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When the Pittsburgh Steelers go on the clock next Thursday night to make their selection in Round 1 of the NFL draft, most people expect them to take an offensive tackle or a cornerback.
But what if they don’t?
It’s possible the draft’s best prospects at both positions will be gone by then. Various mocks have shown tackles Paris Johnson Jr., Peter Skoronski and Broderick Jones and corners Devon Witherspoon, Christian Gonzalez and Joey Porter Jr. all off the board by the time the Steelers pick at #17. As an experiment, I ran 25 online draft simulations to get a feel for how often those six players were gone by the time the Steelers selected. It occurred four times, for a rate of 16%. That’s not a huge number, nor one arrived at using a scientific method. 16%, though, makes it far from impossible.
What then? What if the top six are gone? The Steelers might like Maryland corner Deonte Banks or Tennessee tackle Darnell Wright, just not at pick #17. The possibility also exists that one of the top six is available and Pittsburgh decides not to choose him. The signs all point to a tackle or a corner. But the Steelers have surprised us before.
Only a select few inside the organization know the real truth, and they’re not talking. That leaves it up to us to speculate. Here, then, are my thoughts on three players the Steelers might select in Round 1 if they don’t take a tackle or a corner.
Lukas Van Ness — Edge, Iowa
With the news last week that old friend Bud Dupree spurned an offer from Pittsburgh to sign in Atlanta, the Steelers find themselves perilously thin at edge behind starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. They need a third player to rotate or to assume the starting role should Watt or Highsmith go down. It’s unlikely that current backups Emeke Egbule and Quincy Roche fit that profile.
Enter Van Ness, who at 6’5-272 has the size the Steelers prefer and a motor to match it. Van Ness bullied college linemen with his get-off and raw strength. Watch him here, aligned inside at the 3-tech, explode through Wisconsin’s right guard in route to the quarterback.
The strength Van Ness features, coupled with the fact he could likely add another ten pounds to his muscled but lean frame, means Pittsburgh could use him similarly to how they deployed DeMarvin Leal last season. Leal is an interior player the Steelers stood up on occasion. Van Ness is an edge who can also play with his hand on the ground. With Pittsburgh growing increasingly multiple on defense, they are attracted to players with diverse skill sets.
Van Ness’s power translates to the run game, too, where he anchors well and uses his long arms to create separation from blockers. Tight ends are no match for him and will have a hard time moving him off his mark, like we see here:
In this next clip, Van Ness gets good extension and holds the edge against a run fake, then sheds and pursues the quarterback once he diagnoses pass. He is a high-effort player with a relentless mindset:
On the down-side, Van Ness is far from a finished product. He is just 21 years old and a redshirt sophomore, and it shows. He is not a nuanced pass-rusher and relies almost entirely on power moves to get to the quarterback. In the run game, he needs to get better with his hands to keep experienced NFL linemen from winning inside and controlling him. At times at Iowa, he would disappear for stretches in games once opposing linemen adjusted to his limited repertoire and exposed his flaws. In short, he is not yet prepared to be an every-down NFL player.
Fortunately, the Steelers don’t need him to be. Not in 2023, anyway. With Watt and Highsmith in place, Van Ness could be used situationally, where his strengths would be accentuated. Having Watt as a mentor would be a huge benefit. And, should the Steelers use Van Ness inside at times, they have a template for how to experiment with him in Leal, who found success in limited but varied roles as a rookie.
The upside on Van Ness makes him more attractive than other highly-ranked edge players who could be drafted in this range. Georgia’s Nolan Smith, at 6’2-240, may lack the size the Steelers prefer at this position, while Clemson’s Myles Murphy projects better as a 4-3 end. Some Steelers’ fans may not like the idea of drafting a player at #17 who won’t project as an immediate starter. But Van Ness seems to fit the profile the Steelers desire. His toughness mirrors the theme they have adopted for the defense with their free agent signings this off-season, and his versatility makes him scheme-friendly. Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan both attended Van Ness’s workout at Iowa’s Pro Day, which is noteworthy. Van Ness is a real possibility in Round 1 if the Steelers don’t go tackle or corner.
Jordan Addison — Wide Receiver, USC
When the Steelers drafted Kenny Pickett last year, they talked a lot about how their familiarity with him as a University of Pittsburgh player who was “in the building” factored heavily into their decision. Addison was Pickett’s favorite target at Pitt in 2021, when he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver, before transferring to USC last season. The chemistry between Pickett and Addison, and the Steelers’ familiarity with him, could encourage them to snatch him in Round 1.
Addison is a smooth route-runner who can line up both inside and outside. The Steelers have a glaring need at slot receiver, where the three candidates to play there — Calvin Austin III, Gunner Olszewsky and Anthony Miller — caught just five combined passes last season. The team is said to be high on Austin III, but after missing his entire rookie season with an injury, counting on him too heavily is a risk. Elsewhere at receiver, Diontae Johnson is entering the final year of his contract and is no guarantee to return. George Pickens is Pittsburgh’s only other legitimate starter, so if Johnson leaves, they will need a replacement. Addison could be that player.
Addison is not big at 5’11-175 and there are concerns he may not be well-suited to beat aggressive man coverage or operate well in traffic. But, as a slot player, the ability to motion him around will create free releases at the line. It could also get him matched against safeties and weaker nickel corners, where he will be a problem for defenses. His ability to cut quickly and catch the ball away from his body are huge assets, and if you give Addison space at the line, like we see below, he is almost impossible to cover:
That space can be exploited in a variety of ways, like through double moves that catch defenders sitting on an early break. This one is particularly nice, as Addison sells his move to the post with a three-step stem before bursting vertically. The adjustment at the end to a ball thrown towards his back shoulder is pretty, too:
Those types of adjustments are a regular part of Addison’s game. His body control is excellent, and while his size may prohibit him from getting to some of the balls that a taller, longer receiver like Pickens does, he is extremely athletic while tracking throws:
The Steelers did not attend Addison’s Pro Day, but their familiarity with him may have nullified that need. Last year, Pickett was the only one of the top quarterbacks the Steelers failed to take to dinner and meet with one-on-one. Obviously, that didn’t exclude him from being their pick. The same may be true with Addison.
Pittsburgh has gone to great lengths the past couple of drafts to give the offense the playmakers it needs to be successful. They took a feature running back with their top pick in 2021, and a franchise quarterback in Round 1 last season. Selecting a wide receiver this year would complete the trifecta. If they do, Addison seems likely to be their guy.
Calijah Kancey — Defensive Tackle, Pitt
Speaking of players “in the building,” there’s a growing buzz that Pitt’s Calijah Kancey could be the Steelers selection in Round 1. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly recently mocked Kancey to the Steelers, while Sports Illustrated ran an article titled “Steelers Appear Uninterested in Calijah Kancey.” In draft season parlance, that headline is a sure-fire indicator they are indeed interested.
The Steelers appear to have fortified their defensive line by bringing back Larry Ogunjobi and signing veterans Breiden Fehoko and Arman Watts. With Cam Heyward and Ogunjobi as the starters in their 2-4-5 package, Leal the third lineman in their base 3-4, and Fehoko and Watts joining incumbents Montravious Adams and Isaiahh Loudermilk as reserves, it seems hard to justify spending a top pick on an interior lineman.
Then again, the line may not be as fortified as it seems. Heyward is approaching his 34th birthday. He’s still a dominant player but is nearing the end of his brilliant career. Ogunjobi has missed parts of nearly every NFL season he’s played with one nagging injury or another. Leal is a tweener who was moved up and down the line last season. His value is in his versatility, but it’s uncertain whether he can handle a regular role. As for the others, they’re backups at best. The Steelers don’t want any of them playing too heavily in the rotation.
From that perspective, selecting Kancey makes much more sense. He is a penetrator with a great get-off and an ability to slant, twist and get to the quarterback. He had 14.5 sacks over his final two seasons at Pitt, and was a constant disruptor who often played in the opponent’s backfield, like we see here:
The Steelers want penetrators up front these days, so Kancey’s athleticism makes him an ideal fit. What may not be ideal is his size. Kancey is listed at 6’1-282, which is much smaller than both Heyward (6’5-300) and Ogunjobi (6’3-305). Then again, Pitt alumnus Aaron Donald is Kancey’s size, and he seems to be doing fairly well in the league. Kancey may not be Donald. But the Steelers might be willing to find out how close he can come.
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