As the Steelers prepare to select their next crop of prospects in the upcoming NFL draft, they will look to continue a recent trend of success.
Of the 16 players they’ve chosen the past two drafts, 14 remain with the team. Only Chris Oladukon (Round 7, 2022) and Buddy Johnson (Round 5, 2021) are no longer in Pittsburgh.
The 2022 class looks especially solid. Six players from that group — Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, DeMarvin Leal, Connor Heyward, Mark Robinson and undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren — were either starters or rotational players by season’s end. A seventh — Calvin Austin III — missed the season with an injury but seems poised to contribute next year. It’s been a good run as of late for the scouting and personnel departments.
The challenge the Steelers face this off-season is to land impact linemen. As this year’s Super Bowl participants — Kansas City and Philadelphia — demonstrated, solid line play is one of the key ingredients to chasing a championship. The Steelers are decent in this area on both sides of the ball. But they are not good enough to play with the league’s best.
Drafting impact linemen is something Pittsburgh hasn’t done in a while. They nabbed David DeCastro with their top pick in 2012 and Stephon Tuitt in Round 2 in 2014. Since then, Pittsburgh has spent draft picks on a multitude of offensive and defensive linemen — Wesley Johnson, Daniel McCullers, Leterrius Walton, Javon Hargrave, Jerald Hawkins, Chuks Okorafor, Joshua Frazier, Isaiah Buggs, Derwin Gray, Kevin Dotson, Carlos Davis, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Kendrick Green, Dan Moore Jr. and Leal — without much success.
Hargrave was the best of that bunch but departed in 2020 for Philadelphia. Okorafor has been decent. The jury is still out on their most recent picks, including Dotson, Moore and Leal. No one else made much of an impact.
Part of the problem is the Steelers have not selected a lineman above Round 3 since taking Tuitt. They’ve been plugging their needs up front with late picks and cheap free agent signings for the better part of a decade. The longevity of players like DeCastro, Cam Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva lessened their need to spend high picks on linemen. But, with most of those players having retired, the bargain bin strategy has finally caught up to them.
This off-season, blessed with three of the draft’s first 48 selections, they seem poised to buck that trend and target a lineman or two early. Fortunately, in new assistant general manager Andy Weidl, they have a personnel man who knows something about selecting them.
Weidl worked as a scout and personnel executive in Baltimore and Philadelphia before coming to Pittsburgh. A former offensive lineman at Villanova, Weidl was tasked with doing the draft prep on all interior players. In the process, he convinced his bosses to select stars such as Haloti Ngata and Landon Dickerson as well as potential stalwart Jordan Davis.
Weidl’s advocacy for Ngata was notable because no one in the Ravens organization thought he had the motor to warrant a high draft selection. Weidl eventually won them over, citing Ngata’s time as a special teams player at the University of Oregon as an example of his selfless mentality. The Ravens snatched Ngata with the 12th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Ngata went on to start for nine years in Baltimore, making five Pro Bowls and earning All-Pro honors twice.
In Philadelphia, Weidl won over a front office that was divided on Alabama’s talented Landon Dickerson. Dickerson was a physical monster but had suffered several knee injuries that prompted some NFL teams to take him off their draft board. Weidl assuaged those concerns with Philly’s brass. Dickerson has rewarded his faith, having started 35 of a possible 38 games in his two seasons while becoming a cornerstone of arguably the best offensive line in football.
While Weidl has an eye for linemen, he’s great at identifying players across the board whom other evaluators may have overlooked. In Baltimore, Weidl lobbied hard for the Ravens to take little regarded fullback Kyle Juszczyk from Harvard. The year was 2013, and the fullback position in the NFL was becoming obsolete. No one thought a fullback from Harvard was worth a draft pick. But Weidl loved Juszczyk’s versatility and thought the Ravens could find a role for him. Baltimore snatched him in the 4th Round and Juszczyk quickly became a valuable special teams’ contributor and situational player. Now in San Francisco, he has made every Pro Bowl since 2016.
In Philadelphia in 2020, Weidl lobbied hard for the Eagles to select receiver Justin Jefferson with their top pick. Jefferson had been rated the 5th best receiver in the draft behind players like Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy, but he was at the top of Weidl’s draft board. With Jefferson available for Philly’s selection at 1:21, Weidl urged general manager Howie Roseman to take him. But Roseman liked TCU’s Jalen Reagor better. The Eagles selected Reagor, while Minnesota snapped up Jefferson with the very next pick. In the three years since, Jefferson has averaged over 100 catches per season in route to becoming the NFL’s most prolific receiver. Reagor (now also with the Vikings) caught eight balls last season and has just 72 catches in his career.
Another relatively obscure prospect who was high on Weidl’s radar in Philly was safety Jeremy Chinn of Southern Illinois. In the 6’4-220 pound Chinn, Weidl saw a hybrid safety/linebacker who could play in both base and nickel packages and who would be an asset against the influx of athletic “flex” tight ends now populating the league. Roseman overruled Weidl on Chinn, too, opting for Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts. That move worked out far better than the Reagor selection. But Weidl was correct on Chinn, who has become a Pro Bowl-caliber player in Carolina.
What might Weidl’s eye for talent mean for the Steelers? Without access to his draft board, it’s hard to know which prospects he values. But when considering linemen, one player jumps out whose profile and availability could make him attractive to Weidl and the Steelers.
According to the draft gurus, there are three offensive tackles worthy of Pittsburgh’s first round pick at #17. They are Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson and Georgia’s Broderick Jones. Johnson and Skoronski are likely to be gone by then, while Jones is still raw and may require some seasoning. This could prompt the Steelers to opt for a defensive player in Round 1 and to wait to address the line with their first pick of the second round, #32 overall, which they acquired from the Bears in the Chase Claypool trade.
Weidl seems to like big, physical body-movers who are NFL-ready. That profile fits Tennessee’s Darnell Wright perfectly. The 6’5-340 pound Wright was dominant for a Volunteers offense that averaged 46 points per game in 2022 and hung 52 on Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. Wright got the better of the Tide’s Will Anderson in that contest, holding the draft’s top-rated defender to just three tackles and no sacks.
Wright (58) showed excellent technique in pass protection against Anderson. Watch him here at right tackle, mirroring Anderson’s movements as Anderson (31) tries to juke his way to the quarterback. Anderson goes out, then in, then out again, looking to get Wright off-balance. Wright stays square, though, and keeps himself from lunging until he’s in good position to strike at Anderson. This is impressive agility for a 340-pound player:
On this play, Wright shows a great kick-step out of his stance and gets his hands inside on Anderson to neutralize Anderson’s impressive strength. Watch near the end of the clip as Wright dips into the contact and drops his hips to strengthen his base. Once he absorbs the blow, he neutralizes Anderson and seals the edge of the pocket for his quarterback:
Here, Wright again kicks well out of his stance, mirrors Anderson’s feet with his own and stays patient with his hands. Anderson tries a T.J. Watt-style hesi move, but Wright doesn’t bite. He waits to strike until Anderson commits, taking away Anderson’s ability to counter. This is another great rep against college football’s premier edge rusher:
In the run game, Wright moves his feet well and finishes blocks. He’s not a mauler in the style of Dickerson but he is physical. Watch him here, at right tackle, scoop Alabama’s three-tech tackle to seal him and open a lane for the running back on this inside zone play. The Steelers are a heavy zone team under Matt Canada, and Wright, who was a four-year starter at Tennessee, has plenty of experience with the scheme:
Wright would have to kick over to the left side of the line in Pittsburgh, which could be a concern for some. But he did play there at times at Tennessee, and his athleticism and resume suggest it’s a move he can handle. Wright would provide the Steelers an immediate upgrade over Dan Moore Jr. in pass protection and would give them a comparable run blocker. He is projected as a late first to early-second round pick. This is pure speculation on my part, but if he’s available at #32, it would not surprise me if the Steelers select him. Wright seems to be a prototype of the lineman Weidl covets.
Weidl has demonstrated an eye for talent regardless of position. He’s especially capable of evaluating linemen, though, which is something Pittsburgh has not done particularly well as of late. In Weidl, the Steelers have a personnel man who was integral in evaluating some of the core players who contributed to Baltimore’s Super Bowl championship in 2013, and in putting together the roster that helped Philadelphia reach the Super Bowl this past season. In Pittsburgh, he could be the unsung hero of a 2023 off-season that propels the Steelers into championship contention as well.