It's that time of year again, folks. We are less than a week away from the always much anticipated NFL Draft. This is the NFL's version of Christmas in April for ravenous fan bases across the country. Finally, all the mock drafts and speculation comes to a merciful end, and roster clarity begins to appear.
Every year around this time of the pre-draft process I write an article or two focusing on a potential uncut gem available for whichever franchise is fortunate enough to identify the not quite yet fully revealed beauty behind the rough exterior.
I received a real life reminder of this annual series of articles recently, when the Steelers signed free agent inside linebacker Tanner Muse to a one year contract.
I considered Muse to be an attractive mid round option for the Steelers during the 2020 NFL pre-draft process. Muse was a tremendous athlete without an established position. He was a classic LB/S hybrid. At 6'2" and 225, Muse reminded me of a John Lynch type safety. Blessed with 4.41 speed, he possessed sideline to sideline coverage ability. Muse was very productive during his tenure with the Clemson Tigers.
Muse's draft evaluations were all over the place leading up to the draft, mostly because the majority of evaluators struggled to define his optimal NFL usage. Most agreed that his professional success would depend on finding the right schematic fit in the best system for his individual skill set. That statement holds true for most, if not all prospects, but even more so for hybrid types.
As we already know, the Las Vegas Raiders were even more enamored with Muse than I was, as I had a fourth round grade on the young man. The Raiders over drafted Muse, something that they are prone to do, by selecting him in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Muse missing the entirety of his rookie season with a foot injury, and was eventually signed to the Seattle Seahawks practice squad after failing to make the Raiders 53 man roster in 2021. Muse carved out a professional niche for himself as a special teams standout with the Seahawks, but he has been unable to establish himself as a NFL defender. It remains to be seen if the Steelers defensive schemes will be a better fit for Muse's athletic abilities, but the necessary talent for greater on the field contributions appear to be present.
The Steelers have shown some serious interest in highly versatile hybrid types in recent seasons. Last year, they drafted DeMarvin Leal as a DL/Edge hybrid. The Steelers ended up giving the talented young man work at both positions, and Leal performed admirably, giving the Steelers hope for an even brighter future.
This offseason the Steelers signed former Falcons and Buccaneers safety Keanu Neal to a two year deal to replace the departed Terrell Edmunds. Neal is very similar to the aforementioned Edmunds, although he lacks the former's speed and athleticism. Neal is an old school box safety, who plays strong safety like an undersized off ball linebacker.
These signings seem to reveal a not so subtle shift in defensive philosophy for the Steelers. The Steelers showed a real commitment to schematic creativity last season, due in no small part to the absence of former DC Keith Butler, Stephon Tuitt, and TJ Watt. The Steelers showed they were willing and able to get creative defensively to remain competitive, so the more versatile hybrid defenders the better.
That observation has lead many pundits to suggest that Lukas Van Ness is a likely draft prospect for the Steelers. Van Ness is an extremely athletic and talented defensive hybrid without a confirmed position. He has the size and strength of a 4-3 defensive end, but the speed and mobility of a potential standout edge player.
Therein lies my main issue with Van Ness to the Steelers. The young man is more projection than production at this point in his development, and that is not ideal for such an important first round selection in the Steelers rebuilding process. Especially when there will be similar prospects available on Day 3 of the draft.
One such prospect turned project is the focal point of this article: Louisville Edge YaYa Diaby.
Diaby is definitely an athletically gifted raw prospect with project potential. Diaby has dropped down some draft boards, he is generally projected in go somewhere in the fourth to fifth round range, mainly because of his limited collegiate production and somewhat advanced age, due to a two year stint in JUCO.
Diaby will turn 24 not long after the 2023 NFL Draft, which is a little older for a rookie, especially one viewed as a project. While there are concerns about Diaby's professional projection and age, there are no such concerns when it comes to his athletic profile. Simply put, the young man has elite level athleticism, evidenced by his 9.86 RAS score at the Combine.
Diaby stands a shade over 6'3" and checks in at a ripped 263 lbs. He ran an insane 4.51 forty, recorded a 37" vertical, and 120" broad jump. Impressive speed and explosiveness, no doubt. His game film reveals an extremely raw prospect. Diaby is a powerful defender, blessed with a strong base and a powerful punch. His large hands and optimal wingspan allows him to effectively engage and disengage from blockers.
Although Diaby is blessed with elite athletic attributes, he remains fundamentally raw, both against the run and as a pass rusher. Diaby reminds me of a young Bud Dupree, more raw athletic potential than proven production. Diaby would be a great value pick for the Steelers in the fourth round or later. He would be able to learn from the vast pass rush portfolio of both Watt and Highsmith.
Diaby and Highsmith share plenty of similarities actually. Diaby was unranked as a prospect in the 2017 class, mainly due to his extremely thin frame. Like Highsmith, Diaby has shown the impressive work ethic and commitment to his craft necessary to build his body to NFL prospect proportions. As a prospect, Diaby has shown steady improvement throughout his collegiate career, and his potential is still trending upwards.
As a rookie, Diaby needs to be brought along slowly, mainly utilized as a situational pass rusher and special teams dynamo. With some hands on training from his impressive tandem of mentors, some solid coaching, and a little more experience, Diaby could be a solid NFL starter one day in the near future. Talk about finding some buried treasure.