The NFL Combine begins later this week, officially kicking off the hype associated with the NFL Draft, a part of the calendar that’s talked about as much as any game. And as we always do, Dave, myself, and possibly Josh and Luc, will occasionally post our mock drafts, something I know many of you have been asking about on here or on Twitter.
I am not using FanSpeak’s simulator for these mocks, though I will use it for an offseason exercise in a few weeks. These are just my open-ended picks based on what I know.
For the record, we are working under the assumption the Pittsburgh Steelers will be given a 7th round compensation pick for Brice McCain. It has not officially been given out yet and is subject to change.
Round One: Darian Thompson/SS Boise St: 6’1/7 215
A guy I’ve been hyping up for awhile now. Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have both professed the need to upgrade the secondary and for a variety of reasons, I don’t think they’re talking about corner. They have invested in safety much heavier than they have corner and value the posiiton much more. With it sounding like Robert Golden will hit free agency, Colbert failed to mention him as one of the guys he wanted to bring back, there is a glaring hole at strong safety.
Thompson has a well-rounded game, just as capable of filling the alley as he is in coverage. He picked off 19 passes, created several other turnovers with his big-hit style, and was a three year starter in a relatively complex defense that asked him to wear many hats. It’s difficult to say any rookie safety can start day one in this defense but if there is a guy who could do it, it’s Thompson. That may put a burden on Mike Mitchell but remember, he worked alongside of UDFA Robert Lester in his lone year in Carolina. It isn’t brand-new territory.
Others Considered: DE Vernon Butler, ILB Reggie Ragland, OG Josh Garnett, TE Hunter Henry
Round Two: Jihad Ward/DE Illinois: 6’5/1 296
I’m actually not convinced Ward will be here by the time the draft arrives. With a rare combination of size and athleticism, he could go higher than this and maybe sneak into Round One. Dave did the report on him and was lower on him, giving him a 4th or 5th, but admitted he hadn’t studied the landscape enough. I also didn’t love my options here in the second and am banking on Ward’s upside.
Ward has near 34 inch arms and though may be raw, is a guy who can learn quickly under John Mitchell while being exposed to some top talent – and workers – in Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. It is tough for any defensive lineman to see the field immediately but the need for depth along the line is urgent and can’t wait another year.
Others Considered: CB William Jackson, DE Adolphus Washington, OLB Jordan Jenkins
Round Three: Nick Vannett/TE Ohio State: 6’5/6 256
The odds-on favorite as the most often mocked player to the Steelers. With Heath Miller’s retirement, the need for a tight end is significantly heightened. The Steelers love their OSU players, there is a need, and Vannett has the size in height and length (33 1/4 arms) plus ten inch mitts. Dave did the report and spoke highly of his blocking ability, a must for any Steelers’ tight end.
Others Considered: S Justin Simmons, CB/S Sean Davis, DE/OLB Carl Nassib
Round Four: Jonathan Jones/CB Auburn: 5’8/5 178
This is the part where you’ve scrolled to the comments section to complain about how short he is. I’ll meet you there. Yes, he is undersized but that hasn’t deterred the team from starting (Antwon Blake) drafting (Senquez Golson) or trading for (Brandon Boykin) corners under 5’10. I haven’t put on the Auburn tape yet but watched Jones down at the Senior Bowl. He’s competitive, tracks and high points the ball well with an impressive vertical, and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Jacksonville Jaguars’ coach Gus Bradley praised him heavily meeting with us in his press conference. With his SEC pedigree, just like Golson and Boykin, a guy I can see the Steelers being interested in.
Others Considered: DE Dean Lowry, CB Kevin Peterson, TE Henry Krieger-Coble
Round Seven: Alex Lewis/OT Nebraska: 6’6 290
We jump into the seventh round, a twinge of disappointment in this mock having to skip over the 5th and 6th rounds. It also puts me in a murkier area, not watching nearly as many late round players. I’m looking at need and school. Tackle depth is lacking and Lewis has starting experience in a Power 5 conference. He was named a captain in 2015 and has started the last two years at left tackle for the Cornhuskers.
He originally committed to Colorado, starting 12 games at left guard in 2012 before transferring. In his freshman year in 2011, he was even used as a tight end in jumbo packages, making two starts. Mike Munchak has been given raw tackle talent to deal with before, Alejandro Villanueva and his newest project of Brian Mihalik, making the conversion from defensive end to tackle. Lewis obviously has a lot more experience but sounds raw, right in Munchak’s wheelhouse. It’s a weak tackle class and the options at any point of the draft aren’t great.
There is one definite dark side to the pick. Lewis was arrested and convicted of assaulting another man in 2013, an Air Force cadet no less, and wound up spending four weeks in jail as part of his sentencing. There is a great feature story on him over on ESPN, explaining the highs and lows, and how teammates and coaches learned to respect and trust him.
Others Considered: OT Tyler Johnstone, CB/KR Morgan Burns, TE David Morgan
Round Seven: Morgan Burns/CB Kansas St: 5’11 201
As the Steelers have done several times before under Kevin Colbert, they double-dip at cornerback. While he’s a two-year starter at corner, I’m just as interested in his ability as a return man. He was dominate at Kansas State, awarded the Big 12 Special Teams player of the year in 2015 and named a first-team All-American by several media outlets. He averaged 33.5 yards per kick while recording four touchdowns. He was named the conference’s special teams player of the week for a month straight, a span where he housed three kicks and recovered a blocked punt for another score.
Burns has a career average of 30.8 yards per kick, second in school history. In a word, dominant, and this is a school that had Tyler Lockett. The Steelers’ return game could use a boost and no one would help that more than Burns. Oddly, he wasn’t invited to any All-Star games or the NFL Combine, making it harder for scouts to get a read on him.
Others Considered: OLB Ron Thompson, S Michael Caputo, P Tom Hackett
Round Seven: Nick Kwiatkoski/ILB West Virginia: 6’1/7 241
You might not be crazy about this one, and I admit I’m not in love with it either, but doesn’t this just feel like a Steelers’ pick. I watched him at the Senior Bowl, casually, not closely, but he was a guy always around the football. He’s had a productive career, including picking off three passes last year. If Sean Spence is let go, Kwiatkoski would be a great replacement on special teams, him and Terence Garvin, a couple of Mountaineers creating chaos.
If you’re into the feel-good part of the draft, he’s from Bethel Park, PA, a short drive to Pittsburgh. So that’s fun.
Others Considered: S AJ Stamps, WR Chris Moore
I am generally happy with this group. Excited to get Thompson in the first and if you can add a veteran DE in free agency and develop Ward a little bit, you’re in good shape. Vannett just makes a ton of sense. Ditto with Jones, and the approach I took to the cornerback situation is in-line with how the team has done business. The 7th rounders become tougher to project but I’m confident that at worst, Burns and Kwiatkoski become strong special teamers.