At long last, it’s NFL Draft week.
The pre-draft process certainly hits a lull following the Combine and free agency in mid-March. That period is only further dragged by constant smokescreens and little continuity about what to expect. At some point, the band aid has to be ripped off, and the zaniness of the draft has to unfold — we’ve finally hit that mark.
With four picks in the first 80 selections of this year’s draft, the Steelers are in a rare position to not only round out their roster with a crop of burgeoning stars, but also to potentially package picks to move up. Following the acquisition of Pick 32 from the Bears, Omar Khan can effectively do whatever he wants to start the second round, including moving that highly coveted slot.
As of this moment, Pittsburgh will not turn in a draft card until the 17th overall selection on April 27. However, the team could nab a superstar earlier than that, if it so desires. The Cardinals (No. 3), Lions (No. 6), Bears (No. 9), Eagles (No. 10) and Jets (No. 13) could all shift back, especially with Detroit and Philly having multiple first-rounders.
The 2023 contingent of prospects is best described as boasting a number of good players, but few who seem to be outright league-defining — especially if you exclude quarterback, which is a position the Steelers will presumably not be exploring early. Nevertheless, certain blue-chip players stand out from the rest, especially at spots where Pittsburgh could use upgrades. Below are four names that, if hovering below their expected draft positions, Khan could ascend the order to snatch.
Paris Johnson Jr., OT, Ohio State
Johnson has heard his name mentioned consistently in the top 10 for much of this draft cycle; per Grinding the Mocks, the Buckeye OT has an expected draft position (EDP) of 11.1, which leads all offensive tackles.
At the same time, some pundits have suggested that Johnson may be selected later than the primary assortment of picks. With potentially four (maybe even five?) quarterbacks coming off the board in the top 10, Johnson might be ripe for the picking. For example, in his latest mock draft, NFL Network’s Peter Schrager had Johnson sliding all the way to the Steelers at Pick 17.
There appear to be very few flaws to Johnson’s game. The LT surrendered only two sacks and 14 pressures in 2022 after moving from right guard to the blindside. Further, according to Mockdraftable, his 6-foot-6 and 3/8-inch height is in the 74th percentile of tackles, while his arm length and wingspan are in the 96th and 95th percentiles, respectively. Johnson didn’t conduct many tests at the Combine, but his athleticism popped in pulling and movement drills.
Johnson appears to be one of the safer picks at the top of this draft, which makes it understandable why he’s garnered so much interest. It’s difficult to envision the former OSU standout making it past Pick 11, especially with the Bears, Titans and Eagles all likely to pursue offensive line additions.
However, if Johnson is still on the board right around that slot, Khan and the Steelers’ front office could initiate the process of a trade up. After all, rumors have swirled that Pittsburgh and Chicago might complete a deal — if it’s anything like the one for Chase Claypool in November, that should be music to the ears of those supporting the black and gold.
The Steelers’ need for a tackle remains well-documented, especially with Dan Moore Jr. not impressing in his sophomore campaign. There’s hardly a better plug-and-play selection at LT to protect Kenny Pickett than Johnson.
Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon
Cornerback is one of the best and deepest positions among this year’s class, and Gonzalez very well may be the headliner. On a conference call with reporters, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said it’s a “coin flip” whether Gonzalez or Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon is the first CB taken on Thursday night.
While Witherspoon is certainly teeming with potential, little additional information was gleaned about the former Illini lockdown man during March and April, largely because of a prohibitive hamstring injury. Conversely, Gonzalez wowed in Indianapolis, running drills to perfection and posting an unbelievable 9.95 RAS.
At 6-foot-1 with 4.38 speed, Gonzalez possesses a perfect combination of size, length and speed. The former Duck also fields great ball skills and physicality and isn’t afraid to get down and tackle. Altogether, it would be difficult to envision a more ideal fit for the Steelers, particularly in Teryl Austin’s Cover 3 scheme.
Those aforementioned traits are why teams are gushing over Gonzalez. The Oregon product has been consistently linked to the Lions, Falcons (Pick No. 8) and Eagles. It’s quite unlikely Gonzalez falls below Pick 14 to New England.
While a player like Joey Porter Jr. has a moderate probability of still being on the board at No. 17, it’s unrealistic to expect the same of Gonzalez. Consequently, if the Steelers are indeed that intent on obtaining him, the team will need to move up.
The preliminary reads seem to be that Pittsburgh doesn’t necessarily favor one top corner over another, but jumping for Gonzalez is logical — and in play.
Peter Skoronski, OL, Northwestern
Despite concerns about Skoronski’s length, the former Wildcat is a consensus top player in this year’s draft, with an EDP of 11.6.
Skoronski’s height, wingspan and arm length are all in the 9th percentile among tackles or lower, which has led some to forecast a move to guard at the next level. At the same time, Skoronski was outright dominant at left tackle during his three years in Evanston, allowing only six (!) pressures in 2022 and five sacks throughout his entire career. The Park Ridge, Illinois native proved he could go head-to-head with top edge rushers, doing battle with Aidan Hutchinson, George Karlaftis and Boye Mafe.
While the skepticism about his size is somewhat warranted, squads continue to adulate Skoronski because of his strength, anchor and technique. His tape — with very few flaws — and processing are reasons why PFF’s Trevor Sikkema said his “floor” is Picks 13 or 14 to the Jets or Patriots, respectively.
Teams such as the Raiders (Pick 8), Eagles and even Cardinals (if Arizona trades down from 3) could make the call to write Skoronski’s name down. If he somehow makes it past the Titans at No. 11 (or if Tennessee moves up for a quarterback), that could be a prime opportunity for the Steelers to pounce.
Yes, Pittsburgh has totally overhauled its interior offensive line, inking Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig to contracts. At the same time, the aforementioned questions at tackle linger. Beyond that, it would be awfully tough to pass up an elite offensive lineman at any position. After all, the team took a falling David DeCastro in 2012; safe to say that worked out well.
The Steelers’ interest in Skoronski has been well-documented throughout, including meeting with him in Indianapolis and sending OL coach Pat Meyer to Ryan Fieldhouse to watch Skoronski’s Pro Day. Even with a bolstered offensive line, Skoronski could be the target for picking higher.
Jalen Carter, DL, Georgia
Carter may be the most polarizing player in this class.
His talent is hardly disputed, with countless viewing him as the best overall player among his peers. After all, Carter was the best player on Georgia’s championship-winning defense and may have even superseded 2022 first-round picks such as Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt.
Yet, Carter’s stock has taken a dip following his arrest on reckless driving and racing charges during the Combine. Additionally, Carter was supposedly nine pounds heavier at the Bulldogs’ Pro Day on March 15 and was even unable to finish drills.
While Carter probably won’t hear his name called in the top three, his tantalizing talent is very much in play at No. 5 (Seattle) or No. 6 (Detroit). If he does make it to around No. 9, though, teams could begin to make calls — including the Steelers.
Pittsburgh reinforced its defensive line by re-signing Larry Ogunjobi, plus adding free agents Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko. At the same time, the team still lacks a consistent nose tackle, and star Cam Heyward may only have a few seasons left in the tank.
DL may not be a true priority for Mike Tomlin and Khan at this point, but if the opportunity presents itself to get arguably the best overall player in the class, it’s difficult to spurn that. Just imagining a front four with T.J. Watt, Heyward, Carter and Alex Highsmith is fodder enough.
The red flags surrounding Carter are very much real, but his ability still speaks for itself. After all, Tomlin was able to rein in both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, and the team still drafted George Pickens despite getting in a car accident only a week before he was selected. If Carter has a Laremy Tunsil-esque fall, expect the Steelers to be one of the top bidders.