It’s not terribly uncommon for exceptional players from small schools or outside of major conferences to be recognized as worthy of their talent and a relatively easy projection to the NFL’s level of competition, allowing them to be selected in the first round. It is quite rare for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, to be the team that takes that sort of chance on a player that plays outside of a major conference.
Consider the schools from which the Steelers’ most recent picks in the first round have come, going back to 2007: Wisconsin; Miami; Kentucky; Ohio State; Georgia; Stanford; Ohio State; Florida; Missouri; Illnois; Florida State. That’s four SEC players, two ACC, and four Big Ten, plus one Pac-12.
The last time that the Steelers deviated from major college programs in selecting their most important player was in 2004 when they last had a pick in the top 15 of the draft, using that on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of Miami (Ohio). You would have to go back prior to the 2000s to find the previous instance of a small-school player taken in the first round.
It’s not as though they’re completely opposed to such players, however, even on relatively high draft picks. Most recently, they drafted Javon Hargrave out of South Carolina State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s proven to be a good player since then who had no trouble adjusting to the level of competition.
That just so happens to be where Darius Leonard comes from. Though he would not be a first-round pick, he could be an option for the team, which is desperate for reinforcements at the inside linebacker position. There are other players from smaller conferences that would be worthy of consideration as well.
But the Steelers, I think more than most teams, largely favor the comfort of selecting from the top levels of college football, knowing that the level of competition that they are seeing their players play against on tape is the best analog to what they will see in the NFL.
And they also believe that it makes them readier to contribute early. That’s what Kevin Colbert recently said when talking about last year’s second-round draft pick, JuJu Smith-Schuster, out of USC, who made a big impact despite being just 20 years old.
“If they are coming from a power-five conference team they’ve played at a high level”, he said. “JuJu stepping in and being able to play quickly as a real young rookie, I think a part of that was he played in big stadium and big games. When you compete, and play at the best level that should be a good indicator that you can do it at the professional level as well”.
Leighton Vander Esch, however, is a player that they would be likely to make an exception for. He hails from the Mountain West Conference, but others from his school have been successful in the NFL. He also thinks “it would be pretty special” to play here.