Okay, two mocks left. The last will come out in draft week to show my actual predictions. This is the fun one, where I get to sit in the GM seat. No rules except the requirement that I reasonably believe it could happen.
Pick 1:13 [TRADE WITH N.Y. JETS] – OT Broderick Jones
- The Steelers obtain Pick 1:13.
- The Jets obtain Pick 1:17 and OG Kevin Dotson, and maybe some minor sweeteners.
Anyone who scoffs has failed to think it through. This is a good trade, the Jets should leap at the chance just as fast as the Steelers, and it won’t cost either side a priceless Day 2 pick in the 2023 draft.
Why the Jets should do it: New York picks at 13, 42, and 43, and has only six picks overall; a number that will only go down if the trade for Aaron Rogers goes through. They also have several needs, including a fairly pressing one at Guard. Dropping back 4 spots to the Steelers’ pick in exchange for Dotson would be a coup from the Jets POV. It would push the IOL need way down the scale of priorities, help to protect their gigantic QB investment, and could easily be painless in terms of opportunity cost. It is only four spots, after all, and the teams at 14, 15, and 16 don’t seem to have needs that overlap with the Jets’. Would the New York front office rather have a starting Guard and a Tackle like Darnell Wright at 1:17, or Broderick Jones alone?
Why the Steelers should do it: The offseason moves have transformed Dotson’s role in the offense from “starting Guard who needs more discipline” into “3rd string surplus.” The trade would also satisfy my/Omar’s desire to make some splashier moves and net the sort of true Round 1 Tackle we haven’t seen around here since… well, ever.
In sum: (a) The Jets would love to have Dotson on the roster; (b) the Jets could be royally you-know-what if they need to spend a draft pick on that roster spot; (c) the price is well within reason for New York; (d) the effective price could turn out to be zero if the same player they would have picked at 14 is also available at 17; (e) the Steelers would be just as happy; and (f) it would even be a great move for the player. Why wouldn’t it get done?
As for the pick itself, Broderick Jones would be just about perfect for the Steelers at 1:17. His profile could easily make him the #1 Tackle on Pittsburgh’s Board, and he would definitely upgrade the OL group as a whole even in 2023. It would even be a great pick if the current incumbents manage to up their game enough to hold him off for a year. The pick also makes sense from a ‘playing the board’ perspective, because likeable OT’s get thin on the ground much more quickly than other premium positions (Corner and Edge) in the 2023 class. It’s a perfect way to start my model draft.
|T/G Broderick Jones, Georgia (RS Soph) [Mtg. at Combine, Pro Day Dinner, Visit]. 6’5⅜”, 311 lbs. with 34¾” arms and 10⅝” hands. Turns 22 just before the draft. The anchor OL for a dominant team, with plenty of power and experience, plus the 5-star athleticism to become truly special. Superb ability to mirror, match, and ride speed rushers beyond the pocket. May not “hit” right away because he needs to work on his hand fighting (clapping habit in particular) and would benefit from building to superior play strength instead of just good; but those are typical complaints and also highlight the fact that he has room to improve. Michael Rochman’s gif-supported Depot scouting report is darned close to a rave review. Came in at #15 on Daniel Jeremiah’s initial Top-50 list. Projects as a good, long-time starter within a year or two according to Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile.|
Pick 2:01 (# 32 overall) – OLB Will McDonald IV
Yes, I know: I’m supposed to get a Cornerback here. That’s chalk, and there are many good options. But this is my draft, I am confident about my ability to get extremely good secondary help later on, and Will McDonald has quietly become one of my favorite prospects in the draft. No one in the class has more burst and bend. Not even the pass rushers slated to go in the Top 10. His statistical results in 2022 were crippled by the odd role his college asked him to play (the Cam Heyward 4i-tech of all things!). He looked great as a pure Edge Rusher at the Senior Bowl. He has room on his frame to add the bulk he’s missing on the measurables side. And above all, he has such extraordinary toughness and competitive spirit that I feel comfortable about his transition to the next level as both a human being and a football player. See Exhibit A: his willingness to pretend he could be a DT if that’s what the coaches wanted. And Exhibit B: his insistence on competing at the Combine on Thursday despite running a 104° fever on Tuesday. That’s a Round 1 Edge talent all day and every day in my book.
I can hear the howls of protest already, but I do not think they hold a lot of weight. Let’s go down them one at a time:
- “This team has too many glaring needs to waste a pick on an OLB!”
Stuff. And. Nonsense. Khan and Weidl have done a great job in free agency. There are no “needs” on this roster. The Steelers could field an NFL quality team tomorrow, with NFL-capable professionals at every spot. What you’re seeing are all the ways a good pick at #32 could make the team better, both now and moving forward. Boundary Corner, Slot Corner, ILB, DT3/4, SAF, WR, and even Center. And make no mistake: EDGE would do exactly the same. It is the most important position on the entire team after Quarterback, and the depth is abysmal. I’m not even sure the Steelers have an OLB4 on the roster, let alone an OLB3.
We saw what happened when T.J. Watt got hurt in 2022. The same would be true of Alex Highsmith going into 2024. I can make a good argument that this threat is much more dire than the situation at Offensive Tackle that was addressed at 1:17. Nor is depth the only argument.
- “Luxury pick! We have good OLBs. Great OLBs! You cannot pick a backup with the first pick of the second round!”
Stuff. And. Nonsense. No one who understands the game of football views OLB3 as a “backup.”
The Steelers played 1,063 defensive snaps in 2022, which roughly translates to around 2,300 snaps for the OLB’s as a unit. (Every snap has at least two OLBs on the field, and some have three, which rounds up nicely to this amount). In the ideal world you want your best OLBs to play about two thirds (⅔) of the snaps, which would leave a hole for the OLB3 to play 766 snaps (plus special teams, which have not been counted yet). In the worst world you would have your front line starters playing 900 snaps each, leaving an absolute minimum of 500 snaps for the OLB3, with extras penciled in for injuries to those now-heavily overworked starters. So there is no getting around it: even a bad OLB3 is bound and certain to get almost as many snaps as many so-called starters (Larry Ogunjobi played 636 for just one example, and Robert Spillane 588).
OLB3 and DL3 are much more important positions than OT3 because they serve as primary rotational players, in spots where the rotation cannot be avoided any more than the #3 pitcher in a baseball rotation. And of those two positions, the man behind Watt and Highsmith is even more vital to the defense than the one behind Heyward and Ogunjobi. Plus the depth value as the genuine backup. Plus special teams value. Plus preserving Watt and Highsmith against the higher levels of injury that come from playing when tired. Plus extending T.J. Watt’s career. Plus the increased value of every T.J./Alex snap that happens when the “starter” is fresh instead of winded. Plus the cascading benefits to the rest of the defense from sound play at the Edge position (a/k/a avoiding the distinct negative impact of merely average play).
And oh yes. Plus the inherent value a quality player can add with his own contributions in addition to just filling an essential spot on the roster. “Luxury pick” my #!%#! Adding a peer to Alex Highsmith would strengthen this defense more than anything else the team could do! Short of adding a peer to T.J. Watt.
Corner and DT offer a bit of extra value to the extent that our current CB1 and DT1 are that much further on in their careers than Watt is, but that only means the equation balances out. And ignores the fact that OLB’s age faster, but that’s a whole other discussion we do not need to address. Here is the bottom line. No defensive pick – none – is a “bigger need” than finding another OLB. Others may be just as important, but none are more important.
The Pavelle-led Steelers will select the Best Player Available at 2:01, selecting among all the positions listed up above. Will McDonald (or Felix Anudike-Uzoma, as noted below) will be at least as good as anyone else. Maybe better. And the EDGE ranks thin out faster than those at Corner.
- “Why would anyone want to push Alex Highsmith out of town?”
Stuff. And. Nonsense. Go back and read the language above. The Steelers want to have three high-end OLBs, not two. There is zero reason to believe that adding a rookie would impact the Highsmith negotiations in any way. I 100% guarantee that it wouldn’t with the sort of masterful helmsman assumed by this exercise.
- “The Steelers have shown little interest in Edge Rushers.”
Stuff. And. Nonsense. The team has met with just about every one of the Round 1-2 pass rush talents. Here’s the list if you don’t believe me. Myles Murphy (brass at Pro Day, plus a dinner). Lukas Van Ness (brass at Pro Day and a meeting at the Combine). Nolan Smith (brass at Pro Day and a meeting at the Combine). Tuli Tuipulotu (visit). Felix Anudike-Uzomah (visit). Keion White (visit) And Will McDonald? Look for yourself:
|EDGE Will McDonald IV, Iowa St. (Senior) [Brass at Pro Day, Mtg. at Dinner]. 6’3⅝”, 241 lbs. (Senior Bowl weight) with amazing 34⅞” arms and 9½” hands. Turns 24 in June. 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 and #25 on the March version. 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 nor 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.|
Tomlin and Khan trooped out to Iowa State! Not exactly Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson. Who did they go there to see? You got it.
NOTE: Many of the same arguments apply with equal force for Kansas State EDGE Felix Anudike-Uzoma. I’d be happy with either one, and went with McDonald here only because of the story about his fever. Tomorrow they might be reversed. No two prospects in the class are closer together in my mind than this particular pair.
Pick 2:18 (# 49 overall) – CB Juju Brents
I don’t really need to justify this one, do I? The Steelers have been gleefully studying 2023’s vast wealth of long, tall CB prospects all draft-season long. I cannot imagine Cameron Smith falling all the way to #49, which makes Brents my clear personal favorite at this point in the draft. He would have been a Top 10 prospect if he’d run a 4.4 flat. Instead he ran a 60th percentile 4.53 – with other athletic testing that makes him an unbelievably spectacular athlete overall. Just look at the Mockdraftable spider chart! And then take in this figure: top ⅕ of 1% RAS! Best yet, the kid has serious skills and isn’t limited to any particular type of coverage.
It’s even a realistic pick. Corners of this quality would get picked in the late-1st for most years, but this class is so very deep in this range, and at this position, that I’d say Brents being there at #49 is more likely than not.
|CB Julius “Juju” Brents, Kan. St. (RS Senior) [Mtg. at Visit]. 6’2¾”, 198 lbs. with looooong 34” arms and 9⅝” hands. Turned 23 in January. Supposed to be a really fine human being in addition to his football talent. Cue the “Richard Sherman stereotype” music – except that Brents has a top ⅕ of 1% athletic score with elite agility grades that are stunning for a man his size. [Sound of needle scraping]. Huge for a CB, physical, and knows how to use both in his very effective press-man game that could still be improved. He can be a half step slower than you want for dealing with WR’s who can really burn, but the height and length make up for that. One of the most dominant CB’s at the Senior Bowl, where this position looked especially strong. Tyler Wise’s gif-supported Depot scouting profile says his feet are surprisingly nifty for a man his size, the speed is good enough, and he seems to be an especially smart player, all of which puts him squarely in the crosshairs for a Steelers Day 2 pick. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting report ends in an easy Day 2 grade, calling him “a classic zone cover corner with an outstanding blend of size, length and leaping ability.” The scouting profile by film guru Greg Cosell end with this endorsement: “Brents is a strong, outside corner prospect with  desirable… size and length, plus athletic movement,  high-level competitiveness, [and] extensive experience playing both man and zone coverage concepts. Brents’… rare arm length for a corner (two inches longer than Richard Sherman), and his overall length allowed him to be effective in both mirror match press man and physical press man. He also played a good percentage of zone coverage, and he showed a strong feel for route concepts and combinations, understanding how to navigate the gray areas in the coverage.”|
Pick 3:17 (# 80 overall) – CB Garrett Williams, Syracuse
And finally we come to it: a pick where people could have a legitimate gripe. “Why not a DT? Or an ILB, SAF, WR, or TE? And if you must double dip, why not choose a Slot CB with a reasonable shot at contributing in his rookie year?!”
My answer at Defensive Tackle comes to this: I would have picked Keeanu Benton or Gervon Dexter at this spot, but I do not believe that either will fall this far. Could I legitimately hope for it? Probably, but after going back and forth I just couldn’t bring myself to dream that hard.
ILB, Safety, and Slot CB require a longer explanation. As I see it, the Steelers plan to use their tough guy Buck ILBs in base, and have the excellent combination of Fitzpatrick and Kazee for general duties at Safety. The hole is for a Nickel DB, which could be filled by a coverage capable ILB, an ILB/SAF hybrid, or a Slot CB. An all-purpose, cover-capable, 3-down ILB would be the ideal cheat code, but he does not exist in this draft. We can discuss specific guys down in the Comments, but it’s my mock and that is my firm belief despite desperately looking for a way around it. That means these snaps will be handled by a rotating platoon including two of these three elements: (a) a single purpose coverage ILB, (b) Keanu Neal, and (c) a slot CB. Of the three, I think the slot CB would be the best solution.
So why the guy who tore his ACL back in October? One word: Greed.
Garrett Williams with two healthy knees would have been an inside-outside CB with a late-1st grade. Maybe even higher if he’d nailed the athletic testing. Cam Sutton on steroids. Me want. Me want bad.
There are several more limited (and fully healthy) slot options. Clark Phillips III would be the selection if he could fall this far, but I just can’t see that happening. Next up would be Riley Moss, with whom the Steelers have had significant contact. That one is almost likely. Then there is Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who is also a worthy Round 3 pick. And finally Kei’trel Clark, who is more of a Round 4 option.
For this exercise that means it’s a contest between Riley Moss and Garrett Williams. I, personally, would rather see the Steelers get a likely CB1 who needs a redshirt year for healing, than a likely CB2 who could play right away. Others will disagree. Fair enough.
Same thing for the reason I chose Williams over a good WR option or a bargain TE. Someone like Cedric Tillman or Jonathan Mingo makes a lot of sense at this spot in the draft. A whole lot. But this is the mock where I’m allowed to indulge some personal bias instead of sticking to logic. I like to play the board and think the receiving options will be stronger in Round 4 than the slot-DB options. I’m also a defensive guy at heart. Imagining a future secondary with this kind of talent gives me a bigger chuckle than stocking the larder with another WR2. And I have already admitted to being a greedy SOB. Those are enough to outweigh the smarter, chalkier move. At least today.
|CB Garrett Williams, Syracuse (RS Junior). 5’10”, 192 lbs. with 31” arms and 9¼” hands. Turns 22 in June. [Significant injury discount for an October ACL] When he has two good knees, Williams is a fringe-1st talent lacking just a bit of polish and discipline in every part of his game; all of which can be fixed with time, hard work, and good coaching. Now? It’s a bit maddening, especially when you factor in the exceptional depth of both this year’s class and the Steelers’ caution when it comes to injury flags. Owen Straley’s gif-supported Depot scouting report says, “Overall, I came away a massive fan of Garrett Williams’ tape… Given his takeaway oriented mindset and physical demeanor, Williams could prove to be a great fit for Pittsburgh on day two [despite the injury].” Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile basically agrees, though he expresses some concern that Williams “is inconsistent playing with his back to the quarterback,” and could stand to have his long speed double checked with a proper dash (which won’t happen because of the ACL). Film guru Greg Cosell’s scouting profile gives an even stronger endorsement: “My sense watching his tape was that without the ACL injury in late October of 2022, he would be considered a mid-to-late first-round prospect, and, at worst, an early second-round prospect. He possesses all the traits you look for in an outside corner in the league, and it would not surprise me if some teams – despite his total lack of experience inside – saw him as a slot corner down the road due to his physical toughness and competitiveness.”|
Pick 4:18 (# 120 overall) – WR Jayden Reed, Michigan State
At this point we are back to the Steelers Depot consensus opinion, with which I am in full accord. Jayden Reed isn’t a great WR prospect, so much as he’s an ideal prospect for what the Steelers could use. Slot capable, tough as chicken lips, has the punt return gene, enjoys blocking, decent size, great character… It’s just a perfect match. His ceiling is probably more like a WR2/3 than a WR2 with dreams of more, but that’s why he’s available here in the fourth.
I did struggle a bit with the idea of getting a good TE with this pick. LaPorta, Kuntz, Schoonmaker, Durham, Strange, and Whyle were all considered, but I either could not imagine a way for them to fall this far (LaPorta), or I thought the team would prefer a true WR when push came to shove. Stanford’s Elijah Higgins and Michael Wilson, LSU’s Kayshon Boutee, and a few others got some serious thought too. In the end I went with Reed.
NOTE: This has been called a weak WR class, but I don’t think that is entirely fair. It is weak at the top, and badly undersized on Day 2 with a lot of Calvin Austin lookalikes. But it may even be above average down here in the Round 3-5 range.
|WR/KR Jayden Reed, Mich. St. via W. Mich. (Senior) [Mtg. at Visit]. 5’10”, 187 lbs. with 30½” arms and 9⅛” hands. Turns 23 just before the draft. Quicker than fast, dangerous with the ball in his hands, and able to create good separation using many if not all) of the sharp routes in a professional tree. Production slid in 2022 along with everything else in that offense. Tyler Wise’s gif-supported Depot scouting report (early Round 4 grade) adds that he is a top notch character bet with a competitive streak and work ethic to applaud. A certified tough guy when it comes to blocking in addition to receiving, and a very good punt returner. This would be an ideal slot WR profile if he was more reliable on combat catches. Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile loves the ball skills, attitude, and kick return ability, but calls him “too tight-hipped for stop-start routes on the tree” and criticizes the number of focus drops. Tested sort of meh at the Combine, with good speed, very average explosion numbers, and poor size adding up to a 60th percentile overall profile.|
Pick 7:17 (# 234 overall) – ILB Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt
I love the idea of drafting special-teams talent late on Day 3. You can often find some real gems who fall this far because they face such long odds of developing into defensive starters, and yet have very good odds of making real contributions in this limited role. Orji exemplifies that prototype. Other potential names would be ILB Dee Winters (both unlikely), ILB Ben VanSumeren (an athletic marvel who’s yet to become a football player), SS/Mack ILB Charlie Thomas, SS Trey Dean III, FS Daniel Scott, and other brilliant midfield athletes with good speed in their feet and bad attitude in their veins. It’s a very common profile, which is why I’m pretty sure a bargain could be found down here at the end of the draft.
|ILB Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt (Senior). 6’1”, 230 lbs. with 32” arms and 10¼” hands. Turns 23 in October. A high energy, urgent player who misses far too many tackles, and seems to have poor instincts. Ideal special0teams potential with lots of experience. Experience as a DB shows in the ability to cover TEs. His tremendous, top 10% Combine performance caused some real stir, because it wasn’t clear on film. Has a real knack for slipping blocks, but misses too many tackles. The Bleacher Report scouting profile sees “an off-ball linebacker who has the potential to grow into a well-rounded player [with] a lot of his issues [that] can be fixed by spending time in an NFL training program.”|
Pick 7:24 (# 241 overall) – C/G Alex Forsyth, Oregon
My predictive mock will probably shock a lot of people by selecting not a Center at some time on Day 2. There have been too many draft visits and other meetings to ignore. I prefer my own approach, which means it didn’t happen this time. Thus the hole needs to be filled down here in Round 7, and Forsyth would do that job extremely well. It’s even a bit of a stretch to hope he will fall this far. My fallback choice would be Juice Scruggs from Penn State. I would be surprised if both of them were gone.
|C/G Alex Forsyth, Oregon (RS Senior). 6’4”, 303 lbs. with 32¾” arms and 10¼” hands. Turned 24 in February. A nice, solid Center with good technique outside of what Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com scouting profile calls “pre-snap yips [that] turned into penalties.” Has the size and build to play Guard without any real dip, especially if he can build some extra core strength. The scouting profile from OL expert Brandon Thorn admires the “scrappy, aggressive playing style,” hand use, quickness, and overall processing ability, but worries about the “mediocre physical traits [size & strength] that cap his ceiling.” Thorn makes a point of emphasizing (several times) that Forsyth is “a renowned teammate and leader inside the locker room with excellent football character.”|
You may not be happy with this result, but I would be ecstatic.
- The offensive line rebuild is done, save only for a true Heir To Pouncey. Cole will do for another year, and at least I found someone good to be his backup.
- The Steelers will have one of the best pass-rush threats in history and will continue to enjoy it for several years to come once I sign Alex Highsmith to an extension. Plus, Watt will stay healthier, longer. Two years added to T.J.’s career is probably worth a Round 2 pick all on its own… I should have emphasized that argument as well.
- The future of the secondary has likewise been assured, with a likely CB1 on the outside to start playing in 2023, and another CB1 with a different profile pre-picked for 2024, yet still on the 2023 roster in time to learn from Patrick Peterson.
- A perfect fit at Slot WR who can play big, play small, and also fill the return man spot without looking like a fly in search of a windshield.
- A late-round special-teams stud who will almost surely make the roster in that limited role.
Seven picks: seven roster spots filled as well as possible. As to the things I missed:
- No DT. Yes, that is a flaw. But this is almost as bad a year for DT’s as it is a good year for TE, Edge, and CB. It’s really the Round 1 pair, the Round 2 pair, Nose Tackles, or nothing. This is why I [ahem] Omar Khan re-signed Ogunjobi and brought in a pair of competent journeymen. That is enough to hold the fort for another year.
- No good ILB. That class is even worse than DT: all but bereft of prospects until Round 3, and not many until a round after that. I want a cover-capable Mack ILB as much as anyone; he simply isn’t there to be picked. Drafting positions instead of players is a fool’s game, and I refuse to participate.
- No SAF. It’s not as bad as ILB, but this isn’t a strong group either. And come on. Which Safeties in this class would you swap in for either CB Garrett Williams or WR Jayden Reed?
- No QB3. Okay, you’ve got me. I should never have given in to emotion and made that just because TE pick. Fire me if you must and bring back that Khan dude. At least he has the right name to go out and conquer the world.
There you go folks. The comments section awaits. And this one isn’t an exercise to show off mere possibilities and highlight different prospects. These are my actual opinions and fair game for all that pent-up fury.
Pick 1:13 [TRADE WITH N.Y. JETS] – OT Broderick Jones
Pick 2:01 (# 32 overall) – OLB Will McDonald IV (or Felix Anudike-Uzoma)
Pick 2:18 (# 49 overall) – CB Juju Brents
Pick 3:17 (# 80 overall) – CB Garrett Williams
Pick 4:18 (# 120 overall) – WR Jayden Reed
Pick 7:17 (# 234 overall) – Special Teams Ace (ILB) Anfernee Orji
Pick 7:24 (# 241 overall) – C/G Alex Forsyth