Before we begin, I’m going to make a few assumptions about free agency. This team has a few gaps in the lineup that are just not acceptable, and Kevin Colbert hates to go into the draft with that kind of obligation. He typically uses the team’s free agency opportunities to plug those holes with starter-quality but not special talents. So I’m going to assume he does that this year too, in order to free up his options.
Thus I am projecting the following free agent moves:
- At Offensive Tackle: The Steelers will sign Chuks Okorafor to a 2-3 year deal at a “low level starter” price tag, and will keep Zach Banner on the roster (hopefully for a discount, but whatever). That leaves the team with no real strength at OT, but will provide solid depth and no real weakness. Classic Colbert. He can make a pick if he sees a bargain, but has no need.
- At Interior Offensive Line: Two moves. (A) The Steelers will sign a good, reliable, and relatively young Guard or Center as their featured free agent. A guy like the 24 year old, Center-capable Guard James Daniels would fit that description to perfection. He’ll be the immediate starter at RG, where there is an actual hole, and would also cover for the chance that Kendrick Green might fail to develop. (B) The Steelers will also re-sign Guard Trai Turner to a moderate contract as veteran depth and for his locker room presence. That, with the almost-splash signing, will provide a viable starting OL at every position, albeit with no stars. Classic Colbert yet again.
- At Wide Receiver: The Steelers will lose James Washington. They will make a serious effort to keep Juju Smith-Schuster, but will lose him in the end to a team with deep pockets and a shorter term road to the Super Bowl. Perhaps Kansas City? They will, however, retain Ray Ray McCloud.
- At Quarterback: Dwayne Haskins will be tendered and the Steelers will sign a $5-8 Million free agent to compete with Mason Rudolph, with the ability to beat him out unless Rudolph shows the better side of what we’ve seen. Not the answer, but enough to guarantee competition and depth. Who will that be? Why [omitted] of course! [What, did you think I’d be dumb enough to get my whole mock hijacked by foolishly providing a name for people to grip about? Thanks, but no thanks. Mocks get enough emotional blow back all on their own].
- At Defensive Line: The Steelers will sign Montravius Adams, and announce that Stephon Tuitt plans to return. That makes the roster DT Cam Heyward, DT Stephon Tuitt, DT/NT Tyson Alualu, DT Chris Wormley, DT Isaiahh Loudermilk, and the winner of a competition between DT/NT Carlos Davis and Mon Adams. #1 in the NFL for my money!
- At ILB: The team will lose Joe Schobert, but will tender Robert Spillane. Look for either a promising draft pick, or a post-draft hiring in the “limited thumper” category. They may like Buddy Johnson’s prospects – I do too – but they will not put that many chips in just his basket.
- At Safety: The Steelers will sign Terrell Edmunds. Again, look for either a promising draft pick or a post-draft hiring to provide additional box-Safety depth.
- At Corner: The Steelers will wave a tearful goodbye to Joe Haden, and will sign Ahkello Witherspoon to a one-year “prove it” deal, perhaps with a team option for an expensive year-two extension. I don’t think Witherspoon has shown enough to earn a multi-year deal just yet.
Those moves will allow Pittsburgh to enter the draft with a clear Best Player Available (“BPA”) approach. They leave plenty of “wants” for better talent at various spots, but no “needs” in the sense of roster holes where Pittsburgh would have to prioritize an early round pick in order to draft a rookie starter.
STEELERS ROUND 1 PICK (#20 OVERALL). Is Ikem Ekownu still on the board? No? Okay, then we can proceed.
Here is a list of prospects who have already been picked for purposes of this mock (organized by position, not draft order).
T/G Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu, NC State. T Charles Cross, Miss. State. T/G Evan Neal, Alabama. T/G Trevor Penning, N. Iowa G Kenyon Green, Texas A&M. QB Your Favorite Prospect WR Treylon Burks, Arkansas. WR Drake London, USC. WR Jameson Williams, Alabama. WR Garrett Wilson DT Jordan Davis, Georgia. EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan. EDGE Jermain Johnson EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon. EDGE Travon Walker, Georgia. ILB Devin Lloyd S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame. CB Derek Stingley Jr., LSU. CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Cincinnati.
That adds up to a middling-tough board from a Steelers point of view. It hurts to see all those offensive linemen go early, and to see only one QB coming off the board. I’ve learned to expect stupid decisions from lesser franchises who will desperately reach for a Quarterback prospect, and it would have made life a lot easier to project three wasted QB picks instead of just one. Oh well. Not this year. On the other hand, I’m happy to see so many picks spent on Edge Rushers and Wide Receivers. They are all worthy picks, but that’s a lot of them!
So who am I considering at 1:20 for Pittsburgh?
- G/T/C Zion Johnson, Boston College.
- C Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa.
- WR Chris Olave, Ohio State.
- EDGE George Karlaftis, Purdue.
- EDGE David Ojabo, Michigan
- CB Andrew Booth Jr. Clemson.
- CB Roger McCreary, Auburn.
- CB Trent McDuffie, Washington.
I’d really like to address the O-Line with an early pick, and that list includes two players I like. Zion Johnson is sort of like a higher-ceiling version of free agent James Daniels; a perfect, puzzle piece fit for multiple scenarios. And Tyler Lindenbaum could be an actual star if he measures 20 pounds and two inches bigger than expected. So it’s one of those unless there is a prospect who wins on pure BPA. Is there?
Yes, there is.
|CB Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson. (Junior). 6’0”, 200 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Will turn 21 in June. This kid loves football, including the hitting part that so many Corners disdain. And he does that with elite coverage skills to back it up. The problems come from an occasional need to say, “whoa boy,” which everyone knows is Tomlin’s favorite kind of problem to deal with. His grade rattles back and forth between early-1st and fringe-1st depending on the reviewer. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile falls in the “easy Round 1” category: ” He needs to play more football, but his ball-hawking instincts, burst to close and toughness in run support will be very appealing.” The Bleacher Report scouting profile is a fringe-1st example based on worries that his long speed, pad level, and COD skills may be “NFL-good” rather than “NFL-special.” This Top-10 grade scouting profile sees instead a comparison to Jaire Alexander for a prospect “with no weaknesses.” Here’s a scouting report would prefer an old-school comp to Peanut Tillman. “He can change direction in a heartbeat” and “has absurd reaction time” according to this February scouting report. This February scouting profile goes back to the fringe-1st grade based on concerns about “lack of physicality at the beginning of the snap and  high pad level.” This scouting profile ends with a “10th overall player” grade. This goes to an interesting point-by-point scouting profile from late January.|
I’m tempted to call him Mr. Seesaw because of all those disparate views, but they also explain why I think a potential steal like this could fall to the mid-1st. If he hits, the Steelers could have an anchor for the next decade. And if he doesn’t hit, they’ll have a hell of a football player as their consolation prize. Corner is actually a pretty strong position with the Witherspoon signing, but weakness may be looming in the future and I’m still traumatized by the experience of a few years back. Done. CB Andrew Booth Jr. is the pick.
2:20 STEELERS ROUND 2 PICK (# 52 OVERALL). Time to live up to my word. Your Pittsburgh Steelers select QB Sam Howell. Read the linked article for my reasons.
Howell is a divisive name in this draft, just as Mason Rudolph was a few years back. Many people have him as a Round 1 value, while others see a Round 3-4 guy after his series of rough outings in 2021. I’m going to cut the difference here. Howell is a bit on the short side, but he’s stocky and solid enough to take an NFL beating, and mobile enough to avoid one. It will turn out to be a magnificent bargain if Howell’s 2021 “regression” year can really be blamed on the loss of both his weapons and his offensive line to last year’s draft. It could even be a Dak Prescott level bargain! Again, see the linked article.
And if he fails? Round 2 is a painful but affordable price. Here is the current Big Board entry:
|QB Sam Howell, N. Carolina. (RS Senior). 6’0¼”, 221 lbs. with 9⅛” hands. [Mtgs. on campus with Colbert, at Senior Bowl]. Howell looked like the Next Big Thing after a monster 2020 year when his offense featured two great RB’s and two very accomplished WR’s. All four of those weapons got drafted, leaving him with not very much in 2021, plus an offensive line he couldn’t trust. It showed. The highlight reel passes faded away, his decision making looked more erratic, and he was forced to be a dual threat runner (which he did). Kevin Colbert visited UNC several times during 2021, which surely indicates some serious interest. No one doubts that Colbert came away impressed. The question is, how impressed? Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported scouting report shows one film expert who was impressed enough to question whether Howell will be “only” a Baker Mayfield, or rise to be a Russell Wilson. Translate that as, “potential franchise QB with a long way to go before he gets there.” Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile indicates a film watcher who is much less impressed, and ends with a Round 3 grade.|
3:20 STEELERS ROUND 3 PICK (# 84 OVERALL). This one’s going to hurt. There are three positions I really want to target with this pick, and I’m afraid the depth will cliff dive at all of them before I choose again at 4:comp; some 45 picks away. Those three spots are O-Line, Wide Receiver, and Buck ILB.
I want the OL because the position has no stars, even with the free agency signings. I think Daniel Jeremiah made a very good point when he said that offensive lines are “as good as your worst player, so you don’t need five Tony Bolellis; you just can’t have any tomato cans out there.” But I also think that having an anchor or two raises the play of your average Joes. My post-FA line has no tomato cans, but it could really use a star or two.
I want the WR because Pittsburgh is losing two of its best players at the position in JJSS and Washington. We also took no receivers last year, so new blood in the pipeline could be essential as more young players come off their rookie deals in the future.
Then comes Buck ILB, a personal sore spot for me. Yes, opponents can scheme the Buck off the field. Full time defenders typically play 60-80 snaps per game, while a “full time” Buck is going to earn no more than 60 unless he’s a Round 1 freak. Even a good one will have a hard time exceeding the 40-50 defensive snaps that Vince Williams got in his absolute veteran prime. Fewer snaps equals a lesser impact on the game. There’s no getting around that. But… could a really good, more athletic Buck could earn more? We haven’t had a player who’d fit that description in so long that it’s hard to really tell.
Here is my list of reasonable Round 3 targets at those positions. Please note that I am limiting the OL’s and the Bucks to high-ceiling, bargain-value prospects. The WR’s can be high-floor types too.
- G/T Luke Goedeke, Central Mich.
- OT Abraham Lucas, Wash. State
- OT Max Mitchell, Louisiana
- G/C Dylan Parham, Memphis
- G/T Jamaree Salyer, Georgia
- WR Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky
- WR Romeo Doubs, Nevada
- WR George Pickens, Georgia
- WR Christian Watson, N. Dak. State
- BUCK ILB Quay Walker, Georgia
- ILB Brandon Smith, Penn St.
- ILB Troy Anderson, Montana St.
- ILB Chad Muma, Wyoming
My heart limits that down to two prospects, WR Wan’Dale Robinson, who impressed the heck out of me when I saw him singlehandedly win the Citrus Bowl, and Buck ILB Quay Walker, who could grow to be that elusive 3-down player good enough to be an (almost) full time defender. Here are the two scouting profiles.
|WR Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky. (Junior). 5’11”, 185 lbs. with ___” hands. [NOTE: Also listed at more like 5’8″, 175 lbs.] Went on my personal radar screen in a big way after he took over the Citrus Bowl against Iowa’s tremendous defense. He simply couldn’t be covered, almost couldn’t be caught, and showed the sort of playmaking creativity that Pittsburgh could really use. He isn’t hugely big or hugely fast (4.45 or so), but awesome hands multiply his effective size just as his sudden burst and COD ability make up for the straight line speed. Tough kid too. He was a highly decorated H.S. running back, and it shows in how hard he is to hit and to get on the ground. This nice PFN scouting profile from December contains good background. The TDN scouting profile ends in a fringe-2nd grade for this “impactful weapon… [with] a knack for explosive plays.” Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile describes him as a “much lighter  Deebo Samuel [who is] sudden and slick with an ability to make plays from a variety of alignments.” This detailed scouting profile also ends with a Round 3 grade. This fascinating “boiler room” article/video from Matt Waldman shows some ways in which Robinson could “develop into a playmaking force, especially from the slot.”|
|ILB Quay Walker, Georgia. (Senior). 6’3”, 240 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Walker is an athletic specimen who played the physical, run-stuffing role in college but only started for only a year. His football IQ got notably better as the season went on, but the significant need to keep learning lowers his grade. The sheer athletic talent is top notch, and he achieves a grade of “average” for coverage while still being a physical banger. Thus as Tom Mead’s gif-supported Depot scouting report concludes, “Walker is  raw but he could be molded into the blitzing Buck linebacker a la Vince Williams that the Steelers are missing.” Welcome news! Tom ends with a Round 3 grade. This January scouting profile from PFN continues with another view that should excite Steeler nation. “Walker’s play strength is another factor that separates him from other linebackers. He undoubtedly has the size and strength to take on offensive linemen at the second level. The Georgia ILB latches onto opposing linemen’s pads, then rips down anchors with violent force.” Came in at #31 overall in Daniel Jeremiah’s first big board.|
Both would be moderate steals, but not unreasonable ones. The WR is on the small side, which lowers his stock, and the modern NFL tends to favor the small, fast, run-and-chase, Mack ILB prototype that the Steelers already have with Devin Bush. Thus I believe it is quite possible for us to see both young men on the board at this point in the draft.
The offense needs more help than the defense, and my Round 1 pick was spent on a defender despite that. Those factors favor the WR pick. The defense will be the unit to carry this team for the next few years, and adding both the Round 1 CB and this high quality ILB could make that defense the NFL’s most fearsome unit for several years to come. That’s tempting too…
What the heck. I’m going with the linebacker. The Steelers have more young receiver prospects in Cody White and Rico Bussey than they do in comparable ILB’s (Buddy Johnson, who’s more of a big Mack anyway. And I’m a defensive guy at heart. The pick is Buck ILB Quay Walker, Georgia.
4:COMP STEELERS ROUND 4 PICK (# 135 OVERALL). Yes, I am obviously targeting WR for this one. That’s the leftover position, right? But… aaargh. I’m throwing in a twist by saying there’s been a run on receivers in Round 3 and 4. Which, alas, is extremely likely because my early study shows it thinning out quickly in this range.
So what is the alternative? There are some very good TE’s who might add an extra receiving weapon, but my twist-pick will instead be a boom-or-bust Offensive Tackle. This guy won’t be playing any time in 2022 unless disaster strikes. He may never make the roster at all. But if he “hits,” the upside version would be enough to transform a viable offensive line into an actual strength. Here on the fringe of Round 5 I will take that bet, with a choice between these two:
|T Dare Rosenthal, Kentucky. (RS Senior). 6’7”, 325 lbs. with ___” arms and __” hands. Want a toy for your new OL coach to play with? A miracle athlete with very little technique, Rosenthal offers a Day 3 boom-or-bust bet of epic proportions. The TDN scouting profile from Kyle Crabbs describes him in jaw-dropping superlatives: “absolutely stupid levels of quickness and power… If you built an offensive tackle body in a lab, he’d look like Rosenthal. The wingspan and reach that he offers is textbook and he offers a very high level of strength and power at full extension.” Etc. But the footwork is all natural and therefore inefficient, with balance that cannot be relied on, and hand work that is “very, very irregular.” Had a 5-game suspension at LSU for unknown, “violation of school policy” reasons. This December PFN scouting profile concurs on the ultimate boom-or-bust judgment. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile approves of the athleticism, but sees a serious “lack of core strength and questions about his maturity [as] two areas that could short-circuit his chances.” Zierlein also agrees on the basic verdict: “A developmental tackle prospect who [sh]ould begin his career on a practice squad,” unless those maturity issues make him bomb out.|
|T/G Andrew Stueber, Mich. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 327 lbs. with long 34⅛” arms and 10⅛” hands. Uses his length and strength well to compensate for some lack of mobility, due in part to a 2019 ACL tear. An old school, brawling, people-moving RT who should consider the benefits of adding Guard play versatility to his repertoire. The Bleacher Report scouting profile by Brandon Thorn ends with a Round 5 grade based on the judgment that “Stueber will need to move inside in the NFL due to limited range at tackle that hinders his ability to protect the corner and poor lateral quickness to redirect against inside counters and movement across his face. He also needs to play with better pad level and hand placement.” This post-Senior Bowl scouting profile ends in a Round 4-5 grade, after noting that Stueber exceeded expectations by showing a sophisticated understanding of several different pass rush moves. The TDN scouting profile ends with a Round 4 grade, loving the “active and accurate hands,” but questioning the ability to move inside.|
OT Dare Rosenthal, Kentucky. (RS Senior) is the choice. If you’re gonna bet, bet big. In a normal year I would also be projecting a G/C steal in this range, but Kevin Colbert has called the IOL group relatively weak, so I will assume that the good ones did not fall as far as we usually see.
6:12 STEELERS ROUND 6 PICK (# 189 OVERALL) (FROM BAL VIA KC FOR INGRAM). So it’s finally time to get that Receiver, right? I probably should, but instead I’m going to fill a sneaky draft need with a sleeper who deserves more attention:
|RB Zaquandre “Quan” White, S. Car. (RS Senior). 6’1”, 215 lbs. with ___” hands. Sleeper alert. I think this might be the perfect type of RB to add into the Steelers room, because he has most of the size they look for, but runs with an entirely different style. White is a springy, creative runner who specializes in making “unpredictable, razor-sharp cuts from any spot on the field,” (Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile), whether it be out in the open or after expertly pressing the line (Matt Waldman’s typically good boiler room report/video). The TDN scouting profile adds that he has “good overall power [and] contact balance” along with receiving skills, vision, and overall athleticism. There are flaws and inconsistencies, and he’s never been the #1 guy, but as a developmental change of pace pick? Sleeper alert on full.|
Too much of Pittsburgh’s offense ran through Najee Harris last year, and I expect exactly the same going into the future. Benny Snell isn’t exciting, but he’ll do for a power game. Anthony McFarland Jr. would be exciting, but only if he can stay healthy, earn some snaps, and even then it would be as a pure change of pace. So why not go with someone completely different, who would drive opposing defenses crazy when it comes to preparation?
I want to note that my favorite choices for the Najee Harris backup position would be RB Dameon Pierce out of Florida and Zamir White out of Georgia. Both seem to be top notch athletes, and exactly the sort of young men I’d like to see on the team. Alas, but Lance Zierlein has them as the #3 and #5 RB’s of the class, respectively. It isn’t a particularly good RB class, so I can imagine either one falling into Round 4 under the right circumstances. But all the way down to Round 6? No. That’s just too big an ask.
The pick is in, and it’s the “other” ZW to back up Najee: RB Zaquandre “Quan” White.
7:04 STEELERS ROUND 7a PICK (# 222 OVERALL) (FROM MIAMI). Enough fooling around! There’s a hole at receiver, and the team’s current crop of developing talent could at least use some extra competition. How about:
|WR Samori Toure, Nebraska. (Senior). 6’0¾”, 191 lbs. with 32¼” arms and 9⅜” hands. Generally acknowledged by the DB’s as the best of the Shrine Bowl east team WR’s, he excels at contested catches and toe tapping sideline grabs.|
Frustrated opponents are probably the best scouts you can find. Done deal.
7:20 STEELERS ROUND 7b PICK (# 238 OVERALL). And now. Drum rolls please for the last hope of all true fans… Ta daaah! The Pittsburgh Steelers select FB Connor Heyward, Michigan State!
This draft class includes two Steeler legacy picks: Troy Polamalu’s nephew, USC box-Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, who should go in the Round 4-6 range; and Cam Heyward’s “annoying little brother” Connor, who makes perfect sense in Round 6-UDFA. Any writer who fails to pick at least one of those two will be doomed to drink bad beer out of glasses with a Ravens logo, with witnesses there to see it. No thank you. I like my beer, I like my privacy, and my glassware shall remain untainted.
|FB Connor Heyward, Mich. St. (Senior). 5’11”, 239 lbs. with 9¾” hands. [Mtg. at Senior Bowl]. Cam’s little brother played RB in college before transitioning to TE, and is likely to end up as a Fullback and special teams ace. Here is an interview he did with Alex Kozora at the Senior Bowl, where he called himself the “annoying little brother.”|
Mock Draft Recap
Round #1 – Andrew Booth/CB Clemson
Round #2 – Sam Howell/QB North Carolina
Round #3 – Quay Walker/LB Georgia
Round #4 – Dare Rosenthal/OL Kentucky
Round #6 – Zaquandre “Quan” White/RB South Carolina
Round #7 – Samori Toure/WR Nebraska
Round #7 – Connor Heyward/FB Michigan State
Sorry to run on so long. My original mock for this week began with G/C Zion Johnson as the pick, but a certain young man who shall remain nameless stole my thunder over the weekend. That got me to thinking about the strong odds that Kevin Colbert will close the gaping chasm at IOL in free agency rather than risking things in the draft, and… voila.
I really like this combination of free agency moves and draft picks, and would be thrilled with the result. A Round 1 steal; a cost-effective Round 2 shot at a QB with genuine potential; a draft crush in Round 3 at a position I care about; a proper investment in the OL pipeline with someone who could become special; and an array of fun picks in the later rounds, including a backup to ease the load on Najee Harris, a WR who stood out in his all-star game, and a legacy pick who saves me from shame, ignominy, and bad beer.
All in all, a good day’s work. Especially if Kendrick Green plays better at Center. [Fingers crossed].