The Steelers sign the following in-house players:
- FS Minkah Fitzpatrick
- SS Terrell Edmunds
- CB Ahkello Witherspoon
- NT Montravius Adams
- OT Chuks Okorafor
- OG Trai Turner
- WR Juju Smith-Schuster.
DT Stephon Tuitt and DT Tyson Alualu also return, healthy and eager.
The main losses are:
- CB Joe Haden
- WR James Washington
- TE/WR Eric Ebron
The big free agent splash is:
- The team signs an inexpensive but professional Center better than Hassenauer, who Kendrick Green will not beat out unless he makes a serious sophomore leap.
ROUND 1 – GUARD KENYON GREEN, TEXAS A&M
A suitable offensive lineman is my #1 priority for this draft, and I say that as someone who firmly believes that Center Kendrick Green deserves a fair chance to make his Sophomore leap. And OT Dan Moore Jr. even more so. This mock assumes that the team will sign a free agent Center of sufficient quality to cover for Green if he fails to do that, but not a guy who will be The Answer. If Green can win that competition, fine. If not, the team won’t be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Given that assumption, my first consideration went to Tyler Linderbaum, the 6’3”, 290 lb. sensation from Iowa. Linderbaum has the best movement skills the draft has seen since Pouncey was a prospect, and is the only Center in the draft who offers a reasonable chance of succeeding to Pittsburgh’s glorious tradition at the pivot position. But Linderbaum has some question marks too, at least for a team like Pittsburgh that uses a lot of power and inside zone running schemes. In particular, he’s both shorter and 15 lbs. lighter than Pouncey. His top notch wrestling background helped him to hold up in college despite that lack of reach and heft, but it will take careful study to decide on the odds that it will continue to do so in the NFL for a team with our approach to running the ball.
At this point in the process (things may change), I decided that he just isn’t a good enough fit for Pittsburgh’s scheme to justify the Round 1 pick, especially with the combination of a decent free agent and the odds of a Kendrick Green Sophomore leap.
Why a Guard instead of a Tackle? It’s looking like a good year for Tackles, and it shouldn’t be hard to find one in the mid-1st. The two most likely are Charles Cross, a 6’5”, 305 lb. pass protector from Mississippi State who has some of the best feet you could ever ask for, and Nicholas Petit-Frere, the 6’5”, 315 lb. star from Ohio State, who will be called a “plug & play” type throughout the process. There’s also the yeti-sized Evan Neal from Alabama, who projects as an almost perfect Right Tackle prospect, and a small school sensation with stunning physical assets named Trevor Penning. All four would be wonderful targets if Tackle was a significant need. I will argue that it’s a lesser need than IOL.
I see Pittsburgh with three dogs ready to compete for the two starting-position bones: (a) 2021’s Dan Moore Jr., (b) the healed-up Zach Banner, and (c) Chuks Okorafor, under the midlevel contract his performance has earned. Moore will probably make a significant leap for Year 2, and the “veterans” are both on the upswing of their respective careers. That’s better in both quality and depth than the situation inside. Plus there’s the fact that Pittsburgh doesn’t tend to emphasize the Tackle position as much as other teams.
That leaves the Guards. You have Dotson, who looked solid in 2021 but did not improve as much as we hoped for his Year 2, and then Trai Turner, who I’m resigning for his veteran depth. And then crickets. I want a potential star! An anchor to replace DeCastro. My #1 dream option here would be T/G Ikem Ekwonu out of NC State, whose scouting reports basically read like this: “A capable if somewhat risky Tackle, who projects as an all-pro Guard if he moves inside.” Yes please. Run to the podium like you’re pursued by the whips of Sauron. I don’t yet have the sort of draft crush I developed for Rashawn Slater, but believe me: the stirrings are there. At the same time, I think Ekwonu is going to be a forlorn hope just as Slater proved to be. That description earns a Top 10 selection. Certainly no lower than Top 15. The Steelers pick at 1:20.
That leaves the 6’4”, 325 lb. Kenyon Green, the best pure-Guard prospect of the class by far. I’ve also seen him getting projected in the Top 15 or so, but here I have my doubts. Our Jonathan Heitritter has highlighted a number of genuine, if fixable, flaws that should push his stock down a bit. His balance needs some work, and Green has displayed some concerning issues with really slippery movers on the inside. He’s an excellent prospect, but if David DeCastro fell to #24 overall, Kenyon Green should be there at #20. I would almost be surprised if his stock is still in the Top 15 area when the draft rolls around.
Bottom line? I think Kenyon Green would be a perfect fit for what the Steelers need. Linderbaum could jump him if the size concerns can be eased, but for now I’ll go with the Guard.
Also considered: QB’s Kenny Pickett and Sam Howell; WR’s Garrett Wilson, Jameson Williams, Chris Olave, and Treylong Burks; SAF Jaquan Brisker; and CB’s Kalir Elam, Roger McCreary, and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.
ROUND 2 – QB CARSON STRONG, NEVADA
Bring it on! Yes, I know that Mike Tomlin has repeatedly emphasized how much he values mobility in a Quarterback. Yes, I know that Carson Strong has been tagged with the label of, “classic, cannon-armed, pocket passing statue.” Yes, I know that Mason Rudolph has many of the same characteristics on paper. And so no, I do not believe that Strong is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh’s QB dreams.
I have also read that Strong’s lack of mobility is due to a serious knee injury that took years to heal due to complications, and is only now allowing him to regain the athleticism and mobility he had back in High School. So maybe he won’t be an actual statute? That would certainly help his stock. But that isn’t the reason I’m naming him here. I simply want to get my $0.02 in on the single quality that I value most in a QB prospect.
Carson Strong is C-L-U-T-C-H. When the chips are down, his team needs a final drive, and this young man jogs onto the field, everyone in the stadium knows that something special is coming. Maybe it’s the fan in me, but that’s the one feature I consistently see in every great QB: they lead the comebacks, they close out the games, and you want the ball in their hands as the clock winds down.
Yes, I’ve seen guys who had that gene fail due to lack of native talent. Duck Hodges was a perfect example. The world would have been his oyster if he had a genuine NFL arm. He didn’t, and that brought the duck down to earth. But look at the other side! How many guys with his size and arm talent could accomplish a tenth of what he did? And how many prospects with all the talent in the world accomplished nothing more? That one asset – playing his best in the toughest moments – was almost enough to earn him a career, all on its own.
If Carson Strong has that knack, and my reading says he does, then I think it makes him a quality pick in Round 2 even if he is a statue. Heck, it might make him worth a higher pick if the process shows that his knee issue really has been fixed. At the very least, I want to throw my pet QB scouting theory out there for the rest of you to chew on. It’s Mock 1.0, and I can afford some controversy.
Alternative Pick: If the Steelers bypass the Round 2 QB’s, which is entirely possible, I would probably look toward the defense. There are some good Corners and Safeties who might be available, but for the sake of discussion I will mention a specific name that Steeler Nation ought to catch up on: Buck ILB Darrian Beavers, a 6’4″, 255 lb. freak athlete who would be Vince Williams on steroids. Buck ILB’s are part time players in the modern NFL because they come off the field in a lot of the sub-package defenses. That makes Round 2 a steep price compared to other positions that have the chance to play the full complement of starter snaps. But Beavers is a special guy. It wouldn’t surprise me to see his stock rise toward the late 1st by the time draft day comes around. At this point, however, he’s graded as a mid-2nd talent who might be available at 2:20. If he is, I’d happily pull the trigger.
Also considered: QB’s Desmond Ridder and Malik Willis; WR’s George Pickens, David Bell, John Metchie III; and Wan’Dale Robinson; TE’s Trey McBride and Jalen Wydermyer; CB’s Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon; and SAF’s Jordan Battle and Daxton Hill.
ROUND 3 – CB DERION KENDRICK, GEORGIA
Time for a little more controversy.
I expect Joe Haden to retire or depart, and I expect the team to fill his roster spot with Ahkello Witherspoon on a decent but not excessive contract. Cam Sutton has already been paid and will serve as his running partner. Hopefully we will see some growth from James Pierre as well. If so, those three and a low-priced free agent would be a pretty decent group even though the Justin Layne experiment hasn’t gone as hoped. Don’t forget the flashes by Tre Norwood, which have been bright enough to move some of the former Nickel Corner snaps over to a Nickel Safety look.
That said, it’s a pipeline that needs to be fed, particularly since there is no certainty about Pierre’s ability to recover and grow from the beatdown he suffered at the hands of Joe Burrow & Friends. Corner is a position I want to see the team address.
So why Derion Kendrick? Mostly because he’s another name that draftniks ought to read about early on in the process. For those who don’t know, Kendrick is a Top 50 talent who flashed often and bright as an underclassman playing for Clemson. But he also displayed more than his fair share of college-level stupidity, which led to some quasi-public clashes with the coaching staff. Nothing mean. It’s just that they were determined to see him grow up, and he seemed to resist it. Rumor, smoke, rumor… and then a really major slip when Kendrick got “discovered by police asleep in his girlfriend’s car at 3 a.m. with a 9-mm handgun in his lap and marijuana in the vehicle. He was charged with unlawful possession of a gun and simple possession of marijuana.” That got him arrested, and bounced out of Clemson into the transfer portal. He emerged in Georgia just in time to help push his new team over the top to an eventual National Championship. He still has some lapses, and his technique is SEC-level rather than NFL-level, but everything you’ll read describes someone who’d be a Round 2 lock if not for the various red flags. Maybe even a late 1st.
But what about those flags? The article I quoted above explains that the charges weren’t just dropped, they were expunged. That means they were erased as a matter of law. Nothing remains of them except human memory. And that outcome tells me the situation may have fit right in to the soap opera Young and Dumb, but there’s not going to be any flames beneath the smoke. Prosecutors don’t fool around with gun violations, at least not in my experience. Get caught with an illegal firearm and the microscope comes out, even down in the Deep South boonies. The system gets going, searching for any sign that it’s managed to intercept a young version of those guys who later turn fellow citizens into statistics. “Maybe yes, maybe no” yields a suspended sentence and probation. Charges don’t get expunged without a true belief that the young man in question deserves an actual break.
Young and stupid I can deal with, especially with a strong team culture like the Steelers. Hence my pick.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge up front that I don’t believe Derion Kendrick will actually get picked in Round 3. Yes, he has a Round 3 grade on most of the current boards. But I view that grade as a sort of compromise between the Round 2 talent and the UDFA red flags. On draft day he will go either earlier or later, depending on what the teams can dig up about the underlying truth. For now, however, he’s a name I think we ought to know about.
Alternative Pick: If Kendrick isn’t there, or fails on the character issues, I will go with another early favorite: Slot CB/KR/PR Marcus Jones from Houston. He’s too small (5’8″, 185 lbs.) to play any other position, but I see in Jones a higher ceiling version of Mike Hilton, and that’s a player I’d love to have. The COD and general athletic wiring are good enough to make him an ace punt and kick returner too! An excellent sign.
Also considered: DT/NT Travis Jones (especially if Alualu and Tuitt do not return); CB’s Alontae Taylor, Mykael Wright, Coby Bryant, Akayleb Evans, Mario Goodrich, Josh Jobe, Nehemia Pritchett, and Jermaine Waller; WR Wan’Dale Robinson; RB’s Breece Hall and Hassan Haskins; and TE’s Jeremy Ruckert, Cade Otton, and Jake Ferguson.
ROUND 4 (COMPENSATORY) – WR SKYY MOORE, WESTERN MICHIGAN
Let’s look at the team’s anticipated receiving weapons going into the draft:
- WR Diontae Johnson
- WR Chase Claypool
- WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (newly signed)
- WR Ray-Ray McCloud
- WR Cody White [depth]
- TE Pat Freiermuth
- TE Zach Gentry
- RB Najee Harris
I’d call that a solid group that could use an extra weapon. The question is, who? I’ve approached it with the following notes:
- The team could use a burner. Mason Rudolph gets knocked for a lot of things, but even his critics acknowledge that he throws a very pretty deep ball. And Haskins has a cannon. So that weapon needs to be in the holster, and one wonders what would happen if Claypool got hurt. Besides, I like the idea of a deep threat who would push Claypool toward becoming a more complete WR by freeing him from being the only real deep threat.
- The team could use a route runner. I’m not happy with how much of this offense runs through Diontae Johnson. There’s trouble ahead if he gets hurt, because I doubt that McCloud can really fulfill that role.
- The team could use a TE3, particularly one who can be a route running mismatch. I see a lot of room in the NFL for a team that has the ability to routinely play with three good TE’s on the field. It’s a formation that would help the running game for sure, and would put a lot of defenses in a terrible bind because there aren’t enough hybrid players who can handle both TE blockers and TE receivers at the same time.
Pittsburgh doesn’t “need” any of those, but it could certainly use any one of them.
Skyy Moore is falls in the second group. He’s a terrific route runner with moderate size (5’10”, 195 lbs.), very good hands, and enough speed to make you pay if you fail to take it into account. He’s also a Pittsburgh native, from Shadyside, and has enough edge to his game to take out some frustration on his hometown college. Moore absolutely gutted Pitt in a major upset last Fall. He wouldn’t change the WR room, but he would make it that much deeper and better.
FWIW, I’m serious about including a Tight End in some future mock even though I love Freiermuth and have grown quite fond of the Artist Formerly Known As Lerch. This is the best TE draft that I can remember despite the lack of a super-talent at the top. There are at least 6-10 prospects worth picking in Rounds 2-5, most of whom are proper, multifaceted TE’s rather than oversized receivers. There also seems to be a bit of a dip in the WR pool in these middle rounds. My preliminary research shows a lot of Round 1-2 WR’s, and a lot of Round 5-7 receivers, but not as many guys in the Round 3-4 where Pittsburgh will most likely be hunting. Grrr.
Also considered: CTR Dohnovan West; WR Reggie Roberson Jr.; TE’s Sam Laporta and Jake Ferguson; and DT/NT Keeanu Benton.
ROUND 5 (PITTSBURGH HAS NO PICK)
ROUND 6 (PITTSBURGH HAS NO PICK)
ROUND 7:04 (JETS PICK), and ROUND 7:20 (NATIVE PICK) – YOU TELL ME
My research just hasn’t gotten deep enough to identify particular prospects, which means I’d simply be looking at positional need. You are as able to do that as I am.
I’ve already published my opinion on the Defensive Line. If Tuitt and Alualu return, I don’t see a major need to put draft capital into the DL.
The ILB’s failed to play like world beaters, but other than that I have little blame to levy given the hole created by the multiple D-Line disasters. Devin Bush will be back, better than ever with a fully healed knee, and there are competent backups in Marcus Allen, Uly Gilbert, and Joe Schobert. No Day 3 Mack ILB is going to add to that part of the roster. A Buck ILB might make sense, but he’d have to compete with both Robert Spillane last year’s Buddy Johnson pick. It seems to me that ILB only comes into play for a super talent in Round 1-2, or else not ILB at all.
Safety is not a problem if Terrell Edmunds gets signed, and becomes a major problem if he doesn’t; so much so that it won’t be addressable in these late rounds. A decent looking Box Safety would make some sense.
Maybe some more depth on the OL? A second receiving weapon? A backup RB to compete with Benny Snell? All are on the table.
Well, that’s effort #1 in the books. It will be interesting to see how badly I cringe when I go back to re-read this in April.