With only two weeks left until the 2023 NFL Draft, it is anyone’s guess who the Pittsburgh Steelers will select. The team’s biggest roster holes are arguably along the offensive and defensive lines and in the defensive backfield. With a young quarterback and a team that beat the odds to finish with a 9-8 record, this draft is crucial for the Steelers to acquire young talent and remain competitive in a stacked AFC. In a Friday article, Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus highlighted the safest and highest-upside prospect for each position group.
For the offensive line — Pittsburgh prioritized that unit in free agency — the Steelers may pick an offensive tackle considering the additions of Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig shored up the interior of the line. Renner cites Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski as the safest prospect, stating that he is “easily the most technically advanced and consistent offensive lineman in the draft class.” Skoronski is often projected to go in the top 10 or 15 at the latest. While crazier things have happened on draft night, it is not likely that he makes it to the Steelers’ pick at 17. If he does, it is hard to imagine the team passing on him.
Meanwhile, Renner’s highest-upside tackle prospect is Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. An intriguing prospect whom Renner believes has “a lab-built frame for an offensive tackle,” Johnson falling to 17 is not an insane scenario. Johnson would step in as a day-one starter, likely replacing Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle. If he indeed has high upside, he may protect Kenny Pickett’s blindside for years to come.
On the other side of the trenches, Renner highlights Georgia’s Jalen Carter as both the safest and highest upside player. There is “no one else in this defensive tackle class that’s close to a sure thing,” Renner writes. Carter was widely projected as a top five pick but recently had an off-the-field incident that some believe will hurt his draft stock. Considering that the team typically avoids such players — and that Carter is still likely to be gone before pick 17 — it’s hard to imagine him standing next to the commissioner with a black and gold jersey.
For cornerback prospects, arguably the position that Steelers are most often mocked to target in the first round, Renner highlights Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. as the safest prospect and Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez as the one with the highest upside. The son of former Steelers’ linebacker Joey Porter, Porter Jr. might be the most popular mock draft selection for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Porter has “absurd length (34-inch arms) and plus play strength (17 bench press repetitions) to beat up receivers at the line in the NFL,” Renner writes. “He may not have all-world potential, but it’s easy to see him succeeding in the league.” Indeed, measurables are important for a corner, and Porter has an ideal build. If the team selects Porter with the 17th pick, and he turns out to be an above-average corner, it would certainly not be the worst outcome.
Gonzalez, on the other hand, is unlikely to be available at the 17th pick. Renner’s assessment of him as the highest-upside corner prospect is certainly not without merit. Indeed, he is about as athletic as a corner can be, running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, and recording a 41.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-1 broad jump. Not to mention, he is only 20 years old, and has more than enough time to parlay his athleticism into a high-level career.
Another interesting player Renner notes is Alabama defensive back Brian Branch, whom he points out as the safest safety prospect. Branch played 569 snaps as a slot corner, which is a much-needed position for the Steelers. Branch is a fundamental and efficient player. He could step in alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick on day one. As Renner points out, “on 57 targets this past season, he allowed only 14 first downs and on 92 tackle attempts he missed only three.” Branch is easily among the safest prospects in the entire class, and it is far from impossible for him to be available at 17 for the Steelers.