Steelers Land Pair Of OL Building Blocks In ESPN’s Two-Round Mock Draft

With the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl now behind us, the draft process leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft in April is full speed ahead, especially with the NFL Scouting Combine up next on the NFL’s calendar.

After seeing more than 200 draft-eligible prospects up close and in person, mock drafts are starting to become a bit more realistic, at least in terms of team interests and where prospects are coming off the board overall. Knowing that, it was interesting to see Matt Miller’s latest two-round mock draft for ESPN Monday morning pair the Pittsburgh Steelers with two potential building blocks along the offensive line, as well as a high-level cornerback with their first three picks.

At No. 17 overall, Miller has the Steelers selecting Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, giving the Steelers a hopeful top-flight cornerback to help rebuild a position group that really struggled in 2022 outside of Cam Sutton and Levi Wallace.

“The biggest need in Pittsburgh this offseason is along the offensive line, but with the top three tackles already off the board, the Steelers could pivot to the secondary. Gonzalez has a unique blend of traits and production,” Miller writes regarding the selection of Gonzalez for the Steelers. “The 6-foot-2, 200-pound cornerback is expected to test really well at the combine, with one area scout predicting times in the 4.3-second range in the 40-yard dash. But Gonzalez is more than “just” a high-level speed player; he had four interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2022 after transferring from Colorado. He’s a perfect match of need and value, and — spoiler — Pittsburgh could wait until Round 2 to address the O-line with a pair of picks.”

Gonzales was just the third cornerback off the board at that point in Miller’s mock, with Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon going No. 6 to the Detroit Lions, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. at No. 14 to the New England Patriots, and Alabama safety/cornerback hybrid Brian Branch at No. 15 to the Green Bay Packers.

A Colorado transfer, Gonzalez was a star at Oregon this season, finishing with 50 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed and one tackle for loss on the season for the Ducks. Prior to the season, Gonzalez was named to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” for his athleticism.

Gonzalez was clocked at 23.3 MPH on a GPS tracker, jumped 42 inches and power-cleaned 325 pounds as a 6-foot-2, 200-LB cornerback.

According to PFF, Gonzalez — a redshirt sophomore — allowed a 74.7 passer rating, which ranks 140th in college football among corners with at least 100 snaps. Gonzalez was targeted 64 times in 2022, the most in his team. He allowed 39 catches for 495 yards as a member of the Ducks.

In three seasons in college, Gonzalez recorded 128 tackles with four interceptions and 17 passes defensed.

After addressing a major need in the first round for the Steelers with the selection of Gonzalez, Miller circled back in the second round at picks No. 32 and No. 49, grabbing Minnesota iOL John Michael Schmitz and Oklahoma OT Anton Harrison with the Steelers’ two picks, addressing the offensive line for the black and gold in front of quarterback Kenny Pickett moving forward.

“The Steelers need an offensive line makeover, and Schmitz is my top-ranked center and a legitimate top-32 prospect,” Miller writes regarding the selection of Schmitz at No. 32 overall. “His quickness and power as a second-level blocker were on display at the Senior Bowl and would immediately help the Pittsburgh unit.”

Schmitz would be a huge addition to the Steelers’ offensive line. He simply dominated all week at the Senior Bowl, where head coach Mike Tomlin got an up close and personal look at him while watching the offensive line heavily. At 6040, 320 pounds, Schmitz has very good size overall for the position and carries it well, though he isn’t the most athletic at the position entering the NFL.

With guys like Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence (No. 26 to Dallas) and North Dakota State’s Cody Mauch (No. 27 to Buffalo) off the board at this point in Miller’s mock, it makes some sense for the Steelers to take the best available offensive linemen, which would be Schmitz in this scenario.

Here’s what Steelers Depot’s Jonathan Heitritter had to say about Schmitz in his draft profile of the Minnesota standout:

“John Michael Schmitz is one of the most dominant blockers in all of college football and one of the best interior offensive linemen in this draft class. He is a gritty, aggressive run blocker that imposes his will on his competition while also having the IQ and stout frame to anchor in pass protection. He is a good athlete climbing to the second level and moving laterally but lacks high-end athleticism to be a fit in wide-zone running schemes. He has a few technical flaws he needs to work on along with answering questions on reach and arm length, but his starting experience and play demeanor should make him an early contributor at the next level in an inside zone and between-the-tackles gap running system.”

After grabbing Schmitz for the Steelers, Miller circled back and grabbed Harrison at No. 49, giving the Steelers a potential starting left tackle that would come in and battle with Dan Moore Jr. initially.

The selection of Harrison is a bit surprising, but considering that Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron came off the board in Miller’s mock at No. 46 to New England, it feels like a position selection, rather than a guy that Steelers have shown interest in.

“The Steelers got a cornerback and a center with their first two picks and now find a left tackle of the future here,” Miller writes regarding the selection of Harrison at No. 49 overall. “Harrison could be a target for teams earlier on Day 2 due to great length, fluid movement and a lot of upside. He’s 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, and NFL scouts I’ve spoken to say they believe he’ll continue to improve once he gets in an NFL conditioning and strength program.”

At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Harrison has the size and overall length to be a building block in the trenches, especially from a pass protection standpoint. He has sound movement skills overall and mirrors very well in pass protection overall, though his functional strength in the run game remains a concern.

In 862 snaps in 2022 with the Sooners, Harrison allowed just one sack on the season, with 803 snaps coming at left tackle and another 59 at right tackle, earning a grade of 72.6 overall from Pro Football Focus, including an 83.3 in pass protection and a 67.7 in run blocking.

On top of allowing just one sack, Harrison allowed just eight total pressures on the season in 447 pass blocking reps, improving greatly from his sophomore season in 2021.

As a sophomore with Oklahoma, Harrison allowed two sacks, one quarterback hit and 14 pressures in 671 snaps (382 pass blocking reps), according to Pro Football Focus. 

In his three seasons with the Sooners, Harrison played in 34 games, starting 24 at left tackle. As a junior, Harrison was named a First Team All-Big 12 offensive lineman by the Associated Press, as well as by the league’s coaches. Harrison did not play in his final game as a Sooner, opting to sit out of the Cheez-It Bowl in which Florida State topped Oklahoma, 35-32.

Around the AFC North in Miller’s mock draft, the Cincinnati Bengals landed Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer at No. 28 overall and Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo at No. 60 overall. The Cleveland Browns, without a first-round pick due to the Deshaun Watson trade, landed Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith at No. 42 overall, while the Baltimore Ravens landed TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnson at No. 22 overall and are without a second-round pick due to the Roquan Smith trade.

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