This is my favorite post-draft article to write. For the third year, we’ll spin the hypothetical wheel and map out the best and worst case careers of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ seven draft picks. This is, of course, all for fun, and three years from now, it’s interesting to see if any of these come true. My Dri Archer “worst case scenario” was sorta on the nose.
It’s obvious that technically, the “best case” is to become a Hall of Famer while the “worst case” is someone who never plays a down. To make it a little more interesting, I’ll create the parameters off of what I see is the most realistic upside for each player. I say this because the past two years, I get comments pointing this out.
Ok, enough of the boring junk. Let’s guess how these futures play out.
Round One – Artie Burns
Best Case: Despite being a junior with 23 career starts under his belt, with the ability to now focus on football, he starts the season off with a bang. His ball skills are immediately evident, picking off Dan Orlovsky on a red zone fade in the first preseason game.
After rotating with Ross Cockrell the first four weeks, he becomes the depth chart starter by the bye. Following the Week 8 breather, Burns becomes the permanent starter, leaving Cockrell to make friends with Doran Grant on the bench.
The Steelers make sure to play to Burns’ strengths. Similar to Ike Taylor, he gets to roll up and bump receivers, and attack the ball in the additional Cover 2 looks presented He ends his rookie year with four interceptions, the most by a rookie corner since Delton Hall in 2017. Burns is also named the team’s rookie of the year, the first Steelers’ corner to do it since their last 1st rounder, Chad Scott in 1997.
By year two, there’s no question Burns is a starter and with William Gay retiring following the 2017 season, he becomes the no-doubt #1 corner. Just like Ike, Burns uses his blend of length and speed but separates himself by performing the wonder of catching the football. In 2018, he picks off Joe Flacco in the AFC Divisional Game, ensuring he never has to buy another beer in Pittsburgh.
In all, Burns is another home run by Kevin Colbert, leaving those questions over if he was a reach as the 25th pick far in the past. He plays 11 seasons, making three Pro Bowls, picking off 36 career passes, surpassing names like Troy Polamalu, Jack Ham, and Mike Wagner. His splash plays trail off in his last two years as he loses that trademark speed but his now veteran instincts allow him to hang around. For good measure, Burns forces another seven career fumbles.
Worst Case: Burns is as raw as kale. And his rookie year winds up being as successful as kale in McDonalds. No longer able to get away on just athleticism, he’s burned repeatedly in the preseason. His year one impact revolves almost solely around special teams, working well as a gunner and covering punts. But when the team tries to dip his toe into the water, Burns again gives up big plays. Odell Beckham Jr destroys him on a sluggo, sending the rookie right back to the bench.
By the end of 2016, Burns has played only 55 snaps, failing to create a turnover while allowing two touchdowns. With an unfortunate last name for a corner, the visiting fans are not kind.
Still holding that first round pedigree and a year under his belt, he does see more playing time in 2017. But with William Gay still playing at a high level and Ross Cockrell/Senquez Golson excelling, Burns isn’t guaranteed anything substantial.
Worse yet, he’s just a bad fit for the team’s still dominant Cover 3 scheme, as feared by us and hinted at by Colbert. Burns shows the ability to press but is exposed in off man zone and the deep third. His technique is poor and when giving a cushion, he struggles to get his hips open. Carnell Lake is fired after 2017, forcing Burns to work with a new coach, and the transition only hurts while the scheme stays the same.
As Gay retires after 2017, Burns gets one last chance but again looks too mechanical. He’s thinking too much, trying to perfect his hands, and it slows him down, turning that 4.4 time into 4.5 speed. In Cover 2 and the little press work he gets, he does make the occasional splash play, just enough to tantalize fans and coaches to keep hoping for a breakthrough. But it never comes. By the time his 4th year is over, Burns has recorded just three interceptions, and like Jarvis Jones, the team declines his option.
His contract runs out at the start of the 2020 season and Burns hits free agency in a mutual understanding. He signs with Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings, seeing moderate success in a more scheme-friendly environment. That success is great for him, but it’s like your ex-girlfriend marrying a doctor. Great for her, still sucks for you.
Burns doesn’t turn out to be a terrible player but it’s a classic case of the development of the player, and not fitting in the scheme, ruining a promising career.
Round Two – Sean Davis
Best Case: He has the look, the movement, the talent of a football player. Of a Steeler. That much is immediately apparent, the rookie flying around camp, flinging his body into piles and even planting Daryl Richardson in a thud session, drawing a brief scuffle.
With the positive initial impression, Davis doesn’t outright beat Robert Golden for the Week One strong safety headliner, but his play gives the team more comfort in frequently running dime packages, allowing Davis an immediate pathway to playing time. He picks off Alex Smith in the end zone in Week 4 as a sheepish Cris Collinsworth has to retreat his commentary over how poorly Pro Football Focus graded Davis in coverage.
Golden tweaks his hamstring in Week 13 against Indianapolis, missing two weeks. Davis receives his first NFL starts, playing well while maintaining his special teams snaps, a testament to advanced conditioning for a rookie. Though Golden regains his job, just in the way Will Allen did last year, it hints to the coaching staff that Davis is a special player.
He winds up playing 500 snaps on defense in 2016, picking off two passes, and being an overall menace on the coverage units. He and Roosevelt Nix crack skulls. Danny Smith couldn’t be prouder.
Lawrence Timmons is cut after 2016 and Vince Williams takes his talents to Miami, causing the Steelers to use their dime personnel, easily giving Davis starter snaps. He mainly plays in the box with Golden keeping his role, but the two are moved around as chess pieces for Keith Butler to play with.
Davis’ best game comes against the New England Patriots in 2017. Pitted against Rob Gronkowski on an island three times, he breaks up one goal line fade and snatches another pass away from him in a big win in Foxborough. His ability to play the run makes the transition to this DB-heavy front seamless.
Two years later, the team reverts back to a slightly more traditional 2-4-5, drafting Texas ILB Malik Jefferson in the first round. It shuttles Davis to his strong safety spot where he continues to excel. He can do it all. Fill the alley, throw his shoulder into receivers over the middle, and track the football deep. He even teaches Mike Tomlin a couple words in Mandarin.
In total, Davis enjoys a productive nine year career with the Steelers. He intercepts 24 passes and forces a whopping 15 fumbles. That ties him with the man who first taught him, Carnell Lake.
Worst Case: After flipping between corner and safety at Maryland, playing mostly corner his senior year, the transition back inside is tough on the rookie. He’s clearly talented who moves with ease but like so many rookies, the mental game is too much for him to digest in one year. The Steelers only play him sparingly in dime packages and Tyler Eifert leaps over him twice for touchdowns in Week 15, a crushing 31-23 loss to the Bengals in a heated playoff race.
Davis does cut his teeth on special teams so the season isn’t a total loss.
Timmons is released but Vince Williams is retained as the long-term starter at the Buck. Golden continues to play well and on the cheap and again, Davis struggles to find his footing for consistent playing time. His role evolves to dime packages, playing in the box, but his limited chances to cover aren’t impressive, struggling to find the football and being a consistent tackler in open space.
And that’s all his NFL career winds up being. Certainly not terrible, he carves out a role, but by Year Three, the Steelers have drafted a safety with much better coverage skills. Davis becomes a great special teamer and dime package player, following a similar career arc as David Bruton. Edgy and a sense of value to his team but very much forgettable to the outside world.
This would’ve been more than acceptable for a 4th rounder. But for a second? It isn’t Rick Vaughn off the plate, but the return on investment isn’t enough. Quite literally, juuuuust a bit outside.
Round Three – Javon Hargrave
Best Case: Hargrave does Joe Greene proud, making an immediate impact his rookie year. By the 4th week of the season, he surpasses Daniel McCullers as the full-time nose tackle while being a heavy part of the sub-package rotation. In Week Six against the Miami Dolphins, he walks back Laremy Tunsil into the pocket, creating his first career NFL sack.
His play only improves as he becomes more comfortable to the NFL speed of the game. He’s a perfect fit for the new age nose tackle, offering quick comparisons to the Dallas Cowboys’ Jay Ratliff. He’s even more stout against the run than Ratliff and helps the Steelers’ run defense allow just 3.5 yards per carry, their lowest since 2010.
He ends his rookie year with 520 snaps, 3.5 sacks, and too many pressures to count. The Steelers are creative with getting Hargrave more snaps in Year Two, even showing the occasional three down front. Though his snaps are still a bit limited because of the nature of the position, he’s able to hover around 600 snaps a season. In 2018, Stephon Tuitt misses three games with a pec strain and Hargrave is able to pick up more time in sub-package, finishing the year with a career best 6.5 sacks.
Quickly adopting the personality of those around him, he’s a top-notch effort player, capable of chasing the football downfield and laterally on zone runs. He creates disruption in the backfield as a run defender and pass rusher, giving the Steelers their next elite, albeit unconventional, nose tackle.
Hargrave serves as a ten year starter with a whopping 40 career sacks, joining an elite club of seven other Steelers. More than that, he’s fundamentally changed the way fans view the nose tackle positions. Casey Hampton and the like are still revered but is squarely an “old school” mentality that doesn’t work anymore.
Worst Case: Despite being a better athlete than McCullers, he’s still a small school player getting his first taste of the NFL. Not used to playing in two and three down fronts, seeing the extra attention he didn’t receive in SCSU’s 4-3, he struggles. Too often blown out of the hole by double-teams, center/guard combo blocks make quick work of him. No longer is Hargrave the strongest or athletically superior man on the field and the transition is tough. To go from the best player on the field to just another guy is a huge mental strain.
Hargrave shows flashes as a pass rusher, his best work coming in the few snaps on 3rd and long. But his inconsistency against the run and the fact Cam Heyward/Stephon Tuitt still dominate the big-money snaps makes a year one impact minimal.
His technique leaves a lot to be desired and year one serves as almost a redshirt. His playing time is significantly less than expected, benched for Ricardo Mathews down the stretch, finishing 2016 with only 200 defensive snaps and half a sack.
Hoping to make the Year Two jump, he’s dealt another blow – John Mitchell finally retires. That’s the best coach Hargrave could ever have and one year with him just isn’t enough. A new coach teaches him his way and it stunts Hargrave’s growth. The team asks him to put on weight to bulk up, hoping to mask his issues against the run, but it puts extra stress on his knees.
He slogs through 2017, gutting out a partial MCL tear, and visibly isn’t the same player. He goes under the knife during the offseason but the weight and extra scar tissue saps him of his athleticism while the inability to hold the point of attack against double-teams remains.
Clearly realizing he isn’t a fit for Pittsburgh, the Steelers deal him to the New York Giants right before the 2018 draft, netting a 6th round pick. The Steelers go four more years before they draft their next player from the FCS level. The pick is viewed as one with promise but winds up being a less-effective version of Ziggy Hood. Though Hargrave sees brief success in his new home, playing in a system that is more effective to him, he finishes his Steelers’ career with only 2.5 career sacks.
Round Four – Jerald Hawkins
Best Case: Year One is a redshirt season for him, as it should be. He does sit on the active roster for three weeks after Marcus Gilbert sprains his knee following a late hit from Vontaze Burfict in Week Two. But Ryan Harris becomes the right tackle, Hawkins’ 309 pound butt firmly planted on the bench.
He plays just 12 snaps in 2016, all as a tackle-eligible tight end. After a promising Year Two in training camp, routinely winning against Bud Dupree in individuals, the team gives the pink slip to Harris, vaulting Hawkins into the swing tackle role.
Mixing into the starting lineup after the Steelers are hit with more injuries at tackle, he does reasonable well. He shows snap off the ball and upper body strength, making him an impact run blocker. He even makes a start at left guard late in 2017.
After a middling season, Alejandro Villanueva is allowed to hit free agency in 2018, giving Hawkins a one-year trial run on Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside. It isn’t a horrible experience but Hawkins struggles against speedy edge rushers and isn’t viewed as a franchise tackle by the coaching staff.
They draft Clemson’s Mitch Hyatt with the 26th pick the following year. Hawkins is moved inside to left guard, seeing reasonable success in a more confined space. He is re-signed to a two-year deal after his rookie contract, losing out the starting guard job this time but retains value as a versatile swing piece.
It’s a rather unremarkable career. A couple of bright moments, a couple of dim ones. But for a 4th round pick, good enough.
Worst Case: Hawkins doesn’t look great in camp, overwhelmed by the NFL as a should-be senior who is still very much a work-in-progress, but easily makes the team as the #4 OT. However, once injuries strike after the first two weeks, Hawkins is viewed as an expendable piece and lives on the taxi squad for a month. He’s brought back up as the team gets healthy and other squads begin thinking about poaching him. The rest of the year fits in a sentence. He’s inactive, peering over Mike Munchak’s shoulder on game day. Fin.
Though he’s a more consistent player in Year Two, there is still no path to playing time. Villanueva has taken a big step forward, viewed as a franchise-caliber while Ryan Harris acts as a comfortable backup. Hawkins spends just two weeks active when Harris sprains AC joint in practice but again, fails to see any playing time.
Harris’ contract runs up after 2018 and Hawkins is finally able to spend a season as the swing tackle. He sees scattered playing time but the results aren’t impressive. He simply can’t seal the edge consistently enough to be trusted. Ben Roethlisberger twists his right knee after Bronson Kaufusi beats Hawkins on an inside out move. It’s just an isolated play but a hard one to forget in the minds of fans…and coaches.
The Steelers continue to invest in linemen through the draft and Hawkins fails to make it out of camp in 2019, getting cut after three official years with the club. His Pittsburgh career ends with 109 offensive snaps.
Round Six – Travis Feeney
Best Case: Feeney’s athleticism is immediately noticeable, standing out among the other back-of-the-roster players. It’s able to dominate the head-spinning rookies and he picks up three sacks in the preseason, including one against New Orleans’ Saints left tackle Teron Armstead in Week Three. Combine that with his special teams ability, speed to be the first one downfield, he’s able to edge out Anthony Chickillo for the 5th and final OLB spot.
He doesn’t see the field defensively but becomes a seamless replacement for Terence Garvin, leading the team with 11 special teams tackles in 2015.
The floodgates open in 2017. James Harrison retires. Jarvis Jones comes off another milquetoast three sack season but the team re-signs him on the cheap. In hindsight, it’s a decision that actually works out in Feeney’s favor. No longer does the team feel obligated to draft an edge rusher within the first two rounds, taking one in the fourth instead. Feeney, with more of an opportunity now, balls out in camp, and it’s enough to compel the Steelers to release Jones at final cuts.
Now competing against just a rookie, Feeney is the starting ROLB in year one. He drops into coverage nearly 30% of the time, his athleticism too good to keep him running forward, lowering his sack totals but still showing an overall impressive game. He can carry the tight end or reroute the #2 receiver, finishing 2017 with four interceptions, tying the most by a linebacker since James Farrior in 2004.
Recognizing he’s a starting-caliber talent but not quite up to snuff as a pass rusher, he kicks inside for 2018, forming one of the most athletic duos alongside Ryan Shazier. They’re able to chase everything sideline to sideline and with the trio of Heyward/Tuitt/Hargrave is able to keep him clean and filling the B gaps. It frees him up as a blitzer with the closing speed and in 2019, he amazingly finishes second on the team with 7 sacks, despite seeing most of his time inside.
By this point, the Steelers are playing a lot more Cover 2 and are able to stay in their base front more often, Feeney dropping into the deep middle like a poor-mans Derrick Brooks.
He easily earns a second-contract and in total, starts eight years before a shoulder injury runs him out of the league after the 2024 season. Had it not been for Antonio Brown, who winds up becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer, this would’ve been Kevin Colbert’s greatest 6th round pick.
Worst Case: You might already know his this scenario plays out. A glimmer of talent wasted because of early-career injuries. Feeney flashes in the preseason with that 4.5 speed. But in Week Four against the Carolina Panthers, lands awkwardly on his shoulder attempting to bring human bowling ball Mike Tolbert to the ground. It’s a torn labrum in his left shoulder, the third of his football career, and shelves him for the entire 2016 season.
He’s cleared by the doctors for training camp in 2017 but struggles to trust himself, missing too many tackles. He’s not a natural fit at outside linebacker, lacking strength to begin with and losing all of last year to live in the weight room.
Without being a natural bender, Feeney is invisible off the edge. Though some spots at OLB opens up, Feeney’s play is too hit-or-miss to trust and is released at the 2017 final cutdowns. He finishes his Steelers’ career without an NFL snap. He, Jordan Zumwalt, and Mike Humpal hit up Happy Hour along the South Side.
Round Seven – Demarcus Ayers
Best Case: Ayers proves Danny Smith correct, showing himself to be the top punt returner coming out of this year’s class. He boots AB off the punt return unit. Though envisioned as just taking on punts, a 100 yard kick return touchdown in Week 2 of the preseason begs to differ. After showing he can be trusted on punts for the first month of the season, along with some toughness, he usurps Markus Wheaton on kick returns.
There’s no stomp to the face, but Ayers returns a punt 55 yards, down to the Cleveland Browns’ six in Week 11. Roethlisberger fires a touchdown to Ladarius Green on the next play in an eventual victory.
His rookie year is a success, averaging 9.7 yards per punt and a healthy 24.5 on kicks. After Markus Wheaton leaves for the New England Patriots (depressing, I know) and Martavis Bryant still in Roger Goodell jail for another failed drug test, Ayers gets a run at playing in the slot in 2017.
Small but shifty, it actually kind of works. He finishes 2017 with 45 receptions and five touchdowns. A former QB, he’s used on gadget plays and fires a touchdown pass to Le’Veon Bell in Week 5 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Steelers continually reinvest in wide receiver and draft one high in the 2018 draft. It bumps Ayers back in the pecking order but he maintains his return duties. In 2018, he sets career high numbers as a kick returner, 28.5 yards, influenced by two touchdowns and placing him third in the NFL. In 2019, he sets a career-best in punt return average with an 11.2 clip.
Despite that success, it’s an era where return men don’t always stick around for long. With wear and tear on his small frame, and never blessed with outrageous speed, 2020 is a down year with unremarkable numbers in both categories. The Steelers decide to part ways as his rookie deal expires, a pat on the back and nudge out of the door. Such is life in the NFL.
But for a 7th round pick? He served his intended purpose and then some and is a nice feather in Colbert’s hat.
Worst Case: When you’re brought in as a niche player, a specialist, the margin of error is all-too thin. Unfortunately, Ayers finds this out the hard way. He presses as a return man, making poor catch decisions viewed on his Houston tape. In Week 3 of the preseason, Ayers tries to catch a ball over-the-shoulder on his own five, muffing it, and watching it roll into the end zone, recovered by the Saints for a touchdown.
Also a junior, he’s just too tough to trust on the punt return unit. Eli Rogers excels, housing a punt in the finale week against Carolina, and wins the #5 WR/punt return gig. Ayers is shot down to the practice squad, living there for the entire 2016 campaign.
He’s back for another crack at it in 2017. With Markus Wheaton gone in free agency, the Steelers want to get Ayers involved as a kick returner too, but the league’s rule changes make the impact of the position minimal. With such a niche role, Ayers is on the bubble and is cut outright after the 2017 training camp.
Round Seven – Tyler Matakevich
Best Case: Matakevich Madness. It sweeps Steelers’ Nation, the sight of a #46 throwing his body into every pile. Make shoestring tackles, get up, go crazy, and serve as a real source of energy in the preseason. Fans flock to him at St. Vincent, getting autographs and taking selfies. In the final preseason game against the Detroit Lions, he leads the Steelers with 14 tackles. Bob Pompeani loses his mind and I yearn to hear Edmund Nelson’s thoughts, unfortunately taken off air and as we all know, consumed with riblets.
Matakevich beats out the competition as the last linebacker on the roster and because of his special teams prowess and energy, gets a gameday hat. He’s a Garvin clone, a four-phase special teamer who treats every moment like its Mike Jones in the Super Bowl.
What you see in his rookie year is what you see for the next three. A core special teamer and eventual captain. But his time on defense is non-existent and frustrated by that fact, he leaves Pittsburgh after his rookie deal is done, latching on with the Indianapolis Colts. He starts three games for them in 2021 but his lack of athleticism is exposed and he goes back to his home on special teams.
Like Ayers, getting that very Garvin-like career for a 7th round pick may not be a home run, but it’s a ground rule double you take every single time.
Worst Case: Despite his effort and extreme success on the college level, the NFL is just a different animal. It takes no prisoners and exposes even the NCAA’s best players. He’s physical but constantly a step slow. And with the gluttony of linebackers on the roster, ones who are better athletes, Anthony Chickillo takes the final spot.
Matakevich, the hard-worker and tone-setter that he is, does land on the practice squad for the entire season. He tries again in 2017 with the linebacker group broken up a bit but again, can’t make the roster. He does get his first call-up after Ryan Shazier goes down seven weeks into the year, spending two weeks on the active roster. His performance is just average and he’s spun back down when Shazier returns.
The window for late round picks is very small. Get noticed or get out. By the third year, with very little of an NFL resume to his name, the Steelers cut him. He bounces around the league, spending parts of the next three seasons with four teams. By the time his NFL career ends in 2020, Matakevich has just 8 career tackles and no appearances on defense.
He becomes Temple’s version of Eric Crouch.
I just wanted to remind you of Eric Crouch.