For one of our final looks at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 NFL Draft class, we’ll go through a best and worst case scenario with each draft pick. Lighter side of the review process and as a preface, this is all just hypothetical and for fun.
It’s interesting look at what I wrote about last year’s class so if you’re interested, here’s the link.
Round One – Bud Dupree
Best Case: Dupree’s work as a stand-up outside linebacker is a huge advantage and he quickly takes after the coaching of Joey Porter, the first true outside linebacker coach he’s ever had. The two chest bump after Dupree’s first regular season sack, which comes in Week One against the New England Patriots. The Thursday night crew gets a perfect slow-motion shot at it.
He still takes some rookie lumps but as the season goes on, eats more and more into Arthur Moats’ playing time. By the home stretch, Dupree isn’t technically the starter but is a slight majority of snaps and dominating third down reps.
In addition to getting after the quarterback, his adeptness into dropping in coverage shines and Dupree picks off two passes, including one to seal a Week 14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
His final rookie stat line? Six sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble.
Entering year two, there’s no question Dupree is the starting outside linebacker. A year spent in the NFL system, one that stresses the importance of playing the run, has also done wonders for him and the liabilities he occasionally showed in 2014 have been fixed by year two. He easily plays the majority of the snaps and finishes the year with 12 sacks, becoming the first Steeler to hit the double-digit plateau since 2010, if you can believe it.
Dupree is as advertised. He can rush, set the edge, and drop into coverage. Bob Costas does a sit-down interview with him, exclaiming how “perfect” him falling to Pittsburgh was for him. We all…roll our eyes.
He’s with the team for the next ten years, making several Pro Bowls in the process. He finishes with 62 career sacks, third place in franchise history and one spot ahead of the man who first molded him – Joey Porter.
Worst Case: Coming into camp, he sure looks the part. Big and strong. He walks down the St. Vincent steps with Dri Archer one day. I try to make a joke about it on Twitter. It is not as funny as I think it is.
Moving on. Unfortunately, despite looking the part, he doesn’t play like it. Similar to Jarvis Jones, but more surprisingly so, Dupree is easily moved against the run. No longer the best athlete on the field, the game doesn’t come as easily to him and it quickly becomes a source of frustration. Messes with him mentally and only compounds the problem. Consequently, the team struggles to justify getting him onto the field in 2015, especially with the trustworthy Moats ahead of him.
Things get better but only marginally so into his career. He is ok, but not great, against the run. Some bend around the edge but nothing at a remarkable level. Overall, Dupree doesn’t get to the quarterback as often as they need him to.
He earns comparisons to a more well-built version Barkevious Mingo. Used for coverage purposes but not a player who can hold his own against the run or be an effective pass rusher. Dupree plays out his rookie contract, the team declining his fifth year option, and he moves on from Pittsburgh after that fourth year. Finishes his time in Pittsburgh with 11 sacks.
Round Two – Senquez Golson
Best Case: This one is for all the little guys. The last time anyone remembers how short he is is on draft day. He plays bigger than his measurables and his vertical is significantly better than the 33.5 inches he turned in at the Combine. He plays big and is fearless, very similar to Antwon Blake.
What separates him is his playmaking ability. And Steelers’ fans don’t have to wait very long to find that out. In Week Two against the San Francisco 49ers, Golson outmuscles veteran Anquan Boldin downfield for his first interception. Even Boldin can’t help but smirk as he jogs back to the sidelines. He’s mic’d up that week and his teammates get on his case about losing out to the diminutive rookie.
Plays like that is what gets him onto the field early in his career. In a weird way, Cortez Allen’s continued struggles are the best news for Golson, opening the door for consistent playing time. Mid-way through the season, Golson becomes the nickel corner following Allen’s benching, playing on the outside opposite Blake while William Gay slides into the slot.
His advanced football IQ cuts down, though doesn’t eliminate, the rookie learning curve. He gets burned occasionally, guessing wrong early in his career the way Troy Polamalu did, including allowing an 80 yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton on the first play against the Indianapolis Colts.
But the big plays are enough to justify the occasional blip. He finishes the year with a whopping five interceptions, the most from a Steelers’ rookie since Darren Perry’s six in 1992. He isn’t all flash either, offering a lot in run support while being the big hitter he showed to be at Mississippi.
Following Cortez Allen’s release in 2016, Golson firmly becomes the starter and sees continued success. A section of Steelers’ fans upstart the “Golson Guild,” dressing up like The Munchkins in a playful, supportive homage to him. Or something like that. I’m not particularly creative.
He doesn’t reach the shutdown level of Ike Taylor, his height always limiting him, but he’s a borderline number one cornerback and first true playmaker at the position in quite some time. Golson finishes his seven year career with 25 interceptions, just outside of the top ten in team history.
Worst Case: He becomes a valuable gunner and makes a great tandem with Blake in 2015. Two sturdy 5’9 dudes blasting return men. Fire hydrants with knee pads.
But playing time on defense is difficult to come by. He’s the #4 cornerback, a spot that rarely seems time on defense. Cut from a similar cloth as Blake but lacking the experience, he’s stuck behind him for the season. Ultimately, he has more inches than defensive snaps – 68 to 47 – in year one.
Worse yet for Golson, Cortez Allen rebounds nicely into the player the team expected him to become, one justifying the long-term contract. Gay and Allen, and Blake are back for 2016 and Golson is stuck in a similar role, unable to nudge anyone off their spot.
As the loud, Bagel-Bite crammin’ voice of bloggers like me wonder aloud about his future, Golson finally gets a crack at serious playing time in 2017. But it isn’t successful and as feared, he is repeatedly picked on. Much like Blake, Golson can’t hang in the red zone. Jimmy Garoppolo, who made Tom Brady expendable following DeflateGate, throws two red zone touchdowns over Golson’s head in a Week 12 game that is broadcast nationally.
He’s a reliable tackler, and feisty as heck, but it’s hard to keep his confidence at a position that demands it. Meanwhile, Doran Grant is having a successful career in Pittsburgh, leading fans to wonder if their selections should have been reversed.
Golson is unable to salvage his career in Pittsburgh by the time his rookie contract is up. He bounces around the league for another season before falling out, ending his career with just ten starts and three interceptions.
Round Three – Sammie Coates
Best Case: This home run threat is a home run pick. Entering Latrobe in 2015, it’s difficult to imagine him finding playing time in a star-studded offense, but his routinely sensational plays in camp make it impossible to hold him off it.
In Heath Miller’s aging – and ultimately – final season, the Steelers opt to run more 10 personnel to get Coates on the field. He’s treated as a big tight end, and even throws a few crackback blocks that somewhere, make Hines Ward beam. Fun fact: Every time Ward smiles, a Heinz ketchup bottle is filled up.
Similar to Martavis Bryant, he’s a vertical threat and with two of those players on the field, defenses simply don’t have the personnel to counter. He helps the Steelers’ become a top five offense in points and yards for just the second time since the merger.
In year one, Coates averages 19.8 yards per catch and scores four times. Three of those are from at least 30 yards out.
With the year to focus on the game, his football IQ spikes, and he becomes a player who can be used all over the field without hesitation. He begins to phase out Markus Wheaton and makes him expendable prior to the 2017 season.
Bryant, Brown, and Coates – affectionately referred to the “Law Firm” – became a feared duo for several years. The three all have strong work ethics, pushing each other, and keep defensive coordinators sleepless for years.
His style and the vast array of weapons in the offense never leaves him to put up gaudy reception or yardage numbers, but it doesn’t change the major threat he is to defenses and the major asset to this offense.
Coates ends his eight year career with 47 touchdowns, making two Pro Bowls.
Worst Case: Even Coates’ limited playing time early in his career can’t mask the facts he has bad hands. Call them bad, call them inconsistent, a lack of focus or reps, no matter how you slice it, drops are drops and won’t get you on the field.
Like Bryant’s training camp, Coates makes two bad plays for every good ones. Unlike for Coates, Bryant had the luxury of playing on a team with the third-grade thin Lance Moore and the tectonic-plate slow Justin Brown. Coates has to leap over much better talent and can’t in his rookie year. He rarely plays and without any discernible special teams value, often finds himself curling near the industrial heaters on the sideline.
He finishes 2015 with 11 catches.
The team, searching for ways to get him involved, give him a chance to see some return work. But he is a big body and that lends himself to some violent, open collisions. In the fourth preseason game of the 2016 season, Coates tears his left MCL on a kick return, costing him half the season.
Knee injuries for any player is concerning, especially one who needs the speed to win vertically. He isn’t the same player the rest of the year, undergoes another cleanup surgery in the offseason, and deals with scar tissue problems the rest of his life that he just can’t shake.
No longer the vertical threat, and never the horizontal threat, coupled with the ascension of Bryant and Wheaton, the team begins to phase him out. Through three seasons, Coates has just 40 catches to his name and only two touchdowns. Wheaton and Bryant both get long-term deals, shutting the door on Coates ever seeing serious playing time.
With new competition being brought in every season, the Steelers have used at least a fourth round pick on a wide receiver an incredible seven times since 2005, Coates is having a hard time breaking with the team. Back end of the roster receivers tend to have that problem, fighting for their lives. Without that special teams ability, Coates is cut in the training camp of the 2018 season.
He spends another three years in the league with marginal success, but never catches more than 30 passes in a season.
Round Four – Doran Grant
Best Case: Steelers fans have found themselves the next William Gay. Conveniently, in the nick of time as Gay only spends two more years with the team before retiring.
Stepping back to 2015, Grant begins as a special teams demon. His gunner skillset, 4.44 speed and reliable tackling, makes him a wonderful compliment to Antwon Blake. The rookie corner makes a key play in the team’s Week nine victory over the Oakland Raiders, forcing a fumble on punt coverage that leads to the Steelers’ go-ahead touchdown.
And as unfairly as it may seem, the NFL is a business, and Grant’s promise makes Blake expendable following the season, the team letting the undersized corner hit free agency. Grant’s size does make him a more appealing option on the outside, anyway. By the third year, the former Buckeye is anointed a starter.
He’s never regarded as an all-star and much like Gay, is never a clear, number one corner, but a reliable option the team can depend upon for several years.
Grant finishes his seven year career with eight interceptions and six forced fumbles, sixth most by a defensive back in team history.
Worst Case: It’s difficult to find a role for Grant his rookie year. He starts the season as the #5 CB, already on the outside looking in. Blake, Golson, Robert Golden, Will Allen, and Ross Ventrone all wear special teams hats and more often than not, Grant finds himself inactive the first half of the season.
The typical seasonal injuries do offer him more playing time as the season progresses but his overall impact is minimal in 2015.
Worse yet, Keith Butler is pushing for more man coverage looks. Zone is still common, sure, but the scheme slowly gets tweaked. Man coverage isn’t Grant’s strong suit. He’s a Cover 3, react and hit type of player. In training camp and the preseason, he’s exposed, and gives up three touchdowns in the four 2016 preseason games.
The team has soured on him and with Antwon Blake back, Cortez Allen doing reasonably well, and Senquez Golson showing why he was worth a second round pick, start to move on without Grant in the fold. Like wide receiver, there’s always new cornerbacks being brought in. Grant makes the roster in 2017. Barely. He’s inactive for 10 of the 16 games, and when he is up, serves the B.W. Webb role as the player you sort of forget still exists.
By 2018, Grant is squarely on the bubble and misses the final cuts. He enjoys moderate success on special teams elsewhere, spending two seasons with the New York Giants, before falling out of the league.
For his Steelers’ career, he is merely an afterthought, failing to ever record an interception and never making an official start.
Round Five – Jesse James
Best Case: He easily makes the 53 man roster out of camp in 2015, spiraling Rob Blanchflower back to the practice squad. His rookie year as quiet, sitting behind Miller and Matt Spaeth. He sees just 50 snaps on offense, mostly on the goalline, but catches two touchdowns. One off playaction in the right flat agaist the St. Louis Rams and another, split out wide and leaping over Tharold Simon versus the Seattle Seahawks several weeks later.
It’s hidden value but he becomes a fine blocker on kick returns, allowing Archer to break some big returns. Danny Smith adores him for that.
With that all-important first year out of the way, James has caught up to the NFL atmosphere. He’s improved as a run blocker and his athleticism trumps Spaeth, making him the number two tight end in 2016. The Steelers’ 12 personnel sets become more effective than in the past, not allowing defenses to so comfortably crowd the box.
James goes on to have the most productive season of any tight end not named Heath Miller since Mark Bruener in freakin’ 1998, as the second-year receiver catches 20 passes and two touchdowns.
Miller retires following the season and James is the next man up for the spot. He never matches 83’s level of production or ability, then again, who could, but is used in a similar way. A dependable blocker who holds his own as a receiver. Even in the NFL, it’s difficult for in-line tight ends to garner a lot of looks in the open offenses that exist. So it isn’t all James’ fault.
James spends the next four years as the team’s starting tight end as an adequate number one, though there’s always that section of fans wondering if he’s best suited as a #2.
Worst Case: James is still young. He’s supposed to be a senior in college. I swear, every Steelers’ position coach announces that. Is there a sign in the team facility to remind everybody?
Blanchflower gives James all he can handle in camp and the former 7th rounder makes the 53 man roster out of camp. It isn’t until mid-way through the season, with Blanchflower underperforming as a blocker and James starting to pick up the nuances of the playbook, that James is brought up to the roster.
He serves as a starter on the return unit and the occasional snap as a goal line tight end. The Michael Palmer role. Big city dreams.
James finishes the season with three receptions, including a touchdown. But he winds up going the Derek Moye route than ascending into a future starter. Miller and Spaeth hang around for 2016, again leaving James as the #3 tight end.
Both are gone after the season but without much of a resume, James is just another body in the mix. The Steelers invest high on a TE in the 2017 and James is forced to settle into the top backup role.
A good blocker but not much more, he exists in an offense that doesn’t get its backup tight end involved in the passing game. Ultimately, he turns out to be a little better receiver than Spaeth, a little worse as a blocker. He only finishes with more than 20 catches once in his career and never has more than two touchdowns in any of the five seasons with the team.
Round Six – L.T. Walton
Best Case: Though he’s perhaps the biggest unknown of the Steelers’ 2015 draft class, he makes his way onto the 53 man roster, something Jesse James, Anthony Chickillo nor Gerod Holliman do. After all, there are likely two open spots along the defensive line and Walton beats out Cam Thomas for the sixth spot.
His rookie season is quiet and more often than not, Walton is inactive.
Learning under John Mitchell proves incredibly valuable and no coach is better to mold a lineman making the transition from an even to an odd front.
Playing behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt is not a good way to see job growth. On the plus side, there are few obstacles in the way in becoming the third defensive end and by 2016, Walton is right in the mix. He wins the job, backing up each, and his motor reminds fans of a young Brett Keisel.
2018 is his best season, seeing serious playing time after Heyward rolls an ankle, and Walton parlays that into three sacks and a forced fumble. Of course, he relinquishes his job the second doctors deem Heyward healthy but Walton is a nice bit-piece on a defense that requires one.
However, coming off that best season, Walton decides to test free agency in the hopes of a starting gig. Fickle world the NFL is.
Still, three quality seasons out of a sixth round pick, not counting his inactive rookie year? Makes him a “hit” in Kevin Colbert’s book. Mine too.
Worst Case: A small school kid learning an entirely new system on an entirely new level? It’s teaching Chinese to your goldfish. Walton’s head is, swimming (get it?), and he stands no chance at making the 53 man roster. He lives on the practice squad for a year.
Two of the worst things happen for Walton leading into the 2016 campaign.
- Cam Thomas is still pretty terrible. Fed up and realizing the need for a rotational defensive end, the Steelers bring in a moderately paid free agent and draft another end prospect.
- John Mitchell retires, forcing Walton to adjust to a new coach. And arguably lose the best coach he had in teaching him a new position.
At the start of camp, Walton is no higher than the seventh defensive lineman on the roster, putting him on the outside looking in. Without much wiggle room, he is again stuck on the practice squad for a season. By this point, he’s become an afterthought. For late round players, they usually have to impress early. Window of opportunity is small and with there always being new additions on the roster, it’s difficult to stick out if you’ve contributed next to nothing in two seasons.
Walton attends camp in 2017 but is a fairly easy cut, never threatening to make the roster. He wounds up latching onto a 4-3 team, even sitting on the Minnesota Vikings’ 53 man roster for a couple of weeks, but never plays a snap in the league.
That’s actually not uncommon for Steelers’ draft picks. At least, when it comes to playing with Pittsburgh. From 2006 to 2012, I’m giving some of the recent selections a pass (i.e. Jordan Zumwalt), four of the team’s seven picks never saw a snap in a Steelers’ uniform: Marvin Philip, Mike Humpal, Sunny Harris, and Keith Williams.
Round Six – Anthony Chickillo
Best Case: Sure, the transition from playing a 3-4 end to outside linebacker isn’t going to be easy. It’s like a bucket of water and oil. If that bucket had to learn to drop into hook zones.
But that’s not how Chickillo is going to earn a helmet in 2015 no matter what. It’s through special teams, something the rookie is a demon at. A big guy who can move running down kicks and punts is fun for the Steelers, less so for opponents. Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, and Chickillo make up a fearsome trio.
This dude doesn’t quit. No play exemplifies that more when, with an angle, he runs the Kansas City Chiefs’ kick returner De’Anthony Thomas out of bounds at midfield on a kick return. He reminds fans of Clint Kriedwalt or a little more recently, Patrick Bailey. Someone makes a Chidi Iwuoma reference. I’m beaming.
Porter is a great coach for him. He’s young, can relate, and dealt with a similar conversion. You can see it in camp, the never-quitting Chickillo working before and after practice with his coach on turns and drops.
Jarvis Jones flops in 2015 and James Harrison finally hangs it up for good, leaving the door wide open at right outside linebacker. Chickillo doesn’t win it, the Steelers spend a Day two pick on the position in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he sees an occasional look.
What the team uses him more often as is a hand in the dirt, a sub-package defensive tackle playing the three tech. No coverage, no playing with his hand up. It’s getting him to move forward and do what’s natural, while solving some of the backup defensive end issues the team is facing.
It’s a move that works out well. Chickillo never sets the world ablaze, his snap count is too limited for that, but he offers a mix of two-gapping and pass rushing. He gives the Steelers six quality seasons and though his sack totals aren’t gaudy, only seven to his name, he’s remembered for the havoc he created on the interior along with his special team prowess.
Worst Case: He couldn’t have ended up in a possibly worse situation. Even though the Steelers stay true to their word and don’t worry about coverage much with him, it’s still a difficult transition. He struggles balancing losing weight while keeping muscle. And since he’s considered an outside linebacker on a team that already securely has nine, his chances of making the roster are slim. He is cut and then re-signed to the practice squad for most of the season, only getting called up once and even then, spending time on the inactive list.
The preseason of 2016 shows some promising results with Chickillo doing well on special teams. He manages to run through perennial backups but without a true position and a gluttony of linebackers, he’s always stuck trying to find a way to wiggle onto the roster. A 2016 draft pick makes the roster over him and again, it’s back to the practice squad. This time, he doesn’t make it through waivers, and the 4-3 minded Detroit Lions scoop him up.
Probably the best thing that could have happened to Chickillo but it’s still a Steelers’ selection that yields zero benefit.
Round Seven – Gerod Holliman
Best Case: With the team not making any other notable moves following Polamalu’s retirement, the number five safety job is open. Without contact being as much of a focus, Holliman is a standout star in training camp, leading the team in interceptions.
The same carries over to the preseason, the former Louisville standout making quick work of backup quarterbacks trying to adjust to the NFL. He finishes the preseason with three interceptions. Fearing he’d be one of the few who wouldn’t clear waivers, the Steelers stash him on the 53 and he sees spot work on special teams.
Another year removed from the torn labrum he suffered his freshman year at Louisville, Holliman is a little more comfortable and competent tackler. It’s not great, it never is, but serviceable enough that Keith Butler won’t swear up a storm.
Mike Mitchell lasts just one more year with the team, released before the 2016 season. Holliman becomes the starter for 2016, showing off good ball skills as a center fielder. He finishes the year with four interceptions, the first Steeler outside of Polamalu since Brent Alexander in 2003. Chris Hope never did it while wearing a Pittsburgh jersey. Seriously, go look it up. I know, I thought he did, too.
Still, he’s a limited athlete and just average tackler. The Steelers want more out of the position, a complete safety, and spend a first rounder one a premier prospect from a Power 5 school. But a 16 game starter from a 7th round pick? He’s the first 7th round defensive pick to start at least one game since Keisel’s selection in 2002.
Better than what I thought Holliman would ever amount to. I’m reminded of that on Twitter for the next 15 years.
Worst Case: Holliman does produce splash plays in practice but on the field, his lack of athleticism and tendency to shy away from contacts causes opposing runners to dodge away from him. The way I dodge the insults about my opinion of him.
Still, the team sees some promise and recognizes this was only a one-year starter who can hopefully grow. There’s no question he makes the practice squad and lives out his rookie year on the ten man squad.
Not much has changed by 2016 and Holliman’s still the same player he was billed as coming out. Sure, he takes advantage of QB/WR miscommunication and the general sloppiness of the preseason with some tasty interceptions but his game is more bark than bite.
When it comes down to it, poor athletes and even worse tacklers don’t do well as the last line of defense. He’s released before the ’16 season begins, spending the next two years with two different teams before fading off into the night.