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 looks 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 (January 15), Guard (January 19), Running Back (January 16), Tight End (January 21), Quarterback (January 26), and WR Types (January 30)
Over the weekend we looked at the current roster and had a discussion of the priority we think the team should place on WR’s in general, and which WR types would make the most sense for Pittsburgh in particular. I read the results as follows.
First, everyone would love to have a true WR1, but few if any would spend the draft capital required for a high percentage bet on any particular prospect. RESULT: I will identify the consensus Round 2 and Round 3 talent in this post, but will most likely drop all of those guys into Round 4 on the Steelers-specific Big Board, with the Round 4 talents dropping into the late 4th or early 5th.
Second, we’d be more or less happy with the current room if the drops could be eliminated. The basic opinion seems to be that Steeler WR’s ought to be immune from this problem even if it plagues other players around the league. Someone ought to do a statistical survey to see if the team really is as bad as the fans seem to think.
Third, opinions get a little more focused once we assume a Round 3 pick who will only be a role player. Here’s how I read it:
- People like the idea of a role player with either startling speed, COD, or toughness over the middle (provided that prospect has insta-glue magnetic fingers incapable of missing a ball that comes into touching range).
- Enormous jump ball receivers will get the biggest discount, presumably because the fan base believes we have that covered between Claypool, Washington, and Ebron.
- The Instantly-Open types are probably the most popular sub-category. This is largely because people were more frustrated with Diontae Johnson’s drops than anyone else’s, but also at a deeper level. There seems to be a general belief that (a) quickness will suit Matt Canada’s incoming offense better than any other asset, and (b) two players of this style can be on the field together more often than a pair of other, equally similar types. There also seems to be a vague fear that the passing game could be smothered if DJ got hurt, or his case of the dropsies returns even worse than before.
- In the same vein, people would be happy if that blitz-beater was a hybrid RB/WR who could shift seamlessly from the slot to the backfield and back again depending on the defensive alignment. The desire for that prototype varies in strength according to how willing the commenter is to write off Anthony McFarland after a rookie year where we heard about how often he flashed in practice, but did not see it in actual games.
- People would like to add pure speed if possible. I have the impression this is because (a) it would free Chase Claypool to be more active in the midfield, and (b) fans like someone who looks fast in addition to just being fast. Call it the Tyreek Hill effect.
- People would be just as happy to add a Midfield Dominator in the JJSS “big slot” mold, but also believe there are ways to fill that role if the new rookie is less than special. A speed receiver on the outside, e.g., would let Claypool roam the middle. Most of us believe that James Washington can do the job quite competently, if not quite at Juju’s level. Eric Ebron also fills that role when he isn’t dropping the ball, and would consider a second Move TE in addition to an oversized WR.
LOOKING AT THE 2021 DRAFT PROSPECTS
Here are the top pass catching weapons of the class as I’ve charted them so far. The pure WR’s include a good, solid class of around 35 names, which will be missing a few. The most notable pattern is a lack of patterns. The talent starts at “elite” and then very steadily heads on down, with prospects appearing on the various boards just a few numbers away from those above and below. Who goes where gets hotly debated, of course, but that basic pattern seems to be consistent.
Please note that I have also included the Move TE’s and Slot/RB hybrids for the sake of being complete.
THE AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN ELITE TALENTS
- WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU. (Junior). 6’1”, 208 lbs. A Top 5-10 player on every board. He does it all.
- WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama. (Junior). 5’10”, 184 lbs. Another Top 5-10 on every board, this time because he is impossibly fast but also runs good routes.
- WR Devonta Smith, Alabama. (Senior). 6’1”, 175 lbs. The 2020 Heisman Award winner is an artist at the WR position, with all the production, speed, shiftiness, separation ability, and attitude to get picked high in the first. Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to no less than Marvin Harrison, and he isn’t the only one who’s said so. Always graded as a Top 10 pick, but with an asterisk because his odd cable-and-wire frame could cause a surprising drop for teams that value size. He declined to be measured at the Senior Bowl, leading to all sorts of strange speculation that he could be even lighter than listed.
- TE/WR Kyle Pitts, Florida. (Junior). 6’5”, 240 lbs. Everyone has him tagged to go in the Top 10-15 picks, and he is such a good receiving weapon that he deserves to.
- RB/SLOT Travis Etienne, Clemson. (Senior). 5’10”, 210 lbs. W.E.A.P.O.N. The list of assets starts with lightning in a bottle quickness, and continues from there through good discipline to stay within the system, and the willingness to stick his face in the fan on blocking duty. Yes, he is only big rather than huge. And yes, he benefited from having a great QB and overall team around him. Those arguments explain why Etienne is a fringe-1st rather than early, but they are pretty weak tea as actual complaints. The kid is electric. Deal with it. He’s even a fine punt and kick returner. The biggest question mark I’ve heard (other than system fit), is a 2020 season that wasn’t quite as awesome as 2019. “OMG, he’s fading already!” Some people…
PROJECTED AS SOLID ROUND 1-3 TALENTS
All the pure WR’S in this tier will be arbitrarily dropped to somewhere from the late 3rd to the early 4th on our Big Board because we generally believe the team should focus on positional value with the 2-4 range. Tackle, Center, RB, CB, Buck ILB, Nickel DB, and OLB simply have that heavy a finger on the consensus scale. Speak up now if you object to that approach.
And yes, this is how the team will make yours truly look like a fool if they grab a Day 2 WR yet again. Except this time I will be able to spread the blame.
- WR Kadarius Toney, Florida. (Senior). 5’11⅛”, 189 lbs. A really fun player to watch and a major part of Kyle Trask’s Heisman run, Kadarius Toney is one of those shifty, slippery, Gumby types of player who stops, starts, contorts, and accelerates in any direction, at any time, and from any angle. Would rank even higher if he was not something of a one year wonder. This brief profile from December calls him a “missed tackle machine”, and that may be understating the case. He also tracks the ball extremely well as both a receiver and a punt/kick returner. Professional habits and coaching should make him an outstanding route runner in addition to his instinctive return ability and RAC prowess. He’s a smart player too, a former QB who’s also been used as a RB in addition to WR, with very trustworthy hands. Wesley Cantliffe’s late January, gif-supported scouting report describes him as a multidimensional fringe-1st talent, with a tremendous ability to beat press coverage off the line and to be creative when the ball is in his hand.
- WR Rashod Bateman, Minnesota. (Junior). 6’1”, 210 lbs. Look, James Washington has a mirror image… A player who does everything very well and could easily break into Round 1.
- WR Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU. (Junior). 6’3”, 200 lbs. Looks, smells, and plays like the next Steelers Round 2 Steal (TM), which means he should probably be viewed as a fringe-1st. Marshall is an outstanding football player at his position, rather than a genius athlete stuck at WR to beat the world up in open space. He runs good routes; wins at the point of contact; has great hands; tracks the ball well for twisting, athletic catches; runs tough; and seems to understand the benefit of playing his position with brains, suddenness, and toughness as well as size and speed. Looked fabulous in 2019, but so did everyone else with Joe Burrow at QB. Still looked awfully good in 2020 when the team was losing.
- WR Dyami Brown, UNC. (Junior). 6’1”, 195 lbs. A Round 2 prospect in the mold of Diontae Johnson, with excellent but not cosmic speed, great hands, and above all the ability to separate in space and do something with the ball when he has it. One of those guys with an extra gear he can summon at the very end to separate when the ball is in the air. Plays tough and enjoys the physicality of the game despite his average size. Brown and his teammate Dazz Newsome made for a deadly duo in 2020.
- WR Rondale Moore, Purdue. (Junior). 5’9”, 175 lbs. A human joystick who is even faster, peppier, and more elusive than Diontae Johnson. One worries about his ability to survive with the big boys, but the word “star” will be stamped on his NFLPA card for a long time if he can take the pounding.
- WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC. (Junior). 6’1”, 195 lbs. Will turn 22 during his rookie season. Another quality receiver in a solid class, St. Brown wins with agility, hands, route running, and a tough guy attitude about running defenders over with the ball in his hands. Extremely tough to cover in man-to-man because he can make such sharp and sudden cuts, but only fast enough. Juju Smith-Schuster also came out of USC and readers should expect to see a lot of comparisons between the two (JJSS being bigger, and ARSB being more developed).
- WR Nico Collins, Michigan. (Senior). 6’4¼”, 215 lbs. Opted out in 2020, but with Michigan’s QB situation that may have been a good idea. Collins is long, tall, big, and seriously fast. One of the best vertical threats in the draft, combined with all the basic assets you want to become a WR who can play any position.
- WR Amari Rodgers, Clemson. (Senior). 5’9½”, 211 lbs. Will be 21 on draft day. An example of that new prototype in the NFL, the hybrid WR/RB who isn’t going to win with height but rather with sharp cuts and the ability to be very physical. Has some punt return ability. Tore his ACL in 2019 but returned to play in 2020, which may show that he’s a little better than the 2020 film would suggest. Looked awesome at the Senior Bowl.
- WR Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma St. (Senior). 5’10”, 193 lbs. Another James Washington who is so good that it will hurt to apply the required discount. He doesn’t boast A-1 speed or A-1 quickness, but is so smart, tough, and good at winning 50/50 balls that you’d be hungry to get him if Pittsburgh did not already have the original.
- WR Elijah Moore, Ole Miss. (Junior). 5’9”, 185 lbs. Projects as a good, tough slot receiver who will kill teams all day long underneath with his quickness and RAC ability, but also has the speed to go deep if the opponent treats him as nothing more than that. Translation: please Lord, do not let him anywhere near Tom Brady. Here is a late December scouting profile from PFN. He came in at #46 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list from January.
- WR Seth Williams, Auburn. (Junior). 6’2”, 224 lbs. A fine mix of two powerful modern positions: the “big slot” and the “RAC possession” receiver, Williams profiles like JJSS in a lot of ways due to his size, strength, hands, and toughness.
- TE/WR Brevin Jordan, Miami. (Junior). 6’3”, 245 lbs. He profiles as an oversized WR, but is both more and less than that. More because he really likes to block even if he has size limitations and isn’t particularly good at it. “Less” because of those limitations, and the fact that he’s never really been asked to run routes. For all that, he is a SPARQ-y young man, he has the native talent to improve across the board, and he’s been on an upward arc. The downgrades come because he needs to, and the process will no doubt take a few years, Devin Jackson’s gif-supported January scouting report has little good to say about the blocking, much less about the catching technique, but still views him as the TE3 of the class.
- RB/SLOT Jaret Patterson, Buffalo. (Junior). 5’9”, 195 lbs. A totally different back than anyone the Steelers have featured in recent years, Patterson is a master of the make-you-miss school. The assets he has are close to elite: vision, elusiveness, agility, and contact balance being at the top. A true human pinball with the hands to be effective as an outlet receiver too. What he lacks is pure size and the power that goes with it. Decent speed but not of the instant-acceleration sort. Here is an admiring article from December.
- RB/SLOT Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis. (RS Sophomore). 5’11”, 191 lbs. Electric. This is the change-of-pace target to dream about if you are ready to write off Anthony McFarland. Your author is not, and thus applies a discount to the Round 3 grade in Alex Kozora’s admiring, gif-supported scouting report from late January, which describes Gainwell as an extremely fast, one-cut-and-go terror who particularly fits what is expected from Matt Canada’s incoming offense. Extra points for having such a great name for the position he plays.
PROJECTED AS ROUND 3-4 TALENTS
These are the prospects to target if you want the team to target a pass catcher with one of the Round 4 picks (the earliest spot for most of the fan base), and to snatch up quickly if they drop to Round 6. All of these young men will appear on our Big Board with early- and mid-4th grades, reflecting the balance between bargain hunting and lack of any serious need.
- WR Dazz Newsome, UNC. (Senior). 5’11”, 190 lbs. Diontae Johnson may actually be a fair pro comp, and that’s encouraging if you want this kind of profile. Newsome has the speed to get open deep, and is tremendously elusive with the ball in his hands, but his best talent is creating separation in space with the hands to make difficult catches and the toughness to compete with bigger men in every way. Like Johnson, he can be bullied by pure size – but only if you can catch him. Newsome and his teammate Dyami Brown made for a deadly duo in 2020. Probably will not last long enough for Pittsburgh’s level of WR want to equal opportunity in the 2021 draft.
- WR Marlon Williams, UCF. (Senior). 6’0”, 222 lbs. A “big slot” with the speed, toughness, hands, body control, and RAC ability to make a difference. Experience as both a kick and punt returner is a bonus, and hints at better COD skills than he usually gets credit for.
- WR D’Wayne Eskridge, W. Mich. (RS Senior). 5’9⅛”, 188 lbs. A killer return man with the ability to succeed as a WR too. The analogies to Antonio Brown flow hot and heavy. Same type of school (Western MI instead of Central), size, physical skill set, overall role, etc. AB went in Round 6 for the same sort of small school uncertainties that will most likely hurt Eskridge’s stock. We know how that turned out, so don’t write the young man off. He simply could not be covered at the Senior Bowl.
- WR Whop Philyor, Indiana. (Senior). 5’11”, 185 lbs. Will turn 23 next July. What can you say? He’s a fine, athletic receiver with a full toolkit and excellent college production, but no spectacular assets to make him stand out against all the other fine talent he’s competing with. Here is a gif-supported scouting report from back in November.
- WR Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell, Louisville. (Junior). 5’9”, 165 lbs. An ultimate jitterbug with lightning speed and great COD, but not much bigger than one of those actual bugs who dance across the water. That’s a powerful trick, and he does it well enough to be #31 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 board from January, but there is just no fit! Other pundits have him much, much lower, but for us it is enough to say that Ray Ray McCloud already fills that niche in Pittsburgh, and he is 190 lbs. instead of 165.
- WR Sage Surratt, Wake Forest. (RS Junior). 6’2½”, 215 lbs. Great athletes come in different styles, such as sudden versus smooth. Sage Surratt is the latter. He has every measurable characteristic you could ask for – size, strength, speed, leaping ability, hands, body control, etc. – but he does them in a glide rather than cutting a sharp angle. A notable intellect caps it off (he chose Wake Forest over Harvard because it served his athletic interests as well as his educational goals).
- WR Anthony Schwartz, Auburn. (Junior). 6’0”, 180 lbs. Fast enough to be disappointed if he runs only a 4.30, Schwartz plays bigger than his measurements and can – literally – score from anywhere on the field if the defense leaves him a crack. Good hands and COD skills complete the picture of a very desirable outside, deep threat receiver built for the modern game when defenders cannot lay in wait to snap his slender frame in two.
- WR Shi Smith, S. Car. (Senior). 5’10”, 186 lbs. Put up a ton of production in 2020, proving along the way that he possesses the toughness, hands, and skills to compensate for his lack of heft. Good speed, excellent quickness, and great body control. Already adept at beating man coverage off the line. But can he play the X receiver position in the NFL, or will the lack of heft limit him to the slot? That question mark limits his stock. Profiles as a very solid WR3 with WR2 aspirations for a normal team. He would be hard pressed to hold on as the WR4 in Pittsburgh.
- WR Marquez Stevenson, Houston. (RS Senior). 5’10”, 182 lbs. Turns 23 just before the draft. A speed demon who can take the top off a defense, while returning kicks to earn some extra snaps. The COD is plenty good too. The drawbacks are what you’d expect: lack of size, physicality, and developed route running skills.
- WR Imhir Smith-Marsette, Iowa. (Senior). 6’2”, 185 lbs. Another fine athlete in a draft that is full of them, we’re finally getting down to the point where physical flaws begin to raise serious question marks. This prospect is plenty fast, smooth, and agile enough to play WR in the NFL, but he is so thin for his height that CB’s can dominate him with a jam at the line. Will that limit him to the slot as a pro? Or can he learn to beat the jam? Extra points as a return man, gunner, and overall playmaker.
- WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 215 lbs. Just a fantastic athlete with top notch tools. Runs and leaps like a deer, with good hands and A1 body control for combat catches. He is nothing even close to a developed product, but the basic clay is so good that this is the kind of Day 3 pick you can really see the Steelers making.
- WR Cornell Powell, Clemson. (RS Senior). 6’0⅛”, 205 lbs. with long 32⅛” arms and big 10” hands. As summarized in this Senior Bowl scouting profile from PFN, Powell is a James Washington type with very good but not startling speed, but he never quite “arrived” enough to earn a lot of attention on his own. Broke out into a favored target in his final year and looked extremely good at the Senior Bowl.
- TE/WR Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss. (RS Senor). 6’3⅞”, 247 lbs. Came into the Senior Bowl almost 20 pounds bigger than expected, but that does not change his status as an oversized WR who lacks the blocking ability to be considered a full Tight End of the sort that Pittsburgh wants and expects.
- TE/WR Nick Eubanks, Michigan. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 245 lbs. Will be 24 on draft day. He looks the part and has the mismatch athleticism you look for, but the blocking just isn’t there yet, and may never get there because of his size. He’s also a little older because he could never quite break through during the normal 4-year career. A good bet from the SPARQ perspective, but the film is lacking.
- TE/WR Tre’ McKitty, Georgia. (Senior). 6’4⅛”, 247 lbs. with huge 11” hands. A good Move TE with tremendous hands, who may be an even better pro because he’s shown the willingness to block. But he is a little undersized to be a blocker in the NFL, he’s never shined at that job, and thus one has to doubt whether willingness alone is going to be enough. Here is a brief scouting profile from November.
DAY 3 TARGETS
These are the Round 4-7 targets for most teams that Pittsburgh will be considering in the 6-UDFA range. Please note that the depth continues unabated after this in that same slow, steady decline so characteristic of this year’s talent pool. There are probably a good 10-15 names we will add to this particular list by the time the process is done. Feel free to drop your summary profiles in the Comments!
- WR Jaelon Darden, N. Tex. (Senior). 5’9”, 170 lbs. Alas, but Pittsburgh already has Ray-Ray McCloud on the roster. That is Darden in a nutshell, albeit a little smaller. He’s a living super ball that dominated in college but will face many new hurdles trying to do the same against superior NFL athletes.
- WR Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville. (Senior). 6’2⅛”, 202 lbs. A possession receiver who runs savvy, deceptive routes and catches everything in his neighborhood. Had a tremendous Senior Bowl.
- WR/RB Demetric Felton, UCLA. (RS Junior). 5’8½”, 189 lbs. A hybrid offensive weapon you can shift at will from slot receiver to scat back. He probably leans more toward the WR side just because of his limited mass, but it is close enough to make him more unique than a “mere” slot receiver. Played as a base WR in 2019, and a base RB in 2020, but was really both in both years. Killed it at the Senior Bowl.
- WR Trevon Grimes, Florida. (Senior). 6’3⅞”, 217 lbs. A player who’s got the things that can’t be taught: size, weight, speed, and the sort of amazing athletic talent that will put up enormous SPARQ scores. What he hasn’t got is the production to match those talents, even playing in the amazing Florida offense that included so many other weapons for Kyle Trask. Answer the question, “Why not?”, and you could have the steal of the year; unless there is a real “because” that is going to follow him into the pros. Here is a nice Senior Bowl scouting profile from PFN.
- WR Damonte Coxie, Memphis. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 195 lbs. A physical possession receiver with good height and length to match with his excellent hands, body control, and skill at boxing out. A fine blocker too, for a WR. What he lacks are the pure speed and quickness to get open all on his own against NFL competition. The sort of WR3/4 who will catch everything when he’s the open man in a scheme, but is capped because an NFL defense will probably be able to eliminate him at will.
- WR Tamorrion Terry, Fla. St. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 203 lbs. Turns 23 just before draft day. You can’t teach size and speed, and those are where Terry wins. A big play receiver on a team with iffy QB play, Terry requires a lot of projection because he’s never actually produced. That makes him a pure upside bet, but the assets are there to believe it may come up cherries. Will make amazing, acrobatic catches one moment and then drop a pass the next. Death incarnate after the catch.
- WR Tyler Vaughns, USC. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 190 lbs. He’s solid enough, with an all-around skill set that includes good height and hands, and very good route running. But what does he bring that’s special? The sort of prospect who might get to WR2 on a poor team, and may have a WR 4 floor for a team with good depth. WR 5 in the Burgh.
- WR Simi Fehoko, Stanford. (Junior). 6’4”, 227 lbs. Long, tall, physical, and straight line fast. A good deep and red zone threat who’s obviously got a fine IQ on top if he went to Stanford. Projects as a fine special teamer too.
- WR Damon Hazelton, Missouri. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 215 lbs. Turns 24 just before the draft. Plays a lot like a bigger James Washington, with iron grip hands and the ability to win at the point of contact on a regular basis due to his good but not great speed, combined with tremendous body control and boxing-out ability. Nice after the catch too. Lacks the physicality you’d expect, and has never been ‘the man’ at any of his three schools.
- TE/WR Cary Angeline, NC State. (RS Senor). 6’7”, 250 lbs. The much abused Zach Gentry may actually be one of the better pro comps. Angeline has wonderful size and very good hands as a receiver, but I’ve yet to see a report that extols his blocking prowess and he isn’t built for the job
- TE/WR Kylen Granson, SMU. (Senior). 6’2⅛”, 242 lbs. Another prospect who straddles the elusive line between oversized WR and undersized TE. Hard to see the fit, though he might be an extraordinary fullback/H-back if you read between the lines of Tom Mead’s gif-supported January scouting report. He does seem to love blocking even if he lacks the size to succeed in that capacity at an NFL level. This goes to a nice January Draft Wire interview that followed his decision to play in the Senior Bowl.
- TE/WR Quintin Morris, Bowling Green. (RS Senor). 6’2¼”, 250 lbs. with big 10½” hands. A WR until 2019, Morris has a reputation for advanced route running and superior athleticism. The blocking is… well, call it a work in progress. This January DraftWire interview came out after he accepted a Senior Bowl invitation. The Steelers will like his fascination with basketball.
- TE/WR Tony Poljan, Virginia. (RS Senor). 6’7”, 265 lbs. Poljan follows in Gentry’s footsteps even down to being a recently converted QB. Nice hands. Acceptable speed if you give him time to build up, and do not ask for any direction changes. Alex Kozora’s gif-supported January scouting report actually praises his skill at pass blocking, but holds out little hope that his combination of height and rigid movement skills will ever allow him to be much of a help in the run game. His biggest flaw may be that distinctly limited athletic profile.
- RB/SLOT Javian Hawkins, Louisville. (RS Sophomore). 5’9”, 196 lbs. Anthony McFarland with just as much breakaway burst but probably a little less power. Discounted because that guy is already on the team.
Last year set an impossible standard for WR talent in the draft. The only adjective I can use is “historic.” This year’s group doesn’t reach that level, but it’s awfully darned good compared to an average year.
We cannot say it too often: you pick players, not positions. Those are all good receivers we listed up there, and some of them are likely to end up as all-stars… if they land on the right team, in the right situation. Could that be in Pittsburgh? You tell me.