Could the Pittsburgh Steelers make it back-to-back years selecting a former Pittsburgh Panthers star in the first round of the NFL Draft?
The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly certainly thinks so.
In the latest Beat Writers mock draft for The Athletic Wednesday morning which featured a beat writer making the selection for the team they cover, Kaboly went a familiar route for the Steelers, grabbing a player from right next door in the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
At No. 17 overall, Kaboly selected Pitt defensive lineman Calijah Kancey, giving Pittsburgh a high-end defensive lineman to work in the trenches alongside Cameron Heyward and the recently re-signed Larry Ogunjobi.
“The Steelers let neighbor Aaron Donald slip through their fingers in the 2014 draft. They won’t make that mistake twice,” Kaboly writes regarding his selection of Kancey. “Though Kancey has a long way to go to come close to matching Donald’s career, the similarities are eerie — same college, same style, same athleticism and same size. Kancey shot up the draft board after running a 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s undersized for what the Steelers look for in a defensive tackle, but everything is out the window with the new front-office regime of GM Omar Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl. With Cameron Heyward turning 34 in May, it makes total sense.”
The selection of Kancey certainly makes sense, considering that the outlook behind Heyward and Ogunjobi along the defensive line looks rather bleak right now. Outside of those two, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Jonathan Marshall, and Renell Wren are the lone defensive linemen on the roster. DeMarvin Leal is there, too, but projects as more of a hybrid rather than a true defensive lineman.
Plain and simple, the Steelers have a major need along the defensive line.
Kancey would certainly fill that need, though his size (6010, 281, 30 5/8″ arms) certainly doesn’t fit the mold that the Steelers like to go with along the defensive line. There’s something to be said for Kancey though despite his smaller stature.
Kancey recorded 92 total tackles, 34.5 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, and forced one fumble in his collegiate career.
Kancey had an incredible redshirt junior season in 2022. He was named a first-team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year after recording 31 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, and 7.5 sacks.
While Kaboly makes the case for Kancey due to the similarities to one Aaron Donald, that doesn’t necessarily need to be made. Kancey is a dominant player in his own right and carved out a terrific career that has him in the history books at Pitt on his own. Donald feels like an outlier at that size.
However, Pitt certainly knows how to develop players along the defensive line, and overlooking Kancey due to his size instead of trusting his tape and overall production feels a bit short-sighted, no pun intended.
Here’s what Steelers Depot’s own Jonathan Heitritter had to say about Kancey in his draft profile for the site:
“Overall, Calijah Kancey is a difficult evaluation regarding his production in college and if it will translate to the NFL level. He is a twitchy, explosive defender that wins with quickness, refined technique, and the ability to penetrate gaps thanks to his small stature. However, his size can also be his greatest weakness when it comes to getting off blocks, defending the run, and consistently pushing the pocket. He will need to be utilized in a scheme that allows him to shoot gaps regularly and not take on blocks as a space-eater in order to have success at the next level.
“While many in the media have tried to compare Kancey to fellow former Pitt Panther Aaron Donald, the fact of the matter is that Kancey doesn’t have Donald’s pure strength and power that makes him such a good, well-rounded defender.”