Using a draft simulator to do a mock for the Steelers isn’t about the first round. Yes, that’s where the sure-fire starter is going to come from at a key position of need. But this year when using one, it’s all about Days 2 and 3.
The Pittsburgh Steelers need starters throughout the lineup, moreso than in most years for a franchise which excels at retaining much of its lineup season to season. So in doing my first mock draft for Steelers Depot, I went into the draft simulator worried less about who I was picking at 24 overall, and more on who was going to be there for my subsequent selections.
I used the simulator at The Draft Network, and did not enable trades (to avoid that added chaos that ensues every draft). And, given that this is not the final mock I intend to do before April 29, I wanted to have at least one run-through where I simply took the players I could get without moving up or down.
My strategy was this: In Round 1, I was sitting dead-red on a franchise offensive tackle. Back-up plan: Best player available at a tertiary need, or go against one of my own cardinal rules of drafting and spend a first-rounder on a running back.
My hope was to snag a Pro Bowl-caliber RB on Day 2, and then leave the remaining picks up to experimentation. Other early targets included drafting a third corner to avoid the reality of Justin Layne or James Pierre starting at nickel, someone who can compete for the starting job at center, and competition at both inside linebacker (for Robert Spillane) and on the edge (Alex Highsmith).
With all that planned out, I hit start, and let the madness begin.
ROUND 1, PICK 24: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Only 23 picks in, my strategy is already screwed. Not only did every tackle I had targeted get selected far before me, but Najee Harris was taken by New York the pick before mine. I should’ve stuck with the anomaly that was my first run-through, when Mac Jones was still available here.
Without recent back surgery and a history of medical red flags, Farley would be picked in the top half of the first round, potentially as the first corner off the board. Durability will always be a concern with him, and his Zone coverage skills will need worked on. But Farley brings a receiver’s mindset to playing Man coverage, and I love aggressive corners who can scrap off the line.
There is no position that Pittsburgh struggles to draft more than cornerback. If an instant starter and player with top-10 upside falls to me here, someone who is viewed as a starter and not a project like Artie Burns, it is hard not to fill that need, keep Cameron Sutton in his nickel spot where he thrives, and avoid putting a corner at nickel who isn’t ready.
ROUND 2, PICK 55: Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan
To me, is Mayfield somebody I can immediately start at a tackle spot without worry, and trust to be my franchise tackle? Definitely not. But is he a good value later in the second round, and comes with the potential to be that long-term guy? Absolutely.
Mayfield’s game is all about power and keeping edge rushers at bay in pass protection. He can stick in front of them along the arc, has active hands, and is capable both of driving men wide or below the pocket, and tying them up into a stalemate off the line. His work on extended plays doesn’t falter, and he retains control of rushers throughout the duration, something good for a team who should be relying on longer plays more after a strategy of short, quick passes yielded less-than-impressive results last season.
His work on outside runs is exquisite, and he would be a capable lead blocker at the NFL level on plays asking him to pull outside the tight end to set up a toss or carry off the edge for whomever I draft later in this class (or Anthony McFarland).
What stops Mayfield from being a first-rounder as buzz previously suggested is a weakness facing faster edge rushers. His mobility is good, not great, and players who rely on their speed to shake tackles will get free of him and advance on the pocket. That is concerning given the need for him to start Week 1 (over Chukwuma Okorafor), but I think Mayfield is worth the gamble here.
ROUND 3, PICK 87: Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
The Jets are just messing with me at this point, taking linebacker Chazz Surratt a pick before mine. No matter, because the player whose name I circled in Sharpie with this pick is still there.
Gainwell is somebody who I not only view as a Day 1 starter, but who I believe has legitimate Pro Bowl upside. In the right system, an All-Pro nod during his career isn’t even out of the question.
Gainwell’s toolbox as a runner is elite. He has a spin move that will instantly be one of the NFL’s best, and can throw down cuts at any time to fool any defender. His center of gravity is always low and his balance sure, he is quick to make the edge, and has a nose for reaching first downs or the end zone.
His receiving is solid, but leaves room for growth. He has dependable hands and can do damage as a runner. But his game would be improved with a more aggressive mentality, both attacking and bringing the ball in, and showing more urgency when running routes and attacking the break point.
Gainwell’s pass blocking ability is underrated, and should play as a rookie at the NFL level. He is a true three-down back, one whose game reminds me of Le’Veon Bell’s and makes me comfortable assigning the lofty comparison. He may have only one year of college experience (opting out of this season), but that doesn’t stop me from picking him as my new bellcow back.
ROUND 4, PICK 128: Trey Hill, C, Georgia
This pick didn’t fall to me the way I had hoped, so I make this the spot where I get somebody who can compete for the starting job at center, in Trey Hill.
As our writer Alex Kozora mentioned in his prospect report on him, Hill plays with a special blend of bulk, power, and athleticism. He is the type of player who can shine in a ground game like the Steelers’. His strength keeps him from being a liability in pass protection, though there are improvements to be made there.
The fact that there are medical concerns in his background isn’t ideal, especially given I already selected somebody like that in the first round. But Hill is the last player available who I would draft with the confidence he could start at center. Given that he profiles to be a center in the exact mold the Steelers would dream of, I again am comfortable taking the risk.
ROUND 4, PICK 140: Justin Hilliard, LB, Ohio State
This is earlier than I would have liked to take Hilliard. But without a fifth round pick, there is little chance he falls to me in the sixth, and I was not leaving the draft simulator without adding my absolute favorite player in this class to the Steelers’ roster.
What Hilliard showed at the end of the 2020 regular season and in the College Football Playoffs is what Buckeye fans had been waiting years to see, since he arrived as an elite recruit. Hilliard was a clutch player to the highest caliber. He made both an interception and fumble recovery late in the Big Ten Championship when Ohio State couldn’t shake Northwestern. Hilliard recovered another fumble in the CFP semifinals against Clemson, and then had a pair of tackles for loss in the title game against Alabama.
Hilliard worked his way to a starting job to end his career as a sixth-year senior, after injuries wiped out his first two seasons. His poise in big moments and promise he showed at the end of the 2020 season showed me somebody who I believe can be a starter by the end of his rookie season.
ROUND 6, PICK 216: Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest
The class at receiver is so deep in this draft that I’ve been saying for months that teams will find starters as late as the sixth round. Case in point, my selection here.
There was a time when Surratt was viewed as a potential first-round pick. Opting out of the 2021 season did not help his case to stay there, and he lacks the top-end athleticism and speed of some other names in the draft.
But Surratt is a dependable receiver who shines going up to get the ball in contested catch situations, and has deceptive athleticism that will beat plenty of defensive backs. Before getting hurt at the Senior Bowl, Surratt was one of my biggest winners in practice. He simply overpowered many of the players lined up against him in one-on-ones.
He obviously will not be a starter this season, Pittsburgh owning a receiver room that already has three starting-caliber players in it. But in the likelihood JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves next offseason, and with James Washington no guarantee to stay after this season, I’m taking Surratt as somebody with the upside to become a starter for 2022 and beyond.
ROUND 7, PICK 245: Avery Williams, CB, Boise State
It’s all about value this late, and Williams provides it in spades.
All the credit for this selection goes to colleague Jonathan Heiritter. His prospect profile of Williams put him on my late-round radar. Williams isn’t somebody who is going to start at cornerback as a rookie. His ceiling in the secondary may be as a CB4.
But as a return man, Williams should immediately unseat Ray-Ray McCloud as the team’s top weapon. He was a top-end returner at Boise State, and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie isn’t out of the question if given the lead responsibility on kicks or punts.
As Heiritter also mentioned, Williams worked out as a running back and wide receiver during his Pro Day, too. I’m not drafting him based on being an immediate offensive impact player. But as an instant returner, special teams weapon, and player with athletic upside to eventually double on defense and offense? You can do far worse for a seventh-round pick.
ROUND 7, PICK 254: Tarron Jackson, EDGE, Coastal Carolina
I told myself I wanted an edge rusher with some upside. Little did I know one of the two small-school players I had in mind would fall to my last pick.
Jackson flat out produced at Coastal. His career line included 44.5 tackles for loss and 26.5 sacks. Each of his final three seasons, he had 11 tackles for loss, and his last two each had at least 8.5 sacks.
He is a smaller player, and showed at the Senior Bowl that he lacks the size and strength to play on the interior in the NFL. (Why coaches shifted him from the edge at the event to begin with, I have no idea, but I digress).
Anyone with his college production has something to contribute or some kind of upside at the NFL level, and Jackson is the exact type of player I would be hoping to find in the last few picks of the draft. He isn’t needed to contribute immediately, but would have a chance to learn from a line of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu before potentially being called upon to contribute.
So, what did all of you think of my first mock draft as a member of Steelers Depot? Let me hear it in the comments. This draft started off rough and threw out my strategy early on. But I was able to hit most of the positions I had targeted, and find some players who were on my list of hopefuls to draft. I even found a handful of players who can start as rookies, and a couple more who have the upside to do so long term.