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Pick No. 32 is the Steelers’ most intriguing, yet most important

What the organization does to start the second round will be must-see.

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

“The NFL Draft for 2023 is officially open. The Carolina Panthers are on the clock.”

While the 2023 NFL Draft is still 10 days away, I can already hear Commissioner Roger Goodell uttering those words, standing in front of tens of thousands of impassioned fans in Kansas City’s Union Station. As Goodell shares that statement, the first round will officially begin on Thursday night in primetime.

Quite simply, there’s nothing like the first night of the Draft. The top prospects available, many of whom are viewed as game-changing with All-Pro potential. The maneuvering of picks to put oneself in position to land a franchise-altering player. The understanding that, with its pick, each team must avoid the dreaded four-letter word: “bust.”

Even though there is one fewer pick on April 27 — following the Miami Dolphins’ forfeiture of their initial selection — all of those uncanny elements will remain the same. Likewise, when the Steelers make their selection at No. 17 (contingent based on trading up or down, of course), the pressure will be on to land a supreme talent with a prodigious impact for years.

That aforementioned lost pick is significant this year, though. By holding the Bears’ second-round selection after trading for Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh will effectively choose at No. 32, meaning that only 31 players will be off the board when Omar Khan and company will make their second call of the night.

Therein lies the fun of this year’s Draft for the Steelers.

In terms of football situations, the first round is similar to trailing in a game with two minutes to go. A team has to go out and execute to earn a victory and a warm feeling; in this case, it means adding a quality player who will be counted on for years, and one that satisfies its fanbase sooner rather than later.

For the Steelers, the team’s most pressing needs remain lucid: cornerback, offensive tackle, linebacker and edge rusher (especially after not signing Bud Dupree and cutting Jamir Jones). If Pittsburgh’s brain trust does not draft a player at one of those four slots in Round One, it would be tough to envision the selection being graded positively.

Over time and recently, there have been teams to eschew bigger issues to simply draft based on the Best Player Available (BPA) approach. Take, for instance, the Cowboys picking CeeDee Lamb in 2020, or even the Ravens nabbing Kyle Hamilton last season. Both organizations have since justified the picks based on others ultimately moving on, but they were somewhat surprising in the moment.

While the Steelers appear set to add at one of those four positions detailed earlier, anything becomes on the table at Pick 32 — view it as a free play after an edge rusher has just jumped offside. Why not take a shot down the field?

By picking a CB, OT, ILB or EDGE in the first, Pittsburgh will be bolstering a roster that already has few starting spots open. With one of a slim number of “holes” now plugged, Khan & Co. would have even greater flexibility to reinforce whatever positions they would like. There’s hardly a better spot to do that than with the first pick in the second round.

In an event like the draft, with 32 organizations evaluating and grading players differently, it’s inevitable that certain athletes will be taken below their projected landing spots. In the first round, this means that bonafide stars can trickle to Day Two. For example, the Steelers snatched George Pickens at Pick 52, though his Expected Draft Position was 38.8, per Grinding the Mocks. Other players that slipped last year included Andrew Booth Jr., Boye Mafe and Kyler Gordon.

Which prospects may end up falling below their expected slots? Some candidates for this year include WR Jordan Addison, EDGE Will McDonald IV, EDGE Keion White — a bit of a surprise attendee of the draft in person — DL Bryan Bresee, DB Brian Branch or even DL Lukas Van Ness. Coincidentally, all would be a fit based on the Steelers’ needs, meaning a major contributor would be swooped up.

Further, the Steelers could easily attack other weaker groups more intentionally. More specifically, linebacker seems to be a hotbed in the early-to-mid second round. Iowa’s Jack Campbell and Arkansas’ Drew Sanders are both likely to be untouched by the start of the period and could transition right into black and gold.

At the same time, the concept of a true blue-chip player sitting like a glowing sapphire in the rough is tantalizing. What if Georgia TE Darnell Washington is left? Texas RB Bijan Robinson?

Despite a lack of overt need, it would be tough to pass on either. For Washington, dreams of the 6-foot-7 monster attacking the seams with Pat Freiermuth are awfully compelling. In the case of Robinson, forming a Medusa of Najee Harris, Robinson and Jaylen Warren would keep defenses up for weeks.

While these circumstances might seem more like a Madden Ultimate Team roster, they very well could be something the Steelers confront on April 28. At what point does pure talent transcend positional need? That’s something Khan, Andy Weidl and Mike Tomlin will have to ask themselves, probably at Pick 32.

Of course, the Steelers may not actually take anyone to begin the second — that is, if the pick is traded. With the selection being equivalent to a late first-rounder, teams will assuredly covet it. According to the Fitzgerald-Spielberger NFL Draft Trade Value Chart, Pick No. 32 has a value of 1244, which is worth Picks 81 (third) and 147 (early fifth), for example.

An organization could easily trade up for Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker if he makes it to Day Two. Conversely, Pittsburgh could package 32 in a maneuver to trade up, or even land someone like Cardinals safety Budda Baker.

Overall, by possessing the first pick among the “second wave” of players available, the Steelers, in many ways, control the destiny of not just their own draft class, but also the rest of the draft. Whether a familiar name or an unanticipated star, Pittsburgh’s first second-round pick may not just transform its 2023 outlook — it could provide deeper clues regarding the franchise’s direction in future years.