- The Board goes utterly wrong in Round 1, just as it did for Alex Kozora’s Walk The Mock draft;
- I will do my best to avoid picking players I’ve selected in earlier mocks and;
- The coaches have come to me as their mock GM, and said they are actually eager to run out the same starting OL as 2022.
It turns out the speculation is true. Pat Meyer, Matt Canada, and Mike Tomlin all believe that players under the age of 28 continue to improve, which is gold since every player on the Steelers offensive line is 26 or younger. The coaches also believe the unit will be better from (a) going into Year 2 together, (b) going into Year 2 under Meyer; and (c) going into Year 2 with their new QB. And that a, b, and c will each reinforce the others. I have therefore been instructed to go pure BPA, with no finger on the scale in favor of offensive linemen at any position. If one is there, great. But it is not a priority.
FREE AGENCY ASSUMPTIONS: No significant changes to last year’s roster.
- CB – Cam Sutton and James Pierre return, with Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson dropped for salary cap reasons.
- SAF – One of Terrell Edmunds or Damontae Kazee returns, but only one.
- ILB – Myles Jack and Robert Spillane both return, but Devin Bush departs. A journeyman free agent Mack ILB is added.
- OLB – A journeyman edge rusher is added to compete with Quincy Roche for the OLB3 snaps.
- DT – Larry Ogunjobi or a similar vet is obtained through free agency, and Wormley has some kind of injury contract.
- OL – Trent Scott returns, but multitool backup Jesse Davis departs. Omar Khan finds a good, old fashioned, Colbert Dumpster Dive prospect to fill in as emergency depth.
ON WITH THE SHOW:
I stand by my guns that the Steelers are 80-90% likely to come out of Round 1 with one of the following seven players:
- CBs Christian Gonzalez, Joey Porter, Jr., or Devon Witherspoon.
- DT Bryan Bresee.
- OT Paris Johnson Jr., OT Broderick Jones, or T/G/C Peter Skoronski.
All seven are gone in the first 16 picks in accordance with your instructions. So are DT Jalen Carter, pass rushers Will Anderson, Tyree Wilson, and Myles Murphy, plus four QBs, RB Bijan Robinson, and one other player. Sixteen picked, leaving me with these favored alternatives:
- Trade Down
- EDGE/ILB Nolan Smith (if he is eager to play ILB)
- CB/SAF Brian Branch
- CB Cam Smith
NOTE: Before you ask, the answer is “No.” I think both Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Jordan Addison would look quite good in black and gold, but not at 1:17.
Trading back didn’t work. My phone stayed silent except for a bargain shopping request from Jacksonville: Pittsburgh’s 1:17 pick (950 points on the Draftek chart) in exchange for the Jags 1:24 (740 points) and a 4th-round pick (26 points). No dice, not with one of the fallback players still available. All except Nolan Smith, that is. When my scouts asked him about converting to ILB at the team meeting, he replied: “I am a pass rusher. Why do you people keep bringing this up?” Asked and answered.
That left the two DBs. I have made my admiration of Cam Smith clear in other posts, so for this mock I went with…
1:17 – Slot DB (FS/CB) Brian Branch, Alabama (Junior) [Mtg. at Combine]. 5’11⅝”, 190 lbs. with 30¾” arms and 9½” hands. 21, turns 22 in October.
The deeper you look, the better the pick seems to be. Branch is a prototype Nickel Back (“NB”) – one of the new wave of players who straddles the line between an ideal cover-Safety and a tough guy Corner who actually likes to tackle and blitz. Mike Hilton was the best player Pittsburgh had for this spot, and it’s proven very hard to fill since he left. The specs call for a weird combination of explosiveness, strength, quickness, change of direction ability, coverage skill, football IQ, and plain old nasty disposition. Branch fits that description even better than Hilton, with all the quickness, plus extra size and a lot more pop. As put in Chandler Stroud’s Depot scouting report, Branch “is a certified hitman [who] is going to have that Ryan Clark effect on teams immediately.”
So much for the sales pitch. Now it’s time to answer the objections.
COMPLAINT 1A: “You’re picking a part-time, sub-package player in Round 1? Are you nuts Pavelle? We need a starter! A true CB1! If that isn’t available, take even the stupid Jacksonville offer and wait until a later round.”
Let’s unpack that. What do people mean by “a true CB1?” It can’t be one of the shutdown/island corners who go off on their own to cover the opponent’s best receiver. There aren’t five of those guys in the league at any given time, and anyone who profiles in that category will be gone by pick #10. To me “CB1” instead means someone like the Joe Haden of 5 to 10 years ago: a top 20-25 coverage expert who will reliably deliver 800+ quality snaps per year when healthy. That is worth the #17 pick all day and every day. The same thing goes for the word “starter.” It does not mean the 11 people who stand on the field for the first defensive play of the game, because that changes with the offensive formation. “Starter” means anyone who offer 800+ quality snaps per year.
I have zero doubt that Brian Branch will do just that. Count the snaps if you doubt it.
Pittsburgh uses the base 3-4 defense around 30% of the time. Nickel and Dime sub-packages (there are many variations) account for 60%. The remaining snaps go to oddball groups like short-yardage, crowd-the-line formations. Branch projects as a rotational Safety or emergency Corner in base, and a full time NB in all the Nickel and Dime formations.
The 2022 Steelers used three players to do these jobs: Arthur Maulet (481 defensive snaps), Damontae Kazee (273 snaps), and Tre Norwood (243 snaps). That is 997 available snaps, and it would have been even higher if Kazee hadn’t missed so many games. By way of comparison, Minkah Fitzpatrick played 939 defensive snaps in 2022 (87%), Cam Sutton 931 (86%), and Terrell Edmunds 886 (83%). FWIW, Mike Hilton played 701 snaps for the 2022 Bengals, which tends to confirm that a better version of the same prototype would be up in the 900’s.
Part-time player my fine, manly backside! There are more than enough available snaps to justify a Round 1 pick, and all of those snaps would be of higher quality than the team has seen in the past several years.
COMPLAINT 1B: “But you’re mixing together snaps from a Corner and two Safeties!” Exactly. That is this young man’s superpower, and why he is universally considered a Round 1 value: Nickel Back, SAF3 and emergency CB in one neat package.
COMPLAINT 1C: “But he ran a pitifully slow 4.58 dash at the Combine!” First, let’s wait until we have all the pro day testing before we start questioning the speed seen on film. Joe Haden famously ran a 4.57 dash at the Combine, and then a 4.43 at his pro day. Second, please note that straight-line speed was not listed among the primary requirements of the job. Third, 4.5-something speed is quite standard for the Safeties and Corners who play this kind of position. Mike Hilton ran a 4.55, and Kam Chancellor an identical 4.59 for two quick examples.
Add in the well-known fact that 40 times are notoriously bad predictors of NFL success even if you limit the pool to WRs and CBs. See Larry Fitzgerald (4.63), Anquan Boldin (4.71), Jerry Rice (4.71), and Antonio Brown (4.56). Finally, Branch’s best assets are his burst, quickness, and football IQ, all of which allow a man to play football faster than he runs on a track. I don’t ignore 40 times as completely as some, but I do know how to keep them in proportion. Worrying about Brian Branch running in the 4.5s goes too far. He’s fast enough even if that time proves to be accurate. Here is the current Big Board summary:
|Plays the hybrid position Nickel Back position located directly on the line between Slot Corner and Safety, and does it as well as anyone who has come through the draft since Minkah Fitzpatrick. Came in at #25 overall on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list when viewed as more of a Corner. Indeed, Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile has him as the CB1 overall, with a comp to none other than Minkah Fitzpatrick (one reason why I list him as a S/CB instead of CB/S). Among other superlatives, Zierlein says Branch’s “football intelligence is through the roof,” and “there are areas where he can improve but no real weaknesses, which could make him one of the safest picks in the draft.” Chandler Stroud’s gif-supported Depot scouting report uses Jamal Adams as the likely pro comp for this “certified hitman.” A terrific prospect who needs to be used correctly, but Pittsburgh could use an excellent slot-DB, and one who’d double as a Minkah-lite deep Safety could be giggle worthy indeed.|
Also considered: CB Cam Smith and EDGE Lukas Van Ness.
2:01 (# 32 overall) – TE Darnell Washington, Georgia (Junior). 6’6⅝”, 264 lbs. with 34⅜” arms and 11” hands that let him [watch this!]. 21, turns 22 in August.
This one didn’t happen the way you think. I’d like to add an offensive player for the sake of balance if nothing else but where? Remember what the coaches told me. They are perfectly happy to run out the same starting OL as 2022, because they believe it will be even better than the 7-2 unit that closed the season. We need depth, and it could always be improved, but offensive linemen are no longer a priority. I’d also like to give Kenny Pickett an extra weapon, particularly one that would help him in the two spots where young QBs struggle most: the red zone and the 10- to 20-yard patterns over the middle.
Should I add a Tackle anyway, on the premise that Dawand Jones, Darnell Wright, or Anton Harrison will add depth in 2023, and be good enough to push out one of the current starters in 2024? Grab another Round 2 WR? I looked at both options and then realized that this draft class would let me address goals with a single pick. Add an all-but-elite, blocking-capable TE, and the OL would have extra running lanes to use, and extra support on passing downs. And Kenny Pickett would have his weapon. An offense with twin TE1s drove opponents crazy back in the days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work just as well today; if you can somehow collect a pair of true TE1s. Enter the best TE class in living memory.
I thought about it twice and decided that this would be a good move even if Zach Gentry comes back. I like Gentry, respect both his blocking and his untapped receiving skill, and admire his approach to the game. But Washington is Zach Gentry with two explanation points inserted after the name. The draft is about making the team better. You can do that by filling in holes, or by picking a superior talent. Here is the current Big Board entry:
|A height/weight/speed phenom who can genuinely block and has room to improve? Definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially after he used the Combine to put up a top 2% athletic score with elite grades in every category, and make one of the most impressive catches I have ever seen. 2022 production was only okay, but he had a foot injury for the first half of the season, plays for a notoriously run-first offense, and had to compete with sophomore phenom Brock Bowers, who was good enough to win the Mackey Award as an underclassman. Came in at #17 overall on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list, along with a description as ”a sixth offensive lineman in the run game and he’s a moving billboard in the passing game.” Jacob Harrison’s gif-supported Depot scouting report ends in a Round 2 grade. His blocking is so good that Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile suggests he could almost be considered as a candidate for conversion into a true Tackle.|
Also considered: TE Michael Mayer and TE Luke Musgrave. One of those three is certain to be available at 2:01. All of them would do the job admirably.
2:18 (# 49 overall) – EDGE Will McDonald IV, Iowa St. (Senior). 6’3⅝”, 241 lbs. (Senior Bowl weight) with amazing 34⅞” arms and 9½” hands. 23, turns 24 in June.
I will gladly tip my hat down in the comments to anyone who erupts with a well-reasoned critique, but those who complain by reflex lose by default. (My game, my rules). Make sure to address these points if you want to be on the winning side:
- First, ILBs Jack Campbell, Trenton Simpson, and Drew Sanders were all picked before this point in the draft. Not an option.
- Second, I discussed Keeanu Benton, Gervon Dexter, Mazi Smith, and Derick Hall in earlier mocks, and have a policy against repeating the same names. Not an option.
- Third, Siaki Ika had one of the worst Combine performances in recent memory, even though he dropped 25 lbs. in order to look more athletic. He is off my board until Round 4 at the earliest, and I might not be willing to pick him there if there’s no redemption at his pro day.
- Fourth, Will McDonald IV is not really the 239 pounds he measured at the Combine. He played at 241 in the Senior Bowl and has plenty of room on to add 10 to 15 pounds of grown-man muscle, which would make him basically the same size as Highsmith and Watt.
- And finally, McDonald’s testing at the Combine took place on Thursday. He came out anyway even though he’d been running a 104° fever on Tuesday. And he put up elite numbers in the explosion tests despite the handicap.
Old folks like me will remember Julio Jones running at the Combine with a broken bone in his foot, just because he’d come to compete and wasn’t willing to surrender. It showed an inner toughness that carried all through his career. McDonald just did the exact same thing, which makes him a young man I want on my team if the physical assets are there. They are, in spades, and so I do.
Edge may not seem like a huge priority, but we saw what happened when T.J. Watt got hurt last year. We know that Alex Highsmith is entering the final year of his rookie deal. And we know that Andy Weidl’s Eagles roster sailed into the Super Bowl on continual waves of varied pass rush talents. It’s a copycat league, and this strikes me as a great idea to copy.
Argue if you must. Here is the current Big Board entry:
|Good burst with an insane amount of bend that pairs dynamically with his unusual length. The issues go to his need to add some grown man muscle, which would definitely help him convert speed to power better. He has plenty of room on his frame to do just that, and no doubt will unless it would somehow limit his speed and burst. Early, pre-process grades had McDonald down as a Round 3 talent, but he’s risen steadily – especially after a great Senior Bowl showing. His stock went up at the Combine too, when he went through the testing on Thursday despite running a 104° fever on Tuesday. Gritty kid! Shades of Julio Jones. Came in at #29 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top 50 list. Note that his team asked him to play right on the line in a 4i-technique – the spot regularly occupied by Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh. That was an absurd misuse of talent since it suits neither his body or his skill set. McDonald will live or die as a 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Accepting that role speaks well of his toughness and team first attitude, but does not help his draft stock. Run defense is still a weakness rather than a strength. His technique is also quite raw from an NFL perspective, which could make his age an issue for the youth loving Steelers. Chandler Stroud’s gif-supported Depot scouting report ends with a fringe-1st grade, based on his Round 1 potential offset against a severe need to develop more playing strength and to get better at shedding blocks. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile sums it up quite succinctly: “Overall, McDonald’s hard-nosed demeanor and pass-rush talent are winning play traits that will help him become a successful 3-4 outside linebacker and sack artist.” This goes to a nice, football-intensive TDN interview before the Senior Bowl, and this to an excellent interview/article with Alex Kozora, which contains a lot of personal background and perspective.|
Also considered: All the names listed above, plus EDGE Felix Anudike-Uzoma and EDGE B.J. Ojulari.
3:17 (# 80 overall) – DT/NT Zacch Pickens, S. Car. (Senior). 6’3⅝”, 300 lbs. with 34⅜” arms and 10⅜” hands. 23 years old as of March.
The earlier mocks prove my belief that #49 is the sweet spot for picking a DT, but in this scenario that wasn’t to be. Who is likely to still be there in Round 3? This is my answer.
Zacch Pickens has Round 1 athleticism combined with the physique that Pittsburgh seems to favor on the defensive line. He’s going to fall in the draft because everyone describes his tape in words along these lines: “He did fine. Not bad at all. But that is as far as I’ll go.” People have suggested a variety of reasons why the talent and the tape have failed to sync up. Several have mentioned lapses in his anchor (usually ascribed to pad level or core strength issues). Others have seen endurance as the primary issue. But the bottom line remains a rueful shake of the head, with puzzlement in the eyes.
In Round 3 I will take that bet. It’s hard to remember a DT prospect who didn’t have pad level problems, and the Steelers are masters of teaching that skill. Core strength and endurance are even easier to fix, especially with the benefits of an NFL training regime. Add in Cam Heyward as a mentor to pound in the Steelers Way, and I see very good odds that Zacch Pickens will eventually achieve his full potential. I doubt it will be in Year 1, and Year 2 tends to be a disappointing plateau for young linemen, but his chances look rosy from Year 3 and on. Solvable problems + all-pro ceiling = a pick comparable to DeMarvin Leal; who went in Round 3 of last year’s draft.
|Pickens is a 5-star athlete who has almost arrived, never quite did in college, but bullied a lot of good Senior Bowl players around. The TDN scouting profile says he has very good penetration and wins regularly when that works, but loses his pad level when it fails. This contrarian Bleacher Report scouting profile sees a totally different player; a static run stuffer who cannot help on passing downs. The NFL Draft Buzz scouting profile is somewhere in between. This interview before the Senior Bowl gives some insight into the young man’s approach to the game. Here is a clip-supported scouting profile with good personal background. This brief but solid looking scouting profile sees a 0- to 3-tech NT who’d be good value early on Day 3. Solid as a run defender. Could be a genuine star if he gets and takes to the right coaching, which would make him a 3-down guy. Should be a valuable role player anyway. Carries some extra weight that does him no good. This thorough February scouting profile is unimpressed, especially by his inconsistency, pad level issues, and issues handling double teams. Jonathan Heitritter’s gif-supported Depot scouting report, however, likewise ends in a Day 3 grade for a raw but gifted and powerful NT who also has some pass rush juice, but is held back by a significant need to build some extra endurance while bringing his craft up to pro standards in several ways. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile (Round 2-3 grade) likes everything but the anchor.|
Also considered: NT Jerrod Clark, ILB Daiyan Henley, ILB Owen Pappoe, ILB DeMarvion Overshown, ILB Henry To’o To’o, SAF Jordan Battle, SAF JL Skinner, SAF Jammie Robinson, SAF Sydney Brown, C/G Ricky Stromberg.
4:18 (# 120 overall) – OG Anthony Bradford, LSU (RS Junior). 6’4”, 332 (down from 345 lbs.) with 33½” arms and 9½” hands. Turned 24 in March.
Indulge me for this one. I’m bringing up Bradford because I have a hunch that he would be a superb bargain if he falls this far, and I wanted to see if you all agree. The scouting profiles I’ve read have been pretty much unanimous about Bradford’s college tape: gigantic, powerful, and yet still able to pull and climb to the second level if you don’t expect too much. “Just be sure to keep him in a gap/power system, and don’t expect much in the way of lateral movement.” That last made him one of the players that I thought the team should actively avoid, since Pat Meyer’s blocking scheme relies on the guards being agile enough to slide readily from side to side.
Then came the Combine. There were three prospects I particularly wanted to see with less weight at that event. O’Cyrus Torrence, who didn’t lose a pound; Siaki Ika, who lost 25 pounds and then tested like he’d added that weight instead; and Bradford, who weighed in at just above 330 instead of just below 350 and looked like a man reborn. Bradford’s testing ended up in top 4%, versus Ika in the bottom 2%. Indeed, he tested so well that I doubt he could fall this far. But he is a Guard, Guards are never in demand, and his tape shows a much more limited player than the testing suggests. So what the heck.
Plus there’s this: I watched him go through those drills on TV, and it seemed to me that he could lose another 20 pounds without cutting into muscle. If he can do that, and get even more athletic… Well, that trifecta would be very special indeed. Here is the current Big Board entry:
|A colossal, human-moving young man who can hold up against anyone in a phone booth, and has enough mobility to pull, but came into the draft with film showing a distinct lack in lateral agility. That college version would have been an absurdly poor fit for Pat Meyer’s scheme, and also vulnerable to really quick 3-techs. But something funny happened on the way to the forum: he dropped almost 20 pounds before the end of the season, and then another 20 on his way to the Combine. At which point he suddenly tested as a top 3-4% athlete with all the power and vastly more movement skills that he ever showed in college. And who knows whether that could be improved? There’s probably 20 more he could drop without cutting into muscle. I suggest starting with the Sports illustrated scouting profile to get a feel for the XXXL version. Then have a look at Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile, and the TDN scouting profilefor the 340-something version. We don’t have any post-Combine scouting reports, and in many ways they are pure speculation, but at some level the numbers don’t lie. Everyone knew that Anthony Bradford was a huge and powerful man. But now he is a huge, powerful, and wildly athletic man who may have just cashed in his golden ticket.|
Also considered: OG Andrew Vorhees (despite the ACL), OT Carter Warren, OT Wanya Morris, or one of the many WRs who start to be good value at this point.
7:10 (# 234 overall) – OT Earl Bostick, Jr., Kansas (Senior). 6’5¾”, 309 lbs. with 34⅛” arms and 9½” hands. 24, turns 25 on New Year’s Eve.
When we get to this point in the draft I start looking for either a high floor or a very high ceiling. And I would love to pick an offensive tackle, since there is no one behind Dan Moore and Chuks Okorafor except Trent Scott, and no one behind him at all. Bostick is an OT with a ceiling of “wow,” so he qualifies for the pick.
|Hear the bells, as they chime the Chuks Okorafor stereotype waltz! Bostick is a converted TE who is fairly adept at pass blocking and is plenty mobile, but seemingly less than eager to mix it up in a close-quarters running attack. Tested as a top 5% athlete at the Combine. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile suggests lack of upper body strength as the main culprit. The TDN scouting profile agrees: “Bostick’s deficiencies as a player start with what appears to be a lack of functional strength which negatively impacts him as a run blocker and in pass protection.” All of which leads to an easy verdict: pick-and-stash. Let’s see what he looks like after a year or two of professional training.|
Also considered: Please, it’s Round 7.
7:17 (# 241 overall) – QB Clayton Tune, Houston (Senior) [Mtg. at Combine]. 6’2½”, 220 lbs. with 9¾” hands.
Hate it if you must, but Pittsburgh has always had three QBs on its 53-man roster, plus one or two more for the preseason and practice squad. Right now there is Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and crickets. The team needs not one, but two young QBs to fill its minimum requirements for going into camp. One will most likely get picked in Round 7.
My personal favorites for this spot are Tyson Bagent and Aidan O’Connell, but they’ve been looked at before. So here is the Big Board entry on the one Round 7 QB in which we know the team has interest. With any luck the slams on his arm strength will prove to be unjustified.
|Take all the savvy, accuracy, and leadership of Duck Hodges, add a few inches and better running ability, and then keep the arm talent roughly the same. He’d be a tremendous prospect if you knew that teams would keep defending against the deep ball. But why would they when he cannot make those throws? Some will grade him higher, but once burned, twice shy.|
Also considered: Still Round 7 my friends.
I think I’ll call this a lemonade out of lemons mock. It started with a worst-case scenario and proved that even this isn’t all that bad. Then it proceeded to load up on help in every area we care about except for ILB, with great support for the trenches even though the coaches told me to go pure BPA. I walk away very excited.
Please let me know your thoughts below.
- 1:17 (#17 overall) – Nickel Back Brian Branch
- 2:01 (#32 overall) – Tight End Darnell Washington
- 2:18 (#49 overall) – EDGE Will McDonald IV
- 3:17 (#80 overall) – Defensive Tackle Zacch Pickens
- 4:18 (#120 overall) – Guard Anthony Bradford
- 7:17 (#234 overall) – Offensive Tackle Earl Bostick
- 7:24 (#241 overall) – Quarterback Clayton Tune