With the 2022 season fully in the rearview mirror now, the attention for the Pittsburgh Steelers has shifted to the offseason, featuring free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft — a draft that will be rather important for the future of a young Steelers roster overall.
Coming out of the 2022 season, holes at inside linebacker, cornerback, defensive line, and receiver have emerged, not to mention the need to protect quarterback Kenny Pickett better, creating a need for an upgrade along the offensive line. Some holes are bigger than others though, and in the latest mock draft from NFL Draft guru Dane Brugler for The Athletic Tuesday morning, he has the Steelers taking a step towards plugging arguably their biggest hole, that being at cornerback.
In Brugler’s latest mock, he has the Steelers selecting Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon at No. 17 overall, landing a fiery, physical cornerback that had an other-worldly season with the Fighting Illini in 2022, giving the Steelers the exact type of cornerback they like and covet on the boundary.
“Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is going to love Devon Witherspoon,” Brugler writes regarding Witherspoon. “No, Witherspoon doesn’t have ideal size (under 6-0 and 185 pounds), but the Pensacola, Fla., native plays with the fiery demeanor and physicality of a much bigger player. His mentality plus his controlled movements and coverage anticipation will make him an NFL starter from day one.”
Witherspoon made history at Illinois in 2022, earning Consensus First Team All-American honors from the Associated Press, Walter Camp, the AFCA, FWAA, CBS, PFF, USA Today and Phil Steele, becoming the first defensive back in Illinois history to be named Consensus All-American, and just the 21st player ever in program history.
On top of the Consensus All-American honors, Witherspoon was the first Thorpe Award finalist in program history, was a semifinalist for the Badnarik award and was named the Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year.
In 12 games in 2022, Witherspoon picked off three passes, allowing a completion percentage of just 34.4% when targeted by quarterbacks. He finished the season with 41 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and broke up an additional 14 passes.
For his career, Witherspoon played in 42 games with the Fighting Illini, recording 159 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, 30 pass breakups, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He’ll head to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, later this month.
While he’s slightly undersized overall, he brings that “angry little people” mentality that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin loves when it comes to defensive backs. He plays with an edge, is sticky in coverage and has really ascended in recent seasons, working his way into the first round picture as arguably the best cornerback in the class.
Landing a guy like that in Pittsburgh would be a huge boon for a secondary that played well at times and tied for the league lead in interceptions, but very clearly needs to upgrade the position overall alongside Cameron Sutton and Levi Wallace.
Outside of the first round, Brugler has the Steelers then landing Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson at No. 32 overall, the pick acquired from the Chicago Bears in the Chase Claypool trade.
“Giving up Chase Claypool for an ultra-athletic linebacker like Trenton Simpson? I think the Steelers would be happy with that outcome,”
Brugler writes regarding the Steelers’ selection of Simpson in the mock.
Yes, the Steelers would be happy with that outcome as the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker would help plug a significant hole in the middle of the Steelers defense. In three seasons at Clemson, Simpson finished with 187 tackles (22.5 for loss), 12.5 sacks, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 1,443 snaps over 37 games (27 starts) from 2020-22.
He was named a Butkus Award semifinalist in 2022 and was named a Third Team All-ACC defender.
At No. 49 overall with the second pick in the second round for the Steelers, Brugler has Pittsburgh addressing the offensive line, adding Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron, a guy who can play guard or tackle in the NFL.
Bergeron checks in at 6-5, 322 pounds and is a native of Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada. He was a two-time All-ACC selection at Syracuse and started 39 career games at offensive tackle for the Orange, with eight starts coming at right tackle and 31 coming at left tackle. Bergeron will also compete in the Senior Bowl.