First things first: I’m doing this mock based on a few assumptions about the team, and some general observations about where the talent tends to cluster in this year’s class. Those have more value than my actual picks, so I’d like to list them up front.
- The Steelers are going to target RB, Center, OT, TE, Edge, ILB, Slot-DB[FN], and boundary CB (eight positions) with their five picks in Rounds 1-4. Eight positions minus five picks means that three will not be addressed until Rounds 6-7. At that point I will add in WR and QB to the mix. Five positions minus three picks means that at least two will go totally unaddressed, along with both DL and pure Guards.
- RB and Center are bigger needs than the other positions. In this regard, the team evidently believes that both Chuks and Banner are capable starters at OT. Readers may agree with assessment or not, but it’s assumed to be the case for this mock draft.
- The Steelers will not make three picks in a row on one side of the ball. Thus the first three picks are likely to be offense, offense, and a defensive bargain. RB and Center will be addressed with at least one of those picks, and quite possibly two. That is a big consideration in the discussion below.
- Medical red flags are off the board in order to duck a fruitless and futile debate that I’m sick of reading. That does not mean players like Landon Dickerson and Caleb Farley should be off the Steelers board in real life. I just refuse to invite even more amateur medical opinions that have no grounds to exist.
- No trades are allowed in any of my mocks unless the terms tilt distinctly toward the other team. I can’t say what trade bait will be available, and thus I will not assume a willing trade partner. I’m not willing to give up that much, so Mr. Trade Down is off the table too even though it makes sense when the terms are right.
- The Steelers, even more than other teams, will frown on small school prospects in a year when Covid prevents all the extra testing required to make Colbert & Co. feel comfortable with schools outside of the Power Five. Same thing for the kids robbed by Covid of their 2020 season. Colbert prefers to hit singles and doubles in any event, and this year’s swings at the small school and limited-tape home run balls will be even wilder than usual.
[FN] The “slot” player could be a hard tackling Corner or a cover-capable Safety, and in the ideal world will be a backup for Minkah Fitzpatrick at Free Safety. Ignore the label and look at the function.
2021 Talent Clusters
I don’t do the film studies on this site. I write the big board. Thus I am less qualified than the other writers to have strong opinions about particular players, but I enjoy a better position to see the patterns. Going down each of the positions named above:
- The RB group is very thin at the top, with two Round 1 talents, a fringe-1st, and then a significant gap until you get to Round 3. That will tend to push RB-needy teams like Pittsburgh into getting while the getting is good.
- The Center class is average, with talent going down in a steady line from the late-1st into Round 5.
- Rounds 1-4 offer a lot of defensive backs in both the Nickel/Slot and Boundary categories. It is a very good class that way. Things tail off after that, leaving players who are particularly hard to grade even on the scale for Corners, who are hard to judge in the first place.
- The Edge class has no real stars, but does offer consistent if thin value from the middle of Round 1 back into Round 3. I predict a real surge of Edge Rusher picks in Round 3 due to the limited numbers, and also because there is a gap until a cluster that fits best as late-4th or 5th Round picks.
- I am an ILB junkie who views midfield athletes as the secret sauce for countering modern offenses. So you may want to take this with some salt, but I believe it is an underrated ILB class. I forecast a big run on linebackers in Rounds 2-3 that will ultimately result in 8-10 players going off the board in the top 100 or so.
- The Tackle class is extremely strong for Rounds 1-2, with a second strong cluster for Rounds 3-4, and then a third with Round 5-6 grades. It is probably the best class in recent memory. That said, fans have been ignoring the reality that grades go down for very good reasons. The Round 3-4 group, e.g., has a lot of amazing physical specimens with inadequate and/or small school film; several well polished players with poor athletic wiring, and others who may be good athletes but have very short arms, limited size, or other shortfalls in one key area. Rinse and repeat for Round 5-6, with character concerns mixing in.
- The TE’s are simply weak, with a small cluster in and around Round 3, and then some likable longshots toward the end of Day 3. It would be a little better if I was willing to accept an oversized WR as a TE, but I’m not.
So much for the meat and potatoes. Time to look at the scotch and cookies.
ROUND 1, PICK #24 – RB Najee Harris, Alabama. Is there any need to explain this? Harris is my #1 choice, with Etienne as the fallback, because I see in him an almost perfect system fit. He is also more likely to be available. The other teams who might choose a RB (the Dolphins and Jets) have offenses that would suit Etienne’s style more than Harris’.
There are only three alternatives. First, we can assume that a weird bargain steal drops to #24. That’s cheating for a final mock, and it would take one heck of a steal to offer better value than Najee Harris. Second, we can imagine a trade-down deal. That violates Rule #5. Finally, I could opt for a Center instead of a RB even though I’ve removed Landon Dickerson from the board. This last one is worth a deeper dive.
First Option: Najee Harris at #24 followed by either a Center or a defensive steal at Picks #55 and #87. Alternative: Creed Humphrey at #24 followed by RB Trey Sermon and a defensive steal. It has to be Sermon in Round 2 since I do not think that Williams will be there at Pick #55, nor Sermon at #87, and I’m not willing to cripple this team with an lesser prospect. Thus the needs/board analysis favors a RB in Round 1. What about pure BPA? I can make a good argument that Humphrey, Harris, and Etienne have more or less equivalent grades, but I’d be hard pressed to say that Humphrey is significantly better as a Round 1 prospect. And in Round 2 I see Trey Sermon as a weaker BPA value than the others who are likely to be on the board. That puts the BPA approach in Najee Harris’ corner as well.
Before you complain about the Tackles, please remember Assumption #2: Colbert and Tomlin like Chuks and Banner more than our skeptical brethren on this site. Picking a Tackle would also create the same need to reach for a Round 2 RB, and quite likely cost a potential defensive steal in round 2-3 because we’d be pressured to reach for a Center. RB just makes sense unless you truly believe that any monkey can do the job with the “right” offensive line. I do not.
ROUND 2, PICK #55 – Center
Creed Humphrey [AHEM] Josh Myers, Ohio St. I can’t predict that Creed Humphrey will fall this far because James Wilford’s recent mock did exactly that. If it happens, Humphrey will be the no-brainer, run to the podium pick. But I feel obliged to examine the alternative. What happens if Humphrey gets picked ahead of where we’d like? It puts me in a pickle. Should I go to some other position? Or do I follow through with my belief that RB and Center are the two biggest needs, and they happen to line up pretty well with the available talent?
I choose to approach it like this: I will go with a Center in Round 2 so long as I think he offers fair value (isn’t a reach per se) and there is no ultimate bargain somewhere else. Center wins every finger on the scale tiebreaker.
Which Centers would offer “fair value” at Pick #55? I have only four names:
Dickerson (off the board by assumption), Humphrey (who broke several Depot hearts and TV’s by getting picked at #54), Josh Myers, and Quinn Meinerz. Of the last two I will go with Myers because that is what I believe the Steelers’ front office would decide.
This is a tough one because it feels like I’m settling on Myers rather than running to hand in the card. He was the Round 3 pick in my last mock! So what has changed? It starts with a recent spate of expert opinions, such as Gil Brandt putting him at #43 overall. And I favor him over Quinn Meinerz because of the small school problem described as Assumption #6. I see Meinerz as having the higher ceiling, but I’m pretty sure that Colbert would be scared by the small school floor.
The other option is a defensive steal, with Center waiting for Round 3 or 4. Is that viable? Absolutely.
I like B.J. Finney enough to call him a decent stopgap, and J.C. Hassenauer is adequate too so long as he’s only hiking the ball. Pittsburgh can survive without picking a Center in the draft. It’s a big “want,” but it isn’t an “emergency.” There’s also a lot of mid-level developmental talent at the position to reinforce Finney and Hassenauer. Meinerz could easily fall to Pick #87 due to the small school issues, and Kendrick Green, Robert Hainsey, and Trey Hill could all be available even at #128. They all have “eventual starter” labels beside their names in my book. Even Drew Dalman, Michael Menet, or Jimmy Morrison would add legitimate depth to the room, and all of those should be there at pick #140 or #216. Don’t get me wrong: Pittsburgh has the greatest tradition in NFL history at the pivot position on the offensive line. It is a tradition I really care about. But sometimes the guy just isn’t there, and you have to be patient enough to wait a few drafts until he shows up. We can afford to choose patience over a reach if Josh Myers gets out-valued on draft day.
Who would those potential steals be? There are really only two players I could not resist, and who I can also see at #55. Those are Edge Joseph Ossai and CB Asante Samuel Jr. Both of those prospects fit the Steelers so well that I could see the team reaching for them in the late 1st in just the right year. If either falls to #55 it will be enough to upset the apple cart. Maaaaaybe ILB Baron Browning too, if the team fell in love when they met.
Waiting on pins and needles… and… No. It did not happen.
After that I see a big group of quality players who grade out very near to Josh Myers, and probably higher if measured on some abstract all-teams board. The names would be quality ILB prospects such as Jamin Davis, Nick Bolton, and Pete Werner. Those aren’t enough to tilt the decision. Same result for Cornerbacks Tyson Campbell, Ifi Melifonwu, Eric Stokes, and Paulson Adebo. I like them all, I might grade them a little higher on an all-teams board, but I do not grade them higher from a Pittsburgh POV. Then there’s TE Pat Freiermuth, who would help the running game in his own way and thereby ease some of that pressure to choose a Center. Tough, tough call… but I’m going to go with the more obvious pick.
Josh Myers amounts to a line drive hit dead into the gap. He’s a solid hit that’s probably just a single, but who knows? Sometimes those shots go all the way to the wall. That’s where doubles, triples, and in-the-park home runs come from. I want the next Webster, Dawson, or Pouncey as much as anyone, but he just isn’t there. Boo frickin’ hoo. Myers will do the job fine and provides good, solid, Round 2 value. He’s the pick and no one should be sad.
ROUND 3, PICK #87. Offense… offense… time to share the wealth. The four defensive positions I’m targeting are ILB, Edge, boundary CB, and Nickel DB.
- Vince Williams is coming to the end of his beloved Pittsburgh career. I’m not eager to do the man another dirty deed by selecting a player who’d compete for his position right away, but I’ll do it anyway if one of those Round 2 names should fall this far. See above. I think the ILB’s are going faster than most people expect, so I will turn to the Edge and DB groups instead.
- OLB is probably the biggest need, and certainly the one that Colbert and Tomlin care about most. But who should I target? Joe Tryon would be an excellent pick but I don’t think he’ll be here. That leaves Patrick Jones, Ronnie Perkins, Hamilcar Rashed, Quincy Roche, Jordan Smith, Charles Snowden, and Payton Turner. All offer good value. None offer great value. And we can’t really hope that any will fall to the 4a pick at #128. Tentative “yes” on one of those unless there is an even better Corner or DB.
- Boundary CB is a growing issue with Nelson gone and Haden aging. Do we really trust the yet-to-arrive Layne or the could-it-happen Pierre? Hope, sure; trust, no. So who could be there in the 3rd? Three names pop off the board: Kelvin Joseph, Benjamin St. Juste, and Robert Rochell. Joseph’s immaturity and boom-or-bust odds are a turnoff, and I can’t do the research to get past that problem. Rochell is a small school kid, so it’s a “no” there too. St. Juste is closer. Another tentative “yes,” right up there with the Edge prospects.
- Slot DB options include Shaun Wade, Elijah Molden, Richie Grant, Aaron Robinson, Ar’Darius Washington, James Wiggins, and Trill Williams. These are all good players, so they get added to the pool as well. They do come with a note, however. I foresee several good slot options in Round 4, particularly Kary Vincent, and maybe even Ambry Thomas. Those are stronger fallback options than I expect for either the Edge group or the boundary Corners.
So it comes down to the Edge prospects, St. Juste, and the Slot/Nickel DB’s to replace Mike Hilton’s role. Is there anyone in that pool who stands out enough to break the tie? Heck yeah! Last week I wrote a whole article on that very subject!
I choose Slot/Safety/Nickel/Corner Shaun Wade, Ohio State
That article argues that his turf toe injury explains the poor 2020 season better than the sudden lack of talent that draftniks have settled on. The more important point for today is the material I edited out for that piece. Shaun Wade fits what Pittsburgh wants like bespoken leather pants on your supermodel of choice. Look at all those slash marks in front of his name! Slot, Safety, Nickel, and Corner? Good lord.
If you’re a doubter, go ahead and assume that Wade really was exposed as someone who can’t survive as an NFL boundary Corner. That’s a shame, but so what? The exact same thing happened to Minkah Fitzpatrick if you’ll remember, and Minkah compares well to Shaun Wade as an athlete. So remove boundary Corner from the list… and you still have a nigh-on-perfect fit. The Depot scouting report described Wade as a bigger and better version of Mike Hilton. That alone would be solid value at #87. The very good odds that Wade could be the much-desired backup at Free Safety. That pushes his Steelers-specific value at least toward the fringe of Round 2. Add in the disguise packages that Coach Butler would delight in, and it goes up again. And then there is the chance that we really could write off 2020 completely, thereby dropping a Round 1 Corner out of the Round 3 sky.
Honestly, there’s just one thing I dislike about this pick: the fact that I’m going to the Ohio State well on two trips in a row. So bloody what. Write it off to the Covid-based tilt in favor of higher end programs. Alabama won the national championship. Alabama gets our Round 1 pick. Ohio State came in second, and gets Rounds 2 and 3. Sounds fine to me. There’s a reason they were the two best teams in the country.
If Shaun Wade isn’t there, I’d be favoring one of the Edge prospects. Probably Ronnie Perkins since he got such a strong endorsement in Kelvin Bryant’s scouting report.
ROUND 4a, Pick #128 – T/G James Hudson, Cincinnati.
If this wasn’t my final mock you’d have seen a twist. Najee Harris in the 1st, a defensive steal in the 2nd (Asante Samuel Jr. probably), and then a surprise in Round 3. That pick would probably have been the small school titan OT Spencer Brown of Northern Iowa, someone that most draftniks rank as a Round 2 talent, but who I think is going to tumble due to the small school stigma in this Year of Covid.
I have James Hudson in a dead tie with Brown on my personal board, though I recognize that Hudson is a lot more likely to fall down in the draft. He simply doesn’t have Brown’s “planet theory” dimensions. Hudson is 6’4⅜”, 302 lbs. with 33″ arms. Perfectly acceptable numbers. Brown is 6’8½”, 314 lbs. with 33¾” arms. Whoa, Nellie. I have them side by side because of Hudson’s Steelers-specific fit, which goes to how he plays more than his measurable assets and technical flaws. The young man from Cincinnati is a tough guy first and foremost; a mauler who displays the same nasty attitude that draws so many of us toward Teven Jenkins and Landon Dickerson. His presence will help Coach Klemm renew the spirit of that OL room. That matters. It helps that Hudson’s problems go to things like like hand placement, angles, and maintaining his knee bend. All of those are coachable and/or fixable with better conditioning. This is good, solid developmental depth that can probably swing inside to Guard in a pinch. Plus those intangibles. I like it.
Add in the fact that he’s met with the Steelers several times and you have my 4a pick unless one of those Round 3 Edge Rushers happens to fall this far.
ROUND 4b, Pick #140 – Edge/ILB Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame.
Five picks down with four going to the offense. Coach Butler is staring at me like a dog who watched his dinner bowl disappear after a half sized meal. Those big, brown eyes are killing me! Something’s got to be done, so I’m going to tap into an odd cluster of multipurpose talent at this point in the draft. Pittsburgh could use both OLB depth and a blitzing Buck ILB to be Vince Williams’ designated heir. The projections I’ve seen include a number of hybrid players with a foot in both camps. They all carry some healthy risk, and may be the proverbial Jack of two trades but master of none. Some warts you’ve got to just accept at this point in the draft.
The names I’m looking at are Daelin Hayes, Chris Rumph II, Malcolm Koonce, and Patrick Johnson. All four are a little undersized for a Pittsburgh OLB, but otherwise have very good athletic tools with motors that never stop. There’s a lot of effort sacks and down the field tackles in this group! Every one of them should be a star on special teams for that reason alone. That’s the floor I need to move forward.
Out of the four I prefer Hayes for this mock because he’s had several meetings with the team, comes from a powerhouse program, has excellent wiring as an overall athlete, and reportedly has brilliant intangibles. He’s also a tiny bit larger at 6’3½”, 253 lbs. with 32⅞” arms. Chris Rumph II is the most technically advanced, but also the smallest. He weighs in at only 6’2⅞”, 244 lbs. and he says in this interview that he played at 230-235 during the season. IMHO that makes him a Buck ILB prospect with pass rushing chops, rather than someone like Hayes; an Edge Rusher that might be able to play inside. I’ve gotten burned on too many undersized pass rush prospects over the years. I know longer trust in anyone’s ability to beat NFL Tackles at that big a size disadvantage.
Koonce is a little bigger than Rumph at a solid 249 lbs., but the size issues are still there (6’2¼”), he played for smaller program in Buffalo, and he doesn’t have the amazing football IQ that comes from a father who now coaches the Chicago D-line. As for Patrick Johnson, I chartered that hype train back in January and haven’t regretted it, but will acknowledge that Tulane’s program isn’t much bigger than Buffalo’s in the larger scheme of things, and he does have a weird build at 6’6”, 240 lbs. with short 32” arms. He’s in the group, but not at the top, and makes much more sense as a prayer for Round 6.
Hayes it is.
ROUND 6, Pick #216 – ILB Buddy Johnson, Texas A&M.
ROFL. Coach Butler just put the puppy dog eyes back on. “That isn’t all you’re going to give me, is it?” He’s got a point. Four offensive picks so far including both Round 1 and Round 1, with only two for the defense. I want to get a blocking TE at this point because I am a Steelers fan and we always want to get a blocking TE. I also feel obliged to look at the WR class, because I’m wearing Kevin Colbert’s shoes and those always end up at the WR showcase. But fair is fair, so I’m going back to the defensive side of the ball.
Maybe a Safety? This is a weak class overall, but there is a very big cluster that I grade for Round 5 and one of those could fall. My answer in two words is “Shaun Wade”. He may be listed as a Corner, but in reality he is a positionless DB who straddles the line between a rangy Free Safety and a Nickel DB with coverage skills. Hence the comparison to Minkah Fitzpatrick. Since the team is well stocked with Strong Safeties, there is no hole left to fill.
Boundary Corner? Our film watchers have fallen in love with Cam Bynum from Cal, who gives off a serious Steven Nelson vibe. He may never be the CB1 of a room, but he’s got a solid-depth floor, will probably make some team happy as a CB3 backup, and if things go right he could be an exceptional CB2 just like Nelson. That’s great value in Round 6, and I view boundary outside Corner as a different position than the things Shaun Wade does from the inside out. Definitely a possibility.
Then there are two late round ILB’s that I’ve fallen for hard: Buddy Johnson from Texas A&M, and Isaiah McDuffie from Boston College. They’re clones. Both are undersized, measuring in between 6’0” and 6’1″, and weighing 225-230 lbs. Both have something like 31″ arms. And both play with the ferocity of a Wolverine/Tasmanian Devil hybrid that was trussed in a sack and fed on scraps for the past two weeks. Aim, fire, wince, laugh, and then retarget.
I’m going with the Buck ILB over the Corner because I think the Steelers will value the pass rush rotation over the comfort of a security blanket guy like Bynum. Hayes is a longshot at Edge, and he won’t provide much help in Year 1 if either Watt or Highsmith gets hurt. Coach Butts will respond by playing him anyway – there is no choice! – and then shifting the pass rush between Vince Williams and Hayes a lot. Classic 3-4 solution: use uncertainty and disguise to make up for shortfalls on the athletic scale.
We have no real depth behind VW, his position has extra importance due to the blitz package, and we want to get an heir for that position anyway. That gives the edge to either Buddy Johnson or Isaiah McDuffie. Which will I choose?
Johnson’s name doesn’t remind me of a Disney character, so that’s my pick. Isn’t it nice to see the care and consideration your writers put into these late round selections? [No, that isn’t fair. I really do like him as a prospect, and we all spend a lot of time on these].
ROUND 7a, Pick #245 – TE Blocker Candoit from U. Pickit.
Colbert’s shoes be damned. I care about the running game this year, not any perceived question marks outside. We’ve helped by picking with the best back in the draft from a Pittsburgh POV. We’ve helped by picking the #3 Center (#2 if you don’t count Dickerson). And we’ve helped by picking a ferocious Tackle/Guard whose mean streak is bound to infect the room. The only way left is to add a Tight End that actually enjoys the blocking side of the game.
I will limit the choices to either Luke Farrell of Ohio State or Shaun Beyer of Iowa. You choose between them. Both emit a Kittle-esque vibe as well trained and effective run blockers who possess sneaky athletic talent (top 15% and top 25% respectively). I truly believe that both are likely to shine more in the NFL than they did in college. I’ve gone with Farrell in all my other mocks, but he would be my third pick from Ohio State in just one draft. This one I leave to you, along with your fair portion of shame if you’re only now realizing how to pronounce the name and school I wrote above.
ROUND 7b, Pick #254 – CB Camryn Bynum, California
See above. And yes, he’s often projected to fall this far. But Bynum isn’t really the point here.
Every year I predict that the Steelers will be happy with the WR room they have. Who would pick Juju Smith-Schuster in 2017 when both Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are in their primes? Colbert, that’s who. No one would go WR again in 2018, not with all three of those guys in the room; right? Kevin Colbert begs to differ, and so does James Washington. In the 2nd. Again. Okay yes: AB went batty in 2019, so Diontae Johnson made sense. But after that? In 2020? Surely the team would wait a bit before digging down into the deepest receiver class in a generation? Had to happen, right? See that guy in the Pittsburgh cap who’s thumbing his nose? Chase Claypool, Round 2.
Har. Har. Har. Every year I put on my zen-Colbert hat to do these mocks. Every year I predict that he’ll wait before dipping into the WR pool again. Every year he laughs in my face. And every year he turns out to be right about the choice that he made in the year before.
So this year I’m obviously going to learn my lesson, right? I’m going to use my last pick on Simi Fehoko from Stanford, Trevon Grimes or Tamorrian Terry from Florida, or Cornell Powell from Clemson. Or maybe I’ll sign up for every film watcher’s favorite sleeper, Josh Palmer from Tennessee. This is yet another class with fabulous WR depth, and one of those guys should fall even down toward the fringes of UDFA.
It’s a fair prediction. It’s entirely reasonable. It’s pure BPA. There’s even a vague need, with both Juju and Washington being free agents next year, and Diontae the year after that. It’s obvious, right?
[Insert gif of a 3 year old’s tantrum, “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!!”]
You’ve got the names. Look them up. Terry sits at 4:16 on the Big Board and all the others at 5:01. We can toss in Ihmir Smith-Marsette from Iowa as a bonus (another 5:01), along with the kangaroo man himself, Josh Imatorbhebhe from Illinois (5:16). They deserve those lofty rankings and probably more. Each and every one.
It’s pure BPA my friend. But you’ll have to be the one who pulls the trigger. It won’t be me. Won’t, won’t, won’t.
Lucy is going to keep that football where it is this time, and Kevin Colbert is going to pick a nice, safe Cornerback instead of another flashy receiver. You betcha.
See you back here again next year.