The 2023 NFL Draft is less than a month away, and the Steelers are slotted to pick 17th overall in the first round. They also own the top pick in the second round thanks to the Chase Claypool trade with the Chicago Bears.
We continue to go through mock draft scenarios and project player/prospect fits who may interest the Steelers given their current needs and the talent in this upcoming draft class.
In this latest edition, the Steelers trade down with the Minnesota Vikings who trade up for a WR to complement Justin Jefferson, netting #23, #87, #158, and #211 to trade back a few spots in the first round.
ROUND 1 (#23 OVERALL VIA MIN) — BRIAN BRANCH/DB/ALABAMA
Analysis: The Steelers could go a variety of different directions with their first pick, but GM Omar Khan and the front office may fill most of the holes on the roster in free agency prior to the draft. Like the team has done in the past, it could opt to take the best overall player on its board. That could easily be Alabama DB Brian Branch, who is seen as the best safety prospect in this draft class.
Branch could come in right away and start next to fellow former Crimson Tide S Minkah Fitzpatrick, giving Pittsburgh two safeties that can run, hit, cover, and make splash plays. Terrell Edmunds walked in free agency but Pittsburgh did re-sign Damontae Kazee and brought in Keanu Neal. Still, Branch could be a valuable selection since he can start right away in the slot as the team’s nickel or at the strong safety spot with Kazee and Neal rotating in. Simply put, Branch’s skill set strengthens Pittsburgh’s secondary by adding a talented, versatile playmaker who can match Fitzpatrick’s contributions as playmaker.
ROUND 2 (#32 OVERALL)— DAWAND JONES/OT/OHIO STATE
Analysis: The Steelers have committed to overhauling the offensive line this offseason, signing multiple guards to start and provide depth inside. Given their commitment to adding big people movers, it’s likely that Pittsburgh will target either Ohio State’s Dawand Jones or Tennessee’s Darnell Wright with one of their top two picks. Jones ends up being the selection at the top of the second round, even after skipping out on a lot of the pre-draft process, as he possesses that incredible size and arm length that Pittsburgh covets. Jones can come in and man the RT spot with Chuks Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr. battling it out for the LT job, likely with Moore becoming the team’s swing tackle.
ROUND 2 (#49 OVERALL)— EMMANUEL FORBES/CB/MISSISSIPPI STATE
Analysis: The Steelers need to add a young, talented boundary cornerback to the room even after signing Patrick Peterson. Enter Emmanuel Forbes, who has been one of the most productive players in college football since stepping on campus. Forbes picked off five passes as a freshman and had six in 2022. With 14 career INTs and 20 PBUs in three seasons, Forbes is as good of a ball hawk as you are going to get, having the length and instincts to cover the opposition’s best receiver with a knack for producing turnovers, having six pick-sixes to his name in three seasons.
Throw in the fact that he is a willing and aggressive tackle with good height and length, he could be exactly what Pittsburgh is looking for to add to its secondary. He lacks ideal bulk at the position, being listed at 170lb, but Forbes plays much bigger that that size suggests. Given the team’s interest in bringing him in for a pre-draft visit as well as its desire to add playmakers that can pick off passes, Forbes would be a good fit.
ROUND 3 (#80 OVERALL)— GERVON DEXTER/DL/FLORIDA
Analysis: While the Steelers could address nose tackle here — they currently don’t have a long-term starting option on the roster — they may draft a versatile defender that profiles more as a 3-tech/4i but has the size and skill set to play in the middle of the defense too. They manage to land DL Gervon Dexter, who has impressive size (6’6, 312lb) along with the strength to manhandle blockers. He can be a handful to block when he plays with technique and leverage. He struggled with consistency last season, having moments when the motor would run hot and cold and would become a non-factor in games. Still, Dexter has traits you can’t teach at his size and presents Pittsburgh with a high-upside pick on the defensive line.
ROUND 3 (#87 OVERALL VIA MIN)— JAYDEN REED/WR/MICHIGAN STATE
Analysis: The Steelers need to add splash to their WR corps in the form of big plays down the field as well as YAC machines that can catch a screen or simple crosser over the middle and turn on the jets to produce big plays. They have a knack for hitting on mid-round receivers over the last decade and do the same here in 2023, selecting WR Jayden Reed out of Michigan State. Reed is one of Tyler Wise’s draft crushes this year, and that should mean something given Wise’s track record hitting on WR prospects.
Reed was a four-year contributor for the Spartans, catching 203 passes for 2,866 receiving yards and 26 receiving touchdowns in 43 career games. Reed was uncoverable at the Senior Bowl, showing off nuance as a route runner as he generated separation with ease against DBs tasked with covering him. He won vertically and over the middle of the field, making him a legit deep threat and can win vertical as well as create after the catch. Given his versatility to play inside and outside, Reed could see significant snaps in the slot to start his career in Pittsburgh. That would give Pittsburgh a quartet of Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Reed, and Calvin Austin III in the WR room.
ROUND 4 (#120 OVERALL)— DORIAN WILLIAMS/LB/TULANE
Analysis: The Steelers have overhauled their ILB room this offseason, signing Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts to start with Mark Robinson providing depth. To add depth to the position, they select LB Dorian Williams out of Tulane. The team showed interest in Williams with LB Coach Aaron Curry attending his Pro Day. The 6’1, 228-lb senior was a field general for the Green Wave in college, making plays against the run, as a pass rusher, and in coverage. He posted 115 total stops (72 solo), 8.5 TFLs, five sacks, two INTs, two forced fumbles and seven PBUs last season. Williams, an instinctive player, should be drafted in the middle rounds as a rotational player to start his career, with the opportunity to work his way into a starting role.
ROUND 5 (#158 OVERALL VIA MIN)— KEONDRE COBURN/DL/TEXAS
Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn’t done much to bolster the nose tackle position besides adding Breiden Fehoko, who profiles more as a backup/spot starter. In this mock, they drafted Dexter earlier, who could factor in at nose, and opt to inject more youth up front with Texas’ Keondre Coburn. Coburn is a mammoth of a man in the middle for the Longhorns defense, having a stout 6’2, 332-lb frame. He has the size and strength to eat blocks in the middle as well as the power to push the pocket.
Despite being more of a run plugger, Coburn has a fair amount of twitch as a pass rusher, posting 2.5 sacks and four TFLs in 2022. Coburn could come in and push for the starting NT spot, giving Pittsburgh a room of Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Montravius Adams, Fehoko, Gervon Dexter, and Coburn. Adding Coburn would give Pittsburgh a stout run plugger in the middle that has the mobility and motor to chase down ballcarriers and affect the passer more than a traditional nose tackle would.
ROUND 6 (#221 OVERALL VIA MIN)— HABAKKUK BALDONADO/EDGE/PITT
Analysis: Pittsburgh has seen the influence of and impact from assistant GM Andy Weidl during his short time with the team. The team has put an emphasis on beefing up the OL via free agency while bringing in some of the top OL and DL prospects for top-30 visits. They follow a similar trend from his Eagles days, selecting a developmental edge rusher in round six and staying close to home by taking Pitt EDGE Habakkuk Baldonado. Baldonado has the measurables you look for at the OLB position as well as the motor you look for in a backup that can play meaningful snaps while contributing on special teams. His upside is limited, but Baldonado should push for one of the backup spots in training camp.
ROUND 7 (#234 OVERALL)— MALIK CUNNINGHAM/QB/LOUISVILLE
Analysis: Plenty of yinz aren’t going to like this, but there is a good chance that the Steelers target a backup QB in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Steelers will need to add QBs to the room with just Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky under contract. While they could go out and land another veteran, what will likely happen is they use a Day Three pick to groom their future backup behind Pickett.
Pittsburgh should have Louisville QB Malik Cunningham on their short list of Day Three passers to target. Cunningham is a dynamic dual-threat QB, having thrown of 9,660 yards and 70 TDs along with rushing for 3,184 yards and 50 TDs. While the stats suggest that Cunningham should get drafted much earlier, his smaller frame (6’1, 192-lb) along with his inconsistencies as a passer should depress his value to later on Day Three of the draft. Given the value Mike Tomlin has put on QB mobility in the past — and how the likes of Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts have given Pittsburgh fits with their legs — drafting Cunningham to develop behind Pickett is a low-cost, upside pick, given his skill set.
ROUND 7 (#241 OVERALL)— CAMERUN PEOPLES/RB/APPALCHIAN ST.
Analysis: The Steelers use their final pick in the draft to secure an RB3 behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, selecting Appalachian State RB Camerun Peoples. The Steelers have shown interest in Peoples in the pre-draft process, having VP of Player Personnel Dan Rooney Jr. attend his Pro Day. Peoples fits the mold of a Steelers back, standing 6’1, 217lb as a physical runner that averaged 6.2 YPC during his career. He doesn’t have great speed in the open field, but he can come in and bludgeon defenses when Harris needs a breather and play on special teams, personifying the identity Pittsburgh is trying to create on offense.