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2023 NFL Draft: ESPN 1st Round projections provide options for the Steelers

With the 17th overall draft pick, here are some players ESPN experts see as 1st Round talents.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Pac-12 Championship - Utah vs USC Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023 NFL Draft is a couple months away, and while NFL Free Agency is the next stop on the offseason calendar, it never stops those who love the draft from looking ahead. With the NFL Scouting Combine starting next week, it’s worth looking into the value which is present in the current crop of players hoping to be drafted.

In this regard, it isn’t just about players who are hoping to be drafted, but players who can be deemed to be a first round talent. In this class, there aren’t as many of those types of players as you might think. In fact, according to Matt Miller of ESPN, there are only 19 players who should be considered first round talents heading into the combine.

As you look over the players below, understand this isn’t Miller’s full list. Instead, these players are broken down into positions which the Steelers could potentially target with their top pick (17th overall).

Just looking at the numbers, 19 players who are considered first round talents, and the Steelers with pick No. 17, doesn’t bode well, but let’s take a look by-position:

Wide receiver (2)

Fans would hate it if the Steelers took a wide receiver in the first round, and the reasons for their displeasure would be many. However, you can’t rule it out. If so, here are the two players listed a first round talents:

Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State (No. 12)

Comp: CeeDee Lamb

Smith-Njigba finished the 2021 season with a record-setting Rose Bowl appearance (347 receiving yards, three TDs) but was hampered by a hamstring injury in 2022, limiting him to just five catches and 43 yards. It makes for a fascinating evaluation, but the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Smith-Njigba can still find himself in the top 15 picks. He shows excellent concentration and body control, and he can still get open even when the defense is keyed to stop him.

Jordan Addison, USC (No. 13)

Comp: Keenan Allen

Addison transferred from Pitt to USC after winning the 2021 Biletnikoff Award for best wide receiver in college football. And he quietly put together an outstanding year playing on Pacific Standard Time, with 59 catches, 875 yards and eight touchdowns. Addison isn’t a big receiver (6-foot, 175 pounds), but he plays with great power after the catch and has the footwork to create separation in his route tree.

Tight end (1)

Like wide receiver, it is unlikely the Steelers choose to use their top pick with a tight end. Sure, it would provide a dynamic two tight end set with Pat Freiermuth, but it’s unlikely at best. Nonetheless, there is only one tight end in this class deemed to be worthy of a first round label.

Michael Mayer, Notre Dame (No. 15)

Comp: T.J. Hockenson

Mayer is a throwback three-down tight end who can line up next to the offensive tackle and clear out in the run game or bring down passes up the seam. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, he has elite size and uses it to produce all over the field to the tune of 67 catches, 809 yards and nine touchdowns in 2022. Mayer is a post-up, box-out red zone threat, and while he’s not expected to run a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash, his power, agility and instincts should keep him in the top 15 picks even at a non-premium position.

Offensive tackle (3)

When you’re talking about the offensive line, this is when Steelers fans pay attention. Miller has three tackles with first round grades, and many recent mock drafts have all of these studs already off the board before the Steelers make their top pick.

Peter Skoronski, Northwestern (No. 8)

Comp: Ryan Ramczyk

The 6-foot-4, 315-pound left tackle plays with NFL-caliber power and heavy hands but also has good mobility at the second level in the run game. Skoronski’s lack of length will be questioned by some teams, but he’s a powerhouse blocker in the run and pass game and is positioned to be a Year 1 starter in the NFL. He allowed just three sacks over 33 career starts.

Broderick Jones, Georgia (No. 14)

Comp: Dion Dawkins

A former five-star recruit, Jones emerged in his first year as a starter and became one of the nation’s best left tackles. He has a level of toughness and strength to his game that’s hard to find, but he also shows the recovery agility and balance to compete with speedy outside pass-rushers. His game is raw given limited reps (19 starts), but his upside is through the roof. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, there might be arm length questions, but his tape is Round 1-caliber. Jones allowed zero sacks this season for Georgia.

Paris Johnson Jr., Ohio State (No. 16)

Comp: Terron Armstead

Johnson was arguably Ohio State’s best lineman during the 2021 season while playing out of position at right guard. He moved to his natural position of left tackle for 2022 and allowed just two sacks. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior has solid quickness and balance while also playing with poise and power. He’s still ironing out his technique, but Johnson’s ceiling is potentially the best of any 2023 offensive lineman.

Interior offensive line (0)

There are some who think the Steelers should bolster the interior of the offensive line, mainly the left guard position, but Miller doesn’t believe there are any players who fit that description who should go in the first round.

Positional value has hit the interior of the offensive line, as NFL teams find high-level starters on Days 2 and 3 of the draft. The 2023 class features talented guards and centers — players such as O’Cyrus Torrence (Florida) and John Michael Schmitz (Minnesota) — who could sneak into Round 1 but don’t carry an across-the-board first-round grade.

Defensive tackle (1)

If the Steelers can’t bolster the offensive line, doing so with the defensive line will be even more difficult. Carter, the only player listed, is likely to be long gone before the Steelers pick in Round 1.

Jalen Carter, Georgia (No. 3)

Comp: Fletcher Cox

The 2021 Georgia defense had five players selected in the first round of the 2022 draft, and Carter (not eligible in that draft) might have actually been the best defender on the team. At 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds, he has great first-step quickness and a powerful frame that can split double teams. Carter battled ankle and knee injuries this season and platooned on a deep Georgia defense last year, but he still accumulated six sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons.

Linebacker (0)

Like interior offensive line, Miller doesn’t believe there are any players who fit that description who should go in the first round.

The 2023 linebacker class is talented, and there are several players likely to be drafted in the first round — but none of them has a true Round 1 grade at this time. Players in contention for Day 1 picks are Arkansas’ Drew Sanders and Clemson’s Trenton Simpson.

Cornerback (3)

This is considered a very deep draft class for cornerbacks, and recent simulations have many of the below players being selected before the Steelers head to the podium. However, there could be talent to be had, with plenty of value, at pick No. 17.

Devon Witherspoon, Illinois (No. 9)

Comp: Darius Slay

An aggressive and physical cornerback, Witherspoon is sticky in coverage and uses his size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) and quickness to stay in-phase and eliminate targets. He had three interceptions and 14 pass breakups this past season. And while run defense doesn’t get talked about much with corner prospects, Witherspoon’s open-field tackling ability is the best in the class at the position.

Joey Porter Jr., Penn State (No. 10)

Comp: Marlon Humphrey

Porter has standout instincts and physicality. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound junior broke up 11 passes on limited targets in 2022, as opposing offenses stayed away from him. Porter has the length, toughness, speed and timing to be a top-tier NFL cornerback.

Christian Gonzalez, Oregon (No. 17)

Comp: Byron Jones

A transfer from Colorado, Gonzalez found his footing at Oregon under first-year coach Dan Lanning, who was the architect of the 2021 Georgia defense. Gonzalez has great size at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, and his speed and leaping ability are elite traits. He had a breakout season in 2022 with four interceptions and seven pass breakups.

This draft will be huge for the Steelers for many reasons. With three picks in the Top 50, Omar Khan, Andy Weidl and Mike Tomlin’s ability to hit a couple home runs will dictate what the future has in store for the organization. Some suggest every offseason is pivotal for the success of the team, but this offseason screams turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What do you think the Steelers should do with their top pick? Did ESPN leave off a player who is worthy of a first round grade? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the team as they press on throughout the NFL offseason.