Don't look now, but spring has sprung.
The 2022 NFL Scouting Combine is in the rear view mirror, collegiate pro day workouts are wrapping up, and the NFL Draft is fast approaching. The initial wave of free agency has ground to a halt, at least temporarily.
The Steelers have addressed a multitude of needs during their free agency plunge thus far, but a couple of glaring needs still remain with the draft looming on the horizon.
Those needs would be starting a caliber strong safety, and depth at wide receiver.
The Steelers have lost three of their top five receivers in free agency. Now an argument could be made concerning just how badly the Steelers did, or didn't, want to retain any of the three departed players, but there is no doubt that the Steelers are currently short-handed at the position.
The 2022 NFL Draft class at wide receiver is extremely deep, almost unusually so. There are always prospects who exceed their draft slot expectations, but there are numerous candidates in this talented group of receivers that seem capable of that accomplishment.
One of those overachieving wide receiver candidates could prove to be former Cincinnati Bearcats wide receiver Alec Pierce.
The deeper you dive into Pierce's game film, the more there is to love. Pierce possesses exceptional size and length for the position, standing 6'3" and 213 lbs.
Pierce tested extremely well at the combine. He officially ran a 4.41 forty, after his ridiculous 4.33 was adjusted, like many others. Nonetheless, his times exceeded most expectations, as plenty of vested viewers, like myself, believed he would post around a 4.5, at best. Those are excellent times for a wide out with his dimensions.
Pierce is both athletic and explosive, which he demonstrated with his 40" vertical. He utilizes his length and leaping ability to maximize his catch radius, easily high pointing the ball on contested catches.
Many receivers with superior length and verticality struggle to highpoint the ball, or win contested catch opportunities, because they are unable to make hand catches away from their body. This inability severely limits their catch radius by having to rely on body catches. Pierce excels in that regard.
Pierce is one of the best in the class at locating and tracking the football. This is an underappreciated ability for any receiver. The ability to remain calm in all the chaos.
It takes a laser like focus to track the football under the bright lights, especially in a hostile environment, and under the immense pressure associated with being a professional. Lots of guys can run away from coverage, but fight the ball when it arrives on occasion.
Even after all that praise, I am not suggesting that Pierce is a perfectly polished prospect, because he is not.
Pierce is not a particularly quick twitch athlete, which has lead many evaluators to question his ability to achieve separation on his routes. This was the most frequent weakness mentioned on most evaluations, and many believe it will negatively impact his route running and productivity as a professional.
Pierce also needs to improve his ability to defeat press coverage, particularly his hand usage coming off the line of scrimmage. He definitely has the reach and functional strength to improve dramatically in that area.
While some of these noted deficiencies have merit, I believe that we need to look at the big picture to understand why the struggles exist, and how Pierce could easily overcome them.
Pierce is relatively new at the position, to the point a move to linebacker was actually considered at one point early in his Bearcats career. He still needs to clean up his footwork, which would improve his balance and acceleration into and out of his breaks. Those are areas that can improve through hard work and experience.
One area where Pierce's linebacker mentality really shines through is in his blocking. He was an effective blocker in the Bearcats run heavy offense. Based on that knowledge, he would appear to be a great fit for Matt Canada's offense, where the receivers need to be effective and enthusiastic blockers.
I have a sneaky suspicion that when we are looking back at the 2022 draft class at receiver in a couple of years, the general consensus will be that Pierce was the underrated steal of the draft at the receiver position.