After watching film of the Pittsburgh Steelers' draft picks and learning more about the individuals, it’s easy to understand why each pick made the most sense in comparison to other options available.
Just watching his introductory press conference, there’s no doubting T.J. Watt’s work ethic or passion for the game. Without a smile, his intense stare reminds me of the guy he needs to sack for the Steelers to take the next step, Tom Brady.
With Watt’s athleticism, desire, and room to put on more size, I would be surprised if he doesn’t become a Pro Bowl or star-caliber player. Observing Watt’s passion for being a perfectionist in his preparation to play the game, it wouldn’t be difficult to convince me he’s a better pick than Kevin King, the player I had believed worthy of taking over Watt at pick 30, as both are freaky athletes for their position. But Watt’s easy-to-identify desire to be great is what moves him past King in my opinion.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has been compared to Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin. I would also add that he has nearly the identical height-weight-speed ratio of Michael Crabtree.
While Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates were set on emotional edge following the Smith-Schuster pick, I think the player who should be on high alert is Eli Rogers. Smith-Schuster will provide physicality in the run game, a larger catch radius, and a run-after-the-catch game that Rogers doesn’t possess. With Bryant and Antonio Brown on the field, Smith-Schuster should have room to roam through the middle of the field, where his RAC ability should be a valuable asset. And should the Steelers again get to the point where they can’t rely on either Bryant or Coates, Smith-Schuster should prove a viable option outside that the Steelers didn’t have in the playoffs last season.
When I watched film on Cameron Sutton, one of my initial thoughts was that he looks like a New England Patriot: versatile, heady, steady. Then you learn about how hard he works, the type of leader he was at Tennessee, and the depth of preparation he displayed to Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert and you can’t help but believe he was the ideal 3-A pick. While many fans like myself wanted a cornerback to replace Ross Cockrell early in the draft, the most dire need in the secondary was getting a cornerback who could play man in the slot, and Sutton was the best remaining talent available in the draft to provide that coverage. Should the Steelers finally get a return on their Senquez Golson investment, Sutton could compete on the outside with Cockrell.
Sutton also practiced and showed well at safety during the Senior Bowl. The versatility to play the slot, on the outside, or possibly even develop into a free safety is why Sutton was a better option than Rasul Douglas and the corner who went just ahead of Sutton in the draft, Jourdan Lewis.
My thought process on a backup running back was to find one who provides the home run hitting ability that Le'Veon Bell lacks. So, backs with good speed, like D'Onta Foreman and Marlon Mack, were on my radar. But the other side of that equation would be to bring in a running back who provides a similar style and keeps things simple for the guys up front. I watched some of James Conner's first game of his college season against Villanova in 2016 and came away thinking he was a late-round pick, not really respecting the time it takes to overcome what he went through in recovering from cancer treatment.
When I watched more video on Conner, I was very impressed with his feet and running style prior to his cancer treatment. Conner reminded me of Bell in some ways with his patience and feet. Conner’s 40 time, vertical jump, and shuttle times were all slightly less than Bell’s coming out of college. Word is they are already pretty tight. The hope here is they train together and Conner taps into Bell’s knowledge in diet and nutrition. I believe Conner can be a very good starter-caliber back if he weighs somewhere between 220 to 225, which should balance his power with a little more burst and speed.
Teams are typically looking for starters in the first three rounds of the draft. With your backup running back, ideally you want a starter-in-waiting. Pick 3-B was an ideal place to take that role for a running back. Considering his character, familiarity with the Steelers, size to carry the load, and running style, Conner was the ideal pick.
Many fans thought the Steelers should not have passed on a tight end in Round Four. George Kittle would have been an exciting pick. I would have thought he’d be an ideal replacement for D.J. Johnson as an H-back with the vertical receiving ability Johnson lacks. However, Craig Wolfley did a great job breaking down why Johnson is so valuable to the Steelers in his column earlier in the week. And Jake Butt is too similar to Jesse James. Butt might develop into a better blocker, but he was never going to catch the ball vertically, even prior to his ACL injury.
The best option at that point was a vertical threat as insurance for Ladarius Green, but I wasn't interested in Bucky Hodges for a number of reasons. So that left the quarterbacks the Steelers brought in for pre-draft visits, and Joshua Dobbs was the best player left at the position.
Pittsburgh is the perfect spot for him to develop his talents for a year or two in pro-style offense. And Dobbs has plenty of talent to go with his intangibles. Dobbs went 3-0 in bowl games. He led his team on a few impressive comeback wins late last season. He consistently was at his best in the fourth quarter. He’ll stand in there and deliver passes knowing he's going to take a big hit. His work ethic in balancing football with his Aerospace Engineering major is well documented. Consider me one those who is very interested to watch him when his workload is nothing but football.
I’m sure I’m in the minority with this opinion, but given all of the unique attributes that Dobbs brings, I would rather have him than DeShone Kizer. Unlike Dobbs, Kizer could never seem to lead his team from behind in the fourth quarter. His team was 3-9 last season, which shows he was unable to rally when adversity hit. Kizer's comments in comparing himself to Tom Brady and Cam Newton revealed someone who’s trying to convince people of his talent through deception. All of those things left me completely uninterested in him as a draftable prospect. Dobbs, in my opinion, was therefore the fifth-best QB in the draft. I think he’ll clean up his throwing inaccuracies with more consistent footwork.
At the start of Day Three, the only tall corner of intrigue still available was Brian Allen. Picking at the end of each round, I thought the Steelers might have to reach for him in Round Four to get him. I was pleasantly surprised when he was the fifth-round selection. Allen is the same height as King, both with NFL Combine speed in the 4.4s, while Allen carried an extra 15 pounds. Allen’s 34-inch arms suggest he can play even taller than his 6-3 frame. It was exciting to learn of his work ethic in acquiring two college degrees. Maturity and work ethic will go along way to Allen maximizing his physical attributes. Considering the Steelers' desire to add a long press corner who’s Cover-2 capable during free agency, Allen was the ideal choice to make with their fifth-round selection.
As a coach, you constantly preach the details. The players I appreciate the most are those who do the things to win that don’t show up on the stat sheet. It’s why the number 91 is in my message-board ID, as a tribute to Aaron Smith (that stat-less contribution one of the reasons I was a big fan of Jabrill Peppers game). So I like the pick of long-snapper Colin Holba in the sixth round. His blocking ability at his size or his ability to be an asset in coverage could be the difference in a game and the only people who will know it will be his coaches in film study. Like Conner, if you like a guy and think there’s a good chance he won’t be there when your pick comes back around, take him.
Keion Adams was someone I thought the Steelers might have to take in Round Four had they not yet addressed the outside linebacker position. Adams’ ability to bend the edge was better than any player I evaluated as a potential target of the Steelers in the first three rounds, with the exception of Tim Williams. Adams’ height, weight, and speed are nearly identical to Williams'. Their broad jumps and 3-cone drills are identical, but Adams had a significant edge in his vertical jump and 20-yard shuttle. The other good news being that Adams doesn’t have a myriad of off-the-field issues like Williams. Adams played out of position as a 4-3 end at Western Michigan. The hope here is that he can flourish with some space standing up on the outside. I thought Adams was a fifth-round talent, and he should be ideal to develop on the practice squad as Arthur Moats finishes out his contract.
So all good things. About as well as you can do from the 30th position in the draft. Except, I don’t think it was enough.
With the talent available in this draft, the Steelers had the opportunity to complete the rebuild of their defense and there’s one glaring hole remaining. I’m not sure how they’ll go about playing man coverage if they keep Vince Williams on the field in sub-packages. In today’s game, three-safety dimes are needed to be able to mix coverages while holding up against the run. The Steelers still don’t appear to have that option. In the playoffs, the Steelers struggled against the Patriots to get off the field on third down when Lawrence Timmons was taking deep drops into his zone fearing Julian Edelman would get behind him too quickly. In the regular season, Robert Golden was torched for long touchdowns by Rob Gronkowski when the Steelers attempted a three-safety dime package.
The alleged mistake the Steelers made wasn’t in the draft. It was in free agency. One of the reasons I wanted the Steelers to sign Brandon Marshall was because I did not want them needing to draft a receiver. Had they signed Marshall, they could have been more aggressive by moving up in the second round. Rarely can you find first-round talent at the bottom of the second round. But upper echelon talent often finds its way to the middle of that round (as it did with Stephon Tuitt in 2014).
With receiver help in hand, the Steelers could have shopped their fourth-round selection from the middle of the second round down, and possibly could have landed a dime-backer such as Obi Melifonwu.
I would trade Smith-Schuster and Dobbs for Marshall and Melifonwu. Marshall could have provided a large red-zone target, insurance at the second receiver position, and perhaps a large slot option to with blocking ability Rogers lacks. Marshall could also have been a security blanket for the size role in the deep middle of the field should Green prove to again be unreliable. I’d much rather have Melifonwu running deep down the seem with Gronkowski than Golden. Should the Patriots try to motion scheme mismatches for Gronkowski, I’d feel good about either Melifonwu or Ryan Shazier being up to the task. Melifonwu’s versatility in matching up with size receivers such as Marshall or tight ends like Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert offered a lot of appeal, as did his upside at either safety or cornerback. My slimmest of hopes are that Golson stays healthy and becomes a stud slot corner, allowing the intelligent and instinctive Sutton to play centerfield while Mike Mitchell fills the role as a dime or money backer.
Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at Golson’s college game tape. It was some of most impressive tape I watched of any cornerback during my draft evaluations. A lot of people are already predicting Golson’s demise. Prove 'em wrong, kid.
The receiver position is one that appears to be lacking most in terms of leadership. Antonio Brown leads through work ethic, but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decision-making. He doesn’t have legs when it comes to correcting immature decisions of teammates (such as Bryant and Coates’ twitter spat). But someone like Marshall, who made a plethora of bad choices as a young player and has seemingly made a 180-degree character transformation, seemed like an ideal veteran presence in a room that appears to be lacking in emotional maturity.
Of course, had I been part of the Steelers organization, I might not have done anything different either. Conversation with Marshall would have ended if he wasn’t willing to give up his Inside the NFL gig. I wouldn’t be willing to set the precedent of allowing players to fly out of town on a weekly basis to do a television show. And I’d be unwilling to move up in the second round of the draft for anything more than a fourth round pick. Maybe the Steelers made the attempt but couldn’t find a taker.
It was a good offseason and they did about as well as they could do in the draft considering their position. I’m just not confident it was enough to take the next step to beat the Patriots in the playoffs and win a championship.