I try to do one or two of these a month during draft season in order to highlight some lesser known players while illustrating the different paths that Pittsburgh might take to compile a good array of talent with just six picks (counting the expected compensatory pick in Round 3). Blah, blah, blah. Let’s cut to the chase!
1:18 Lest anyone forget, we’ve already made our Round 1 pick: FS Minkah Fitzpatrick!
Hell yes! Pittsburgh wins!! Phttttt on you Miami!
In all seriousness, we need to keep this in mind as Christmas-in-April rolls closer and our pile of gifts under the tree looks depressingly small compared to everyone else’s. Mom and Dad got us a massive gift, but they gave it to us early. NFL fanbases specialize in short term memory loss, but come on. Child! Please! No complaining!
2:17 RB J.K. Dobbins.
I would give my [sexually explicit reference omitted] to project a fringe-1st Tight End as a Round 2 bargain pick, but no such player exists in the 2020 draft. I would have also taken a bargain on the offensive line, but for this scenario I am going to admit how unlikely that’s become with my two favorites returning to college (C/G Creed Humphrey and G/T Trey Smith), and my next two favorites getting serious Round 1 consideration in the press (OT Mekhi Becton and OC/G Tyler Biadasz). That leaves the bargain steals at other positions, or merely-fair value at TE (Cole Kmet) or OL (C/G Cesar Ruiz). This year’s distribution of talent strongly suggests the presence of a potential steal at 2:17 for either a Wide Receiver or a Running Back. Neither is a need, but both are wants and in that situation I will go with BPA every time. A steal it is.
RB or WR? In this case the need analysis makes a handy tiebreaker. I believe a top Running Back is the bigger area of want, and it is harder to project a gigantic WR steal (Tee Higgins or Jalen Reagor) who’d be good enough to be the clear BPA compared to the likes of D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, and J.K. Dobbins (Travis Etienne is returning to school). I would be happy with any of those three, but let’s go with the guy from Ohio State just to keep with Pittsburgh tradition. Here is the current Big Board description:
HV 1:25 RB J.K. Dobbins, Ohio St. (Junior). 5’10”, 217 lbs. Dobbins is probably the most likely RB target for Pittsburgh in Round 2, and no one should complain if they land him. Nick Farabaugh’s gif-supported January scouting report gives a good overview: smaller and less of a load than James Conner, but possessing an equally rounded skill set with the addition of breakaway speed, better acceleration, more quickness in space, and no history of health problems. Bulk him up just a little and you’d get a Maurice Jones-Drew vibe: the classic bowling ball with good moves and acceptable hands. One can question his ceiling in pass protection due to the lack of size, or raise doubts because he played behind a great college OL, but the same is true for the other top backs in this draft. Almost no RB succeeds when the line allows penetration.
Dobbins is a Round 1 talent with all the assets you want for a bell cow back, and his running style fits the blocking schemes already in place. He’s a different back than the bigger and stronger Conner, but won’t require a different set of plays. Sold!
“But what about Conner?” I feel a certain amount of loyalty to James Conner. He was one of my draft darlings back in the day, I love his story, and I love everything I’ve learned about him as an NFL player. I support him completely. But let’s be frank: Pittsburgh’s offense dies without its franchise Quarterback as the head, but it’s crippled when it loses the legs of a franchise back. The Steelers use their RB’s as often, and in as many ways, as any other team in the league. They are essential in every phase, as runners, outlet receivers, and also blockers. Reduce the quality at RB and the entire offense will suffer.
Conner has had some excellent production when he’s healthy, but his history for the past 7 years has shown a clear pattern of injuries. He can only be relied on for half a season of snaps. I like Benny Snell too, but he looks to me like a promising RB2, not a starter who could keep the offense humming at full speed. Samuels a different kind of RB2, and Kerrith Whyte a capable change of pace back, but that leaves half a season when Pittsburgh’s offense will be running on only three wheels. That is worth a second round pick.
Do I care whether the nominal starter turns out to be Conner or Dobbins? Not particularly. Dobbins comes out of college with a much higher pedigree than the draft-day version of Pitt’s old star, but at this point that means nothing. Conner has proven his ability to be an NFL all-pro in actual games. All that matters is this: whoever wins the competition can be the true #1 that Pittsburgh will need for all the games when the other is hurt or ill-suited from a matchup point of view. We won’t lose games because the Ferrari’s in the shop and needs to be replaced with our really good Chevy.
3:19 Lest anyone forget, Mom and Dad also gave us an early Round 3 gift: Mack ILB Devin Bush
Get your eyes off the pile beneath the Christmas-in-April tree Steeler Nation! Look at the toy in hand and rejoice.
3:35 (Estimated Compensatory Pick) TE Albert Okwuegbunam
This was a tough one. I like the idea of adding an offensive lineman but that group is actually in solid shape. I believe Feiler will be an upgrade at Guard over Foster, and that both Okorafor and Banner have the native stuff to replace Feiler at Right Tackle; especially since the two dogs and one bone situation will most likely push one of them up to new heights. That battle will be fun to watch next Spring! I even like last year’s sleeper pick on the OL, Derwin Gray, who would not surprise me with a push to start at Guard over the option of moving Feiler inside. Finney will be missed if he leaves, but this spot is a bit rich for any backup and the Centers who can double as starting Guards will be gone.
Everyone knows by now that I am not particularly happy with this year’s crop of Tight Ends. But my venom is really aimed toward the pretenders who I see as Round 3 players who’d offer very poor value in the mid-2nd. I have no complaints at all about their value on the margin between Rounds 3 and 4. Heck, my worry there is the opposite: TE’s are so thin on the ground that they’re likely to get overdrafted and disappear completely between 2:17 and 3:comp. But for now let’s assume that one of the group survives long enough to get serious consideration. Here is the current Big Board entry on Albert O a/k/a A-OK:
HV 3:24 TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 255 lbs. He looks the part showed marvelous hands in 2018 with Drew Lock as his Quarterback. Great things were expected for 2019 and… they simply didn’t happen. Was it the step down in QB quality? The rumored clash with that new QB on a personal level? Or limitations in his abilities that Lock’s high-end play had disguised? We do not know, and that makes for a hard evaluation. At this point he appears to be more of a steady athlete in the old fashioned TE mold than a mismatch guy for the modern era, but he is also one of the players where a good Combine could be in the cards. Back in the day he’d be viewed as a poor in-line blocker, but that’s pretty good for this particular class. Here is a Dave Bryan “contextualization” piece on A-OK’s 2019 catches.
All of those worries amount to smoke about his intangibles, but that matters to me. Tight End is one of my favorite positions on the football field, in large part because a player can achieve success (and even stardom) through sheer toughness and force of will. Athletic genius expands the ceiling, but grit establishes the floor and makes the player. Albert O has a notably high ceiling but hasn’t shown me the floor I want. Yet. There is a long way to go. And fairness compels everyone to admit that he hasn’t shown a lack of heart either. His only sin was to underachieve compared to his potential and to expectations. It is smoke, not fire, so I’m going to take the risk.
A-OK also benefits from the tiebreaker. I cannot name a position where Pittsburgh has a need for talent equal to what’s missing in the current group of Tight Ends. You want a star TE1, require an acceptable TE2, and should also have either a reliable or a high-ceiling developmental TE3. The Steelers have half a star at TE1 because McDonald can’t stay on the field any more than Conner does. The Steelers have no TE2 at all if Vannett leaves in free agency, and only an acceptable/expensive one if they pay him. And the team has nothing but question marks at TE3 in Zach Gentry and Christian Scotland-Williamson. Yikes! That decides it. Albert O may be a boom-or-bust risk, but on the edge of Round 4 that makes him a relative bargain.
4:18 BPA at Offensive Line? That’s my instinct but let’s go with… DL Leki Fotu
Okay, I’m cheating on this one to illustrate some points. First, Pittsburgh hates to place too much emphasis on one side of the ball in any given draft. Yes, the whole “early gift” analogy has legs, and yes, that means I’ve now split my four picks 50/50: two “new picks” on offense, and two “predetermined picks” on defense. But analogies only go so far. Pressure is building to look at the potential defensive holes. And there are some. Javon Hargrave is likely to depart for a well-deserved free agent payday; backup Free Safety Kameron Kelly got himself arrested and summarily booted from the roster; we have only the unproven Uly Gilbert III as a backup to Devin Bush at Mack ILB; and the backup at Buck ILB (my main man Matakevich) may also be leaving, while Vince Williams could be a 2021 cap casualty. Thus at this point in the draft I am looking to fill several positions. And that leads to the much more important point:
Teams have to pick players, not positions.
“Need” is a tiebreaker. If Leki Fotu falls to Round 4 – unlikely, but possible – he would almost certainly be the best talent around and there will be no tie to break. Here is the current Big Board description:
HV 3:12 NT Leki Fotu, Utah. (Senior). 6’5″, 335 lbs. Probably the best semi-possible target for a NT after Round 2, Fotu has been described as a “versatile wrecking ball” with all the natural assets you want from a two-gap defender with pass rushing potential. Good motor, good effort, wonderful strength… He could rank even higher but for a serious need for coaching to make use of his natural leverage, understand his duties, and make tackles in addition to blowing up blocking schemes.
Mike Tomlin once described 1990’s-era, immovable-object Nose Tackles as the Blockbuster Video of defensive positions. No doubt that has a lot of truth. But the Titans’ success in this year’s playoff run, and the Jaguars’ in 2017, proves to me that powerful running attacks can still gut any NFL defense that does not have that particular VHS tape waiting on the shelf. Leki Fotu should be able to replace Hargrave with no decline in run stuffing ability. That is Round 5 value all on its own. The hope that he can do it with only a small decline as a pass rush is enough to raise his grade significantly.
Look folks: Javon Hargrave was a fringe-1st talent. Getting him in Round 3 was a world class steal! Leki Fotu in Round 4 would also be highway robbery, just at the truck-of-iPhones level rather than an armored car of jewels. I’ll take it.
4:29 Our pick from Tennessee-via-Miami turns into… Guard Michael Owenu
Wait a second, Hammer! Haven’t you said that you never get through a mock without taking WR Denzel Mims in the 4th? What’s the deal?
[Sigh]. Fare thee well draft crush! Maybe next time. Part of this decision has to do with the choice of A-OK at 3:comp and Dobbins in Round 2. That is two so-called “skill position” weapons, so a third would be gilding the lily. But there’s also the fact that I like what Owenwu has to offer. Here is the current description from our Big Board:
HV 4:01 G Michael Onwenu, Michigan. (Senior). 6’3”, 362 lbs. with long 34½” arms. Sleeper alert! Owenwu was a defensive NT who moved to Guard, and he is every bit as big, wide, strong, and long as that suggests. The question marks obviously go to his mastery of OL technique versus all the parallel bits that are Trenches-In-General, and his ability to pull and/or to reach and pin linebackers on the second level. He jumped up the Board after impressing all watchers with his movement at the Shrine Bowl practices; a trend that continued and led TDN’s Benjamin Solak to call him, “clearly the best offensive lineman here on either team.” Could he climb to the second level and pin the likes of Devin Bush? That’s a big ask, but he’d be a hell of an obstacle even for someone with that kind of mobility. Ask Devin. They did play on the same team.
I don’t put a lot of trust Senior Bowl hype, let alone buzz from the frickin’ Shrine Game Bowl, but Onwenu’s performance in practice week creates a certain amount of confidence that he has some genuine “boom” potential. I also had a chance to watch some film on Owenwu while looking at Alex Kozora’s gif-supported January scouting report on his teammate, Ben Bredeson. He looked much more like the Shrine Bowl star than the product of predraft hype.
Plus there’s the fact that he offers an OL prototype that Pittsburgh does not already have on the roster: an irresistible people-mover who can be the linchpin that mobile guys like Pouncey and DeCastro can work around. Multifaceted Guards are going to be off the Board by now. A backup center to replace Finney makes some sense too, along with a good backup Safety or ILB (discussed above). But I’m calling the big guy my BPA and going that way.
6:19 BPA at WR, Safety, ILB, or Center. Let’s go with… Safety Tanner Muse, Clemson.
Here is the current Big Board entry:
HV 6:01 SAF Tanner Muse, Clemson. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 230 lbs. A fine Day 3 target who will have a long NFL career on special teams if nothing else. Turns 24 as a rookie, which reduces his value a bit from the Pittsburgh perspective. He’s also something of a straight line athlete comparable to a bigger and faster version of the Steelers’ Marcus Allen. But the size, savvy, and speed are real. Tanner Muse ran down Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, a late-1st prospect, for a game saving, shoestring tackle in their Bowl game! And isn’t straight line speed the essential characteristic for a backup who might have to play single-high if Fitzpatrick gets hurt, with this kind of size as the ideal for a backup to Edmunds? Muse has played both roles for Clemson, and could for Pittsburgh too. That adds real value despite his flaws in the COD department, and the concomitant issues in coverage.
There are many Safeties in this draft who offer more of a 3-dimensional skillset. That includes several Round 4 targets like Reggie Floyd from Virginia Tech or Jordan Fuller from Ohio State. But they would be dream picks this deep in the draft, and picking one in Round 6 would be cheating. Tanner Muse could easily fall this far because he is such a straight-line athlete. You really don’t want to match him up in coverage on some slippery RB, or even a TE who runs good routes. But doesn’t he sound like a fit for what Pittsburgh wants? I’d describe that as (i) a speedy eraser-of-mistakes to play behind Minkah Fitzpatrick, (ii) a thumptin Cover-2 player to play behind Edmunds, and (iii) a special teams ace to replace the aging Dangerfield? Those jobs require decision making and straight line burst, not exceptional COD skills, which are exactly what Tanner Muse brings to the table.
His flaws are the ones we can accept; his assets are the ones we want; and thus I like him as a properly-shaped puzzle piece for this particular defense. I would not be surprised in the slightest if he turns out to be the actual pick in late April.
7:18 WR James Proche, SMU.
Let’s be real, people. It’s January! There is zero chance that anyone can get a good take on what is likely to happen twenty-something picks before Mr. Irrelevant is chosen in April. I’m only throwing out a name because it’s required to play the game fair. So why Proche (pronounced “pro-SHAY”)? It’s because I actually watched the film snippets in Daniel Valente’s gif-supported scouting report and I came away impressed.
This is a player with a skill set in the mold of Antonio Brown and Diontae Johnson. Pittsburgh’s offense has made better use of that skill set than anyone this side of Tom Brady, so why not reinforce success? Yes, I would prefer a genuine deep threat. Yes, I would prefer a titan-sized jump ball specialist. But at this point in the draft there isn’t going to be a speedster or a basketball Center more promising than the team’s current depth in WR’s Deon Cain, Amara Darboh, and Johnny Holton, combined with the 6’8” TE Zach Gentry (f/k/a “Lurch”) and the 6’9” TE Christian Scotland-Williamson.
Proche has as good a chance to stick with the team as any other Day 3 pick, and might be able to free up some cap room by replacing Ryan Switzer (who I like more than most, but not enough to protect him from rookie competition). Good enough for me.
So there you have it. My first Steelers mock of the year. Let me know what you think in the comments.