I do a series of mock drafts every year which look to do three main things. (1) Introduce prospects the community will want to discuss, (2) explore how the draft options change depending on who was picked before, and (3) help readers to think outside the proverbial box. This being the inaugural mock of 2023, I am going to focus on #3. Time to yank some preconceived chains!
Everyone and their brother expects the Steelers to focus hot and heavy on the trenches. Here’s an example of how the BPA principle could move those positions further down the draft than anyone might expect – and also produce a result that should make us all delighted.
NOTE: Anyone who (a) erupts with, “I hate this because we need to go OL and DL at all costs,” and then (b) runs away without thinking about the merits, will be declared the automatic loser. I don’t know what s/he will lose, but that’s what will happen. Loser, loser, loser. Nyah nyah nyah.
Pick 1:17 – CB Christian Gonzalez, Oregon by way of Colorado (Junior).
6’2”, 200 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Will be a 21 year old rookie.
There are four top Corners in this draft, and at least three of the four would be bargains at 1:17. First there’s Cam Smith, a 6’0″, 185 lb. coverage expert who already has a professional set of skills. He may have a slightly lower ceiling than the other three, but he’s my personal CB1 because the floor is so high.
Then there is Joey Porter Jr., who I refuse to talk about until I know enough to hold off the Porter Sr. and Penn State fans. I know you’re there, around that corner with kitchen knives in your hands! No meat for you. At least not yet.
#3 would be Kelee Ringo, the athletic marvel of the year, and the one I’d hesitate to pick at #17. The skills are just too raw. Most college WRs make their bones by running so fast and turning so quickly that the coverage can’t keep up. Ringo feasts on those guys because he can run faster and turn quicker than almost anyone else. But against elegance and sophistication? I watched the CFB semifinal and made a point of paying attention to this position. Marvin Harrison Jr., who clearly learned a lot from his dad, made Ringo look like some kitten chasing a laser pointer dot. First it was there, and then it wasn’t, and the would-be hunter had no idea what happened or where his target went. I can honestly see Diontae Johnson spinning a rookie like Ringo so badly that he’ll fall on his face. I do not doubt that Kelee Ringo could end up being the best of them all. He has the highest ceiling by a lot. I just don’t see that happening until Years 3-4, and at #17 I want something safer.
Which brings us back to Christian Gonzalez. A fair shorthand description might be ‘skills a single notch behind Cam Smith, and potential a notch below Kelee Ringo,’ which adds up to a solid Top 5-15 value. At 1:17 he’s a bargain I can’t resist. Oregon asked Gonzales to do just one thing in college: go out each week and erase the opponent’s WR1. And he did that job, week after week, by using both his natural assets and some very solid press man technique. He’s even a good tackler with decent hands. There’s no way at all he’d fall to #17 if not for the fact that four CB picks in the Top 15 would be so strange.
Gonzalez offers the kind of profile that I think the Steelers will covet; a CB1 who can line up in press and say, “I got this one. You all deal with the rest.” Give me that in Round 1 and I will walk away happy. Gonzalez, Wallace, Sutton (?), Pierre, and Maulet could be the best secondary group we’ve seen in decades, especially if the Safeties include Fitzpatrick, Edmunds (?), Kazee (?), and Norwood.
Also considered: No peeking! Wait for future editions. Besides, at this point there are too many names to conveniently list.
Pick 2:33 (actually #32 since Miami forfeited its Round 1 pick) – EDGE Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame (Senior).
6’5”, 260 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Will turn 22 as a rookie.
Confession: The original version of this mock had Florida’s Jared Verse at this spot, and I was really looking forward to pounding anyone who questioned the value. Then he had the pure gall to prioritize a college education, a potential Top 5 grade in 2024, the future of his family, and other nonessentials over my convenience as a writer for Steelers Depot! Some people have no sense of perspective. Oh well. This Edge Rusher class is deep enough to oblige me with an alternative who shares the exact same grade on my tentative board. That would be Isaiah Foskey, a classy young man with some tremendous football talent.
Why an OLB? Let’s do some quick arithmetic. (The best Top 50 Edge Rusher class that I can remember) + (a major gap in Edge talent for Round 3) + ([crickets] behind Watt and Highsmith) + (Pittsburgh’s adoration for pass rush talent) + (Highsmith’s looming free agency year) + (the difficulty of finding Edge talent in a typical year) + (the need to give rookies a year of training before asking them to start) + (what happened in 2022 when Watt got hurt) = a pretty obvious conclusion. OLB is the single most likely target for one of three Top 50 picks, and this pick at #32 is the best spot to hunt for a BPA steal.
Like Gonzalez at #17, Isaiah Foskey is the kind of talent who would never fall to this pick in a normal year, but might in 2023 because there’s so much 1st Round talent overall. Will Anderson Jr., Myles Murphy, Tyree Wilson, Derick Hall, Lukas Van Ness, [puff] Felix Anudike-Uzoma, B.J. Ojulari, [puff, puff] and EDGE/ILB Nolan Smith. That’s eight names, with Foskey to make it an even nine! Someone should be there?
Objectively, Foskey has the youth that Pittsburgh likes (turns 22 as a rookie). He’s a wonderful athlete who features excellent burst, speed, and power. He even played 3-4 OLB in college and has learned some decent coverage skills when measured on the linebacker scale. The “yes buts” come down to very little bend at the top of his rush, and a college-level understanding of pass rush moves and tactics. I see Pittsburgh looking at that profile, reasoning that moves can be learned, and then remembering how much success we had with Bud Dupree, who couldn’t bend either. The bottom line? (A) There’s a huge amount of upside, (B) he could be a rotational OLB3 right away, (C) he should, or at least could, grow into another ideal Robin to TJ’s Batman if Highsmith’s 2024 demands for $20 Million/year can’t be met, (D) he will offer great value even if Highsmith stays on, and (E) there’s bupkis on the current roster after the two stars.
This (or one of the similarly talented OLBs) is run-to-the-podium stuff.
Also considered: DT Gervon Dexter, OLB Derick Hall, OLB Felix Anudike-Uzoma, OLB B.J. Ojulari, ILB Trenton Simpson, OT/G Anton Harrison, OG Cyrus O’Torrence, WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and WR Rashee Rice.
Pick 2:49 – TE Michael Mayer, Notre Dame (Junior)
6’4”, 251 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Turns 22 as a rookie.
Pat Freiermuth fell to 2:55. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Michael Mayer falling to 2:49 since reviewers often compare Mayer’s game to none other than Freiermuth himself, and the general public always seems to grade TEs just a little higher than the actual teams. This one is just as possible as the first two.
Is it wise? Take a moment to imagine what two ‘Muuuuths would do for the Pittsburgh offense. Those young O-Linemen and the developing running attack? Nothing would help them more than a second competent blocker who could grow into Miller Mark II. Deadly. That hole on the roster for a weapon over the middle to pair with Freiermuth? Why not add his clone? Deadly. Matt Canada’s love for creating misdirection, confusion, and difficult reads? Nothing lends itself better to that approach than a pair of Pro Bowl TEs. Deadly.
Now look at the common Round 2 targets like DTs Mazi Smith, Tuli Tuitupolu, and Siaki Ika, OG Cyrus O’Torrence, and OTs Anton Harrison, Jaelyn Duncan, and Darnell Wright. Those are good players and fine values for a mid-2nd pick. Same for WR Cedrick Tillman. Are any of them up to Mayer’s standard when it comes to pure BPA? I do not think so. I will take Mike Tomlin at his word. When you have red paint, paint the barn red. Michael Mayer is the best paint on the market, and I will trust the coaching staff to get more out of him than they would from a better-targeted but lower-quality alternative.
Also considered: DT/NT Mazi Smith, DT Tui Tuitupolu, NT Siaki Ika, WR Cedric Tillman and TE Devin Washington. Maybe I should have put in RB Bijan Robinson too, just to really yank some chains.
Pick 3:80 – WR Parker Washington, Penn. St. (Junior)
5’10”, 207 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. 21 years old as of March.
Two receiving weapons in a row? Are you nuts Pavelle?
Look, I’m not going to argue this on anything like a needs basis. Receiver is a surprisingly potent question mark going into the draft. If Diontae Johnson or George Pickens got hurt right now, the season would go in the dumps, but with Mayer on board I believe the team could adapt. But the whole point of this exercise is to consider how a pure BPA approach could work even though all the positions seem wrong at first glance. So let’s dig down and see how this would work out.
Parker Washington is built in the mold of Deebo Samuels: a WR who’s built like a RB, and plays just like he’s built. He has tremendous WR hands, has the talent to run good routes (if not the know-how), and gets YAC like mad because his RB contact balance lets him bounce off of almost any initial hit by a DB that isn’t exactly right. The combination also shows up as killer return skills. He could fall to Round 3 only because that array of talents should have lit up scoreboards and stat sheets, but that never happened. Matt Canada’s system will change that if anything can.
I’m not going to argue about the merits of our OC and the semi-justifiable fury aimed at his playcalling. That isn’t the point, and it would waste a lot of time. Let’s just start at the point where we can all agree. Matt Canada’s offense is designed to use motion, RPOs, jet sweeps, and similar ploys with abandon in order to identify what the defense is doing, and ultimately put LBs, Safeties, and DEs into no-win dilemmas. The offense needs those plays, along with other misdirections like moving the puzzle pieces around to surprising new locations. This is why the two weakest WRs on the roster, Gunner Olszewski and Steven Sims, logged so many snaps. They contributed to the offensive structure even if their own play as position players fell below the line.
Parker Washington would be a Matt Canada dream come true because his best and highest use would be in those misdirection plays. He can be moved to basically anywhere. He will thrive on plays that create one-on-one tackling situations, with the extra contact balance that neither of the current returners can match. He can even be motioned into the backfield to serve as a change-of-pace scatback. Say what you want about the system and its creator, this pick would fit the offense perfectly with a puzzle piece that just isn’t there. Forget my words. Just take a moment to compare the weaponry that would exist from last year to next if this comes true:
|WR Diontae Johnson —>||WR Diontae Johnson|
|WR Rookie George Pickens —>||WR Year 2 George Pickens|
|SLOT/RET Gunner Olszewski —>||SLOT/RET/WR Calvin Austin III|
|SLOT/RET Steven Sims —>||SLOT/RET/WR/RB Parker Washington|
|WR/TEAMS Miles Boykin —>||WR/TEAMS Miles Boykin|
|Year 2 TE Pat Freiermuth —>||Year 3 TE Pat Freiermuth|
|TE Zach Gentry —>||TE Michael Mayer|
|TE/FB Connor Heyward —>||TE/FB Connor Heyward|
How could a defense plan against that? It’s just wrong. Which makes it right to me.
Also considered: WR Puka Nacua and many OLs that could also be the BPA, but wouldn’t have illustrated the point. See Pick 7A.
Pick 4:117 – NT Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin (Senior)
6’4”, 315 lbs.
Okay, I admit it: I would not feel comfortable leaving any draft without a solid body to shore up the DL pipeline. Superior talent trumped that desire for all the earlier picks. That changes in Round 4, when pure NT’s come into play. In this scenario, I can easily see Keeanu Benton as a perfect marriage of value and desire.
Why would he be here? For all his assets, Benton lacks the burst and agility required to be a three-down player. This is your classic case of a player who is capped at 250 snaps per year. Nor does he look the part at a fairly trim 315 instead of 340+ pounds. But weight alone isn’t the point. Keeanu Benton is country strong, should come in with something like 35″ arms (very long), and is a proven man’s man when it comes to simply holding his ground. Double him or triple him, it just won’t matter. He ain’t goin’ nowhere he don’t wanna be. And if that means ragdolling a few Centers, so much the better.
Mmm, spicy. It may not be what we thought we wanted going into the draft, but for Round 4 that amounts to yet another steal.
Also considered: DT Tyler Davis, DT Calijah Kancey, and DT Jacquelyn Roy.
Pick 7:212 – OT/G Warren McClendon, Georgia (Junior)
6’4”, 300 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Will be a 22-year-old rookie.
NOTE: It’s far too early in the draft process for me to know the Day 3 talent, so I’m going to instead talk about a prospect who appears in the late rounds on every board I see, but gets described in ways that make him sound like a Round 2-3 talent. Please explain that disconnect if you can.
One expects Right Tackles to be enormous, slow-footed, 6’7” monsters who weigh anywhere from 330 on up. The national champion Georgia Bulldogs went the opposite route, with a relatively sleek, quick-footed lineman who comes in at 3” shorter and 30 pounds lighter. But so what? All reports say that McClendon will measure in with the arms of a taller man, so length itself shouldn’t be an issue. He also used to weigh as much as 320 pounds and looks almost sleek at his current weight. No real flab at all, which means he has basically the same build as all those young men carrying round that extra tire. The weight loss also provided benefits in the form of all the foot speed needed to basically neutralize Top 5 pick Will Anderson Jr. when the two faced off a year ago. His age will appeal to the youth-loving Steelers. He is known as a run blocker who plays with a nasty attitude and can easily climb to the next level. I even read praise about a good, strong punch in pass protection.
Plus he is built like an IOL, which suggests that his floor could be as a four position backup: left and right, Guard and Tackle. The player I would be an ideal addition to the Steelers O-Line room, and one I would be delighted to take in Round 3. So why is Warren McClendon regularly listed down in the shadows of Day 3? I just don’t get it. But there it is.
Also considered: Are you kidding me? You expect a list of Round 7 prospects in January?!
NOTE: McClendon was injured in the January car crash that killed a fellow O-Lineman and an athletic staffer, but not enough to harm his draft prospects. Condolences to him and all the other teammates and family members who lost their friends, kin, and peace of heart.
QB Malik Cunningham, Louisville (Senior)
6’0¼”, 195 lbs.
I mention this position in particular only because Jon Heitritter has gotten some blowback about targeting Round 7 QBs in his mocks. I think he’s totally right to do so, and want to add my $0.02 about why.
The Steelers are going to go into camp with four QBs. Always have and always will, if only to make all the throws to help test the receiving talent. QB1 will be Kenny Pickett. Trubisky or some journeyman free agent will be the QB2. Which leaves two (2) open holes that need to be filled. QB4 will no doubt be a UDFA, but I would actually be surprised if Khan and Co. don’t grab their favorite of the stragglers in Round 7 as their QB3.
Cunningham qualifies and it’s just about the only name I know back here in the hinterlands, so that’s the pick. Besides, he’s a heck of an athlete and might prove to have useful position flexibility.
Also considered: Go bother Heitritter. If I’m going to say nice things about him, the least he can do is field some hassle while I get up to speed.
I’m quite pleased at how well a pure BPA approach turned out. The Round 1 pick should provide that CB1 we’ve yearned for ever since Ike Taylor retired. The steal at Pick 2A will provide immediate benefits as well as future value. And the 2B pick will give the Steelers a unique attack like nothing the NFL has seen since the days of Gronk and Hernandez. All I had to do was follow the talent clusters and pick out one of the crew who has a chance to fall.
Round 3 secures the Offensive Line without investing the draft capital that everyone wants to spend on someone, anyone who could maybe be picked in the 1st. McClendon won’t be the Next Great Thing, but he’ll make that room a Very Solid Thing. Likewise for Round 4. Everyone seems eager to grab someone, anyone who could be fair value in one of the first two rounds. Benton won’t provide all the benefits offered by one of those potential stars, but he will solidify the room with a Run Stuffer Supreme.
BPA from top to bottom, with no finger on the scale at any position, and it looks pretty darned nice.
Please let me know your thoughts down below, along with any nuggets you can share about both the picks and passed-over possibilities. The best ones are almost sure to find their way into the Big Board. And remember: anyone who says, “We need OL and DL in the first two rounds no matter what!!!” will earn no cookie. And that’s a real threat when it comes from the man who wrote the best collection of heritage recipes that’s ever been compiled. [Truth! Look it up.]
- Pick 1:17 – CB Christian Gonzalez
- Pick 2:33 – EDGE Isaiah Foskey
- Pick 2:49 – TE Michael Mayer
- Pick 3:80 – WR/RET Parker Washington
- Pick 4:117 – NT Keeanu Benton
- Pick 7:212 – OT/G Warren McClendon (who will probably be more like a midround pick)
- Pick 7:223 – QB Malik Cunningham