I’m doing this mock based on inside information! There’s a cheerful black-and-gold bird outside my office who’s been chittering in my ear. It seems that he’s been hunting down flies from the wall of Kevin Colbert’s office! That resource allows me to make the following assumptions about where things will be on draft day:
- The Steelers are about to hire a middle of the road free agent Center on a 3-year deal in the range of $5-6 Million per year. He will be the starter until a draft prospect who’s better than “middle of the road” shows up in the draft. Pittsburgh will have no trouble ignoring the position if that prospect fails to show up.
- Villanueva and Feiler are both going to depart in free agency. My bird-buddy spared a particular victim in exchange for inside dirt that the team trusts Okorafor and Banner more than the fans, but cannot get them to commit to team friendly long term deals. Banner will be signing a 3-year deal on paper, but his $2 Million 2021 salary will leap to full RT retail value after 2021 if the team chooses to keep him on. Chuks is betting that he will succeed as a starting LT, and did not sign the team’s proposed extension.
- Not much will happen at RB. James Conner will depart, and the team will replace him with an equivalent talent. Fans use words like “dumpster diving”. The only valuable thing I learned is that the coaches believe McFarland poor 2020 was probably due to a bad case of Rookie Shock and niggling injuries, but they are also prepared to cut bait because probably is not the same as was. No moves at TE.
- The team has offered both Bud Dupree and Juju Smith-Schuster much more money than the fan base thinks is possible, let alone wise, but it turns out that both men have strong free agency markets. We will end up wishing them well, and then read a slew of “Did we ever dodge a bullet!” commentary.
- In the secondary, Mike Hilton will also depart (three-years, $15 Million), while Cam Sutton stays on a three-year, $11 Million deal. His contract gets sweetened by half of the total ($5 Million) being a 2021 signing bonus, with a series of ornate pay escalators that will cut in if he plays more than XYZ number of snaps. Steven Nelson will also get a 3-4 year extension that frees up a lot of cap room. Sean Davis, however, will get a 2-year, $3-4 Million deal from outside that Pittsburgh declines to match. Bye bye Safety depth.
DIGRESSION #1: There was a little worm who swore that he saw a crystal ball in which Mike Tomlin said nice things about Justin Layne as a football player, lauding his hard work and special teams play, but stayed mum on his play as a true Corner. Tomlin arguably sounded more enthusiastic about James Pierre, though naysayers pointed to other parts of the interview where he noted the much lower expectations.
My bird flipped out and ate that worm for wasting his time on Coach Speak 101. Read into it what you will.
DIGRESSION #2: A spider survived after reporting that the coaches are torn on how big a difference we’d get from a highly athletic ILB to pair with Bush. The general consensus is that Tampa won the Super Bowl because K.C.’s crippled offensive line fell apart under the Buccaneer pass rush. The pair of speedy ILB’s helped, but much less than the pass rush. OTOH, the injury to Devin Bush hurt Pittsburgh much more than people think, because Keith Butler’s defense requires a unique athlete in the middle if it’s going to function well.
- Elsewhere on defense, Alualu will sign a senior’s deal such as Dave Bryan has outlined. Vince Williams negotiates a salary reduction disguised as an extension with some kind of guaranteed payment in a future year to ease the pain.
- At QB, the coaches believe Mason Rudolph can rise to be an acceptable bridge player, and he is well liked because of his leadership, work ethic, and study habits. He won’t be the reason why Pittsburgh wins many games, but neither will he cause many losses. Dwayne Who? is viewed as a boom-or-bust toy for the coaches will play with. He does not factor into the draft debate.
Those are the ground rules. The team is free to go BPA, can use higher level talent at good half-dozen positions, and will place no fingers on the scale with the possible exception of RB or TE; where it will be little more than a reminder to look at those positions in each and every round. All of which leads to…
Round 1 – OT Jalen Mayfield, Michigan. (RS Sophomore).
“Wait a sec! Didn’t you just get through the process of telling us the team was going to pick based on pure BPA rather than need?”
Yes, I did. And I did. Here is the current Big Board summary:
|T/G Jalen Mayfield, Michigan. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 319 lbs. Turns 21 soon after draft day. Mayfield and Samuel Cosmi are the Round 1 Tackles who will appeal for that reason alone. He is a tremendous athlete, but one who requires a bit of projection because he is still growing into his adult size, strength, and skills. Bottom line? He’s some of the best raw clay in the draft, but it’s going to need some forming and kilning (is that a word?) before it’s ready for use; though he did have a very impressive game against Chase Young in 2019… Daniel Jeremiah has put him at #24 overall, arguing that he can start immediately at RT, with the upside to grow way beyond just that. Here is a brief, late January scouting profile that ends with a fringe 1st grade after extolling his pass blocking skills even more than the run blocking. Devin Jackson’s gif-supported February scouting report ends in a mid to late1st grade as well, based on Mayfield’s tremendous athleticism and mostly solid technique.|
Jalen Mayfield has early-1st athletic talent sufficient to be a clear upgrade over both Okorafor and Banner once he masters his craft. He falls to #24 this year only because the class is overloaded with his peers, and he is so young that he isn’t likely to produce much as a rookie. In other words, this is not a “need-based” pick! 98% of the calculation is pure BPA, and the other 2% was tiebreaker stuff that favored OL over several good Edge and WR prospects. I considered RB Travis Etienne too, but honestly think Mayfield will provide more bang for the buck over the course of his rookie deal, and far more thereafter. RB Najee Harris was gone, along with several other OT’s I rank in the same area.
Round 2 – ILB Dylan Moses, Alabama. (Senior). The current Big Board writeup says:
|ILB/SS Dylan Moses, Alabama (Senior). 6’3”, 240 lbs. Here’s the lead on basically every scouting report you’ll see: “Dylan Moses is a freak athlete.” He has every talent you look for: size, speed, fluidity, etc. The physical potential is basically unlimited. And it’s been that way since he made the cover of ESPN’s magazine in 8th grade after receiving scholarship offers from both LSU and Alabama. The issues come down to the flip side of that coin. What would that do to you? Especially with a father who raised you for the gridiron like some colossal stage mom? Those question marks – and they are only that, questions – pervade the discussion. Does he love the game enough for itself? Will he go sideways when he becomes his own man? Will he retire young, or fight through injuries hard enough? Does he have enough fear and ambition to drive him on? Everyone seems to have an internal plotline even though no outsider can really know, and thus interviews are going to drive his stock more than film. Yes, he had a bad ACL tear that cost him 2019. Yes, he went into 2020 with Top 10 expectations, and failed to meet them. Yes, that may have been the injury… or was it [fill in your plot point]? James Wilford’s gif-supported February scouting profile, notes some slower processing time and what might be occasional failures to pursue 110% of the time. Which in due course leads to questions about the “why.” Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to Myles Jack, as the sort of limitless athlete who needs to grow into his powers, but will need some guidance in doing so. This January scouting profile from PFN has good background.|
I had every intention of picking RB Javonte Williams at this point in the draft, but then threw in a curveball by ruling that, “Williams isn’t on the board.” I was not at all happy with that news!
I am fuddyish enough to remember the days when every NFL draft began with a series of QB’s and RB’s going in the top half of Round 1 because those are the two most impactful positions on the offense. I’ve heard all the arguments about how RB’s have become fungible, but you know what? I don’t buy in. Listen to interviews with offensive lineman and they all say the same thing. “Funny how much better I looked after the team brought in [Franco, Bussy, LeVeon].”
This team needs a high end RB, and no pick at any other position could create as big a near term impact. Pittsburgh’s RB room is even weaker than the OL room – and that is after losing AV and Feiler, and trading Pouncey for that mid-level free agent starter. But who? You have to pick players, not positions! Everything I read and watch says there is a major gap between the top three RB prospects and the great mass of talent that follows. In Round 1 I had no shot at Harris and passed on Etienne. In Round 2 I got [ahem!]ed. But you know what? Dylan Moses is one heck of a consolation prize.
The coaches may see no “need” for a second, hyperathletic ILB, but I believe they’d have no problem finding a way to use one. The snaps are there for the taking. Bush and Moses both have the ability to double as box Safeties and as inside blitzers, which in turn will allow the Steelers to shift seamlessly and invisibly shift from a 3-4 look into virtually any Nickel formation without substitutions, and thus right after the snap. Moses is a Round 1 physical talent with Round 3 question marks. Picking him in Round 2 is a perfect value.
Besides, unlike Mike Tomlin, I do occasionally live in my fears and will sleep better knowing that Pittsburgh has some high quality depth behind Devin Bush.
FWIW, I did not consider Landon Dickerson at this point because he will either be long gone based on his talent, or relegated to Day 3 based on his medical flags. [Sobs].
Round 3 – WR Amari Rodgers, Clemson. (Senior). This is by far the biggest surprise of the mock. Why in the world would I go with a WR over an IOL or RB? Here is the current Big Board writeup:
|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, showing the ability to track and adjust to deep balls as well as working underneath and in the midfield.|
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m officially tearing my hair out at the ongoing failure to find a running back. And I am not exactly fond of seeing Pouncey’s historic run replaced by acceptable and middle of the road. It’s just that outside of Quinn Meinerz, who I took at this point in my last mock, I really don’t like any of the likely Round 3 IOL and C/G prospects as much as I do this somewhat unique WR.
It doesn’t take much to see Amari Rodgers as one of the league’s best gadget players, especially since he really can line up in the backfield in addition to the slot and out wide. Matt Canada has a history of using gadget guys more creatively than almost anyone else, and has a knack for doing so in ways that opens up the running game inside. Thus Rodgers will help the running attack while also replacing Juju Smith-Schuster with a different type of receiver that might fit better on a roster that already features Eric Ebron. And that’s close to being his floor! There are indications that Rodgers might have the ability to blossom into a WR1, albeit one with an unusual build.
I also considered a few unusual names at this point. TE Tommy Tremble could help the running game significantly through his blocking prowess. DB Shaun Wade is one of my favorite Round 3 value picks in mocks where the team goes offense in the first two rounds, but I think he is more of a cover-capable Safety than anything else, and the ILB pick will result in fewer available snaps for even a high level Safety3.
Round 4a – RB Jaret Patterson, Buffalo. (Junior). According to the current Big Board:
|RB 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 elite by any standard: 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. Alex Kozora’s gif-supported February scouting report points to good, but not leave-you-in-the-dust speed, as an asset, and also points out that Patterson has had a lot of carries in college. He more or less carried the Buffalo offense along with the ball, for better or worse. Here is an admiring article from December.|
Finally! Need meets value and I get that longed-for running back. I really wanted RB Rhamondre Stevenson here, with RB Trey Sermon as a close second. Moot point. Both went earlier in Round 4. That led me in a totally different direction.
Mike Tomlin has a historic preference for the big bell-cow back, but I don’t like anyone left on the board for that role more than I like what’s already on the roster. The draft offers a lot of Benny Snell peers but no one’s left who I project as being clearly better. Patterson, by contrast, would give the Steelers a three-headed monster capable of attacking any given offense in its weakest spot. Got a defense with great, immovable power up front? The Steelers will isolate Patterson in space, where he’ll humiliate the first tackler every single time. Got a risk-taking offense that shuts down the run with slashing blitzes and exceptional coverage in the secondary? Welcome to McFarland land, with a runner who can turn a missed run fit into 20 yards in a heartbeat. Fast Willie 2.0. Going to play Nickel all day to shut down the passing game? That’s when Benny Snell will beat you up inside.
I’d much rather have a star who can fill at least two of those roles on his own, but the Board didn’t cooperate.
Round 4b – CB Kary Vincent Jr., LSU. (Senior). Here is the current Big Board entry:
|CB Kary Vincent Jr., LSU (Senior). 5’10”, 190 lbs. Opted out of 2020, which is going to make him an object of much dispute in the draft community because proving a more advanced technique could have shot him toward Round 1 consideration. Or not. Vincent has world class speed and NFL quickness to match. That’s rare. He is a little on the small side, and it shows in his tackling, but he has everything else you look for in the Sutton type of slot Corner, and the combination of just enough size with exceptional speed suggests a potential to play on the boundary too. It’s just that he’s never shown all that in college, and thanks to Covid he never will. Owen Straley’s gif-supported January scouting report catches the essence quite well, especially if you take some time to go through the discussion in the comments.|
Three of the first four picks went to the offense, so now it’s time to get another for the D unless some solid IOL prospect like C/G Trey Hill or C/G Josh Myers unexpectedly falls this far. Or Dickerson, since this is where his value would make sense even if the medical concerns are shared by actual doctors. Those prospects have great appeal, but (a) they are not there in this scenario, and (b) even they would not be locks over a potential steal like Kary Vincent.
I grant that Vincent’s tape does not justify picking him on Day 2. There’s only so much value in a pure Slot Corner, which is all that he’s shown. The flip side of that argument is that “potential” actually does mean more than just “ain’t proven squat just yet.” Vincent’s speed and COD skills suggest that he could grow into a true CB1 if he manages to suck some ofJoe Haden’s expertise into his opted-out-in-2020 brain.
If neither Vincent nor my desired IOL guy is there, I would look at a true Mike Hilton type like CB Deommodore Lenoir from Oregon, or maybe a pass rusher like Edge Brenton Cox (Day 2 talent minus character concerns), Edge Daelin Hayes from Notre Dame, or Edge Malcolm Koontz from Buffalo. A good Safety could make sense too since my B&G birdy said we’re losing Sean Davis. Missouri’s S Jonathan Bledsoe, Pitt’s S Paris Ford, and Cincinnati’s S James Wiggins would all be considered.
Round 6 – EDGE/ILB Patrick Johnson, Tulane (Senior). According to the current Big Board:
|EDGE/ILB Patrick Johnson, Tulane. (Senior). 6’3”, 255 lbs. An intriguing prospect to watch as the process moves forward, because he profiles on paper as both an Edge Rusher and a Buck ILB; and that is not just projection, because his college team used him in exactly that kind of hybrid role. That versatility earns him a higher grade on this board than you’ll see on many others. Could he really be that elusive “higher end Vince Williams”? Johnson plays with very good strength and discipline, but not a lot of flash for someone who’s well known for a non-stop motor. Scores a full 100 for scheme fit, but could also end up being a jack of two trades and master of none. This gif-loaded January scouting report from a Raiders POV looks at Johnson as a pure Edge talent, admiring his speed, speed-to-power pop, and chances of getting better when he adds some moves. This Giants-oriented scouting profile also sees him as an edge prospect, and ends in a Day 3 grade.|
I keep waiting for some late round favorites to pop but I haven’t found many yet. Pitt’s walk-on sensation, Center Jimmy Morrissey, would qualify but I just don’t see him falling to Round 6 and he’d be a pure depth pick anyway. Ohio State TE Luke Farrell would make a ton of sense, but that’s too easy. Poof! He got picked in Round 5, along with Iowa TE Shaun Beyer. There are several late round offensive linemen I like, but I dislike doubling up when there is any other choice. Patrick Johnson may end up being a pure depth guy, but he sounds like someone who brings a professional attitude and will do what it takes to make the team.
Round 7a – TE Jack Stoll, Nebraska. (RS Senior). Here is the current Big Board entry:
|TE Jack Stoll, Nebraska. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 260 lbs. Gets hit with the “tough guy blocker” label as if that was a bad thing, when it’s quite the opposite. Good, solid floor as a full- or H-back. It’s the ceiling where his questions lie. He is supposed to have very good hands, but also heavy feet that may restrict his ability to run routes. In the ideal world it would turn out to be Nebraska’s reluctance to use TE’s as receiving weapons, but that is wishful thinking at this point. Showing unexpected athleticism at the Combine would have really helped his stock.|
When in doubt, throw in a name for the film watchers to chew on. There are a number of acceptable, blocking-first TE’s who ought to be around on Day 3 of the draft. Stoll is one of them. He won’t be a star, but if he really can help the running game, and has just enough athleticism to force teams to counter him with a LB instead of an extra DL, he will have a real chance at earning a spot on the Pittsburgh roster.
Round 7b – T/G Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin (RS Senior). The Big Board says:
|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.|
In this scenario the Steelers lost both Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler. Now they draft a replacement for each. One with the first pick, and the other with the last.
Free agency is going to change everything. That much is obvious, and it means that all mock drafts will be wrong if they assume that “A” is going to happen, when it is really going to be “B”. Thank heavens we’ve now been able to instead rely on unassailable inside information.