Early Draft Thoughts

I know most folks are on their 148th mock draft by now, but to my mind everything before the first wave of free agency is just research. This is the first time in the off season that we have even a remotely realistic or reliable idea of team needs, and the combine has helped solidify our understanding of prospects' strengths and weaknesses. So, without further ado, here are my first firm thoughts regarding the draft.

Cornerback is a major need. The Steelers will be alright this year, but replaced youth with age by signing Peterson instead of Sutton, and Wallace is on the last year of his contract. The Steelers didn't release Witherspoon as expected, and I wonder if that has to do with a last vestige of hope that he could iron out his inconsistency issues under the tutelage of a great mentor in Peterson. The Steelers really need a CB of the future (even if Witherspoon figures it out, which he probably won't), and could also use an upgrade in the slot right now. PFF rates Maulet lower than Dan Moore... and PFF hates Dan Moore.

It seems like a lot of years the Steelers end up drafting the guy everyone predicted back in January and then got tired of and forgot about. Last year, everyone was talking about the Steelers not passing on Pickett like they did Marino. Then he had a bad Senior Bowl, his hands got measured, and everyone decided to pass on him after all. Then people looked at the other QB's, watched some film, heard some rumors, and decided Pickett wouldn't get past the Panthers at 7 overall. Then we drafted him.

People have gotten tired of mocking Porter Jr to us, but I think he's likely to be the guy. I'm not at all sure Porter Jr. will fall to us, but if he does I have a hard time believing the Steelers would let him get away. They always draft high character guys in the first round because they like to know they're getting a good person and good worker instead of a Justin Gilbert. That familiarity with Porter will tip the scale in his favor even if a similarly talented player is available.

Porter isn't the only CB worth taking at 17. It seems like a common theme that if Porter is gone the Steelers look at a different position, and I don't see that as at all necessarily true. First of all, Devon Witherspoon is tiny. At the top of the draft, teams are looking for guys with length and size to shut down those alpha WR's, and Witherspoon could very easily fall like Trent McDuffie did last year. Secondly, I don't see a huge gap between the top CB's and the "second tier" like there is at OT. I think Cam Smith absolutely belongs in the conversation at 17, Ringo and Banks if you buy into their traits and aren't afraid of bust potential could be there too. Brian Branch doesn't have elite traits, but he has the hearts and smarts to play as big and fast as anyone. He'd probably be off the table if Edmunds comes back, but that hasn't happened so far anyway. If for some reason they don't take a CB at 17, look for DJ Turner or Clark Phillips in the 2nd.

Look for an OT early. People said Andy Weidl believes in building up the trenches. It's true. He signed Nate Herbig right away and the Steleers fans were all "wow, this guy got us our new LG and didn't even wait for the draft, he really is a trenches first guy!" and then Andy Weidl said "Oh, you guys thought Herbig was going to start?" If there are fans who are calling for an OT early, Andy Weidl is calling for it louder. It also shows the importance attached to top notch backups with starting ability. Even if Dan Moore is still seen as having starter ability that doesn't mean he wouldn't be an even better backup, especially as our depth at OT is currently garbage. Also, again, don't forget the earliest indications. Tomlin at the Senior Bowl was all over the OT drills. We also have more recent indications, though, in the Steelers' reported attempt to bring in free agent Orlando Brown.

If Porter is gone and one of the top 3 tackles is still available, you should know what's probably going to happen. It will be interesting if Porter and Skoronski, for example, are both available but that seems pretty unlikely. It's unlikely any of the top 3 OT's fall to us as at all. I don't see us reaching for an OT at 17 if the top guys are gone but a guy like Wright, Harrison, or Dawand Jones in the 2nd seems likely. Our need is greater at LT probably and Dawand Jones is more of a RT, but I love him as a prospect. His size is a strength and a weakness, but it does dictate to the defense what they can and can't do, and that's always a good thing. I think our scheme plays to his strengths too.

Look out for the "Edmunds Special." I mentioned how frequently the Steelers seem to go with the obvious pick, but they've also pulled off a complete surprise before as well. In particular, I'd highlight Trenton Simpson and Drew Sanders as the likeliest candidates. Simpson fits the mold of Ryan Shazier and Devin Bush (as a prospect) that the Steelers clearly loved in the past. He may not be great in a traditional ILB role but was used all over the field in college (yes, he can play safety) and brings that dimebacker potential as well. Drew Sanders has a ton of potential after exploding in his first season at ILB and is especially intriguing due to his pass rush ability and the Steelers' lack of a 3rd pass rusher currently. Lance Zierlein has him as his 9th highest rated prospect, just to illustrate the potential that the Steelers FO could be similarly enthralled.

Make up your mind how you feel about Anthony Richardson being available. It seems like everyone has him as a top 10 lock. A CBS mock last week had him going first overall. Ok. I'm not saying it absolutely couldn't happen; it could, but I think fans have him rated a lot higher than cooler headed GM's. His speed and explosiveness is amazing, but a QB's first and most important job is to throw the ball. Don't forget Malik Willis last year was in everyone's top 10 for the exact same reasons as Richardson. Richardson is less accurate than Josh Allen was in college, and that's saying something. There's a very good chance he could be available at 17, maybe 32 or even 49. Will you be one of the fans screaming to draft him, screaming that the Steelers should be able to trade back with him on the board, screaming not to draft him, or (I know this is a longshot) refraining from screaming?

WR is just as big a need as DL, or bigger. I know a LOT of you want a DL as early as possible, but I think we'll probably add a WR before a DL in this draft.

Nobody is talking about Diontae Johnson as a WR1 anymore, and he's on the last year of his contract. Pickens had a promising rookie season, but is still a one trick pony who wins contested catches down the sideline and isn't guaranteed to become any better a route runner than Chase Claypool. Compare these guys to Ogunjobi and Heyward. Can you honestly say DJ and Pickens give us more overall talent or stability? Seems pretty comparable to me.

The big difference is that on the DL we have two developing young players in Loudermilk and Leal. At WR we have Calvin Austin III and Anthony Miller. Miller is a dumpster dive who may have once been a 2nd round pick but was more recently a practice squad player. Everyone in the league except us has given up on him, so don't try to argue that he's a better player than Loudermilk or Leal. I know a lot of people love Calvin Austin. I loved him as a 4th round draft pick. You have to realize, though, that there's a pretty hefty distance between "4th round steal" and "of course this guy can be depended on to play 60% of your offensive snaps or more." There's no reason people should be way more confident in Austin than in Leal, who was drafted a round higher and didn't sit out all last season with an injury.

I get that games are won and lost in the trenches, and Andy Weidl is a leading proponent of that fact, but the success of young QB's like Pickett is also heavily dependent on having plenty of weapons. And Andy Weidl was the guy running the Eagles' drafts in 2020 when he didn't just pick Jalen Hurts, he also picked no less than three WR's in the first, fifth, and 6th rounds. He would come back and draft another WR 10th overall the next year. Don't be surprised to see him make sure Pickett has weapons just like he did for Hurts.

There's plenty of room for improvement at both DL and WR, but early in the draft there's not an enticing pool of talent available at DL. It's also worth noting that at the combine the Steelers met mostly with top WR prospects and mid range DL prospects. The pool of talent at WR in the 2nd round this year is much better than at DL.

A lot of people have Jaxson Smith-Njigba as a first round lock, but I don't see it. I get that Smith-Njigba had a fantastic season, but let's put that in perspective. Troy Edwards had a better season. Twice. College production is a lousy predictor of NFL success (especially when you have Olave and Wilson drawing the safeties outside), and when it comes down to it JSN did nothing to answer concerns about his long speed at the combine, leaving us to assume that he is probably nothing but a good possession receiver. Compare him to Jarvis and Landry and Cooper Kupp all you want (after all when did a guy ever fall short of the best case scenario for someone with his skill set?) but Kupp was drafted in the 3rd round, Landry in the 2nd, and JSN really shouldn't be in the first round conversation either. I do love the idea of a chain moving machine for Pickett in the 2nd round though.

After running a 4.49 forty at just 173 pounds, Jordan Addison could conceivably fall to the 2nd round where his floor as an elite slot guy fits right into our need for dependability in the slot. Yes, it could be redundant if CA3 works out, but that's what you call a good problem to have, not something you go out of your way to avoid.

Another guy with a slower forty time at the combine was Michael Mayer at TE. Don't get me wrong, I'm not just raising or dropping guys based on a combine 40. Michael Mayer is still easily the safest and likely best pick of Luke Musgrave, Dalton Kincaid, and Darnell Washington. I know it's a longshot, but different teams look for different things from TE's, and Heath Miller isn't everyone's cup of tea. Teams that don't really care whether their TE can block could easily go with Kincaid or Musgrave over Mayer. Mayer was the only one of the top TE prospects the Steelers met with at the combine, so they do have interest it would seem, and if he should happen to fall, he could be a pick that helps mitigate the weakness of our WR corps. Keep in mind, although Weidl wasn't yet in charge of the draft that brought in Dallas Goedert to pair with Zach Ertz he was part of the team and comes from a system that used 2TE sets as much or more than anyone in the NFL while he was there.

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