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Thoughts on the spectacle that is the NFL Draft, and my favorite prospects for the Steelers

The 2023 NFL Draft is almost here, and the event itself has become something not one ever envisioned.

NFL: APR 27 2018 NFL Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

(Note: Follow me on Twitter @KTSmithFFSN for the latest information on what I’m working on, as well as my new podcast “The Call Sheet”)

Well, it’s just about here. One of the most anticipated events on the football calendar — the NFL draft — kicks off in just two days. Here are some thoughts on this unofficial football holiday, including my favorite draft prospects for the Steelers.

From humble beginnings...

The first NFL draft was held on February 8, 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia. There were no formal scouting departments at the time, no assembled fans or media in attendance and the pool of eligible draftees consisted of just 90 players. With the first pick, the Eagles selected Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago. Berwanger never played a down in the NFL. He opted for a career as a foam rubber salesman instead.

The draft remained largely obscure for the next forty-some years. It was considered little more than a functional event — teams picked their players, what was exciting about that? But then, in 1980, commissioner Pete Rozelle made the decision to televise it live. That brought the draft to the masses, and increased interest significantly. The birth of the internet in the 1990s, and the decision in 2003 to allow cameras inside the NFL Scouting Combine, which had debuted in 1985 but was originally off-limits to television, created an explosion of interest. Last year, over 10 million viewers tuned in for Round 1, making it the most-watched prime-time show on television. The numbers underscore football’s popularity as America’s favorite sport, with the league proving that even in April, it can captivate the public.

We are all experts now

When Mel Kiper Jr. first started doing Mel Kiper Jr. things back in 1984, he was deemed the original draft “expert.” Kiper assembled his information the old-fashioned way: he worked the phones, staked out team executives and used the virtual monopoly that his employer, ESPN, had on draft coverage to deliver his thoughts and findings to an information-staved public.

Today, we don’t need Kiper to become experts-of-sorts about the draft. There is so much information available, and so many resources we can use to study it, that just about anyone with a rudimentary understanding of football can form an educated opinion.

What makes one person’s opinion more valid than another’s? Not much. Kiper, Todd McShay and those employed by corporate entities have better access to information than you or I. But that doesn’t mean their evaluations are more valid, or that they’ll be more accurate when predicting how things might shake out. The draft is at best a guessing game. With teams holding information so close to the vest, it’s almost impossible to discern their intentions. Throw in the fact that one surprise pick could set off a chain of events that disrupts the expected norm, and it’s clear that draft predictions qualify as the ultimate inexact science.

This doesn’t stop us from making them. The internet is littered with mock drafts, some by so-called “experts,” many by regular fans with an interest in the subject and some time on their hands. Despite the incredible level of certainty with which these mocksters defend their selections — and the equal certainty with which those who read them disagree — few are accurate. Last year, Albert Breer and Charlie Campbell were the best of the national pundits, predicting the correct landing spot for eight of the draft’s 32 first-round selections. That’s an accuracy rate of 25%. Kiper and Peter King both got six picks correct, while Dane Brugler, Daniel Jeremiah and Todd McShay chose five. Chris Simms, who famously stated he’d rather have Daniel Jones as his quarterback than Jalen Hurts, got one pick right. One of 32, from a guy who gets paid to do this for a living.

I’m not big on mock drafts for this reason. When the best the experts can do is 25%, the term “expert” becomes suspect. I do like discussing my favorite prospects, though, and I’ve shared those thoughts on BTSC over the years. I have advocated for the Steelers to draft Hurts, Landon Dickerson, Jeremy Chinn and T.J. Hockenson. They are all having solid NFL careers and would likely have been good picks for the Steelers. I have also campaigned for K.J. Hamler, Lloyd Cushenberry and Andrew Billings. Those guys, not so much.

I’ve been playing and coaching football for 42 of my 53 years on the planet. You’d think that sort of experience would provide an advanced level of insight on draft matters. It doesn’t. The variables that affect how a player will make the leap from college to the NFL are so vast, and have such a huge impact on success, that projections can be difficult. Can a player handle the transition of football from sport to business? Can he deal with the money and fame that comes with being drafted? Is he being taken by the right franchise, with the right coaching staff and the right scheme fit? What about the culture of that franchise? Or the player’s ability to handle change?

Zach Wilson is an interesting example of the complications involved in this process. Wilson wowed NFL scouts at his Pro Day last year by showing great mobility, making every throw imaginable and charming executives with his mega-watt smile and personality. He’d had a stellar career at BYU and seemed like a legitimate Top-10 pick at quarterback. But he was a small-town Mormon kid who’d been surrounded by family his entire life and had never left the state of Utah. How would that upbringing, and his transition to a new environment, affect his play? Ultimately, Wilson was unprepared to become the face of a perennially struggling franchise in the meat-grinder that is New York City. Football skills aside, New York was not the right environment for him as a person. The Jets either underestimated that, or never saw it coming.

The bottom line is this — despite an endless pool of available resources to scout and evaluate prospects, the ability to predict who will land where, or whether they’ll be successful once they get there, is limited.

This year’s favorites

Now that I’ve outlined the futility of the process, let’s get to my picks! Here are the players I’d most like to see the Steelers select in the first few rounds.

In Round 1, give me any of the top three corners (Christian Gonzalez, Devon Witherspoon and Joey Porter Jr.) or two of the big offensive tackles (Paris Johnson Jr. and Broderick Jones). Witherspoon and Johnson are my preferences, but neither is likely to be on the board when the Steelers pick at #17. Gonzalez will probably be gone, too, which means it could be a choice between Jones and Porter. In that case, I’d take Jones.

There’s also a chance all five of these players will be gone by 1:17. At that point, I wouldn’t mind the Steelers attempting to trade back and garner some extra picks, then targeting Tennessee tackle Darnell Wright or Maryland corner Deonte Banks in the early-to-mid-20s. Thinking beyond tackle and corner, I’m not opposed to the Steelers adding to their tight end room if Darnell Washington is available. He could be an incredible asset in Pittsburgh’s offense given his unique blend of size and athleticism.

In Round 2, at pick 32, Alabama safety Brian Branch and Pitt defensive tackle Calijah Kancey may still be on the board. Branch is versatile and would give the Steelers some of what they had in Terrell Edmunds, while Kancey is a lightning-quick penetrator born to disrupt blocking schemes. Georgia corner Kelee Ringo would be a nice pick, too, if that position isn’t addressed in Round 1.

My target for Pittsburgh’s selection at #49 in Round 2 is Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell. As I wrote about recently, he feels like a Steeler to me and would be the best all-around inside backer the team has had since Ryan Shazier. If Campbell is gone, and the Steelers have not already addressed offensive tackle, I like Ohio State’s Dawand Jones. Illinois safety Sydney Brown makes sense in this spot as well.

In Round 3, it should be time for Pittsburgh’s annual selection at wide receiver. Jayden Reed from Michigan State would be my target. Reed can line up inside or outside, can make people miss in space, and ran plenty of jet sweeps at MSU (Matt Canada alert!). He’s a punt and kick returner, too, which is an asset considering the departure of Steven Sims.

There you have it. Feel free to laud my brilliance or eviscerate my stupidity in the comments. That’s the nature of the beast during draft season. And the beast, in all of its glory, is almost here.