2023 NFL Draft

Pavelle: 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers Mock Draft (Version 4.0)

FREE AGENCY ASSUMPTIONS = No significant changes to last year’s roster.

  • Cam Sutton and James Pierre return at CB.
  • Either Terrell Edmunds or Damontae Kazee (only one) returns for $3-4 Million average per year.
  • Myles Jack stays on, and Robert Spillane comes back for $3 Million APY. Devin Bush departs.
  • Larry Ogunjobi or a comparable journeyman returns on a 2-year deal at $8-9 Million APY, with Wormley under some kind of single year, injury-discount contract that everyone expects him to outplay.
  • Trubisky stays, and Mason Rudolph departs.
  • Zach Gentry returns for $2 Million.
  • Witherspoon, Jackson, and Olszewski all get dropped for salary cap reasons.
  • Trent Scott and Jesse Davis return as inexpensive OL backups.
  • The only additions are two inexpensive journeymen. (1) a cover-capable Mack ILB, and (2) someone who can challenge Quincy Roche for OLB3 snaps.

All of which leaves the team with an array of wants but no desperate need that would tilt the scale away from choosing the BPA at any given spot in the draft.

Pick 1:17 – CB Joey Porter Jr., Penn St. (Junior). 6’2”, 192 lbs. with extra length. 22, turns 23 in July.

It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that the Steelers’ Round 1 pick will be one of these seven players:

  • CB’s Christian Gonzalez, Joey Porter Jr., and Devon Witherspoon
  • DT Bryan Bresee
  • OT Paris Johnson Jr., OT Broderick Jones, and T/G/C Peter Skoronski

I have done three mocks so far. The first one chose CB Gonzalez, the second took Bresee, and the third started with Skoronski. So where am I supposed to go for Mock 4.0? I know: “Oh yeah? What will you do if all of those are gone?” Unlikely at best. Pittsburgh selects at #17. I count seven Top 10 locks in this class:

  • Three (3) QB’s: C.J. Stroud, Byron Young, and either Will Levis or Anthony Richardson
  • One (1) DT in Jalen Carter
  • Three (3) EDGE: Will Anderson IV, Myles Murphy, and Tyree Wilson

Adding four more picks before #17 guarantees that one of my eight will be there. I have seen all of the following players get chosen in the Top 16 of one mock or another. What are the odds that only three will be selected?

  • OT’s Dawand Jones, Anton Harrison, and Darnell Wright
  • G/C/T Cody Mauch, C/G John Michael Schmitz, and OG O’Cyrus Torrence
  • QB Anthony Richardson or QB Will Levis
  • TE Michael Mayer
  • RB Bijan Robinson
  • WR Jordan Addison and WR Quentin Johnston
  • EDGE Lukas Van Ness, EDGE/ILB Nolan Smith, EDGE/DT Keion White, EDGE Derick Hall, EDGE, Felix Anudike-Uzoma, and EDGE Isaiah Foskey
  • ILB Trenton Simpson and ILB/EDGE Drew Sanders
  • CB/S Brian Branch, CB Cam Smith, CB Emmanuel Forbes, and CB Kelee Ringo
  • Mr. Shock Pick

It isn’t worth the time to pursue that rabbit hole any deeper, so I am going to pick the next CB in line alphabetically, and be done with it. Here is the current Big Board entry:

Don’t be sold by the hype, or put off by the backlash against that hype. This is actually an easy grade in the larger sense. Joey Porter Jr. is a Round 1 lock with great upside, but he isn’t a Colbert Special. If he achieves his potential, Joey Porter Sr. (a/k/a J. Peezy) could end up being remembered as Joey’s Dad. And if he doesn’t, the odds are excellent that Junior will still be a very solid, starting Corner for many years to come. Joey-the-prospect is built like a pure press man expert, and is very good at that job, but he is also athletic enough to play the other techniques too. Pure movement skills seem to be in the B+ range on the NFL scale, but he’s a solid A if you factor in size and length. If there’s a weakness it would be sudden reaction against DJ-level quickness or 4.2 speed, but that is true for all but the most elite coverage experts in the league. And both concerns are mitigated by his extraordinary length, leaping ability, and his skill at reaching in/over to tip away passes. Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported Depot scouting report adds that he’s also a willing tackler and a physical presence in the secondary who’s very good at run support. Came in at #16 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list, which makes him the clear CB2 based on >“elite size, length, and speed” combined with good tackling and fluid COD skills. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting report sees the COD concerns, but nevertheless ends with a strong Round 1 grade and a comp to Amani Oruwaryie.

JP3 may require some minor scheme adaptations, especially when young, but nothing serious enough to make me worry about the long term value of the pick.

Pick 2:01 (#32 overall): ILB Nolan Smith, Georgia (Junior). 6’2”, 235 lbs. Turned 22 in January. Note that I wrote “ILB” rather than “EDGE.” It wasn’t a typo.

This is my newest draft crush thanks to Jonathan Heitritter’s scouting report [gee, thanks Jon], but not in the Edge position where he is usually listed. IMHO Nolan Smith projects much better as Inside Linebacker, and in that role he would be a perfect Pittsburgh selection. Go and look at highlights of a young Ray Lewis. Now look at the clips in Jon’s Depot scouting report. Tell me they do not look the same. I dare you.

Nolan Smith has never played ILB to the best of my knowledge, and it is a demanding position, but everything I’ve read tells me he has the required intellectual firepower, the love of football, and the drive to get it done. If you don’t approve, substitute one of the nominal ILB’s like Trenton Simpson. Here is the current Big Board entry:

A brilliant athlete who played in college as an Edge but has a Buck ILB physique and athletic profile. I am old enough to remember Ray Lewis as a rookie. All too well, sometimes. The way Smith moves reminds me of that. If you want pure emotion, violence, response time, balance, awareness, twitch, and physicality, this is your guy. He was also the leader of men and energy bringer for CFB’s best 2022 defense until he tore his pec in late October. In the ideal (Pittsburgh) world he would move inside in the hope of being a great ILB instead of a good Edge, but that’s a pretty big ask since he’s never actually played that position. He was a math major, so we know he’s got the intellectual firepower, but still. Seen as a pure OLB for the Pittsburgh defense…? The size just isn’t there, it shows, and there wouldn’t be a clean fit. Came in at #19 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list, with an honest player comp to a better prepared Haason Reddick. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile admires his tough run defense prowess more than his chops as a pure pass rusher, concluding that “Smith falls below the size standards some team might have for a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he plays team-first defense with quality technique.” Follow along with Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported Depot scouting report and you too may be smitten, coming away hearing echoes of his greeting words to Andy Weidl: “I’ve always wanted to be Ray Lewis but they insisted I play on the edge and I have to admit that I like that too…” One can always dream.

Also considered: ILB Trenton Simpson, and ILB/Edge Drew Sanders.

Pick 2:49: DT Mazi Smith, Michigan (Senior). 6’3”, 326 lbs. with 33¾” arms and 9⅞” hands. 21, turns 22 in June.

I refuse to join in the annual panic about the state of the Steelers D-Line. Cam Heyward’s play hasn’t dipped an inch, he’s certainly not about to retire, and I have a certain amount of faith in the consistently slow but steady learning curve we’ve seen for Pittsburgh DT’s over the past 30-40 years. No one – including Heyward, Tuitt, Aaron Smithe, Kiesel, Wormley, etc. – comes in ready to play at a high level. The requirements for conditioning, pad level, and hand fighting skill are just too high, and they take 2-3 years for even the most talented guys to get up to speed. Plus another 3-5 before they get it capital-R Right. Like it or not, that’s life as a Steelers fan. Thus I am not prepared to even start writing off the likes of Loudermilk, Leal, and Adams. I even retain some hope for Carlos Davis, though I cannot say that particular candle burns as bright as it used to.

That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the constant need to keep filling this pipeline with quality talent. Kevin Colbert’s post-Ben succession plan leaned heavily on a few all star veterans like Watt, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, DeCastro and Tuitt. The repercussions of losing those final two continues to echo through this roster, and probably will for at least another year. Larry Ogunjobi is a fine player, but he barely begins to fill Tuitt’s XL+++ shoes, and that means the team needs to keep adding talent until the standard can be reestablished.

Is Mazi Smith going to be the next Stephon Tuitt? No, probably not. He’s special enough to have those kinds of dreams, but it wouldn’t be fair to load him up with expectations. He does, however, bring extra value to the unit as a whole, because he is a natural 0/1/3-tech NT who can move out, rather than a natural 3/4/5-tech (like Tuitt) with the ability to slide in. Pittsburgh has a few of those DT profiles on the team already, in Ogunjobi, Loudermilk, Wormley, and maybe Leal. Smith would add something just different enough to raise the overall caliber of the room back up where we were when it was just Tuitt, Heyward, and guys named Joe (or Alualu). That will do.

Here is the current Big Board entry:

The #1 entry on Bruce Feldman’s 2022 Athletic Freaks list, Mazi Smith played 0- and 1-tech in college, but questions exist about whether he belongs there in the pros. There’s no doubt that he’s built like a brick, strong as a bear, and can move in ways a man his size should not. The issues are (1) arms of moderate length, (2) reflexes off the snap that can be a full beat or two behind everyone else, and (3) whatever lingering smoke you want to find in a gun permit issue last fall that got pled out to a misdemeanor. Ross McCorkle’s gif-supported Depot scouting report (Round 2 grade) ends in a comparison to Dontari Poe for someone who projects to be a solid, high floor NT with potential to really improve if he can learn to get off the ball in a timely way with his pads down where they belong. That slow get off is the thing that limits his pass rushing chops. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile also sees a lot of Dontari Poe, concluding “Smith’s size and testing could give his draft slotting some juice but he’s more of a Day 2 talent with exciting upside than a plug-and-play starter.” Zierlein also notes some problems keeping up with an outside zone attack, endurance issues, and a “surprising lack of anchor consistency against double teams.” Note that several sources have emphasized both Mazi’s vast untapped potential, and the fact that he seems to glory in being ‘that guy who does the dirty work for all his teammates.’ Those two facets definitely add to the ceiling and the floor from my POV.

Also considered: DT Keeanu Benton, DT Gervon Dexter, DT/NT Siaki Ika, OT Darnell Wright, OT Matthew Bergeron, OT Jaelyn Duncan, G/C/T Cody Mauch, C/G John Michael Schmitz, and OG O’Cyrus Torrence.

Pick 3:17 (#80 overall): C/G Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin (RS Junior). 6’6”, 317 lbs. 22 years old as of March.

Fair disclosure: I have a distinct, B&G ear worm that kicks in whenever Centers get mentioned. The refrain goes like this. “Mansfield, to Webster, Dawson, Hartings, and Pouncey; GOAT’s, HOF’ers, and one who was only the best of his time (but at least he won a Super Bowl).” Catchy, isn’t it? The closing line goes like this: “Get thee forth and don’t go down as a weaker link in the chain.”

Mason Cole is a fine player. A good player, who reasonable person could complain about. But in Pittsburgh? We tossed “reasonable” out the window some 50 years ago, and “good” just won’t cut the mustard. Laugh if you want, but I’m the one writing this article. Of course, fairness sort of requires me to slip in at least one mention of Faneca and DeCastro too, which leads to… eek.

Unreasonable is one thing. Irrational is another. The situation at Left Guard actually deserves some worry. Dotson is probably the weakest link on the line despite his occasional flashes. So I guess the bottom line is this: the OL may have grown by leaps and bounds toward the end of the 2022 season, but it’s going to keep causing us angst until both the Center position (and either a Guard or a Tackle) are being manned by perennial all stars. The team wants extra OL talent even if you’re in the camp all the current starters are okay. Damned by faint praise is damned nevertheless.

I expect Tippmann’s stock to rise as the process moves forward. I may even end up moving this pick up to #49, and saving the DT pick for Round 3. Indeed, Lance Zierlein has Tippman a tiny hair above Mazi Smith with a 6.35 grade versus 6.34. But Round 3 works on all the public boards for now, so that is where I’ll put him. And to be fair, he isn’t great yet. He just could be, it could come at either Center or Guard, and I am actually picking him here to play both. I plan to have him compete for the starting job at LG in his rookie year, before competing for the more important pivot position from Year 2 or 3 on. Either way he will make the team better, and that is the real goal. Here is the current Big Board entry:

The TDN scouting profile describes him as follows: Tippmann projects as a day-one starting center for multiple NFL offenses and schemes. Tippmann is a scheme-versatile blocker that impresses on both running and passing plays. And then it somehow ends with a Round 3 grade. Huh? Has played both Guard and Center, earning the constant description of a “mauler” at every stop. Also gets points as the “iron sharpens iron” practice opponent right across from Keeanu Benton. Came in at #22 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list, which made him the clear IOL1 of the class. The NFL Draft Buzz scouting profile adds that Tippmann was the #28 Feldman Freak based on, “a terrific combination of strength (635-pound back squat and 455-pound bench) and athleticism, clocking a 4.31 pro agility time and a 1.65 10-yard split, which would’ve been faster than any O-lineman at the [2022] NFL combine.” Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile compares Tippmann to the Packers’ good young Center Josh Myers, who was picked at 2:62. “Tippmann’s size, strength, smarts and athleticism should help him become a starter in the NFL.” Critical evaluations point to some balance concerns, and complain that he doesn’t maintain his blocks as well as he should. Hand placement could use work, he has a habit of dipping his head before making contact when he’s on the chase in open space, and he needs to be more consistent getting off the ball, but those are common issues for college players, and he’s also unusually young.

Also considered: G Andrew Vorhees, G/C Emil Ekiyor, C/G Ricky Stromberg, TE Dalton Kincaid, and TE Tucker Kraft.

Pick 4:18 (#117 overall): TRADED TO LAS VEGAS RAIDERS for Picks 5:144 & 5:173.

The Drafttek Trade Value Chart assigns Pittsburgh’s current Round 4 selection 56 points. The two Raiders picks come in at 34.5 and 20.6, for a total of 55.1. So this is a fair trade on the numbers. I choose to make it as a reminder that trading back doesn’t have to happen with one of the first few picks, where the talent pool thins out quickly. I personally see the round 4-6 talent as relatively flat, and thus much more likely to yield two almost-as-good players than an earlier trade-down would do.

Besides, there are a few Round 4-5 options I’d like to bring to your attention. So consider the trade inked, and let’s move on.

Also considered: WR Dontayvion Wicks and WR Cedric Tillman.

Pick 5:10 (144 overall). EDGE Thomas Incoom, Central Mich. (Junior). 6’2¼”, 265 lbs. with 33” arms and 9⅛” hands. Turned 24 in February.

Shout out to members SteelersFan5695 and Douglas Prostorong for bringing this young man to my attention in the recent article analyzing the Steelers’ 2023 situation and options at Edge Rusher. I’d now like to return the favor by highlighting his talents on the bigger stage. Here is the current Big Board entry.

An all star pass rusher in the MAC who would have a much higher grade if he’d done his work at a BCS school. Strike that. 11½ sacks and 18½ TFL’s in 12 games? He’d be a round 1 pick if the competition had been good enough. Incoom plays with excellent balance, rarely ending up on the ground, and has an unending motor who pursues plays to the echo of the whistle. H also fires off the ball well with good snap anticipation. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile considers him a natural 3-4 OLB, saying that Incoom’sface-up rushing style is neither elusive nor particularly creative, and [that] many of his sacks over the last two seasons have come thanks to his strong, secondary effort. Sets the edge well against the run. The question marks go primarily to those LOC concerns, doubts about his ability to play as a 4-3 DE at the next level, and questions about his ceiling. Looked pretty good at the Senior Bowl. The TDN scouting profile ends with a Round 3 grade. See also this February TDN interview, which gets into some football details.

I tend to believe the Steelers will eventually find a way to bring back Alex Highsmith. The only real danger would be if (a) they cannot reach an agreement this year, and then (b) he plays so well that there’s a Bud Dupree mega-contract available in 2024. Honestly? Good for him if that is how things turn out. I won’t complain about “only” getting several years of excellent play, with a Round 3-4 compensatory pick as his paring gift.

Given that belief, I do not have OLB down as a priority target, so much as a priority position where the team lacks a healthy rotation. The combination of Quincy Roche and my unnamed journeyman aren’t enough. A high upside developmental talent with significant special teams potential would be the ideal solution.

Also considered: OT Carter Warren, T/G Wanya Morris, QB Tanner McKee, QB Jake Haener, TE Payne Durham, TE Josh Whyle, WR Ronnie Bell, WR Puka Nacua. WR Parker Washington, WR Tre Tucker, EDGE Ochaun Mathis, EDGE Brenton Cox, Jr..

Pick 5:39 (#174 overall). WR Puka Nacua, BYU (Junior). 6’1¼”, 206 lbs. with 31⅞” arms and 9⅜” hands. 21, turns 22 in May.

Pittsburgh already has a decent number of receiving weapons that cover a wide range of profiles. Diontae Johnson is a master route runner who always gets open. George Pickens needs to get better at running routes, but is always open anyway because he is a magician in the air who possesses incredible assets when it comes to height, weight, speed, and hands. Calvin Austin III has absurd quickness and 4.32 speed. Getting him back is like a free draft pick already in the books. Pat Freiermuth can be counted as a slot receiver. And Najee Harris is a marvelous outlet receiver who people tend to forget. Our young QB has no dearth of capable pass catchers.

After that comes an array of don’t forget about me weapons in Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward, Chris Sims, and Miles Boykin. There is room in there for another weapon of almost any description, but my favorite would be a tough guy possession receiver who enjoys mixing it up as a blocker. The round 4-5 range offers several players who fit that profile. Nacua is one of my favorites. I personally believe he could go as quickly as the early 4th, but every major simulator out there would disagree and I have to admit there are other players with more obvious height/weight/speed appeal. In the interest of complete transparency, Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile has Nacua all the way down at WR35, ending on an “average backup” grade. (Make sure to mention that I say he’s wrong when you next cross paths!)

Here is the current Big Board entry.

Yes, Puka is one of my draft crushes of the year. Why? Because he deserves to be, that’s why! Nacua is a tough, nasty, old school physical possession receiver who could legitimately model his game on Hines Ward, right down to the love of blocking. Tom Mead’s gif-supported Depot scouting report prefers Juju Smith-Schuster as a comp, but you know what? Either one will do. Fine hands, but needs to work on his route running, and has average athletic talent when measured against NFL receivers. The speed is acceptable, but far from special.

Also considered: See the list for the other Round 5 pick.

Pick 7:212: SS Trey Dean III, Florida (Senior). 6’3”, 207 lbs. Turned 23 in February. Here is the current Big Board entry:

As Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile puts it, Dean is a “big, long safety with good athleticism and toughness but a troubling lack of assignment awareness.” He’s the sort of player you look for as a Day 3 flier with wonderful upside and a special teams floor. The pure athletic talent shows in the fact that he’s taken significant snaps at Corner, Free Safety, Strong Safety, and Nickel ILB. Hard to get more versatile than that! His best fit at the next level will probably be as a nominal Strong Safety who begins his career as a special teams demon while he spends a few years learning to play NFL level defense. To twist a Tomlinism, Dean is athletic, fast and ferocious, but needs to learn from someone who knows when to say, “whoa.”

This is probably the least realistic of all my picks in this mock, but weird things happen down at this part of the draft, and someone like Trey Dean could literally go anywhere from the end of Round 3 down to UDFA. I’m looking at the profile more than the player: an NFL athlete who can make his bones on special teams while struggling to learn enough that he might someday challenge for defensive snaps. Safety and Nickel ILB would be the classic positions, with Edge, CB, TE, WR, or RB as the fallbacks.

Also considered: QB Tyson Bagent and QB Aidan O’Connell. I would have considered more Safeties too, but I haven’t dug deep enough yet to know their names.

Pick 7:223: OT Kadeem Telfort, UAB by way of Florida (Senior). 6’7”, 319 lbs. with massive 35⅞” arms smallish 8½” hands. 24, turns 25 in November. Here is the current Big Board entry:

Wonderful natural gifts, including some fairly astonishing length. He also mirrors and moves extremely well. The downgrade comes from Telfort’s role in a massive credit card scandal when he was a Florida freshman. He was charged with 30 counts of criminal fraud relating to $20,000 of purchases that ranged from iPads to Gummy Worms. It was a huge scandal back in the day, and he seems to have been the ringleader. So was he a serious criminal, or a stupid college freshman who committed criminal acts? My life experience suggests the second, so the big question is this: has he outgrown his stupidity along with his youth? The Florida justice system seems to think so. For all the furor, he ended up with a plea deal to one 3rd-degree felony plus probation and court costs. Make your own judgment. He sounds like an impressive young man in this interview with Depot’s Joe Clark at the Shrine Bowl.

This is another case where I’m looking at a profile more than a person. I put my chips in for an improved IOL with this draft, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pittsburgh has basically no developmental depth in the OT pipeline. Round 7 should offer a shot at some small school athletes with ideal assets, held back by LOC and other concerns. That is Telfort in a nutshell.

Also considered: OT Richard Gouraige, G/T Brandon Kipper, OT Quinton Barrow, T/G Joey Fisher, T/G Ryan Swoboda.


That’s all I’ve got folks. Please let me know your thoughts down below, along with any nuggets you can share about both the picks and passed over possibilities.

  • 1:17 – CB Joey Porter Jr.
  • 2:01 (#32 overall) – ILB Nolan Smith. ILB, *not* EDGE
  • 2:18 (#49 overall) – DT/NT Mazi Smith
  • 3:17 (#80 overall) – C/G Joe Tippmann
  • 5:10 (#144 overall) – EDGE Thomas Incoom
  • 5:39 (#174 overall) – WR Puka Nacua
  • 7:17 (#236 overall) – SS Trey Dean III
  • 7:24 (#243 overall) – OT Kadeem Telfort
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