With training camp right around the corner, most Pittsburgh Steelers fans are eagerly anticipating seeing their team back in action on the fields of Saint Vincent College very soon. While we wait expectantly, I thought it might behoove the Pittsburgh fanbase to highlight some of the key names in college football to keep an eye on this season. After all, few franchises have adhered to the “build through the draft” mantra quite like the Steelers, a mindset the front office will undoubtedly stick to heading into next offseason.
While our focus will obviously be on Pittsburgh’s 2015 campaign, hopefully this list can serve as a helpful reference when your fall sports addiction has to be appeased by Saturday college football. I’ve identified many of the top draft eligible players at each offensive position group, but more names will surely be added to each list as the season progresses. The players are not listed in any specific order, although I’ll identify those I think are premier prospects in my comments preceding the positional list.
In what appears to be one of the more exciting classes since the Luck-Wilson-Griffin bonanza in 2012, the 2016 class or quarterbacks doesn’t offer any clear-cut elite talents, but there are several prospects that could play their way into contention to be a top 10 pick.
Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg may be the most recognizable names, but both have plenty to work on before they ascend to the NFL. Cook’s deep ball and arm strength are attractive to scouts, but his struggles with accuracy and ball placement are concerning. How Cook handles pocket pressure and improves his release point this season will go a long way toward determining his draft stock in the spring.
Hackenberg’s biggest battle may be playing in James Franklin’s system, which many believe is hindering his ability to develop into an NFL quarterback. There is a host of alluring tools in Hackenberg’s repertoire, but cutting down on mistakes and improving his accuracy will be the focus for 2015.
There are several other enticing names on the list, including Jared Goff, Cardale Jones, Gunner Kiel, Cody Kessler, Trevone Boykin, and a personal favorite, Carson Wentz. You may not hear a lot about Wentz as he stars at quarterback for perennial FCS champion North Dakota State, but the well-built signal caller has a live arm and tremendous poise in the pocket. Depending on his 2015 season, he could be in the conversation for the #1 quarterback spot on my board next spring.
Could 2016 be the year Pittsburgh searches for Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement? If the juniors declare, it could be a deep and intriguing class with plenty of promise even in the middle rounds.
1. Connor Cook, RS Senior, Michigan State
2. Carson Wentz, RS Senior, North Dakota State
3. Cody Kessler, RS Senior, USC
4. Trevone Boykin, RS Senior, TCU
5. Everett Golson, RS Senior, Florida State
6. Jacoby Brissett, RS Senior, N.C. State
7. Dak Prescott, RS Senior, Mississippi State
8. Cardale Jones, RS Junior, Ohio State
9. Gunner Kiel, RS Junior, Cincinnati
10. Jared Goff, Junior, California
11. Christian Hackenberg, Junior, Penn State
12. J.T. Barrett, RS Sophomore, Ohio State
The attractiveness of the 2016 running back class is going to depend largely on how many underclassmen declare. Devontae Booker is the only senior who I’ve found to be a possible top-tier prospect, but he’ll be a 24 year-old rookie next season.
Amongst the juniors, Ezekiel Elliot is a bonafide first round talent, while Derrick Henry and James Conner should receive some mid-round attention. I’m not as high on the plodding Henry as many, but Conner’s power game could translate well to the NFL.
The rest of the group will have their work cut out for them to prove they can be more than just role players in the NFL. A change-of-pace back could be a possible late round target for the Steelers next season, but much of that will depend on the progress of Dri Archer and possibly Josh Harris this year.
1. Devontae Booker, RS Senior, Utah
2. Jonathan Williams, Senior, Arkansas
3. Kenneth Dixon, Senior, LSU
4. Aaron Green, RS Senior, TCU
5. Storm Woods, RS Senior, Oregon State
6. Byron Marshall, Senior, Oregon
7. Ezekiel Elliot, Junior, Ohio State
8. Derrick Henry, Junior, Alabama
9. James Conner, Junior, Pittsburgh
10. Aaron Jones, Junior, UTEP
11. Shock Linwood, Junior, Baylor
12. Corey Clement, Junior, Wisconsin
The senior group isn’t particularly deep, but the underclassmen boast a bevy of promising young stars, led by Laquon Treadwell and Tyler Boyd. Treadwell is attempting to bounce back from a broken leg last year, but many are already saying he could be the #1 receiver in the country. Given his well-muscled frame and exceptional athleticism, it is easy to see why.
Boyd will have to overcome some recent off the field issues, but he’s a dynamic route runner with the quickness to separate at all levels of the field. Sure-handed and tough, Boyd may need to pack on some additional muscle before he’s ready for the rigors of the NFL.
Duke Williams and Josh Doctson highlight the senior group, and both pass catchers have plenty of talent. Doctson has a lanky frame, but some serious ball skills to highpoint passes despite tight coverage. Williams has to improve his hands, but the size, speed, and strength are there to be a future NFL #1 receiver.
There are a plethora of other names that will pique interest as well, such as underclassmen Mike Williams and Pharoh Cooper, as well as seniors Leonte Carroo and Tajae Sharpe. Following in the trend of the past several years, there will be no shortage of options at receiver in next year’s draft. The Steelers are fairly loaded at the position, but few teams stockpile and develop receivers through the draft better than Pittsburgh.
1. D’haquille “Duke’ Williams, Senior, Auburn
2. Josh Doctson, RS Senior, TCU
3. Leonte Carroo, Senior, Rutgers
4. Tajae Sharpe, Senior, UMASS
5. Sterling Shepard, Senior, Oklahoma
6. D.J. Foster, Senior, Arizona State
7. Laquon Treadwell, Junior, Mississippi
8. Tyler Boyd, Junior, Pittsburgh
9. Mike Williams, Junior, Clemson
10. Michael Thomas, RS Junior, Ohio State
11. Pharoh Cooper, Junior, South Carolina
12. Marquez North, Junior, Tennessee
We could be headed for another rough tight end class in 2016, as no senior has stepped up as a clear #1 option going into the 2015 season. Jake Duzey, Nick Vannett, and Steven Scheu have all shown flashes, but none of the trio look like anything more than a solid mid-round option at this point.
The junior class once again could carry the weight here, as Evan Engram and Hunter Henry highlight an interesting list of underclassmen. Engram is light for the position at just under 230 pounds, so it remains to be seen if he could handle an in-line role in the NFL. Henry is more of a traditional tight end at 6’5, 250, but is well-rounded in his ability to handle blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage or be flexed wide to create mismatches.
Expect scouts to be on the lookout for impact tight ends during the 2015 season, as the NFL has been struggling to find playmakers at the position throughout the past few drafts. The Steelers acquisition of Jesse James could eliminate their tight end interest next year, but that may very well depend on Heath Miller’s status after the season.
1. Jake Duzey, RS Senior, Iowa
2. Nick Vannett, RS Senior, Ohio State
3. Steven Scheu, RS Senior, Vanderbilt
4. Kyle Carter, RS Senior, Penn State
5. O.J. Howard, Junior, Alabama
6. Evan Engram, Junior, Mississippi
7. Hunter Henry, Junior, Arkansas
8. Austin Hooper, Junior, Stanford
9. Jonnu Smith, Junior, Florida International
10. Bucky Hodges, RS Sophomore, Virginia Tech
There is some premium talent amongst this group if the underclassmen declare, as junior offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley are both probable top ten picks. I don’t say this lightly, but Tunsil may be the most talented offensive tackle I’ve ever scouted, and Stanley isn’t far behind. Balance, length, power, and a strong base are common themes among both linemen, but Tunsil’s feet possess rare quickness to reject rushers off the edge. Several other talented juniors could receive early round consideration as well in Germain Ifedi, Jack Conklin, and Zach Banner.
The seniors have some very interesting project pieces, as Taylor Decker and Le’Raven Clark both possess the length and size to be starting left tackles. Technique and tenacity are question marks for Decker, who needs to work harder to seal off the edge and generate more power in his punch. Clark’s footwork can be messy at times, and he may be best suited for the right side in the NFL. Tyler Johnstone might also be a right tackle in the NFL, but he has the quickness and athleticism to be a great zone-blocking scheme fit if he can add some muscle.
The interior offensive linemen are a deep group, especially if Cody Whitehair, Spencer Drango, Vadal Alexander, Tyler Marz, and Brandon Shell all play guard at the next level as expected. Nick Martin and junior Greg Pyke are two other names to watch, while Max Tuerk appears to be the cream of a shallow center crop.
Many believe (myself included) that offensive tackle will be where Pittsburgh looks to make a mark on the first or second day of the draft next year. Obviously it is early and the depth of the class is not yet set in stone, but the Steelers would be wise to consider an early-round investment at the position next spring.
1. Taylor Decker, Senior, Ohio State
2. Tyler Johnstone, RS Senior, Oregon
3. Le’Raven Clark, RS Senior, Texas Tech
4. Joe Haeg, RS Senior, North Dakota State
5. Kyle Murphy, Senior, Stanford
6. Jason Spriggs, Senior, Indiana
7. Laremy Tunsil, Junior, Mississippi
8. Ronnie Stanley, RS Junior, Notre Dame
9. Germain Ifedi, RS Junior, Texas A&M
10. Jack Conklin, RS Junior, Michigan State
11. Zach Banner, RS Junior, USC
12. Dan Skipper, Junior, Arkansas
Interior Offensive Line
1. Cody Whitehair, RS Senior, Kansas State
2. Vadal Alexander, Senior, LSU
3. Spencer Drango, RS Senior, Baylor
4. Nick Martin, RS Senior, Notre Dame
5. Max Tuerk, Senior, USC
6. Joshua Garnett, Senior, Stanford
7. Brandon Shell, RS Senior, South Carolina
8. Tyler Marz, RS Senior, Wisconsin
9. Christian Westerman, RS Senior, Arizona State
10. Jordan Rigsbee, RS Senior, California
11. Greg Pyke, RS Junior, Georgia
12. Pat Elflein, RS Junior, Ohio State