New Two-Round Mock Draft Has Steelers Adding Defensive Versatility

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been active so far in the legal tampering period, but one thing that has been the M.O. of the franchise is that they build from the NFL Draft. That isn’t going to change under new general manager Omar Khan.

Today the The Draft Network released a new mock draft, and it has the Steelers addressing their defensive backfield in the first round. It is not the position you might initially think with analyst Ryan Fowler having the Steelers selecting Alabama versatile defensive back Brian Branch.

“Pittsburgh has a need both at corner and safety, so why not get a player that can do both in this NFL mock draft? One of my favorite defenders in the class, Brian Branch, wins pre-snap, where his ability to diagnose concepts was consistently on display for the Crimson Tide,” wrote Fowler. “While some of you may scratch your head here with a desire for a ‘CB1′, talk to me in a few years’ time when he becomes one of the premier defenders in the league due to his versatility.”

Branch makes sense as a Steelers draft pick. Not only did Branch meet with the Steelers at the NFL Combine and talked about how much he would love to play with Minkah Fitzpatrick, he also he fits a couple of needs.

Branch can play both in the slot and in the box, something the Pittsburgh will need. Cornerback Cameron Sutton left in free agency and safety Terrell Edmunds might not be re-signed after the Steelers struck a deal with Damontae Kazee. In 2022, Branch logged 537 snaps in the slot and 123 in the box, according to PFF.

His versatility is something head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will covet. At 6’0″ 190 pounds, Branch has ideal size and production to back up his versatility. In three years at Alabama, Branch recorded 172 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, four interceptions, and 27 pass breakups.

In this mock draft Fowler has the Steelers passing on top cornerbacks like Joey Porter Jr. and Deonte Banks for Branch. That is interesting because in the rest of this two-round mock draft he has the team overlooking outside cornerback.

After losing Sutton and bringing in a player who can only play inside and not outside is questionable, especially when considering that the man brought into replace him, Patrick Peterson, doesn’t have much more tread on his tires. Sutton showed he is capable of playing outside, so not paying him then drafting a slot guy in the first round and not addressing outside cornerback spot with the first three picks would almost feel like malpractice.

With the first of the Steelers’ two second-round picks (32 overall), Fowler had them selecting Oklahoma tackle Anton Harrison. At 6’4″ 315 pounds, Harrison may be a bit undersized with the average NFL tackle standing at 6’6″. Despite this, Harrison was effective as a Sooner, getting named First-Team All Big-12 by both the AP and coaches.

Fowler said Harrison will accelerate Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett’s development.

“Keep Kenny Pickett upright,” he wrote. “Anton Harrison will help the young signal-caller reach his ceiling.”

An undersized tackle here would not make too much sense unless Khan, offensive line coach Pat Meyer, and head coach Mike Tomlin are all convinced that Harrison can play tackle in the NFL. After signing Nate Herbig to play guard, bringing in another player who might have to switch to guard simply doesn’t make sense.

With the Steelers’ third pick, and second pick in the second round at pick (49 overall), Fowler has them selecting USC EDGE Tuli Tuipulotu.

“A versatile defender, I expect Tuli Tuipulotu to be moved all over the defensive front on Sundays, similar to what he did for the Trojans,” he wrote.

Tuipulotu, 6’3″ and 233 pounds, would fill a need as a backup EDGE rusher God forbid either T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith get hurt. Tuipulito made First-Team All Pac-12 in 2021 and 2022 while also being named a unanimous All-American in 2022. He had 12 1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 2022 on the way to winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award.

Tuipulotu makes a lot of sense here. The strength of the Steelers’ defense is their pass rush, why not make it stronger?

Overall, I am not a huge fan of this mock draft. Given the moves the Steelers have made so far in free agency they need to address outside cornerback with one of their first two picks, especially if a player like Porter Jr. is on the board at No. 17. I don’t hate the Branch move at all, but if the plan is to not draft an outside cornerback early then the team should have re-signed Sutton.

Moving onto the Steelers’ second pick, Harrison is too risky, especially after signing a guard. An undersized tackle who may need to transition to guard is a risky move, and now you would still need a tackle. If you are going to take that risk do it with a player like Northwestern tackle Peter Skoronski, who has shown much more than Harrison.

I do like the pick of Tuipulotu. It is a need and a very talented player. There also isn’t going to be a logjam at EDGE and worst-case scenario if the Steelers can’t come to agreement on a contract extension with Alex Highsmith it gives them someone to fall back on.

This mock draft almost feels as if it was written before free agency even though it was published today. Before free agency I believe this mock draft would look a lot better. With how things have shaken out I really am not a fan of it.

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