Steelers, Game-Changing Pass Rusher Paired In The Athletic’s Mock Draft

Two of the biggest areas of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers entering the 2023 NFL Draft remain cornerback and offensive tackle, that much is certain. But what were to happen if the top tackles and cornerbacks were all off the board when the Steelers came on the clock at No. 17 overall?

Well, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman had that scenario play out in his mock draft Friday morning. In that scenario the Steelers land a game-changing pass rusher in Georgia’s Nolan Smith at No. 17 overall, giving Pittsburgh a three-headed monster at outside linebacker with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

“This is a best available defender, and they go for Smith over Clemson’s Myles Murphy, a bigger edge with an excellent first step, but not quite as dynamic as Smith, who put on a spectacular show at the combine,” Feldman writes. “The 6 feet 2, 238-pound Smith is often compared to Eagles star Haason Reddick. He ran a 4.39 40 with a 1.52 10-yard split to go with a 41 1/2-inch vertical and a 10-8 broad jump. Smith was a force for Georgia in 2021, notching 56 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles on an absolutely stacked defense. He was on his way to another big season in 2022 but tore his pectoral in Week 8.”

Smith is an absolute freak for the position, that much is true.

His showing at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine was rather absurd, as Feldman laid out above. Guys Smith’s size shouldn’t be moving that fast, jumping that high or far, and yet there was Smith doing just that in Indianapolis.

While it’s a curious selection at No. 17, grabbing a third outside linebacker, Smith is a versatile defensive chess piece who could move off the ball in Pittsburgh, too, seeing some snaps on the inside as well. The Steelers still need some help there behind new free agent signees Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb.

Steelers Depot’s own Jonathan Heitritter graded Smith as a day-two selection, a medical designation planting him roughly in the third round in his draft profile for the site: 

“He has shown to be a quality run defender and represents himself well in coverage situations, but his lack of prototypical size, weight, and length will present a challenge of defeating blocks at the next level against bigger, longer offensive linemen,” Heitritter analyzed in his player profile. “He wins with more effort and pure athleticism as a pass rusher at this point rather than with technique, thus he will need to add to his repertoire to make an impact in that facet of the game at the next level.”

Smith doesn’t have the prototypical size for the EDGE position in Pittsburgh, though the production is certainly there. It would be a hard sell to draft a rotational third pass rusher in the first round with so many other needs the Steelers have. But Smith is the type of culture-setting player the Steelers covet, and his athleticism and pedigree are off the charts.

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