and your first couple of seasons, those guys need to sit. I don’t know if Pittsburgh is the right spot to go get a guy and really sit for a while.

So if you’re looking at one of those receivers, I like Treylon Burks if he’s falling to 20. You’re really trying to go get a solid receiver for whoever that quarterback is going to be. He’s our number one receiver on our board. And those other guys were really good, but you have a chance to go get a guy like Treylon Burks at 20, I think that’s really going to help that offense. For us, I think the offense was a little bit lacking last year [chuckles]. So I think trying to bolster that up would be a huge help in Pittsburgh.

Q: Is it realistic to expect the Steelers to trade up into the top 15 or top 10?

I think it is. If you’re trying to go for the quarterback, I think you almost have to, unfortunately, because I think that’s just how it works. Almost any year, the quarterbacks are going to be the sought-after position. And in this year, where there isn’t a clear-cut number one or number two, who are going to go in the top three or four picks. With the upside that Malik Willis has, I think it’s tempting.

But then on the flip side, it’s very hard to get enough value whenever you trade up. You’re almost always going to get more value from trading down. So I mean, if you feel like Malik Willis is the guy, and you’re gonna go up and get it, for quarterbacks, you almost throw everything out the window. If he’s the guy that you think he can be coming into the system, then I think you’d have to do it.

But if you’re not really 100% sure, I don’t think you try to do something like that. Let the board fall out, fall the that way you see it in front of you. Because I think there is going to be a lot of talent that’s still going to be around at that Number 20 spot, whether it is a receiver or a corner or an edge or one of these other positions,

Q: Does it matter in what order the Steelers should address their positions of need?

This is one of the years that there are some good players at the top, but it’s very heavy on day two. So I think if you go for the best player at any of those positions on day one, whoever kind of falls to 20 out of those spots, take that guy, and then sort of work through the rest of those positions on day two. I think day two is where the meat of a lot of the the draft class is; there are so many good prospects in that second- and third-round range that, they’re definitely a step below those first-round guys. But I think those guys can come in and compete for a lot of different teams and a lot of different schemes within their first couple of seasons.

NFL Combine
2022 will mark Kevin Colbert’s last draft as general manager of the Steelers. Despite it being his swan song, Cooper doesn’t envision Colbert being overly assertive.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Q: Given that his is Kevin Colbert’s last draft, are you expecting him to be more aggressive to really make a mark on the franchise for years to come?

It’s in a tough spot. You’re at Number 20. It’s not like you’re in the top 10 where you can really go in nab one of these top guys unless you are making a trade up. But again, unless it’s for a quarterback that you really feel is the guy, I think you just have to let the board shake out. It’s a very deep draft. There’s a lot of good players throughout the entire seven rounds. You’re gonna be able to find a lot of really good undrafted guys as well.

I don’t think this is the draft to be super aggressive. Especially in Pittsburgh’s eyes, I think you let it shake out. They’re in a spot that, whether it’s it’s the first round or day two, I think they’re gonna get a lot of good players that can come in and help right away and then be guys that are competing for starting spots in year two.

Q: Can you walk through how you ranked the top three quarterbacks?

Malik Willis is our number one guy. We have Willis, then Pickett and then Matt Corral. Those are our top three guys — our only three guys in our top 101. And Malik Willis [is] our top guy at Number 42 overall. So like I said earlier, not many quarterbacks who we really feel are solid starters who can come in, hop in right away, like we’ve seen the last couple of years.

We have the same grade on Willis and Pickett. In terms of breaking that tie, Pickett is probably the guy who can come in and maybe play a little bit sooner. But Willis probably has more upside. He’s obviously way more athletic [and] has a crazy arm. But in terms of what we can see as projection, looking down the road, Willis probably has a little bit more upside than the rest of these guys.

Q: Desmond Ridder was SIS’ sixth-ranked quarterback. Why was he positioned so low with so many analysts gushing over him?

I think some of it to me is a little bit of technique. I think the footwork isn’t really there for me. He’s not completely accurate, doesn’t completely follow through all the time. His ball sort of sails a little bit. Doesn’t have the NFL arm strength I don’t think. There’s a few guys in this class who lack a little bit of arm, but then there’s also a few guys who have the ridiculous arm like Willis or a (Carson) Strong. I don’t know if Ridder has the NFL type of arm. And then the release a little bit as well.

Looking at these technical aspects, it’s not consistent. Obviously, whether it’s a pitcher in baseball, a quarterback in football with your release and your follow-through and all these things, you want to see consistency with that. So, we still see him as maybe a circumstantial type of starter. But there’s a lot to work with, especially technically, in his game.

2021 American Conference Championship - Houston v Cincinnati
Houston corner Marcus Jones is poised to be a mid-round pick. Cooper believes the Steelers should have their eye on Jones as they look to add to their cornerback room.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Q: Are there any other names that you think would be a good fit for the Steelers in the later (second, third, fourth) rounds?

Go back to offensive line. One guy that’s a little intriguing for me: Zach Tom out of Wake Forest. Probably not second round, maybe you can see him late third, early on day three. We have him as more of a versatile type of guy. He can fit more like that left tackle role, but also can play center. He has experience at both; you don’t see too many guys who have the versatility of a tackle and a center. But he’s one of those guys [that] obviously needs to get a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger. You can see that in the anchor a little bit, he’ll get pushed back and doesn’t have a ton of leg drive in the run game. But very rangy, moves really well out in space. You can pull him, you can do a little bit of everything with him. Reads and reacts really well to rushers and uses good hands as well. So, I think he’s one guy that that would be intriguing and kind of fit as a good depth option and developmental piece for those guys.

And then you look at the corner spot, trying to get some depth there. Two Houston guys at corner: Damarion Williams, we have as a 6.5 (grade), could very well work into maybe a starter type of player. Good reactive athleticism and ball skills.

But I really like his teammate, Marcus Jones. Really fun to watch. More of a slot type of guy. We have him ranked a little bit lower just because he’s obviously a little bit smaller. You have to kind of pigeonhole him in the slot. But a guy who can even kind of work back into the safety role. Very quick, very twitchy, can stay with just about any type of receiver, whether it’s a tight end, a back, a wide receiver, and nonstop pursuit. He’s a guy who’s going to fly from one side of the field to the other to try to stop the ball. So he’s definitely a fun guy to watch. And that’s not mentioning his is return ability as well. Very dynamic player, very twitchy player. Two guys there that I think would really benefit coming in and learning behind some of the guys that the Steelers have in that corner room.

Q: Every year, it feels like we have surprise players sneak into the first round. Who could be players that go higher than expected in 2022?

One guy I really like is Tyler Smith out of Tulsa, the left tackle. I rated him really high. He’s one of those guys who is very raw; he has all the traits that you want. But when you watch him, he’ll just have his hands down by his side or the footwork isn’t completely there. He’s not great out in space. But when he gets his hands on you, he does not let go, and he’ll put you in the ground. I can definitely see someone, whether it is in the back half of the first round, or someone trading up from the second round to get back into the first round, to get a guy like that. Has all the traits you want to look for. But it is going to be a work-in-progress. But I feel like by year two, you him get a year of development. I think by year two, he’s gonna be a guy that could possibly be starting. But there’s a lot to work a lot to work with. There’s a lot to improve there as well. 12 holding penalties this year is definitely concerning. But that comes with the the rawness and things like that as well. So he’s one guy that I would love to have to be able to be able to mold, and I could definitely see a team hopping into take a guy like that.

David Ojabo could be a guy where, obviously, we’re talking about him as being a top-10 guy, then he gets hurt. To me, I could see a team take him, you know, 30, 31, 32, basically, because of the fifth-year option. He’s basically going to be redshirting anyway, so why not take him at the back into the first round if you’re a team who has the availability to put him and stash him at basically as a redshirt and then possibly get four more years out of him? If you wait and get him outside, then you’re probably looking at only three years with him. I could see somebody taking him. Obviously, traits are ridiculous. The athleticism [is] definitely there. But taking him in the first round, when he probably wasn’t going to play much anyway, you allow him to sit there, learn, get healthy, and then now you have four years of him beyond this year.

Q: A few years from now, who are some players that we’ll retroactively declare were taken too low?

I’d probably go Kyle Hamilton. There’s a very good chance that he falls down to that eight-to-12 range. He’s just so athletic. You don’t see guys who are 6-foot-4, 220 who have the athleticism that he does, the speed that he does, the range that he does. You just don’t see that. I think a lot of people are counting him out because of the speed. For one, if you watch the Combine, the 40 (yard dash), he almost veered off the entire lane. I mean, that obviously cost him a little bit. But if you just watch him on the film, I don’t think the speed is an issue at all. So I think there’s going to be a lot of teams — anywhere from like two to 10 — who, if they pass on him, I think could very well be a little bit upset that they did, because there’s just not many guys like that who you see on a year-to-year basis.