When Michigan and Washington get together Monday night to crown a college football champion, so will NFL front offices nationwide to watch their potential next top draft pick in action.
This game contrasts two styles; Washington’s high-flying aerial attack going up against Michigan’s dominant pass-rush. Whichever prevails could go a long way in determining draft position come this April.
Here are five players that would fit the Steelers to keep a close eye on.
5. DT Kris Jenkins - Michigan
Steelers General Manager Omar Khan went to the Big 10 well last year and selected DT Keeanu Benton out of Wisconsin in the second round of the 2023 NFL draft. Benton exceeded expectations, as Pro Football Focus recently ranked him in their top 15 rookies this season.
The Steelers have an aging D-line however, with the likes of Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi on the backends of their careers, so adding additional help up front would be beneficial.
Jenkins is more of a two-down run-stuffer, but he’s one of the best in the country at his position. He was a driving force behind Michigan’s semi-final win over Alabama.
4. OT Troy Fautanu - Washington
This 6’4, 320 lb. Huskies’ mauler will be tasked with containing the aforementioned Jenkins. That matchup is one to circle, as both are projected mid-late first-round picks.
Fautanu made 15 starts at left tackle this season for Washington. He’s an explosive pass-blocker with NFL length and a tone-setting demeanor. He also has plenty of experience in a zone-rush attack system, which the Steelers have often used as of late.
Pittsburgh has an obvious need at tackle, as finding a compliment for last year’s top selection, Broderick Jones, is critical.
Look at the push generated here by Washington LT Troy Fautanu (55). Key conversion on 4th down.— Justin M (@JustinM_NFL) January 2, 2024
One of the best OL prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft, even if a move to G is in his future. pic.twitter.com/HKYZQaKCrm
3. WR Rome Odunze - Washington
No offense to Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. - but Odunze should have won the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top wideout. Odunze hauled in 87 passes for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Huskies this season. In contrast, Harrison had 67 catches for 1,211 yards and 14 scores. You really can’t go wrong with either — I can see a scenario where both players are top 15 selections in the NFL draft.
Odunze is a silky-smooth route runner, and he reminds me of another former Ohio State wideout - the New Orleans Saints’ Chris Olave. Olave was selected at pick 11 in 2022 and has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career.
The word that best describes Odunze is polished. From day one he will be both a reliable option and a leader. That’s not always something you can often find in a 22-year-old.
And here’s a nugget that Steelers fans would love; he can also block. Odunze is not afraid to get dirty and has bits and pieces of former Steelers WR Hines Ward to his game.
Rome Odunze moving a DB to the bench pic.twitter.com/mJnyopahTo— James Foster (@NoFlagsFilm) January 2, 2024
2. QB J.J. McCarthy - Michigan
We’ve reached the point of the story where it’s time to stir the pot. This game will feature signal-callers on both sides who project as first-round picks. The biggest question surrounding the Steelers this offseason is — what do you do with QB Kenny Pickett? Could the guy who was selected in 2022 to be the face of the franchise be ousted after just two seasons?
McCarthy is a true dual-threat QB, which is desired in today’s NFL. In three seasons as a Wolverine, McCarthy has scampered for 601 yards and 10 TDs. But it’s his accuracy that really will appeal to QB-needy teams, such as the Steelers. He completed 73.2% of his passes this season, which is third in the FBS.
The biggest question surrounding McCarthy isn’t about his skillset, it’s if he’ll declare. He’s only a Junior and could try and improve his stock for one more season.
1. QB Michael Penix Jr. - Washington
Penix Jr. put on an absolute clinic against the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl, completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards and two TDs. Watching Penix Jr. is like watching a beautiful rom-com. His pinpoint throws are poetry in motion, and it’s unquestioned that his accuracy is unmatched. I like to call him the Steve Nash of college football because he’s constantly dropping dimes.
The best throws from Michael Penix Jr. in the Sugar Bowl. A complete maestro of precision with laser-focused accuracy. The last one shows his elite chemistry with Rome Odunze as the DB had no idea the catch was made. pic.twitter.com/WRSrbrPbxz— Kyle Lindemann (@LuckIsMadeFF) January 2, 2024
The biggest knock on Penix Jr. entering the 2024 NFL draft is his injury history. The former Indiana QB suffered four season-ending injuries throughout his time in college athletics. He also is an older prospect, as he turns 24 in May.
Another big question is how will he hold up against a dominant pass-rush.
Fortunately for us, we get the benefit of having that question answered in this game.