Is OT Isaiah Wilson A Viable Target At Pick #49?

I hope everyone is clear that my work on the Steelers Big Board amounts to a survey of the forest, without any more than a cursory focus on the individual trees. It approaches the draft from very different angle than our film watchers, who spend the time and effort to study particular prospects. I am just an avid draft fan who keeps copious notes, keeps them organized, and knows how to write. At this time of year I take in maybe half a dozen daily podcasts and other media outlets as part of that process, along with daily reviews of several websites I’ve come to respect. Wednesday’s “Move The Sticks” podcast, hosted by the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, focused on so-called “risers” in the draft. This article examines the rising buzz about one prospect in particular, the University of Georgia’s right tackle, Isaiah Wilson. But before I commence with the rumor mongering, I want to explain some limits on what is meant by terms like “rising up draft boards” and “buzz.”

Prospects almost never rise or fall on the actual boards of the various teams. Professional NFL scouts will finish their tape work and write their scouting reports by January in most cases, and there is an unwritten rule that those reports should not be second guessed. The scouts saw many of those prospects’ games in person, have been in and around the locker rooms, and have at least seen all available film on every snap in the young man’s college career. Yes, they are <i>that</i> thorough! Even more thorough, since the film they watch is typically going to be all-22, they get to watch practices too, and they get help from college coaches who will explain the play calls, defensive schemes, opponents, and other factors that help to explain the player’s actual assignment on those snaps. Indeed, the professional scouts see so very much film that a lot of their job has to do with charting the prospect’s growth over time in order to get a good feel of how well and how quickly he learns.

Thus from a team’s perspective, the January-to-draft process (Shrine Game, Senior Bowl, Combine, pro days, visits, etc.) is about triple-checking what’s already known. Meeting and talking with the young man in person is certainly more important. Heck, meeting with his family may also be more important than the analytics we use as a proxy for all the teams’ actual work. The biggest task for for the decision makers (Tomlin and Colbert) has to lie in collating the opinions of all their personnel (those meetings have to be insanely long!), and then personally duplicating the film work to confirm the scouts’ opinions with their own eyes. Bottom line: the professionals do N.O.T. take the same road as you and I, even if we are all aiming for the same final goal. (Okay, maybe the Bengals do but that is a whole other story).

So what does “rising” and “falling” mean if the whole process is fine sanding and polishing from a team’s point of view? What changes is our understanding of the prospects, and of how the teams view them. This is why team visits play such a central role for fan sites during any normal year. As for “buzz”… Well, one has to take late-arriving information with several grains of salt. They don’t call this the Lying Season for nothing! But at the same time, very few people are willing to lie in the face of old friends and acquaintances; and still less do they get the chance to do it a second time. Unreliable sources don’t get quoted. Thus we really do need to pay attention when good reporters like the Move The Sticks crowd, who have inside access and personal relationships, tell us that “multiple teams” like XYZ player more (or less) than popular opinion. There is no doubt they were actually told that; multiple sources negates a lot of the lying season stigma; it makes perfect sense for those team insiders to help their media friends out; those same sources will enjoy the power of doing so; it does those sources no harm if they don’t telegraph their own team’s intent; and, of course, true leaks are as old as time.

So “buzz” like this really does matter, and can be helpful. At least if taken in small doses and with some healthy skepticism. What buzz in particular? I’m glad you asked.

The word on the street says that many teams expect T/G Isaiah Wilson of Georgia to be drafted as high as the mid-20’s in Round 1. The rumor has spread far enough for PFF to call the idea “absurd” based on analytics like his weak 3-cone drill at the Combine. Should Steelers Nation give those rumors any more credence than the number crunchers? Well… yes.

Fans on these pages have held mixed opinions on Wilson from the very beginning of the process. On the one hand, his skills are Round 3 raw. Don’t oversell that just because you are one of his many fans! Our own Tom Mead did this excellent, gif-supported March scouting report that I, for one, am willing to take as gospel. Isaiah Wilson will come to the NFL with significant flaws in his footwork and hand fighting skills; those skills will not be solved without at least a year of focused coaching and effort; and he won’t be any significant help at the Offensive Tackle position in 2020 unless there are serious injuries. Round 3 tape, and no better. The other scouting reports I have seen reach similar conclusions, if usually with weaker analysis on the details.

On the other hand, Tom joins with everyone else in saying that Wilson has all but unlimited physical potential. Pull out your magic coaching wand, do a swish and flick to add technical excellence onto the physical assets, and you’ll have a HOF player. That part is just as clear, and Wilson critics should not ignore this side of the balance. Everyone also agrees that Wilson, a redshirt Sophomore who will turn 21 this year, would have had his arrow pointed distinctly upward if he’d gone back to school. His technique has gotten nothing but better with every game he played; he obviously works at it; Georgia is one of the few college programs that instill good fundamentals into their offensive linemen; and he has no known red flags from either a health or character point of view. It also helps that he is a walking refrigerator, not an oversized TE, and thus should have the versatility to move inside to Guard if he can’t figure out the nuances required of an edge protector.

So where do you end up when you combine a Round 3 film grade with that kind of potential? In most of those cases the player really does go back to school, hoping to come out next year with a Top 5-10 grade. That “why didn’t you…?” would be the first question I’d want to ask him in any personal interview. But of course I can’t do that, so the bottom line has to be this: Wilson comes with a Round 3 floor for amateur scouts, and a wide margin for error to let him move up in the eyes of a team that gets all the right answers to our unknowns.

Could that team be the Steelers? Hell yes. This is a team with great faith in the magic wands of it’s coaches and culture! Fans need look no further than Terrell Edmunds, T.J. Watt, and Ryan Shazier for examples of early picks by Colbert & Co. that were spent on high ceiling athletes with limited film to support the grade. Bud Dupree too, though edge rushers often get more of a bump from pure athletic genius than prospects at other spots. Same for Artie Burns, who’d be the cautionary tale, and second round picks like Diontae Johnson (don’t be pedantic), JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Sean Davis.

Isaiah Wilson fits squarely into the Steelers’ pattern of preference for the past several years. Young, athletic, ideal measurements, playing a position of want, successful big school experience, with a floor that should prevent total busthood, and an all pro (or better) ceiling. That’s our model! And as usual it is balanced by legitimate concerns over a lack of Round 1 film, distinct but coachable flaws in his technique, and very little chance of being an immediate contributor.

Please be clear that I am not trying to sell anyone on Isaiah Wilson. I will freely admit that I have several offensive linemen higher on my personal board. But this is a rumor we ought to take seriously, and I would take it just as seriously if the Steelers were picking at #25 instead of #49. The margin of error really is that big.

Here is the current Big Board entry:

HV 2:12 – T/G Isaiah Wilson, Georgia. (RS Sophomore). 6’6½”, 350 lbs. with looong 35½” arms and big 10¼” hands. First point: he is young, as in only about to turn 21 years old. Second point: he looks extraordinarily good on the hoof; this is the young man who looked like a Greek god at the Combine. As the two-year starting Right Tackle for a run-heavy offense, Wilson has earned a reputation as a ferocious run blocker with Round 1 athletic potential, but (for the NFL) poor technique in pass protection. Georgia often protected him with a chipping RB or TE on his side for pass plays. But Oh! The potential! Wilson has the raw talent to achieve any heights; so much so that he’s become a late riser earning serious Round 1 buzz from the likes of Daniel Jeremiah. It helps that his run blocking ability suggests the ability to play Guard if the movement skills at Tackle can’t be perfected. That added floor/versatility should enhance his appeal to the Steelers in particular. The athletic testing showed great explosiveness but poor COD skills, which combine to an NFL-top-third (67th percentile) SPARQ score. This gif-supported March scouting report from Tom Mead sees very little in the way of physical ceiling, but many issues (starting with foot- and hand work) that need to be addressed before he can earn pro snaps. Lance Zierlein’s scouting profile notes that he improved throughout 2019 and has massive upside, but also assumes at least one redshirt year of work on both the hands and feet before he can be fairly judged. This article provides good background. This January, Bears-oriented scouting profile summarizes the issues well: very good going downhill, not so much stepping back for pass pro. Here is a nice, very brief summary from a Cleveland POV.

For what it’s worth, this class features several other linemen who fit that general description of what the Steelers look for. Keep your eye out for Tackles Lucas Niang, Ezra Cleveland, and Austin Jackson, in particular. The best IOL’s, Center/Guards Cesar Ruiz and Lloyd Cushenberry III, fit the profile equally well (though rumor has Ruiz now firmly embedded in Round 1). This abundance of bargain talent is why so many fans see Offensive Line as one of the most likely targets for Pittsburgh in the 2020 draft. It helps that there are five (5!) other Tackles who are generally considered Round 1 locks. Teams rarely pass over talented OL’s, let alone Tackles, but can you really imagine a full 20% of the top 50 going to just the offensive linemen? With this much quality also showing at QB, WR, and Corner? And several legitimate mid-first talents at other positions?

I can’t. It seems all but certain that a few of these young prototypes should fall to where the Steelers pick at #49. They wouldn’t in most years – not any of them except the C/G types – but this year it seems inevitable, and it’s as hard to see the Steelers ignoring them as it would for all those other teams if there were only they typical 4-6 instead of 10-12.

Isaiah Wilson to Pittsburgh at #49. Don’t pencil it in, but don’t rule it out.

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