Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Wants, Needs and Prospects at Offensive Tackle (as of January 12), Center (as of January 15), and Running Back (as of January 16)
Ramon Foster retired in 2020, leaving the Steelers with only two starting caliber players for this position: pure Guard David DeCastro, and T/G Matt Feiler. Having no depth, they went out and drafted another pure Guard in Round 4: Kevin Dotson, who’s turned out to be a real find. Two starters and one backup. All is well.
Then we saw both Feiler and Dotson get hurt at the same time, which meant the team was down to its dregs. And dregs they proved to be. Backup Center J.C. Hassenauer didn’t drop dead when asked to play Guard, and neither did emergency Tackle Jerald Hawkins, but you couldn’t say they did a whole lot more than survive. If Feiler departs as expected to claim a well earned free agency paycheck, Pittsburgh will be right back where it was going in to the 2020 draft: two starting Guards and no depth.
Here is the current roster:
- David DeCastro will turn 31 in January, and will be going into the final year of his big money extension; i.e., will cost a fortune in 2021 ($14.3 Million, a third of which is dead money), and will be a free agent in 2022. His play in 2020 is a little hard to judge. A few years ago he looked dominant. This year we haven’t seen that. But how much is because the rest of the line has been so suspect. Or because he played hurt for most of the season? So yes, we need to give the man his due. He’s been an all pro, he earned his money, and he’s been a great Steeler as well as a great player. But fans should expect to see either sign an extension (most likely) or a cap casualty in either this year or the next.
- Matt Feiler will turn 29 in July. He played better at Right Tackle in 2019 than he has at Left Guard in 2020, and many fans feel he deserves some credit as a man who ‘took one for the team’ by playing out of position. Most fans also expect him to depart as a free agent this year with a mid- to high-level market salary, since starting caliber RT’s earn more than Pittsburgh can afford to pay. OTOH, finding a way to keep Feiler would solve a lot of Pittsburgh’s longer term concerns on the offensive line.
- Kevin Dotson, a rookie, may have been the best value pick of the entire 2020 draft. Claypool has been great, and Highsmith terrific, but how often do you land a legitimate first year starter in Round 4? And you know he’s going to get better. It’s a rare player who fails to make the sophomore leap.
- [Silence]. Is there a #4 Guard, or even a #3 if Feiler departs? Maybe the 295 lb. backup Center? Not good.
FOOTNOTE: Some respected community members have hoped out loud that Dotson, like the great Dermontii Dawson, might move from Guard to Center. These dreams seem to originate in two offhand statements, the first by Pittsburgh’s then-OL-coach Shaun Sarrett (“We will start to teach him the Center thing [but] some guys can’t do it”) and then a second by Dotson himself, when he talked about asking his twin brother Kenny to teach him. Your author personally asked former Steelers’ linemen Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley about moving from Guard to Center last December. Loosely translated, they said the chances were somewhere between slim and none. If it happens nevertheless, the projected roster hole would simply shift to Guard rather than Center. Either way the team needs both depth at one position and an heir to the other.
The pre-draft roster situation comes down to what will happen in free agency. If Feiler goes and DeCastro stays, which is what we expect from our vantage here in mid-January, Pittsburgh will need to draft a Guard-capable player for 2021, and might need a starter as early as 2022 depending on the terms of DeCastro’s hypothetical extension. That situation equates to a genuine Want. On the plus side, Guards are relatively easy to find because half the Tackles in the world have the ability to move inside, and half the Centers in the world are strong enough to double as backup Guards.
But that is not the end of the discussion. What would be the bang for the buck if the team added a genuine star at Guard despite the lack of obvious need? You can only play two Guards at a time, but having that third one would allow the team to let DeCastro go in 2022 in exchange for enormous cap savings and what would no doubt be a Round 3-4 compensatory pick in 2023. That’s a possibility that grows on you the more you think about it, especially when you consider the priority that Pittsburgh seems to place on interior linemen. A 1st-Round talent who falls to 2:24, or a fringe-2nd talent in the early 4th, could be very tempting indeed.
The articles on Tackle and Center prospects both addressed the history point, so I will only sum it up here. During the past 50 years Pittsburgh has selected only three OT’s in Round 1; two more-or-less busts leavened by someone who became a disappointment when he left after his rookie deal. Pittsburgh hasn’t drafted a Round 1 Tackle in 25 years! Center and Guard have seen more picks and way more success. That is another reason to keep the Guard position in mind despite having two capable starters already in place.
Moving on, this year’s Day 1 and 2 talent includes two pure Guards with special talent, and a significant number of Guard-capable Tackles and Centers who look like likelier targets.
PURE GUARDS WITH SPECIAL CHARACTERISTICS
- G Wyatt Davis, Ohio St. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 310 lbs. Kyle Crabbs starts his Draft Network scouting profile with these words: “This dude is a destroyer of worlds.” Daniel Jeremiah compared him to no less than David DeCastro. And bloodlines? His grandfather is Willie Davis! That is a name to reckon with even among his fellow Hall of Famers. One of the genuine greats. So yes: Wyatt Davis is one of those rare Guards who deserves and will get a Round 1 grade across the league, albeit a later-1st because of some issues getting his nose out over his feet. He left the BCS championship early when a nagging knee injury finally became too much to bear, but reports say it should not amount to a true red flag for his draft status. ROUND 1-2 GRADE
- G Trey Smith, Tennessee. (Senior). 6’6”, 325 lbs. Fair disclosure: I have a minor league man crush on this prospect. It is easy to see how Trey Smith could up with both a HOF career and at least one Walter Payton badge adorning his jersey. Just like Davis, he is a great power Guard who can dig out the most stubborn DT’s and then climb or pull with the best of them. The only real flaws are positional value, and a medical red flag dating back three years to a life threatening scare about mysterious blood clots in his lungs. Playing both 2019 and 2020 without issue eased those fears, but his mother died from the same thing, and the alarm rang so loud that it still echoes today. ROUND 1-3 GRADE DEPENDING ON MEDICALS
GUARD/TACKLE HYBRIDS WITH ROUND 1 GRADES
- T/G Penei Sewell, Oregon. (Junior). 6’5”, 325 lbs. Just making the point. He’s going in the Top 5, so forget about it.
- T/G/C Rashawn Slater, Northwestern. (Senior). 6’4”, 315 lbs. We discussed him at length in the article on Wants, Needs, and Prospects at Offensive Tackle. Suffice to say he is a true Football Player who might be my favorite semi-realistic Round 1 target for Pittsburgh. His talents the ability to play any position on the offensive line, though some pundits suggest that Guard fits his body type best. Slater may never be the biggest or longest dog in the fight, but he’s going to be the scrappiest, fightingest dog anywhere close to the neighborhood. He isn’t likely to be available when the Steelers pick in Round 1, but I will be doing my draft day DeCastro Dance if he falls far enough for the team to pull that trigger.
- T/G Jalen Mayfield, Michigan. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 319 lbs. More a Tackle than a Guard, but he profiles as someone who could handle either position. Mayfield is only 19 and should be seen as a fantastic developmental talent more than a plug and play contributor. The boom could be awesome, but the fuse will be longer than ideal.
- G/T Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 300 lbs. Built like a Guard but moves like a Tackle, and looks darned promising at both positions. As a Guard in 2019, Vera-Tucker looked (pardon the pun) Vera-good in pretty much every part of his game. He only improved in 2020, playing on the outside as a Tackle. There were mock drafts in December that had him pushing into Top-10 consideration. That kind of multi-position ability, with high level upside, makes for an extremely appealing prospect. Could be the steal of the draft if he pans out at Tackle despite the lack of length, or the proverbial man without a position if DeCastro gets extended and he turns out to be only a Guard.
GUARD/TACKLE HYBRIDS FOR ROUND 2-3 CONSIDERATION
- G/T Jackson Carman, Clemson. (Junior). 6’5”, 345 lbs. Carman played LT to protect Trevor Lawrence’s blind side all through college, and did the job well against all but elite and bendy pass rushers. Chase Young stole his breakfast in 2019, and then tossed the plate back in disdain. Draftniks worry that he may not have that extra gear to deal with NFL talent out on the edge despite his gargantuan size and his very good feet. This has led many pundits to project a move inside to Guard, but in the end it will come down to subtleties and internals that we outsiders will have a hard time pinning down.
- T/G Teven Jenkins, Okla. St. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. More a Tackle than a Guard but with some position flexibility. Jenkins is a big, strong, nasty tough guy with some decent movement skills, held back by some technical flaws that NFL professionals could use to chew him alive. Their fixable issues, and the odds therefore say that he’ll mature into a solid starter on the outside, but it will take both good coaching and hard work. A redshirt year seems likely.
CENTER/GUARD HYBRIDS FOR ROUND 2-3 CONSIDERATION
- C/G Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma. (Senior). 6’5”, 316 lbs. The spiritual and physical core of an Oklahoma team that’s given the league a series of top OL picks for the past several years, Humphrey is a Center who’s more in the Mike Webster mold than a miracle athlete like Dawson or Pouncey. Smart, tough, and fully capable of playing Guard when he isn’t snapping the ball. A worthy heir to Pouncey, and a fine backup to all three interior line positions until that day arrives. ROUND 2 GRADE
- C/G Josh Myers, Ohio St. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 312 lbs. He’s got everything you want, and at NFL levels. But do any of his assets rise to “special”? The anchor may already be better than Pouncey’s, but Steeler Nation tends to take inhuman mobility levels of mobility for granted. He’s mobile enough, sure, but he ain’t no Pouncey or Dawson. OTOH, he can play all three interior positions and has a very solid floor at each of them. Any player who’d provide quality depth behind DeCastro, Pouncey, and Dotson all at once should definitely be on our Day 2 radar. ROUND 2-3 GRADE
- C/G Landon Dickerson, Alabama. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 325 lbs. Don’t sleep on this one Steeler Nation, even with the medical red flag for a torn ACL at the end of the season. Dickerson is an experienced Center who’s proven his ability to lead an elite offensive line, but he’s built like a stereotypical power Guard, and blocks like one too. If you want an interior lineman to get down low and dig people out, this is your man. The limitations show when he’s asked to pull and to move in any direction but forward. That makes him an ideal backup for all three interior line positions, which just happens to be a perfect description of what this team could use. A heck of a leader too: he was Alabama’s chosen captain for the championship coin toss. ROUND 2-3 GRADE
- C/G Trey Hill, Georgia. (Junior). 6’6”, 330 lbs. Turns 21 just before draft day. ‘Tis the year for smart, experienced Guard-sized Centers with great anchors, power moving forward in the running game, and much less mobility that Steeler Nation is used to from its Centers. That is Trey Hill in a nutshell. Internet rumor says he played particularly well in 2020, but is not firm enough to factor that into the grade just yet. ROUND 3 GRADE (ignoring the rumors that he should be higher)
All of those prospects would go a long way toward locking up the Steelers future on the interior offensive line. Their ultimate grade on our Steelers-specific board will depend in large part on what happens in free agency, but it’s safe to say that none of them with the possible exception of Georgia’s C/G Trey Hill is going to be available at 3:24. So what happens if the team manages to get into Round 3 without picking a Guard-capable prospect? It could happen easily enough. Heck, it may even be likely if the team picks a RB in the late 1st, or splits it’s first two picks among offense and defense as the F.O. tends to prefer. The answer is, Guard-hungry fans are likely to be disappointed.
This year’s class has a pretty significant gap between the top IOL talent and those who are likely to come off the board in Rounds 4-6. The Round 3-4 Tackles all fit the stereotype of long, lean athletes who may be able to start on the outside but lack position flexibility. The Round 3-4 Centers are similar; more mobile guys who lack the sand in the pants to hold up as more than emergency backups at Guard. I expect there to be more movement on the Board at this position than most others, but for the moment I can only offer these possibilities in the 4-5 range:
SOME POTENTIAL DAY 3 TARGETS (listed alphabetically)
- G Jack Anderson, Texas Tech. (Senior). 6’5”, 320 lbs. A pure Guard from a spread offense, which means he’s used to pass blocking but needs training on how to get low and dig people out. Exceptional strength, grit, and a finisher’s mentality helped to make up for his limitations in college. In the pros? We’ll see. ROUND 4-6 GRADE
- G Aaron Banks, Notre Dame. (Senior). 6’5”, 325 lbs. A pure Guard who’s capable as both a run and pass blocker. Very high floor, but with essentially no position versatility. ROUND 4-6 GRADE
- G Deonte Brown, Alabama. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 338 lbs. A Grendel-sized human being who routinely faces other monsters and moves them where he wants them to go. The word “backward” is not in his vocabulary either, no matter who is trying to push him there. And his feet are nifty enough to handle all the lateral movement a Guard is asked to do. For all that, he is a classic Guard-only prospect and better suited to an old-fashioned power game. Could go in Round 2 if a team has just the right scheme and opening, but easier to project as a Round 3 or 4 pick. Discounted here for the lack of position flexibility at a position where Pittsburgh has its starters in place. ROUND 4 GRADE
- G Ben Cleveland, Georgia. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 341 lbs. From a secretly taped session of O-Linemen Anonymous: “Hi everyone. My name is [BC] and I am a Guard; just a Guard and only a Guard, but what’s wrong with that?” You want this young man on your side for any fight in a phone booth because he’s very big, triggers well, stays low, and is country strong. Just don’t move the fight beyond those confines, or leave him one-on-one against DT’s with extra agility. ROUND 4-7 GRADE
- G Sadarius Hutcherson, S. Car. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 320 lbs. A college Tackle who needs to move inside, Hutcherson has the size, strength, and straight line speed you want but is held back by all the technical issues that either cause or result from getting off balance. Those can be hard to fix, but he has clear starter potential if he manages to do it. ROUND 4-7 GRADE
- G/T Alaric Jackson, Iowa. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 320 lbs. A college Tackle who will probably need to move inside as a pro. His big assets are burst off the line and speed in the open field, but they are more of the straight line variety than the easy lateral movement you look for on the edge. He could also use a year of professional strength training to supplement all the standard improvements to be expected from top level coaching. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- T/G Brenden Jaimes, Neb. (Senior). 6’5”, 300 lbs. A Day 3 prospect in the Matt Feiler school; as in, good enough balance and agility to become a starter if he gets and takes to some good coaching, combined with superior strength to anchor and punch. Can play inside too, but it would be better to get him to professional competence in his technique before deciding where his skills would be best employed. ROUND 5-7 GRADE
- G Tommy Kraemer, Notre Dame. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 320 lbs. A pure Guard who wins in the phone booth basically every time, but looks progressively worse the further you move him away from the A gaps. Would be a much better fit for a team that runs a pure gap/power running game, which the Steelers do not. ROUND 5-7 GRADE
- G David Moore, Grambling. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 320 lbs. Take the build of Jerome Bettis, add 3”, and then pack on 70 lbs. of muscle. Sideways. You end up with a beast of an offensive Guard who’s only missing the length to win when it comes to hand fighting. Moves pretty well too for someone built like an ice chest. He can be caught lunging, and needs to adapt to the higher level of competition, but he nevertheless projects like a nice Day 3 prospect with a good chance at building a solid career. ROUND 4-7 GRADE
- T/G Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 312 lbs. A player in the Matt Feiler mold, Van Lanen’s main assets seem to be country strength, solid technique as both a run and pass blocker, and a really nasty attitude toward those who get in his way. What he lacks is the weird combination of exceptional feet, length, and wingspan required to be an NFL-level blindside protector. May lack enough to succeed at Tackle at all. It makes for a pretty hard ceiling, but he should have enough position flexibility to move inside if OT doesn’t work out. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- T/G Tyler Vrabel, Boston Coll. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 310 lbs. The son of Mike Vrabel, Tyler plays offensive line a lot like his Dad used to play linebacker: tough, smart, efficient, and technically sound with a sneaky athleticism that isn’t likely to result in a SPARQ score as good as the player. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
Guard doesn’t look like a particularly big Want at first glance, but it makes some sense for the right player at the right spot in the draft. The team could really use a hybrid T/G or C/G to cement its depth and future at two spots with a single pick, and the salary cap considerations could start to really matter from 2022 on. The targets cluster pretty heavily in the Round 2-3 range, with a seeming gap for Rounds 4 that would require real luck to get the right guy.
But with all that said, I emphasize again that these are very preliminary grades and the draft does strange things. Remember that the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade included more than just Pittsburgh’s 2020 1st-round selection. The Steelers having extra 4th- and 6th-round picks for the 2021 draft, in exchange for their native Round 5 pick. A Round 3 value with the pick at 4:11 wouldn’t be all that unusual for these interior line positions where prospects tend to fall anyway.