Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Outlook

(annually updated several days before the draft takes place)
The Pittsburgh Steelers currently own seven draft selections over the seven rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft, one of those choices being a compensatory pick at the end of round six (#220 overall). The team has a pick near the bottom of each of rounds one through four (#’s 25/58/89/123), no fifth rounder, no sixth rounder (other than the mentioned compensatory pick), and two seventh-rounder’s (#229/#246).  So, since it is finally time to get this 2016 draft party underway, here’s a look at this year’s Steelers Draft Preview at DraftBoardGuru.com.  I’m giving this year’s project the name of “Re-Branding the Defense,” as it will simulate the much assumed interest the team has in taking advantage of a defensive-flavored draft class, which also tends to mesh particularly well with the foundational needs that the team currently has.  It’s also prudent to suggest that not only will the Steelers take defensive players, but several of these additions have the opportunity to transcend normal schematic boundaries and bring about weaponry of a completely new style.  Please enjoy the draft, Steelers Nation!   - Doug Martz, DraftBoardGuru.com
Re-Branding the Defense:  "Predicting the Steelers Draftboard"

Upon peering back at this very column from the last two years of prognostication, I note that the #1 need in both 2014 and 2015 was “cornerback.” But you won’t find this column complaining that only Senquez Golson (rd. #2, 2015) was brought in as a high-level pick during that time.  The team has stayed true to their draftboard and reaped the benefits of Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt by not reaching unnecessarily.  Here’s the opening summation from this column in 2014:  Cornerback – star power is missing and age is accumulating; a big-play stud should be expected in Rd. 1 or 2.  And from 2015, the opening statement:  ”Cornerback - it's no secret that the top draft need is to refurbish the talent at this position… That does not, however, mean that it’s a guaranteed lock for the selection at #22, but will be addressed at some point early…”

Fast forward another year, and once again these statements could be planted into this column, almost verbatim.  However, not panicking or reaching will lead the team in the right direction once again this year.  Cornerback, and the secondary as a whole, is the main attraction to the 2016 Steelers draft plans.  However, significant depth issues exist on the defensive line at both the nose tackle/interior area and hybrid-DE position that Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have defined.  Likewise, probably under-reported is the depth situation at wide receiver, which the team will give attention to in this draft.  It’s not talked about, but the team could be a year away from only having Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates as useful pieces on the roster.  Additionally, although the Steelers offense is the strength of the team, and play-making ability oozes from every angle of the field, the team must insulate itself from catastrophic injury and/or behavioral issues by picking up a wideout.  Many might disagree, but adding to the WR position is vital.  Take, for example, last year…  had the team not added Sammie Coates in the draft, we’d be starring at a dire situation at WR now that Martavis Bryant is suspended for a year. On this team, there cannot be enough good weapons to help make Ben successful.  So with these things in mind, let’s get into the 2016 Steelers Draft Preview:

The Key Positional Needs:

(1.) SAFETY – while much talk surrounds the CB need on this roster, the team could actually suit-up and go out to play a football game tomorrow with the names that encompass the CB depth chart (Gay/Golson/Grant/Cockrell). The safety position is a little sketchier, as Mike Mitchell is the only player with enough pedigree to fully provide the position with appropriate play… and he can be injured and/or distracted from his role rather easily, so safety is the #1 need coming out of this draft. The team is lucky to have Robert Golden as a reliable “swing-safety” and back-up/special-teams ace, but a starter at safety needs to come out of the top 100 picks in this draft.  One thing that is a near lock: The team will select a safety within the first three rounds.  To those that hold the “CB or Die” mentality:  The reason to not panic if the team shy’s away from a Rd. 1 CB in order to take advantage of value at S/DL:  This year’s crop of CB’s is highly impressive – the Rd. 2-5 talent runs deep, with numerous options that can fit the Steelers perfectly fine.  And so for a variety of reasons, both in terms of needing to finally replace the star-power that Troy Polamalu left, overall roster make-up, and the draft talent chunking itself together at certain rounds in a favorable way, the Safety position wins out as the top draft need.



(2.) DEFENSIVE LINE - Almost as equal in relative “need” is to secure depth along the defensive line. The team is one injury away (Heyward/Tuitt) from really being at a loss in that area.  Daniel McCullers is the only NT-type, and although that area of the game is being diminished, nobody wants to be chirping a year from now about how the Steelers allowed the big-beef up front to become completely diminished and inadequate.  It would be irresponsible!  The prototype to find is a hybrid-type NT/DE that can serve as both a sub-package back-up to the stars, Heyward and Tuitt, while also rotating with McCullers at an inside spot when the team needs to “go big.”  The Steelers have lucked right into the best overall defensive line draft class in recent memory and this need should be easy to fill any time during the first several rounds of the draft. 



(3.) CORNERBACK – Previous statements (above) about safety trumping the cornerback shouldn’t put a false narrative into the fact of the matter about this position… The team is in great and dire need of a play-maker and overall athleticism at that position.  The reason it falls to the #3 need, overall, is that the team is not in a situation where this need is a first round “must-have,” although there are a few prospects that are instant “run to the podium” picks if they should happen to fall to #25.  If they don’t, and the team takes a safety or defensive linemen early, there’s at least 10-12 CB’s that would fit just perfectly well in rounds 2-4 and Steelers Nation should not crucify the team for not addressing it right off the bat – nobody would really want the team to reach...  Right?  The team has a plethora of middle-round fall-back options lined up if CB fails to come to fruition early, as is evident by the visitors they’ve brought to the UPMC Rooney South Side Facility.



(4.) WIDE RECEIVER – This is a need that flies under the radar of the casual fan, while the dug-in fan realizes that the team must address the WR position before this draft concludes.  With Martavis Bryant fighting personal demons and Markus Wheaton set to become a free agent next offseason, and the team one injury or suspension away from being pretty bare at the position, it’s not only wise but necessary to stock-up on the teams #1 strength, which is offensive play-makers… give Big Ben weapons and no matter what the rest of the team looks like, this is a squad that can compete for the division/conference.



(5.) *Honorable Mention* OL Depth/RB Depth/Kick-Return Specialist – These positions will have a draft selection, but are likely to be late roster additions such as the 6th round compensatory or one of the 7th rounders.  Make no mistake, this is a defensive flavored draft and that’s what the Steelers will be mining-out from the first several rounds of the draft class, but they won’t pass up a good talent that can help this team to become more dynamic.  Both the offensive line and running back positions are stacked with above-adequate depth, but once again, the team must insulate against unfortunate situations such as injury by nabbing a “Steeler guy” at any point.  Obtaining a third string RB with future starting/back-up capability, one whom can possibly be involved with returning kicks, certainly wouldn’t be out of the question, particularly with the fact that LeVeon Bell’s contract will be running out eventually and his health status is still up in the air as we sit here today. 

EXPECTED ROUNDS:  4-7  (Note: no 5th round pick currently, but that could change)


*** With all those notes in mind, let's further dive into the prospects we could be talking about at the various rounds.  Below are clusters of prospects according to the DraftBoardGuru.com projected round, with a total of 60 prospects of significant match to the Steelers.  Some of these 60 prospects have been brought in for visits during the pre-draft evaluation season, while others are just good matches, or at least ones that have made that impression to this site during the process of preparing for the draft.  For the purposes of this annual exercise, the names are really focused-in on the most likely prospects to be available at the particular selection number the team has, so players such as Ramsey or Rankins, for example, will be missing.  Within each round’s cluster is the ranking of the prospect for that pick.  ***


Round One, Pick #25:

The Prospects  (6)

(1)-CB William Jackson III (Houston); (2)-CB Eli Apple (Ohio State); (3)-S Keanu Neal (Florida);

(4)-DL Andrew Billings (Baylor); (5)-DL A’Shawn Robinson (Alabama); (6)-Vernon Butler (Louisiana Tech)


The Pick:    CB William Jackson III, Houston  -  Senior, 6’0”, 189 pounds, 4.37 40-time

The Justification:  The team wanted CB Kevin Johnson last year, selected six positions (16) ahead of the Steelers pick at #22.  Get this:  Johnson was 6’0”/188, while Jackson is 6’0”/189.  Johnson was a tackling-machine/tough-guy CB coming out, and while Jackson III doesn’t display those attributes, he trumps Johnson in the area of coverage ability, hands, and speed.  He will have to get more fundamental about his tackling, but if the team is lucky enough to have Will Jackson drop to #25, without a team nabbing him moments before they are on the clock, they will get what I believe is the #1 “realistic” target.  But it’s going to be a real nail-bitter as to Jackson making it to this selection at #22 as well.  This guy is SMOOTH.  A natural. Will play in-stride with any receiver in the league and upgrade a position that is ever-so-craving athleticism.

The Wild Card: CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson – While not on this list due to personal indifference, the fact remains that the team might like the interception-less 5’10” aggressive corner with plenty of swagger far more than I would suggest appropriate.  While Alexander never got his hands on a ball, he also didn’t allow a TD in his last 24 games at Clemson.  As a redshirt sophomore, the 22 year old would fall into the Steelers preference of keeping the early draft choices as younger, yet experienced players, which Alexander qualifies as.  But, I personally see the lack of production as a red flag and with a 5’10” frame, he should be more appropriately valued as a high 2nd-rounder rather than a first round prospect.  If the Steelers select Alexander, it’s a positional reach in order to accommodate a true draft need, as there will be better talent on the board at 25 than this reach.


Round Two, Pick #58:

The Prospects  (12)

(1)-S Karl Joseph (West Virginia); (2)-CB Artie Burns (Miami); (3)-S/CB T.J. Green (Clemson);

(4)-S Vonn Bell (Ohio State); (5)-CB Ryan Smith (N.C. Central); (6)-WR Sterling Shepard (Oklahoma);

(7)-DL Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State); (8)-DL Johnson (Penn State); (9)-CB Xavien Howard (Baylor);
(10)-S/LB Jeremy Cash (Duke); (11)-WR Braxton Miller (Ohio State); (12)-OLB Kamalei Correa (Boise State)
The Pick:    SS/LB Jeremy Cash, Duke  -  Senior, 6’0”, 212 pounds, 4.60 40-time

The Justification:  If the team doesn’t take safety in round one or participate in a trade-up to nab one of the tops on their board, sure to be not far down the list will be SS/LB Jeremy Cash, a player that I believe the Steelers should be, and probably are, enamored with.  This is not a cover-the-slot back-pedaling safety or an interception machine, but rather, the true definition of a run-stopper.  Like other hybrid LB/S types in this draft class, he flies like a missile on the field, sniffing out the runner and laying the wood.  Cash had over 100 tackles in a “striker” safety role in each of the past three seasons at Duke and is a two-time Second Team All-ACC player and was last year’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year.  He is a very mature product of Miami, FL whom first attended Ohio State when recruited by former coach Jim Tressel, but transferred to Duke upon Urban Meyer’s hiring. The Steelers have had Cash as an official visitor during the draft process as well as attending multiple work-outs that he participated in at Duke… I sniff a marriage between Cash and the gradual transition that’s been taking place with a more creative and hybrid look to the team’s defensive scheme.

The Wild Card: “The wild march to get to the top of Friday night’s second round.”  Remember the rumors that were flinging around last year on night #2 of the draft?  The Steelers were desperately, or at least quizzically, seeing if they had a trade partner to go get a prospect?  Was it TE Maxx Williams as everyone assumed?....No, later investigation seemed to put out that barnstorm.  But the pool of defensive backs was quickly diminishing and the Steelers had the intention of being aggressive after taking OLB Bud Dupree in round one.  DB’s Landon Collins, Jalen Collins, and Eric Rowe were all potential targets, but the team ended up staying at #56 for Senquez Golson.  This year could repeat itself on the Friday night rumor mill because the team could chase after a safety prospect such as Keanu Neal, Karl Joseph, or even Vonn Bell if they go in another direction (than safety) on night #1. One could see the team giving up their third and next year’s third in order to go get a starting safety of high caliber… that is, if they get a CB in round one.  Boom!  There! Fix the secondary.  Draft success achieved.  Owner happy.


Round Three, Pick #89:

The Prospects  (12)

(1)-DL Bronson Kaufusi (BYU); (2)-DL Jihad Ward (Illinois); (3)-S Justin Simmons (Boston College);

(4)-S Sean Davis (Maryland); (5)-S Darian Thompson (Boise State); (6)-CB Cyrus Jones (Alabama);

(7)-RB/KR Kenyan Drake (Alabama); (8)-WR Pharoh Cooper (South Carolina); (9)-WR Charone Peake (Clemson);

(10)- OT Caleb Benenoch (UCLA); (11)-DL Willie Henry (Michigan); (12)-DL Hassan Ridgeway (Texas);

The Pick:    WR/KR/Athlete Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina  -  Junior, 5’11”, 203, 4.59 40-time

The Justification:  As was stated to start this column, the team is loaded with offensive threats, but must insulate itself, which is a key to the philosophy here with the Cooper pick.  Play the game of “what-if’s” for a bit and when you start picturing Markus Wheaton or Sammie Coates going down in training camp with some type of significant injury, it could put a real cramp on the ability to out-score teams 38-28, which can sometimes be necessary with a still-developing defense.  Cooper offers a huge amount of asset, as he can play a similar role to past athletes the Steelers have developed into “slash” type roles – he’s highly athletic and can run, catch, and pass.  He can be the next great play-maker that Kevin Colbert drafts and can replace Markus Wheaton in the lineup in 2017.  In the meantime, he can be nurtured-along on the route-tree while turning into the primary kickoff/punt return man, something he can excel at.

The Wild Card:  If the team feels a sense of accomplishment with the first two rounds, such as getting two defensive backs (in this projection) or a defensive lineman and defensive back… now would be a good time to consider a trade-back to round four and bypass getting a selection in round three in order to get, say, a 4th and 5th round selection in return (from someone like San Francisco)… the team isn’t loaded with picks this year and one could see a trade-back happening if the offer happens.


Round Four, Pick #123

The Prospects  (15)

(1)-QB Cardale Jones (Ohio State); (2)- S/LB K.J. Dillon (West Virginia); (3)-S/CB Jalen Mills (LSU);

(4)-CB Jon Jones (Auburn); (5)-CB Brandon Williams (Texas A&M); (6)-CB Tavon Young (Temple);

(7)-RB Darius Jackson (Eastern Michigan); (8)-RB/KR Tyler Ervin (San Jose St); (9)-WR Tajae Sharpe (UMass);

(10)-WR Trevor Davis (California); (11)-S/LB Jatavis Brown (Akron); (12)-QB Brandon Allen (Arkansas);

(13)-DL Dean Lowry (Northwestern); (14)-DL Quinton Jefferson (Maryland); (15)-S Deon Bush (Miami)


The Pick:    DL Dean Lowry, Northwestern  -  Senior, 6’6”, 296 pounds, 4.87 40-time

The Justification:  In many years, Lowry and other mid-round defensive line talent would be pushed up the draftboard and be selected in the second or third round. But this year, the DL territory of the draftboard is saturated with talent and that might make for great mid-round value.  The speedy edge-setting and disciplined Lowry would make for a terrific back-up to Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, which is a huge area of need on this team. While many will strive for seeing the Steelers select a nose-tackle type before a DE-type, I firmly suggest that once again the best course of action is to insulate this team from the injury possibility.  Lowry could play a role early in his career and give some much needed relief to Tuitt/Heyward.  And within the sub-package there will be times that all three men can get on the field.

The Wild Card:  Drafting a QB always throws off the fan base because many don’t want to see that happen while Big Ben is still in his prime.  But round four might present the best overall opportunity to nab a guy.  Consider Cardale Jones of Ohio State and Brandon Allen of Arkansas as two QB’s the team will give high consideration to if the team would have gone with all defensive players in rounds 1-3.  If it’s an all-defensive first three rounds, I think that could be the clue that offense will be picked in round four…which of course could be WR or RB real easily, but it also could be a true opportunity to get a QB with enough pedigree to actually develop into future starter after being a reliable back-up to Ben for three or four years.



Late Round Targets (Selections at #220, #229, & #246)

The Prospects  (15)

(1)-QB Liam Nadler (Gannon); (2)-QB Vernon Adams (Oregon); (3)-Nate Sudfeld (Indiana);

(4)-OLB Victor Ochi (Stony Brook); (5)-OLB Dadi Nicolas (V.Tech); (6)-FS Tyvis Powell (Ohio St.);

(7)-DL Ufomba Kamalu (Miami); (8)-OG Rees Odhiambo (Boise St.); (9)-RB/QB Reynolds (Navy);

(10)-S Jayron Kearse (Clemson); (11)-Trae Elston (Mississippi); (12)-S Jarrod Wilson (Michigan);

(13)-OG Chase Farris (Ohio St.); (14)-CB D.J. White (Georgia Tech); (15)-CB Ken Crawley (Colorado)

The Picks:    

# 220:   DL Ufomba Kamalu, Miami  -  Senior, 6’5”, 295 pounds, 4.89 40-time

# 229:   OG Chase Farris, Ohio State  -  redshirt-Senior, 6’4”, 306 pounds, 5.26 40-time

# 246:   QB Liam Nadler, Gannon  - redshirt-Senior, 6’6”, 235 pounds, from Leipsic, Ohio

The Justification: 
Kamalu, while never a visitor to the Steelers during the pre-draft process, should have gotten a good look during the Miami Pro Day by the staff and he had caught my eye during the process of preparing for the draft.  Along with Dean Lowry (selected earlier in round 4), Ufomba can help add much needed depth to the line that lacks it.  He has great versatility and might be traveling under the radar of most draft pundits at this point.  With experience at several positions including nose tackle, defensive tackle, and a 5-technique end, he seems like a very good late-round developmental player that will begin as the back-up at nose to Daniel McCullers while also solidifying camp depth at DE.  … Chase Farris will complete the mission that the Steelers unofficially have of drafting an Ohio State player.  He’s a very vanilla prospect with not a lot of upside, but could hold down a final roster spot or practice squad spot along the offensive line… at the very least, grabbing a lineman out of the Buckeye program at least ensures that he’s well prepared and in the event of injuries he won’t be a wasted pick; has traits that make me believe he could be a very adequate swing guard/tackle. … Finally, QB Liam Nadler is a hidden little nugget that comes just 120 miles north in Gannon.  He’s a big-armed gun-slinger that has great running qualities and rather than tempt the chance of waiting until the undrafted free agency period to sign him, I figure the Steelers better beat the Cleveland Browns to obtaining him by taking him with a seventh-rounder.  Take Big Ben, reduce his abilities by 20% (accuracy/feel for the game) and add a set of good running legs and you’ve got Liam Nadler. If the team doesn’t address QB before the end of the draft and decides to go forward with Landry Jones as the back-up, Nadler would make for a perfect developmental guy / #3 QB.  But, because Nadler spent a majority of his time taking snaps from the standard college spread/shotgun, it will take him a while to take-hold in the new NFL environment.  None the less, I love Nadler as a guy that would thrive under the tutelage of the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger.

May the 2016 NFL Draft be enjoyable and entertaining to the fullest extent possible, Steelers Nation!  Hit me up w/ an email or on Twitter for an invite to join-in to a weekend draft chat (Chat Room) on not only the Steelers picks, but the entire draft.

     - Doug Martz, DraftBoardGuru.com
     Email: coachdmartz@hotmail.com