I admit I was disappointed when the Pittsburgh Steelers fell one pick shy of landing William Jackson. Barring a trade, once the New York Jets passed on him I felt confident the Steelers were going to land him.
What I didn't expect were three wide receivers being selected consecutively in the first round for the first time in NFL history, and therefore cleaning out the Cincinnati Bengals' draft board in which first-round need met value. So it wasn't until Roger Goodell started to make his way across the stage did a panic set in with the gut feeling that the Bengals were going to take Jackson.
As followers of the team, we all would like for the Steelers to get great value at a position of need. And according to most of the media player rankings, Jackson offered the great value that Artie Burns supposedly did not.
But after looking deeper into the player comparison, I'm not so sure the Steelers didn't end up with the better player -- at least for the long run.
As of now, Jackson's game is more well-rounded in that he can play both man and zone with equal aplomb, whereas Burns is more of a bump corner who struggles in zone. But being that Burns recently turned 21 and is two years younger than Jackson, there's plenty of room to grow.
Then there is the issue of size. For his age, Jackson has a thin frame. At just under 190 pounds, I question his ability to match-up with big, physical receivers. Burns is at an age when he shouldn't have trouble adding strength to his frame. Burns' arms already look to be more developed than Jackson's.
Speaking of arms, I'm enamored with Burns' 33 3/8-inch arm length. As a bump corner, a huge part of the coverage arsenal is the ability to get a jam at the line of scrimmage. For years, Darrelle Revis was the best at stifling a receiver at the line of scrimmage with a strong, one-arm jam. Burns' upper body development is more similar to Revis than is Jackson's, and Burns' arms are longer than both Revis' and Richard Sherman's.
As for the question of whether the Steelers received fair value at pick 25, I don't think Burns would have gotten past Kansas City at pick 28. And if he did, I highly doubt he would've gotten past the Carolina Panthers at pick 30. Both of those teams picked multiple corners by Round Four. It's possible the Seattle Seahawks traded down because Burns wasn't available at pick 26. So how much of a reach could he have been?
My concern as Round Two developed is that the Steelers were going to take Vonn Bell over Sean Davis.
Karl Joseph was my top-rated safety. The Steelers reportedly had Keanu Neal as their top-rated safety. But there was only one safety in the draft over 6-0 with 4.4 speed, top-ranked agility, corner experience and the physicality to explode through a player's soul with a hard hit. That was Davis. And Davis wasn't coming off an ACL injury, either.
Maybe I'm wrong for liking the potential of Davis over Neal. As the draft approached, I felt more excited about the idea of the Steelers drafting Davis than I did Bell or Neal. It's obvious the league would say I'm wrong, but I don't think Neal will ever be more than a solid coverage safety. He will hit you like Ronnie Lott, but Davis isn't exactly shy when getting a ball carrier to the ground. It's one of the reasons I wasn't as high on Bell, who doesn't bring the wood when tackling. Bell has the average size of a corner with average athletic measurables. If the Steelers want a safety to match-up physically with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert, Davis is the better choice.
It was icing on the cake when the Steelers landed Javon Hargrave in Round Three. This is my favorite pick of the draft because it brought everything together. The concern the Steelers passed on a top defensive line prospect for Burns was gone when the Steelers drafted one of my primary targets at the position. When Cameron Heyward walked onstage to announce the selection, my top two defensive line prospects from Round Two, Andrew Billings and Hargrave, were still on the board. At that point, it was clear the league didn't see Billings as more than just a run-stuffing, base-defense nose tackle. I had to trust what my eyes had seen in Hargrave, and that was a player with substantially more athleticism than Billings, who despite at times being dominant, looked stiff and was on the ground far too often. Hargrave had the perfect blend of what the Steelers need. He's a bowling ball-like nose tackle with the athleticism to rush the passer.
Hargrave's height, athleticism and basketball background remind me of three-time Pro Bowler Jerry Ball, who manned the nose for the Detroit Lions in the early '90s and later in the decade for the Minnesota Vikings. In his early years with the Lions, there was hype about how the 6-1 300-plus-pound Ball could dunk a basketball. Hopefully Hargrave keeps his weight much lower than Ball did to maintain the versatility required in today's game. But I think his upside is extremely high.
Bowing ball-type defensive tackles slide in the draft. Grady Jarrett from Clemson did last year. Louis Nix from Notre Dame slid the year before that. Short guys slide. But I think the league missed the boat on Hargrave. I think he's more Geno Atkins than he is Nix. I'm looking forward to seeing Hargrave team with Daniel McCullers in short-yardage and goal-line as much as I am watching him wreak havoc in a nickel rotation.
In free agency, I was somewhat disappointed the Steelers didn't aggressively pursue Eric Weddle. The primary reason being that I thought the Steelers could have addressed defensive line in one of the first two rounds. But the Steelers ended up with exactly what I had hoped they'd get in a defensive line prospect, so it all worked out in the end. Great pick.
Day Three I would also categorize as a success, yet I couldn't help but envy the amount of talent the Baltimore Ravens acquired that day. Several players I had targeted, the Ravens drafted.
In Round Four, I was down to Jatavis Brown and Matt Judon when the Steelers were on the clock. There were also a few good running backs still on the board in Davontae Booker, Kenneth Dixon, and Jordan Howard.
If the Steelers weren't going to draft defense or running back, I was happy to see them address the offensive line. Unfortunately, I think it could be an indictment of what they currently have on their roster. I think Alejandro Villianueva might be the long-term answer at left tackle. The fact the Steeler have addressed that position in the fourth round of the draft leads me to believe otherwise.
Still, based on Mike Munchak's track record for developing tackles, I'm on board with just about any offensive lineman he prefers. Jerald Hawkins' cut-ups of him opening massive holes for Leonard Fournette are intriguing. Hawkins is going to need to play with better leverage in order to be a success in the NFL, but he has a good, lean physique with arm length.
It will be interesting to see what Judon develops into with Baltimore. With this being James Harrison's last season, and the underwhelming Jarvis Jones entering the final
year of his contract, a productive pass-rusher such as Judon might have been a better choice. Re-watching the playoff game against the Denver Broncos, I'm concerned about Bud Dupree's ability to develop into a top-end pass rusher.
Drafting Travis Feeney in the sixth round helped eliminate the disappointment of passing on a pass-rusher in the fourth. Feeney could be a great fit. He has the athleticism and length. Watch the video of Feeney intercepting a pass across the middle against Oregon State. That is the type of nickel role I envision for Feeney. I think he's too thin to be an edge rusher, but as a specialist in the Steelers' nickel, I see Feeney teaming with Ryan Shazier to give the Steelers two athletes who can drop into coverage and create havoc in blitz packages.
Feeney had a poor 20-yard shuttle time, but Kam Chancellor, who's similar to Feeney in height and weight, also had a 4.41 shuttle time while Feeney ran it in 4.42. So depending on the role the player performs, shuttle times can be meaningless. Although, with Feeney needing hernia surgery after the Combine, change of direction might not have been something Feeney could practice.
Feeney could end up pairing well with 7B pick Tyler Matakevich. The tackling machine and winner of the Bronko Nagurski Award as the college defensive player of the year, Matakevich slid in the draft because of his below-average size and athleticism. But he did measure 6-0, 238, or the same as former All-Pro Jon Beason, who ran a 4.78 40 with a 9-3 broad jump. Similarly instinctive and football fast, Matakevich ran a 4.81 with a 9-4 broad jump. Matakevich ran 4.5 and 7.2 change-of-direction times, while Beason bypassed those drills. Perhaps if Matakevich had attended a different school he would've been taken much higher in the draft.
If the Steelers move on from Lawrence Timmons after this season, Matakevich and Feeney could potentially complement each other well enough to fill the void. Matakevich (or Vince Williams) could play against base offenses, while Feeney enters in the nickel.
My least favorite pick was 7A, Demarcus Ayers. I understand the pick. By not having Antonio Brown to field punts in the divisional playoff game, the Steelers were left with some bad field position, which in the end set up a couple of field goals for the Denver Broncos. The Steelers could use another reliable returner.
But with Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams entering the final year of contracts, I would've liked Keith Marshall with that pick. The late GM George Young and Bill Parcells believed that all things being relatively equal, take the bigger player. I'd rather take my chances on the upside of a player who's 219 pounds and runs a 4.31 40 than the 180-pounder who runs a 4.7.
I agree with special-teams coordinator Danny Smith that a 40 time in underwear isn't everything, but I think Marshall could've been a nice option on kickoff returns, which I have to believe will be more in play now that the touchback has been moved to the 25-yard line.
As some readers are aware, I'm also in favor of a more balanced run-to-pass ratio. The Steelers taking sacks at or around the Broncos' 25-yard line on multiple possessions from spread formations was reminiscent of their playoff loss the previous year. (It's also the style of play that aids teams which have no business beating the Steelers.) And in the last two playoffs, the Steelers have been stuck with limited talent at running back due to injuries. That said, the last three picks have a chance to provide some quality pieces to the all-important special teams.