Folks, we are oh-so-close to the 2023 NFL Draft.
Just a little under two weeks left with the mock drafts, speculation and arguments about prospects and rankings.
That’s good news and all as the discussion will instead turn to the players the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted. Those discussions will rage on through OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason before the 2023 season kicks off.
But before the pre-draft speculation ceases, it’s time for another mock draft, courtesy of me.
Below is the fifth version of my seven-round mock draft. With much of the additions and subtractions to the roster ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft all but done, I have a good feel for what areas of need are, and what way the Steelers could address them in the draft. In case you missed my first four mock drafts, you can find those here, here, here and here.
As a reminder, this is what I believe the Steelers WILL DO in the draft, as far as players and positions targeted, not what I would do. There’s a big difference, so please understand that before continuing on. As always, leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and thanks for reading!
ROUND ONE (17TH OVERALL) – LUKAS VAN NESS/EDGE/IOWA — 6050, 272 Lbs.
Analysis: This is a surprise selection for me. The last few months I was never convinced that Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness and the Steelers were a fit, but then head coach Mike Tomlin and GM Omar Khan were in attendance at the Hawkeyes’ Pro Day. Granted, they were there to see linebacker Jack Campbell and cornerback Riley Moss, too, but the Steelers are just 12 days from the start of the 2023 NFL Draft and there’s still a massive need at OLB3 in Pittsburgh.
After years of punting on the position overall behind two high-end starters, it might be time that the Steelers address the third spot once and for all (hopefully). Though Van Ness is a bit of a tweener and might be better with his hand in the dirt than standing up, he was an athletic pass rusher with impressive testing numbers and checks a lot of boxes for the Steelers behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, assuming that’s where he’d eventually slot in with the Steelers.
Van Ness’ size, explosiveness and strength make him quite the power rusher, being capable of giving OL fits as a pass rusher off the edge or when kicking inside.
Previous Selection: Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State (V.4);Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson (V.3); Bryan Bresee, iDL, Clemson (V.2); Devon Witherspoon, CB, Illinois (V.1)
Others considered: Darnell Wright, OT, Tennessee; Deonte Banks, CB, Maryland; Brian Branch, S, Alabama
ROUND TWO (32ND OVERALL) – JOSH DOWNS/WR/NORTH CAROLINA — 5090, 171 Lbs.
Analysis: Wide receiver remains a major need for the Steelers behind the likes of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. Calvin Austin III, a fourth-round pick last season, could be an answer at the position for Pittsburgh in 2023, but the Steelers can’t place all their bets at the position in the Austin basket. So, why not use the pick acquired in the Chase Claypool trade to try and replace him on the depth chart?
North Carolina’s Josh Downs could be that answer for the Steelers in the slot. Though he’s a bit small at 5090, 171 pounds, he’s a dynamic receiver overall that can play inside and outside. Downs has shown he can play inside and outside during his time in Chapel Hill, although the slot will likely be a good home for him in the league where he can use his speed and quickness to be a reliable chain mover that can create in space if the defense isn’t careful.
Even though he’s slightly undersized, Downs has shown the ability to make contested catches and play a bit bigger than his frame. Add in the Steelers reportedly telling him had one of the cleanest workouts they’ve seen in years, there’s certainly interest there.
Previous Selection: Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson (V.4);John Michael Schmitz, iOL, Minnesota (V.3); Darnell Wright, OT, Tennessee (V.2); Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State (V.1)
Others considered: DJ Turner, CB, Michigan; Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson; Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia
ROUND TWO (49TH OVERALL) – CODY MAUCH/OL/NORTH DAKOTA STATE — 6050, 302 Lbs.
Analysis: This is likely a bit later than many would like to see the Steelers address offensive tackle, but getting a player like North Dakota State’s Cody Mauch at No. 49 overall is really good value. Mauch is going to be able to be productive in any scheme with any team, but it feels initially that he’s going to really help in situations that he can get out in space via the screen game, or even outside zone runs where he can really run to the sideline. His athletic ability is the biggest compliment to his game. To be as flexible and quick as he is, is unheard of for the position. He’s going to be successful immediately against speed rushers and faster defenders overall but if he can gain a little bit of weight and increase his overall strength he can really tap into his ultimate potential.
Mauch can play guard and center, too, so getting that type of athleticism and versatility right away with a player of his ceiling is quite intriguing overall. Mauch would ideally slot in at left tackle at the next level, though right tackle might ultimately be where lands in Pittsburgh and solidifies himself. He’s a nasty player overall and would certainly fit what the Steelers are looking for in the trenches moving forward.
Previous Selection: Steve Avila, iOL, TCU (V.4); Julius Brents, CB, Kansas State (V.3); Derick Hall, EDGE, Auburn (V.2); Keeanu Benton, iDL, Wisconsin (V.1)
Others considered: Steve Avila, iOL, TCU; Jordan Battle, S, Alabama; Clark Phillips III, CB, Utah
ROUND THREE (80TH OVERALL) – DARIUS RUSH/CB/SOUTH CAROLINA — 6020, 198 Lbs.
Analysis: Much like the selection of Mauch at No. 49 overall, this is a bit later addressing the cornerback position than I wanted to, but getting a player the caliber of Rush at No. 80 overall is quite the steal. A bit overlooked on the same team as first-round caliber cornerback Cam Smith, Rush is an intriguing combination of size, speed and strength at the cornerback position.
He had a dominant week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile that really put him on the radar, but he’s still a bit raw and inexperienced at the position, having made the switch to CB from wide receiver at South Carolina. That said, he has plenty of room to grow at the position and has some strong tape overall. He’s best in man-heavy schemes, which the Steelers run under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. He’d be a good add underneath Patrick Peterson in 2023.
Previous Selection: Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Miami (Fl.) (V.4); Keeanu Benton, DL, Wisconsin (V.3); Julius Brents, CB, Kansas State (V.2); Henry T’oTo’o, ILB, Alabama (V.1)
Others considered: Daiyan Henley, LB, Washington State; Matthew Bergeron, OT, Syracuse; Sam Laporta, TE, Iowa
ROUND FOUR (120TH OVERALL) – SIRVOCEA DENNIS/LB/PITTSBURGH — 6004, 226 Lbs.
Analysis: Earlier in the pre-draft process, I had Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis pegged as more of a Late Day 3 guy, simply based on his size and play style overall. Then, he put up dominant numbers at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine and the Pitt Pro Day, and is generating a ton of buzz leading up to the draft.
That development had me go back to the film, and I really started to come around on Dennis. He’s an impactful blitzer, one of the smartest players in the class, and really just makes plays all over the field. He was the heart and soul of the Pitt defense the last two seasons and could really slot into that role in Pittsburgh.
He’s an undersized player who makes up for his size and strength limitations with his lateral agility, closing speed, and exceptional tackling ability. He has a great motor and consistently pursues the ball with maximum effort, making him a valuable asset to any defense. Although he could improve his strength to become more effective at the point of attack, he does show the ability to block shed. He’s intelligent with good play recognition and is a great communicator on the field. The Steelers could really use that at the inside linebacker room, even after adding veterans Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts in free agency.
Previous Selection: Jonathan Mingo, WR, Ole Miss (V.4); Jose Ramirez, EDGE, Eastern Michigan (V.3); Carter Warren, OT, Pittsburgh (V.2); Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, WR, Houston (V.1)
Others considered: Ji’Ayir Brown, S, Penn State; Jammie Robinson, S, Florida State; Kei’Trel Clark, DB, Louisville
ROUND SEVEN (234TH OVERALL) – CORY DURDEN/iDL/NORTH CAROLINA STATE — 6042, 297 Lbs.
Analysis: The Steelers did a nice job addressing depth issues along the defensive line this offseason, re-signing Larry Ogunjobi early in free agency, and then later adding the likes of Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko on relatively cheap deals to shore up the depth chart in the trenches ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Those moves for Watts and Fehoko certainly aren’t roster-changing additions, but they could push the need for defensive line far down the board, at least in the 2023 NFL Draft, for the Steelers. Cory Durden has a lot of flexibility on a defensive front to play just about anywhere and is scheme versatile but would fit best in a two-gap scheme.
Historically, the Steelers like to take defensive linemen late on Day 3, and that’s what could happen with Durden. With his versatility, play strength and red-hot motor against the run and as a pass rusher, Durden could be the latest depth piece to latch on with the Steelers on the defensive line under Karl Dunbar.
Previous Selection: Brodric Martin, iDL, Western Kentucky (V.4); John Ojukwu, OL, Boise State (V.3); Mitchell Tinsley, WR, Penn State (V.2); Jerome Carvin, iOL, Tennessee (V.1)
Others considered: Jordan Howden, S, Minnesota; Nesta Jade Silvera, DL, Arizona State; Jerome Carvin, iOL, Tennessee
ROUND SEVEN (241ST OVERALL) – DANIEL SCOTT/S/CALIFORNIA — 6007, 208 Lbs.
Analysis: Even after losing Terrell Edmunds in free agency and re-signing Damontae Kazee and adding Keanu Neal as an outside free agent, the Steelers could use another young safety to develop at the position. After showing significant interest in California’s Daniel Scott, including hosting him in Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit, he makes the most sense late on Day 3 for the Steelers.
Scott is an experienced, capable defensive back who has the ball production and tape of playing multiple positions in the secondary that will appeal to teams at the next level. His best spot in the league would be as a single-high/split zone safety where he can play with the ball in front of him and come downhill to make plays and undercut routes. He could be the ideal type of safety to develop behind Minkah Fitzpatrick long-term while getting significant contributions from him on special teams early in his career.
Previous Selection: Chamarri Conner, CB, Virginia Tech (V.4); Brenton Strange, TE, Penn State (V.3); Dante Stills, DT, West Virginia (V.2); Andre Jones, EDGE, Louisiana (V.1)
Others considered: Chamarri Conner, CB, Virginia Tech; Jason Taylor II, S, Oklahoma State; Taron Vincent, DL, Ohio State