New article series going up every Saturday morning for the rest of the season, taking a look at three college football prospects the Pittsburgh Steelers could and should examine at length this spring. Obviously a lot will change between then and now, so this analysis is based on where the current roster stands, with the occasional peak at where they might be after this upcoming offseason.
Player: Jeremy Cash
School: Duke Blue Devils
Class: RS Senior
Analysis: Unless free agency plays a bigger part in Pittsburgh’s free agency plans than it typically does, expect strong safety to be one of the primary focuses in the draft for the Steelers front office. Cash might be the best strong safety in the nation right now, thanks to his incredible instincts and physicality around the line of scrimmage. Duke uses him as basically a faux-linebacker because of his size and intensity in the box. Cash almost single-handedly destroyed Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense this season, living in the backfield thanks to his exceptional anticipation and awareness.
One of the things I like most about Cash is his controlled aggressiveness. He almost never takes false steps or falls for fakes, instead keeping his wits, tracking the ball with outstanding vision, and making sure stops. Cash’s playing style is very aggressive, but he breaks down well at the ball carrier, rarely missing tackles. His length and strength help him in this regard, giving him a marvelous tackle radius to ensure tackles on more elusive ball carriers. Few players are as smart as Cash, who plays with an intelligence that will carry directly over to the NFL. I swear he knew the snap count on nearly every play against the Yellow Jackets.
My concern with Cash is that he almost never plays on the back end with deep safety responsibilities. He’s basically an in-the-box safety who will kick out to the slot on occasion. I doubt many NFL teams ask him to do the latter with regularity except perhaps to cover tight ends, as Cash isn’t the greatest athlete. He’ll struggle in man coverage due to his labored change-of-direction and limited lateral agility. Cash’s game reminds me some of Kam Chancellor or Deon Bucannon, but I don’t think he’s the athlete those two are. If the Steelers pick on the back end of the first round, I’m confident Cash will still be available, but I wouldn’t be shocked if a so-so combine bumps him into the draft’s second day.
In today’s NFL, defensive coordinators are always searching for pieces that can help eliminate mismatches. Cash has tons of value in that regard, as he can match up with most tight ends down the field, and be a dominant force against the run. He not be the sexiest pick, but whoever lands Cash will be getting one heck of a football player.
Player: Cody Whitehair
School: Kansas State
Class: RS Senior
Analysis: A technician with solid movements skills, Whitehair currently mans the left tackle spot for the Wildcats. He likely doesn’t have the length or the footwork to play on the outside in the NFL, so a move to guard seems probable. What I like the most about Whitehair is that he rarely lunges or gets overextended in pass protection. Keeps an upright frame, stout base, waits for the rusher to come to him, then stuns the defender with a well-located punch to the chest plate. He’s textbook as a blocker, both in the run game and the passing game.
Whitehair can hit second level blocks and understands how to angle and seal defenders off. For a guy who isn’t a mauler at the point of attack, that is an excellent trait to have. Not every lineman has to knock defenders out of their cleats, just understand how to set up to keep them out of the play. Whitehair’s awareness and football IQ is top notch.
Pittsburgh loves versatile offensive linemen who win from the neck up, which describes Whitehair exactly. He’s just a solid football player who faced big-time competition every week and performed at a high level. Should be available to Pittsburgh in the draft and has the NFL-ready skill set to start right away if Ramon Foster departs this offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
Player: Joshua Garnett
Analysis: Few men as massive as Garnett can move like the senior guard can, often pulling into space for some devastating playside blocks. His nimbleness belies his power, as Garnett is an absolute mauler in the run game. Love his competitive motor to plant defenders in the ground on every play. That finisher’s mentality can lead to Garnett getting a little overextended at times, but I’m really impressed with how often be brings his lower half and continues to drive with his legs. His pop at the second level is fantastic, as defenders simply can’t match his length and power.
In pass protection Garnett’s punch is great, and few can move his tree trunk legs off their base. The area I still want to see improvement is his footwork laterally against quicker interior rushers. Can he mirror adequately against the more athletic three-techniques he’ll face in the NFL? He’s a smart player, but his aggressive mentality can be taken advantage of with stuns and twists on occasion. Still, Garnett’s ceiling is sky-high, and he’s already NFL-ready in many ways. He’d be a great fit in Pittsburgh, as he is fully capable and well-versed in many of the things the Steelers would ask him to do in their offense.