2023 NFL Draft

Evaluating the Value: Wisconsin DL Keeanu Benton

The pick is in.

The 2023 NFL Draft is Omar Khan’s first year as the general manager and like in past years we evaluate the value of each pick. Based on projections for each player by draft outlets as well as our own reports we want to see if the pick’s value is above or below how they were ranked coming into the draft.

Round 2 (Pick 49) – Keeanu Benton IDL Wisconsin

Three picks into this draft and the Steelers are hitting all the positions that we thought they would. Adding Benton in the middle of that defensive line adds youth and a player who can clog the middle and have his biggest influence against the run. His was a name you heard often from the group at Steelers Depot and the clues once again led in the right direction.

Daniel Jeremiah had Benton ranked as his 40th player in his Top 150 and had this to say, “Benton possesses ideal size and quickness at defensive tackle. Against the pass, he uses his upper-body strength to uproot and displace blockers before flashing a closing burst. He needs to improve his pad level, though. There are too many instances when he pops right up, exposes his chest and gets walled off by blockers. When he plays low, he can generate knockback power. His effort is excellent. He is very stout against the run. He has quick hands to shoot and control blocks. Also, his speed and effort are apparent on the back side of plays. Overall, Benton has the tools to develop into a solid three-down player at the next level.”

Lance Zierlein at NFL.com gave Benton a 6.25 grade (will eventually be a starter). He was the number five interior defensive lineman on his list and summarized him as, “a powerful interior defensive lineman with size and persistence. However, he needs to play with consistent explosiveness early in the rep for decisive wins at the point of attack at the pro level. Block engagements become drawn-out brawls at times, but he does a nice job of defeating block sustains and often finds himself near the play. He lacks a wide base and sturdy anchor, so he’ll need to improve his pad level to prevent double teams from moving him around too easily. He’s solid and has flashed starting potential, but he needs to become a more consistently impactful force in the middle to make noise as an NFL starter.”

Dane Brugler had him 56th overall on his Top 100 in his draft guide, The Beast. As the number six defensive tackle overall, he opined, “A four-year starter at Wisconsin, Benton was the starting nose tackle in former defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 base scheme, also seeing snaps over the B-gap. He averaged 36 snaps per game over his final two seasons in Madison and posted a personal-best 10 tackles for loss as a senior captain in 2022. With his push-the-pocket power, Benton consistently resets the line of scrimmage when his pad level is right and plays with the movement skills to get up and down the line of scrimmage. His mediocre college production is a product of his role for the Badgers and his pass rush potential boosts his draft grade (flashed promising rush potential during Senior Bowl practices). Benton needs to play with consistent leverage and become a more consistent finisher for the NFL game, but his stout power base and above-average athleticism at his size are outstanding foundation traits. He has the talent to play all over the defensive line as a pro.

The prospect list at CBS.com had Benton as the 87th player on its board and the number 12 tackle. They compared him to Dalvin Tomlinson and summarized his play by saying, “Keeanu Benton is an average athlete who uses strength and hands to apply pressure in the backfield. He seamlessly stepped out of a role as a block eater into a role as a player capable of creating a bit more pass rush. He does a good job playing down the line with long arms. He displays good grip strength and an ability to take on double teams.”

Our profile on Benton by Alex Kozora graded him as a future quality starter and second-round pick. Nailed it. He analyzed his play by saying, “Benton is an impressive run-stuffer who checks the boxes Pittsburgh looks for. The size/length/strength coupled with the pro scheme he played in makes him a hard guy to find and tough player to ignore. There’s questions about his upside and how much he’ll truly be able to impact the passing game but he’s not just a plugger who can’t make splash plays.

“A solid prospect who can play nose with the size and length to move down the line, too. Benton can fit in a 3-4 or 4-3 that two-gaps more than most defenses and wants their linemen to take on blocks and clog up run lanes to free up the linebackers behind. He’s used to running more complex schemes and assignments so a defense that is more aggressive and asks more out of their lineman than just shooting gaps isn’t too big for him. But the Steelers will need good EDGE rushers/defensive ends so they’re not pinning their pass rush hopes on Benton along the interior. Teams with bigger DEs who can push the pocket is ideal since Benton struggles to collapse and force the QB to escape.”

Benton fills another position the team was targeting this offseason. The Steelers have worked hard to improve the trenches this offseason and have now hit the offensive and defensive lines. Run defense has been an area that needed to improve, and Benton will help in there. Based on team needs and rankings by the analysts the value of this pick is good and continues a strong trend for the team in this draft.

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