I’m told the year’s final mock draft should predict where I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are most likely to go. The mind-reading tin foil cap is officially on, so let’s get to it.
ROUND 1, PICK #18 SAFETY MINKAH FITZPATRICK
I’m pretty sure about this one. I know it’s unrealistic to believe the Steelers could convince Miami to release the best young Free Safety in the game in exchange for the 18th overall pick. Fitzpatrick was touted as all but a lock for getting picked in the Top 5-10 of the 2018 draft, and I know for a fact that the Steelers loved him. The Dolphins scored a huge win getting him at #11. So why would Miami give up a proven NFL all-pro who’s still on his rookie deal, in exchange for a weaker pick on someone who’s still unproven? I have no idea. I wouldn’t do it. But I trust Kevin Colbert to work his magic.
2020, Round 1 = Minkah Fitzpatrick. Put it down in ink. I have money available if anyone wants to bet. Any takers?
ROUND 2, PICK #49 RB CLYDE EDWARDS-HELAIRE
I’m sure this will be a pick on offense, and 90% sure it will be either an Offensive Tackle, a Running Back, or a Wide Receiver. I’m just not sure about which position and player will be the match. Here’s my logic for ending up at CEH.
By now you all know my logic for offense winning the tiebreaker. (A) Kevin Colbert strongly prefers to maintain some semblance of balance between picks on either side of the ball, (B) the Steelers have pre-spent the Round 1 and Round 3 picks on defensive stars, and (C) there won’t be any defensive talents who are amazingly better than the offensive talent on the board. But which position and player should I pick?
The key to this lies in the right point of view. Over the years Kevin Colbert has said that he tries to view the draft as if he was looking back from the end of Year 2 and Year 3. I see it like this. Year 1 is Thanksgiving gravy. Everyone loves it, and it matters, but gravy isn’t the feast. And Years 4-whatever are like the lunches and leftovers on the days to come. Only a spendthrift fool would fail to account for them, and in the long run they matter more than the gravy, but you still want to focus on the feast itself.
The Steelers have no true needs going into 2020. ThI team could play a game tomorrow with every position ably manned. So this is a draft to focus on upgrading the starters where possible, finding players for specific schemes and roles, and adding depth. In Round 2 I think Colbert will look for the upgrade; which narrows the choice down to this:
“Which player on the Board will improve this team the most in 2021 and 2022?”
Here are the ones I think he will be choosing from, with a few arbitrarily crossed off to show earlier picks:
T/G Josh Jones
Prince Tega Wanogho
Lloyd Cushenberry III—-
Laviska Shenault Jr.
I eliminate the WR’s because none of them are markedly better than the other players, and I have faith that one of those will be available later in the draft.
I eliminate Ruiz and Cushenberry because of positional value. Stefen Wisniewski is only 31. He can hold down the fort for at least the two years he’s under contract. We are okay if Pouncey gets hurt or Feiler fails to perform as expected at Guard. That leaves only the Tackles and the RB’s.
My personal impulse would be to go for one of the Tackles because of pure positional value. From my vantage here in 2022 I imagine that Al Villanueva will still be going strong on the left but may be telling me he wants to retire, and on the right either Chuks Okorafor or Zach Banner will have emerged while the other will be gone in free agency. At the worst I will need to pick up a Guard because I Matt Feiler had to transition back out to Tackle, which would be easy enough. The thing is, none of those Tackles is going win all-pro commendations on the basis of play alone. They are going to be a solid NFL pro, but no more than that. An upgrade – and all three of the Tackles on the Board could be very significant upgrades – would secure the offensive line for several years into the future.
Major value because Tackles are very hard to find. It’s the better team building move when viewed in the longer term. So why do I think a Running Back will overcome all that in the eyes of Kevin Colbert? I’m glad you asked.
First, the Steelers have never placed as much emphasis on Tackles as the rest of the league. My personal premium on the position is, I believe, a little stronger than Colbert’s. And second, I think he is in even more of a “win now” mode than I am. He’s just calm and cool about it in public. I think Colbert and Tomlin are obsessed with this problem:
Fourth quarter in a playoff game. One of the final two drives. Only a field goal difference in the score. 3rd-and-3 in the middle of the field. The Steelers come to the line relying on Ben Roethlisberger to scan the defense and check into either a running play or a pass. Eight defenders are in the box. Does Roethlisberger have any choice? Is he forced to check into the passing play because our running attack can’t be trusted to get those three yards?
Remember, this is 2021 and 2022. If Conner is in this late in the season, he is costing a fortune of cap space and is probably playing in pain. I would not be worried if he was fully healthy, but I don’t believe he will be. If Snell is in, I trust him to get two of those yards and to fight like heck for the other, but the defense will know that run is coming between the tackles and can plan accordingly. If a rookie is in, he’s still a bloody rookie even if he is a sensation. RB’s adapt to the NFL better than other positions, but they still don’t hit their primes until Year 2 or 3. So I’m afraid the answer is that Ben will have no choice, and that means the defense can essentially force the Steelers to attempt a pass in any key situation. I trust Ben to complete that pass 75% of the time, but those odds will go down against playoff caliber defenses. It sticks in my [expletive] craw! How many of these opportunities will we have before it’s Mason Rudolph making that call?
I’m not worried in 2021 and 2022 if the RB1 is one of these young studs from 2020. In his Year 2 he will be playing up to his full potential. That defense will be on it’s heels, not dictating the play. Plus there’s this: James Conner will get big money if Pittsburgh has to either pay his second contract or keep him on the franchise tag. But he may have little market if the Steelers aren’t caught over the proverbial barrel. Bring on a 2020 stud, and James Conner may well be back In 2021 as the league’s best RB-1b. I know Mike Tomlin prefers a bell cow approach, but having two really good RB-1’s would allow him to rest either one whenever the bumps and bruises pile up. Where’s the downside? If Conner really does get the big money offer and leaves, I get a compensatory pick, have Benny Snell as the RB-2, and won’t have the same health concerns. If Conner returns at an acceptable price, so much the better.
The RB will give me at least as much and maybe more than the OT in 2021 and 2022. He’ll give me less in future lunches, but I can balance that out with the extra gravy in 2020. Edge to the OT in Year 3-8 value. Edge to the RB in Year 1-3 value. Tie in Year 3-4 value. Which way do I go…? I’d go long term, but I believe that Colbert will go with the window for Ben. There’s just too much smoke coming from every local source with access to the front office, coaching staff, and the players.
Why CEH over Taylor or Akers? I honestly have them grouped very close together. Gil Brandt, whose opinion deserves some respect, has Taylor at #24 on his board, with CEH at #55 and Akers all the way down at #107. I could see Taylor as the guy who is likelier to get you on the plus side of that 4th season score, but CEH is the one who would be most sure to make that all-important 3rd-and-3. He is just too good at making the first guy miss, and can also run inside if you play for him to bounce the ball outside. What the devil do you defend against? Akers is somewhere between the two, though he always runs extra hard. It is a pick ’em situation, but I will go with the guy who played his best football in the biggest games all through his college career.
ROUND 3, PICK #83 One quarter of the value to trade up for ILB Devin Bush
Minkah in the 1st is an actual pick. This one less so, since the team actually used one on Bush in 2019. So I won’t call it as two defensive picks versus just one on offense. Let’s just say the picks so far have clearly tilted toward the defensive side of the ball. There is still a tiebreaking finger on the scale in favor of another offensive pick; but it is a lighter finger than the one for Round 2.
ROUND 3, PICK #102 ILB Willie Gay Jr.
This is the hardest pick in the draft for me to predict because I think there will be a clear BPA choice. To be perfectly honest, I wrote this article with a blank until I went through the whole decision making process. Here is the Board that I will work from:
T/G Ben Bartch
G/T Robert Hunt
G Damien Lewis
C/G Tyler Biadasz
G/T Saahdiq Charles
C Matt Hennessy
Lynn Bowden Jr.
Willie Gay Jr.
I have no confidence that any of these players will provide an upgrade over a current starter in Year 2 or Year 3. It takes a pretty good roster to say that, so that doesn’t upset me. It just means I am looking for players who will get snaps in specific schemes and roles, and who will add quality depth behind my starters. Preferably both.
Okay, I’m going to write off the QB’s because Colbert & Tomlin told us to, and on the assumption that a really good one won’t fall this far. CB goes too because it will be the hardest position to find snaps, and I only listed it to bring Amik Robertson to everyone’s attention. (We are likely to lose Mike Hilton to free agency, and Robertson would be an ideal mighty-mite to replace his role on the team). I will also eliminate the defensive linemen, since they will be nothing but depth behind our starters in 2021 and 2022. DT-4 competing to be DT-3 earns fewer snaps than the other positions. I will eliminate the Edge players because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t like any of them as much as the available talent at other spots. And the same logic applies to the Offensive Tackles. Getting a potential star in Round 2 was nigh irresistible, but at this point they only add quality depth.
Whew! That leaves the following:
C/G Tyler Biadasz
G/T Saahdiq Charles
C Matt Hennessy
Willie Gay Jr.
I have a light finger on the scale in favor of the offense. Is that enough?
The three OL’s have yellow flags that need to be checked. Tyler Biadasz has some lingering medical issues that severely impacted his 2019 play compared to 2018. Do I trust that he will recover his form? If so, that’s early-2nd value. Saahdiqu Charles has maturity concerns. If he blows me away on that front, he is also Round 2 value and has the positional edge. And Matt Hennessy has questions about his ability to play Guard, and may not be realistic since he was #34(!) on Gil Brandt’s board.
I will write all of them off. They are long term upgrades and would be the pick here if the warning signs have positive answers. This would be too easy, ao I won’t assume it.
The WR’s will be competing for the WR-4 spot against Deon Cain, Ryan Switzer, and other players with low roster spots, plus special teams snaps. A good WR-4 has an easy road to being a 2021/2022 contributor, with a true “upgrade” ceiling if he can grow into a better player than any of Pittsburgh’s current Big Three. These are quality prospects, and they could do that.
Solid. But the defensive positions get a leg up because they should be perfect players to excel on special teams. That evens out the finger on the scale.
The ILB’s have a real upgrade opportunity too if they can supplant Vince Williams, who is probably the most vulnerable starter on the defensive side of the ball. Willie Gay Jr. would be the pick here for sure, but he comes with a lot of smoke due to an academic scandal and a fight in the locker room. Daniel Jeremiah has said good things about his interviews and indicated that the teams aren’t worried. I don’t like the other two prospects as much as I like the three Safeties. There is very little depth behind the two starters at that position, and lots of sub package snaps for the Big Nickel package. Speed at ILB and/or Safety will also help Kevin Butler to craft specialty packages that could counter what Baltimore likes to do with Lamar Jackson.
Choices, choices… Willie Gay Jr., Devin Duvernay, Brandon Jones, or K’Von Wallace? Those are my favorites.
I’m going with the ILB.
ROUND 4, PICK #124 WR Devin Duvernay
Kevin Colbert does not hold with efforts to “play” the board. He picks his highest rated player. Duvernay almost got my nod at #102. At #124 I won’t even hesitate.
I have seen – in fact I usually see – Duvernay falling all the way to #135, but I would be delighted to get him here and it isn’t worth fooling around in the hope of getting a double bargain. The WR’s are going to be flying off the board in Round 4 as we come to the last of the 25 or so who deserve to get picked no later than Round 3. I am taking no chances. It is the offense’s turn, he ranks higher on my board than any of the Guards, so this is the pick.
ROUND 4, PICK #135 SAF Alohi Gilman
This is another pick where I think the available choices are going to dictate the choice. I have not addressed the Offensive Line yet, but this tier of OL prospects lack the position flexibility that Pittsburgh esteems in its Guards. There’s only so much you can ask of a Day 3 pick, but even so I can’t get excited. The Safety depth is niggling at me too, though the new ILB has probably shut a lot of doors on the potential sub package roles. And at this point I think the team would be happy to draft a Corner or a Defensive Lineman if he came with a higher grade.
Here is a sample of the sort of Board I’d expect to see:
T/G Yasir Durant
G/C Jonah Jackson
G Solomon Kindley
G Michael Onwenu
G/C/T Jon Runyan Jr.
SS Antoine Brooks Jr.
SS/ILB Tanner Muse
CB/S Harrison Hand
Why end up with Alohi Gilman? I expect Coach Danny Smith to have major input on this pick, and he will want Gilman or Tanner Muse more than any other player on that list. Gilman is more of a true Safety, if limited. Muse is more of a hybrid Safety/ILB. With Willie Gay Jr. as the #102 pick, a more multipurpose Safety makes sense. Besides, Gilman has a serious amount of the “it” factor that helps Day 3 players claw their way on to a roster. Notre Dame by way of Annapolis? Sold.
ROUND 6, PICK #198 G MICHAEL ONWENU
This late in the draft it’s all but impossible to make predictions. I have not addressed the Offensive Line yet, so I am going to do it here. One of the guys I listed above is bound to fall, so I reached into my old bag of D&D dice, grabbed a D-8, and this is where it ended up.
Besides, I like Onwenu! I was very impressed with his Shrine Bowl practices and game. He played for a good program (Michigan). He has fabulous measurements, at 6’2⅝”, 344 lbs. with long 34⅜” arms, big 10½” hands, and a reputation for country strength. He is a recently-converted Nose Tackle who is still learning the nuances of offensive line play. Etc. I think he has all-star upside if he can somehow make it all click, and he would add a pure, dig-em-out power player of the sort that Pittsburgh does not currently have. It’s worth the bet.
ROUND 7, PICK #232 CB JOHN REID
A Penn State athlete who blew up the Combine. He projects as a slot Corner with the native athletic skill to be a pretty good one. I do not think he would be there at all if not for the fact that he will turn 24 as a rookie.
If that bothers you too much, pencil in Punter Michael Turk. I might have done so myself if I did not prefer to be yelled at for a Corner rather than specialist. We do not know about many team meetings, but several of those we do were for Corners.
A defensive lineman could also make sense if someone like Bravion Roy or Benito Jones happens to fall this far. Or they might choose to double dip for a higher rated talent. Maybe I should have pulled out the D-100…
Anyway, those are my predictions:
#49 = RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
#102 = ILB Willie Gay Jr. (no relation)
#124 = WR Devin Duvernay
#135 = SS Alohi Gilman
#198 = G Michael Onwenu
#232 = CB John Reid, Punter Michael Turk, or Alex Kozora as regional scout and fan outreach coordinator. It is a 7th round pick! I can afford to play things fast and loose.