While the Pittsburgh Steelers more than a lot of teams are a Power-5-centric organization with respect to their scouting process—or more accurately in their drafting process—they have certainly made some prominent dips outside of that territory, whether it’s in the first round or with undrafted free agents. Their 2019 NFL Draft class in particular was marked with a MAC presence, as we have previously addressed.
With nine selections over the course of three days, the Steelers ended up using three of those on players from the MAC conference, including one as high as early in the third round on Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson.
They used a pair of selections in the sixth round on linebackers Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert III. The former is from Northern Illinois, while the latter is from Akron.
Truth be told, while all of them obviously have a shot of making the roster, Johnson is the only one who should be considered much of a roster lock, but the latter two were drafted with special teams roles in mind for the first part of their careers, believing that their skill sets lend them to being about to produce in that area.
But how do you evaluate talent from weaker conferences when the talent level they are both playing with and against is in such contrast to players in, for example, the SEC? Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin addressed that question after the draft.
“I think that one of the tapes that stood out about Sutton Smith was the multiple sack game he had against Florida State”, he said, pointing out that these other conferences still mix it up with Power-5 schools, and thus give you that apples-to-apples comparison. “I think that one of the games that stood out about Johnson was the big game he had against Miami of Florida. They have plenty of opportunities to evaluate these guys with Power-5-like talent”.
One could argue that it’s even more impressive for a player from the MAC to show up against an SEC team than it is for a player within the SEC to do so within his own conference, because the MAC player is going to be playing with a lower level of competition on his team. But you can still glean something from within the conference, as they did with Javon Hargrave’s tape several years ago.
“Those players stand out at that level”, General Manager Kevin Colbert added. “They play some bigger schools, some bigger conferences, and they usually hold their own. Those players show up in those games. And a guy like Sutton Smith, as Coach mentioned, was at the Senior Bowl, and actually worked some inside linebacker in the Senior Bowl. So you got to see him at a higher level at another position. So that was encouraging”.
So the Steelers might not heavily recruit from outside of the Power-5, but when they do, they do so with a high degree of confidence. They feel good about the three players from the MAC that they added in the draft, to do along with guys like Nix, Hargrave, and others already on the roster from less prestigious conferences and divisions of play.