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. The details shift, but it always comes down to choosing the Best Player Available (“BPA”) in any given year. Most years are kind enough to offer a player who also matches up to a roster hole. That isn’t the case in 2020 because the Steelers are a pretty complete team and the Tight End class is… you know. The best ones in the class (imo Kmet and Trautman are tied for “TE-1”) haVe a grade equivalent to OT-9, WR-11, QB-6, and RB-6. Never mind all the players at Edge, DL, Safety, and a pretty good Corner class.
That is why I keep coming back to a position of secondary want on offense. Need is a tiebreaker; I would rather get the better player at the lesser position. It’s only a matter of which one; hence this series of mocks to examine the possibilities.
The first time through I explored the ”Top RB falls to Round 2” scenario, which may still be the most likely. After that I went out of the box to choose “Mr. Trade Down in Round 2”. This time I will look at a third possibility, which happens to be one of my favorites.
1:18 Lest anyone forget, we’ve already made our Round 1 pick: FREE SAFETY MINKAH FITZPATRICK.
Some big time expert made a good point the other day. If you were picking at #1 or #2 overall and had your choice between (a) any non-Quarterback prospect in the draft, and (b) the 100% guarantee that you were getting a Year 2 all-pro Free Safety who would fit your locker room to perfection, which one would you choose? He had a simple answer: “You deserve to be fired if you chose anyone but Minkah Fitzpatrick.”
2:17 T/G LUCAS NIANG
I’ve been doing this for a while, and I feel comfortable saying that a typical draft will offer two or three Offensive Tackle locks with early Round 1 grades, one or two expected to go in the mid- to late 1st (15-25), and another one or two with 20-40 grades that Tackle-needy teams will often push into the late 1st. A total of 4-6 in all. Early-2nd picks tend to be caused by red flags such as an injury concern or a small school background.
How good is 2020? This year we have no less than four early-1st locks who should be picked from #3-15 (Mekhi Becton, Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills & Tristan Wirfs); two in the 15-25 mid-1st group (Austin Jackson and Josh Jones); three more in the typical 20-40 category (Lucas Niang, Prince Tega Wanogho, and Isaiah Wilson); and another three who’d be #25-45 picks if the year was weak enough to cause a sense of desperation. (Robert Hunt and Matt Peart are small school guys, and Trey Adams has medical red flags). Wide Receivers aren’t the only part of this class that’s amazingly deep.
What are the odds? Tackles don’t fall in the draft any more than QB’s or Edge Rushers. They just don’t. But you saw the list! It has to be considered.
As it happens, the Steelers are in pretty good shape at Tackle; far better than most of the league. Villanueva is on the far side of 30 but ought to be a league-average blindside protector for the next 2-4 years. Feiler is an RFA (big money in 2021), and likely to leave a hole when he moves in to play Guard. But that hole has two very viable contenders to fill it in Chuks Okorafor (blindside capable but hasn’t “arrived” yet) and Zach Banner (a true RT who has worked his way up). I confidently expect at least three of those four to be solid contributors for the foreseeable future.
The young men we are talking about here project as a lot more than “solid contributors”. These are Round 1 talents who should, on average, reach Villanueva’s level and have obvious all-pro-or-better ceilings if everything works out. I’m a little torn about whether the team would do better to (a) grab a great, run-blocking RT with Guard flexibility or (b) someone who profiles better as a blindside protector. In the abstract those long, lean, 300+ pound genius athletes are harder to find than the 320+ pound merely-great athletes. But enough is enough with the speculation! I will get OT-7 on my personal list, who just happens to be:
|T/G Lucas Niang, TCU. (Senior). 6’6”, 315 lbs. with long 34¼” arms and big 10½” hands. Lance Zierlein is a fan: the NFL.com scouting profile calls him “a scheme diverse Right Tackle [and] help-now right tackle prospect who should be a long-time starter.” Probably a Round 1 pick if he had not required hip surgery for a torn labrum late in 2019. Niang said the hip was a long term problem that had slowed him down significantly all year. This nice, Cleveland-oriented January article describes Niang as an ideal Right Tackle for the sort of zone blocking scheme that will ask him to move in space, find someone to block, and demolish the guy he finds. Here is a brief, Redskins-oriented scouting profile from early January. This Giants-oriented scouting profile from February has highlights from the game against Purdue, and concludes that Niang is an “ascending prospect” who only needs to build more crispness and urgency into his game.|
How much do I like this pick? Put it this way:
- Fantasy Note From Art Rooney: “Congratulations, Scott. You just won Round 1… and you did it with a Round 2 pick. After we Minkah Bloody Fitzpatrick in the 1st! Kevin Colbert needs an heir…”
Lance Zierlein’s father was the Steelers’ offensive line coach for several years before Mike Munchak arrived. The son has forgotten more about offensive line play than I will ever know, and he isn’t given to pie in the sky speculations. When Zierlein says a prospect can “help now” it carries some weight. That said, let’s cut the statement back for the sake of argument. Let’s say that Niang will be a mere backup for his rookie year; we will have to wait for Year 2 before the decade-long Right Tackle starter and occasional all-pro emerges. Are you kidding me?
Offensive linemen are never sexy picks. They don’t put points on the scoreboard. They are just vital, foundational, long term parts of the team that you can’t survive without. If you dislike this pick, you don’t know football. It’s as plain and simple as that.
You can argue that the RB or the WR1 would be a home run while the OT is just a double to the wall. That’s fair. You can argue that a Round 1 Tackle won’t fall to #49 overall even in this crazy class. That is more than fair, and probably true. The glut of OT talent is a lot more likely to result in an all-star RB being available than a potential all-star at OT. But if a Tackle rated as a Top 20-40 ‘all-years’ talent really does become available, I say the team should jump for joy and run to the podium.
Equivalent OL talents: Austin Jackson, Josh Jones, Prince Tega Wanogho, and Isaiah Wilson. NOTE: Jackson and Wilson may be preferred to Niang because they are both only 20 years old.
Equivalent picks at other positions: RB’s Cam Akers, Deandre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire; WR’s Jalen Reagor, Denzel Mims, Tee Higgins, and Justin Jefferson; C/G Cesar Ruiz.
3:19 Lest anyone forget: MACK ILB DEVIN BUSH
Greatest. Draft. Ever. [At least until the next mock].
3:36 (Estimated Compensatory Pick at #100 overall): SAFETY JEREMY CHINN
A lot of the recent improvement in Pittsburgh’s defense comes from adding superior athletes with enough speed and flexibility to reclaim the middle of the field from tricky offensive coordinators armed with a multitude of fast weaponry and advantageous new rules. The main picks were Minkah Fitzpatrick (via trade), Terrell Edmunds, and Devin Bush. The depth behind those three leaves some room for concern, particularly at the Safety position. Even better, #3 Safeties can find lots of snaps in other parts of the game, from special teams to Big Nickel and Big Dime sub packages. Adding a Safety makes a lot of sense, even if it does delay my goal of giving the offense some real play makers.
|SAF Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois. (Senior). 6’3”, 221 lbs. A playmaker for a very small program who might be described as a poor man’s Terrell Edmunds. The athletic profiles are remarkably similar, though Edmunds was more advanced as a player.(We cannot know if Chinn deserves the startling character raves that also helped to boost Edmunds’ stock. Chinn’s speed (4.45) and explosiveness wowed everyone at the Combine but he will see next to no defensive snaps as a rookie because the football IQ and technical nuances are too far behind. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile suggests that he might do even better to add ten pounds and convert to the Mack ILB side of the line – just as many said about Edmunds.|
At this point in the post-Combine afterglow most fans doubt that Jeremy Chinn could fall out of Round 2, let alone all the way to a compensatory pick in Round 3. Consider this my humble effort to start dragging that kite back toward earth.
That athletic comparison to Edmunds is a very good one. The differences appear in all the other evaluation metrics: (i) Edmunds started for Virginia Tech rather than Nowhere U., (ii) Edmunds came from an illustrious football family, and (iii) Edmunds turned 21 around two months before the 2018 draft. That combination had his stock at the end of Round 2 on most public boards. It only crept up toward the late 1st in the final few weeks, when (iv) word leaked out of astonishingly good interviews and team meetings that gave him a much higher than expected floor. Jeremy Chinn is in the opposite situation for (i), (ii), and (iii), and we have no reason to assume that he has awed professional scouts with his off-field qualities for point (iv). If Edmunds was a legitimate late-2nd on an all-years, all-teams scale for most of 2018, then Chinn ought to be getting a late-3rd to early-4th grade in 2020.
So why not wait? It’s because I really do appreciate the value a good #3 Safety would provide, and this class offers a dearth of possibilities. I also think that Chinn would do better in Pittsburgh than almost anywhere else, because the Steelers can bring him along slowly. They do not need the SAF-3 to be more than a special teams super-stud, and (injuries aside) can afford to only expose him on defense with some relatively narrow sub packages. That’s the perfect situation for a player like Chinn. And he will have a legitimate chance to blossom here too, because there will be a serious salary cap crunch when both Fitzpatrick and Edmunds come off their rookie deals together.
Equivalent picks: Safeties Terrell Burgess, Kyle Dugger, and K’Von Wallace; TE’s Brycen Hopkins and Albert Okwuebugnam; Guards [numerous]; WR’s [numerous]; DT Leki Fotu.
4:18 RB ZACK MOSS or A.J. DILLON
You saw the lists up above. WR’s and RB’ are going to fall in this draft by simple dint of numbers. Zack Moss is a likely victim because he won’t be every team’s cup of tea. Teams that run Pittsburgh’s gap/power/inside zone scheme will have him rated as a Round 2 prospect, but those that look for home run hitters and outside zone players may not have him on their boards at all.
|RB Zack Moss, Utah. (Senior). 5’9⅜”, 223 lbs. A higher pedigree version of Conner and Snell, Moss profiles as a smart, between the tackles power back with good size, surprisingly nifty feet, and awesome production. He is Utah’s all time leader in rushing yards, scrimmage yards, touches, and touchdowns by a good margin. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting report could not be more enthusiastic: “Watching Moss’ game tape is like watching an exercise in controlled violence on just about every carry, but his vision, balance, patience and wiggle are additional skills that help to make him a well-rounded runner… He is a great fit for [Pittsburgh’s] gap and inside zone-heavy rushing attacks and could become an effective, instant starter.” This gif-supported January scouting report emphasizes character as one of the hidden assets. Tore his ACL in 2018 (climbing into bed of all things) and then bounced back for a typically marvelous 2019. Anyone who was disappointed with Moss’s 4.65 dash at the Combine should know that James Conner also ran a 4.65, Benny Snell ran a 4.67, and Moss had tweaked a hamstring before the run anyway. On film he is a step faster than either of Pittsburgh’s current stable.|
The other Running Back I would seriously consider is a young man who often gets compared to Conner, but who blew up the Combine at a level far beyond Pittsburgh’s current starter:
|RB A.J. Dillon, Boston College. (Junior). 6’⅜”, 247 lbs. If this was a Tennessee Titans board and we thought they needed someone to step in for Derrick Henry, Dillon would have a Round 2 grade. But for the 2019 Steelers…? He’s actually bigger and runs every bit as hard as either Conner or Snell. And it should be said that the NFL.com scouting profile (which uses James Conner as the comp) sees room for him to lose some weight, add some quickness, and become really elite. If he is more Conner 2.0 than Snell 2.0, he is also a viable target for the pick at 3:comp. This short but apparently sound January scouting profile also notes his lack of any proven receiving ability (also true for Conner as a prospect). Dillon put up a series of very impressive results at the Combine, headlined by a 4.53 dash and two amazing jumps that put him into the top 3-4% of the NFL from a SPARQ perspective.|
I am not in the school that believes RB is a particular weakness of the current Pittsburgh roster. I do, however, think it is an area that can be improved; I worry about Conner’s ability to stay healthy; I worry about Snell’s ability to be more than a backup; and I foresee a salary cap issue next year when Conner will need to be paid. Both Mack and Dillon would be good picks because Pittsburgh’s offense absolutely requires excellent RB play, and either one would guarantee it.
Also considered: TE’s Devin Asiasi, Brycen Hopkins, and Dalton Keene; Guards [numerous]; WR’s [numerous].
4:29 (from Tennessee via Miami) WR LYNN BOWDEN
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Diontae Johnson did so exceptionally well last year because, in part, he brought a level of pure speed to the offense that no one else could offer. Juju Smith Schuster isn’t slow, but his game is built on size and power. He makes easier mincemeat out of undersized, quick-and-fast CB’s than he does out of bigger ones who are hard to bully. James Washington isn’t slow either, but his game is all about being well rounded. Washington comes with a vast array of poison pills, and the sheer variety lets him abuse whatever weakness a particular Corner may have. Only Johnson has a game built on elite speed and quickness.
Lynn Bowden is another wild card; a playmaker more like a tough but elusive RB in space than a slashing WR.
|WR Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky (Junior). 5’10⅝”, 204 lbs. Will turn 23 as a rookie. A tremendous athlete with frightening elusiveness in space, it might be fair to describe him as more Deebo Samuel than Diontae Johnson. Josh Carney’s gif-supported January scouting report points out that Bowden Jr. is tougher to project than he should be due to playing option QB on an emergency basis for much of 2019. OTOH, that shows fine team spirit too. He desperately needs to learn his position, but finding this kind of lightning-in-a-bottle playmaker at his size suggests a potentially special talent down the road. Good kick return skills too. The biggest critique is the need for more discipline securing the ball. This gif-supported February scouting report from a Packers site compares him to Randall “Tex” Cobb. This February scouting profile is essential reading to understand Bowden because it fills in the career perspective. The NFL.com scouting profile agrees with Randall Cobb as the comp, though Steelers fans may prefer going back to Kordell Stewart.|
This is my spot in the draft for a Wide Receiver because I believe it is where the run of major talent run will start to taper off. There will be deals in Round 6, but at this point there are still some special ones to be had. Please note that I considered a lot of other WR’s and I could make equally good arguments for most of them. All would be very sound Round 3 picks in an average year. Getting them in the late 4th is a true steal. The only question is which ones will actually be there to choose from.
The Size XXL options like Claypool-the-Combine-Buster, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Isaiah Hodgins, Collin Johnson, and Michael Pittman Jr. have appeal because they can be treated like “Move TE’s” who block even worse than the rest of this class. Devin Duvernay is a straight-ahead speed guy with good RAC ability, and speed is a skill that’s easy to convert into playmaking. Quartney Davis, K.J. Hill, Van Jefferson, and James Proche are all receivers who will simply get open. It is a no-lose situation. Today I ended up with Bowden
Also considered: TE’s Devin Asiasi, Brycen Hopkins, and Dalton Keene. NOTE TO ALL WHO CARE: Every one of those got picked in this mock between 4:22 and 4:28 so the gods could laugh at the anguish of Steeler Nation. Life is unfair. Tight End at 1:32 in 2021!
6:19 SLOT CB/FS LEVONTA TAYLOR
I love having Javon Hargrave on the team and will deeply regret losing him to free agency. He provides luxury depth like 1000-count silk sheets on the defensive line. [Trust me on that one. It’s a good thing.] But “luxury” is the key word in that sentence because the modern game has moved toward having a third DT on the field for less than a third of the snaps. The once-essential Nose Tackle is now a sub-package specialist, and the Steelers actually prefer a penetrating 1-tech more than a Hamptonesque 0-tech.
Thus I may feel the loss of Hargrave acutely but it causes me no particular concern. The lack of an almost-elite Nose Tackle will create barely a blip on the radar if Stephon Tuitt can stay healthy, and Alualu makes a fine DT-3 even if Hargrave was marginally better. I originally wrote in DT Larell Murchison to this spot anyway, but then asked Alex to reopen the post because I could not justify picking a prospect that good a full round after the lowest point where I think he might fall. And once I dug down to the prospects who legitimately belong in Round 6… why bother? A 2-down run stuffer will be available as a UDFA.
So what next? I really tried to imagine a worthwhile Tight End at this point in the draft, and I simply couldn’t. They are so thin on the ground that no pick who might stick on the team is going to be available after Round 4. WR’s would be easy, but I just picked one. QB…? I really like James Morgan from FIU around now, but I just wrote that article on why QB’s should not be rejected out of hand. User name aside, it would be trite to hammer that same nail twice in a row. Both Alex and Dave just picked an OLB in their mocks, so I didn’t want to go there again either. And Jeremy Chinn doubles up as a depth piece behind the Mack ILB.
That left either Matakevich 2.0, which I’ve done before, or something out of left field:
|FS/CB Levonta Taylor, Fla. St. (Senior). 5’10”, 190 lbs. An unaccountable Combine snub, Taylor was the #1 CB in the nation coming out of High School and has played every position in college from outside and slot Corner to Free- and Strong Safety. The physical talent is there, and the size isn’t “bad”, just kind of average. Would a Cam Sutton channeled more toward Free Safety and slot work really be a problem? The Draft Network scouting profile contains no hint of why he’s been so invisible on draft boards; it just confirms that he’s got the talent to succeed as a slot/FS tweener.|
Pittsburgh’s CB situation has solidified for the first time in a decade. I love the combination of Haden and Nelson, with Layne as the understudy outside, Sutton in the slot, and Mike Hilton snatching snaps in Nickel because he’s just too good to leave off the field. Yes, Haden is getting toward that age where he’s bound to lose that essential step (c.f. Ike Taylor). And yes, Justin Layne remains unproven. And yes, sooner or later Mike Hilton will hit the open market. So there is a chance that things could go…
No. Stop. I hate that kind of catastrophizing. The CB group is in good shape. I don’t need to poke holes in order to justify a Round 6 pick! At this point in the draft it just makes sense to pick superior talents and then let the chips fall where they may. Everything I have read says that Levonta Taylor should be getting Round 3 buzz, but all the public boards weem to give him a round 7 or UDFA grade. What is going on? I just don’t know. But in Round 6 I am willing to do some bargain hunting, plain and simple. Please share in the comments If you know why his stock has been so depressed. I’m writing the pick in pencil, not ink.
NOTE: I really think this particular draft pick (Round 6) could be the most random one in the entire draft. Again, please share if you have a late round draft crush who deserves consideration. Your rationale won’t be any flimsier than what I just wrote above.
Also considered: QB James Morgan; Edge Rushers like Casey Toohill and Jabari Zuniga; Buck ILB’s like Evan Weaver; any DT that might fall.
7:18 CENTER GAGE CERVENKA
Now this one I’m writing with a Sharpie! Why? Because B.J. Finney deserves to earn some real money as a potential starter, and I have very high hopes for this particular prospect; far beyond where he gets ranked on the public boards.
|G/C Gage Cervenka, Clemson. (RS Senior). 6’2¾”, 321 lbs. with big 10½” hands and acceptable length (32⅛” arms). Sleeper alert! Cervenka started college as a monstrously strong Defensive Tackle who was moved across the line to Guard in 2016, played some Center too in 2019, and is still learning the techniques of OL play. Technically, he’s a half step behind. Physically, he’s right up there with the best in the class when it comes to playing in the phone booth. Cervenka set the all-time Clemson record for the bench press and has the elite body dynamics, balance and other assets to be expected from a three time state champion wrestler. There is real upside here to play people-mover in the power running game if he can absorb the necessary coaching to play with NFL technique.|
That profile fits my image of the ideal steal at C/G about as perfectly as anyone could. The only thing missing is proof that he can run like the wind to pulling like Dirt Dawson from 1988-2000, and Pouncey from 2010 to date. HOF’ers aside, I’ll settle for a Round 7 flier on the tough guy with good size, good smarts, incredible strength, and an elite wrestling background.
Yes, he is a project despite my glowing list of his assets and accomplishments. Yes, he’ll need to be stashed on the practice squad and trained up for a year before getting revealed to the world. But I believe the potential “boom” is awesome, and you can’t ask for anything more at this point in the draft.