By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
If you have been following the Steelers official pre-draft visits, one thing should be evident: the Steelers are highly interested in defensive players. With 26 official pre-draft visits already completed, most of the players that have met with the team have been on the defensive side of the ball. This should be no surprise to anyone, as there are plenty of holes that need to be filled on that side of the ball. With that being said, here is my Steelers Mock Draft 4.0!
–Round 1 (25): William Jackson III, CB, Houston (6’0”, 189 lbs.)
(Photo from Behind the Steel Curtain)
“Good height and length. Stays low from a smooth backpedal. Plays with capable makeup speed when receivers get separation. Can click and close on throws in front of him with acceleration and has makeup speed deep. Possesses ball skills that defensive back coaches covet. Gets his head around to find ball on downfield throws and has excellent disruptive timing when attacking the throw. Instinctive and quick to diagnose and react to his keys. Allowed just 40 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed over last two years. Has feel for routes and will adjust coverage accordingly. Had three interceptions and scored two defensive touchdowns this season.
The Steelers have spent a lot of time this offseason looking at the corners that are entering the draft this year. One potential issue that might occur just like last year’s draft is all of the corners that the Steelers are highly interested in drafting will already be off the board. If Houston’s William Jackson III is still available, I expect the team will sprint to the podium to call his name. Arguably the fastest rising player in this year’s draft class, Jackson is a lengthy, ball-hawking defensive back that brings a lot to the table in regards to natural athleticism (ran a 4.32 40-yard dash) and the ability to play in different fronts and schemes, which goes right along with the philosophy that the Steelers employ with their numerous sub-packages. He has shown great ability to play in both man and zone coverage schemes and has the speed to keep up with almost all of the receivers in the league. As it stands right now, William Gay, Ross Cockrell, and Senquez Golson figure to be the starters for next season. Gay’s time as a #1 corner are quickly coming to an end, and both Cockrell and Golson project better as a #2 or #3 corner. With Jackson’s potential to become a true #1 corner, his addition to the team would immensely help the secondary become a dominant force.
–Round 2 (58): Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State (5’11″, 199 lbs.)
(Photo from Cleveland)
“Sheriff mentality looking to corral receivers on his side of the field. Has man cover talent. Instincts and reaction time are big assets. Trusts his eyes and fires downhill as soon as he reads throw. Capacity to meet ball at the catch point more than most cover safeties. Credited with 23 passes defensed over last two seasons. Able to mirror targets and strike a centered blow when flowing downhill. Plays with excellent feel for his responsibilities in space. Sifts through route combinations and always gets to his guy. Rarely out of position.
Currently, Mike Mitchell is the only safety on the roster with any type of starting experience. With Robert Golden being the only truly reliable safety on the roster, it is imperative that the team bring in additional safety help. They appear to recognize this need, as they have met with some of the top safeties in the draft. Ohio State’s Vonn Bell is right there amongst the best safeties in the draft. Although he is a little undersized for a typical safety, he makes up for it with toughness and elite instincts and truly plays the game with a “shoulders-up” approach. He is more than willing to defend against the run, although NFL scouts would like to see him learn to play with more of a “deliver the blow” mentality. In pass coverage, Bell is very good at playing on an island as a high safety due to his ability to read the quarterback. While playing at Ohio State, he showed versatility playing both free safety and strong safety, while also spending some time at nickel corner, which would allow the Steelers to use him and Mitchell in various ways. In almost all aspects, Bell has “Steeler” written all over him.
–Round 3 (89): Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State (6’7″, 277 lbs.)
(Photo from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
“Desires to succeed and is relentless in his pursuit. Former walk-on who was told by Bill O’Brien (then-Penn State coach) that he needed to forget about playing pro football. Was offered a scholarship six months later. Long levers with big hands and comes off the ball with good upfield burst. Has straight-line speed. Excellent feel for navigating around the pass rush arc with maximum efficiency. Uses subtle hand play and lateral body lean to turn the corner and get after the quarterback. Comes off the ball with proper pad level and brings hips into contact to try and maximize his strength. Uses proper arm extension, plus vision and a well-timed shed to attack running backs in his gaps. Smart, instinctive defender who is able to diagnose plays quickly. National sack leader despite missing two games. Forced six fumbles this season.
As it currently stands, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are the only two defensive ends on the roster with any real experience. The Steelers made a nice addition with former Chargers defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews but that still does not give the Steelers many options in their rotation. Penn State’s Carl Nassib exploded onto the college football scene last season, forcing six fumbles and leading the country with 15.5 sacks. The former walk-on has incredible length and plays with a relentless motor, although he needs to continue to improve his strength and power at the point of attack. This can realistically be solved by adding weight to his 6’7″ frame, since he has plenty of room to do so and will likely be asked regardless of where he ends up playing. He is the type of hard-working player that the Steelers covet and with his natural determination, he can be a highly effective defensive end for the Steelers rotation.
–Round 4 (123): Dadi Nicolas, LB, Virginia Tech (6’3″, 235 lbs.)
(Photo from the USA Today)
“Has lightning quick inside moves, including spin, that can catch slow-footed tackles sleeping. Long-strider with the acceleration and lateral quickness to create problems when twisting inside. Plays with desired upfield burst. As pass rusher, can brush aside lazy outside hand placement to open door around the edge. Forced two fumbles and recovered two more in 2015. Miscast with hand in the ground and over-matched physically, but was always willing to compete and battle the man across from him. Has experience as outside linebacker. Bouncy athleticism in space and looks natural dropping into space. Good burst to make up ground quickly while chasing the ball. Runs through tackles with as much force as he can muster with his size.
With LB Lawrence Timmons only having 1 year left on his contract and his long-term future in Pittsburgh being up in the air, the Steelers would be smart to take a linebacker prospect with versatility and potential to be the type of linebacker the Steelers are used to employing in recent years. With LB’s Sean Spence and Terence Garvin no longer being on the team, the Steelers lack any real depth beyond Vince Williams, Steven Johnson, and LJ Fort, with Fort having no true experience on the field. Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas primarily played at defensive end in college but at 6’3″, 235 lbs., a switch to middle or outside linebacker will likely be in the cards for whichever team selects the athletic defender. Since the Steelers already have their starters set in place, Nicolas would not be pressured into playing right away, which would allow him to add more weight to his long frame. In college, he showed natural coverage skills against running backs and tight ends, as well as showing the skills necessary to rush the quarterback. This versatility would bode well for Nicolas to eventually slide in next to Ryan Shazier and form an extremely athletic duo who can rush the quarterback and drop back into coverage.
–Round 6 (220)(Compensatory Pick): D.J. Reader, DT, Georgia Tech (6’3″, 327 lbs.)
(Photo from the Clemson Tigers)
“Carries his 327 pounds fairly well on his stout frame. Almost always the low man at the point of attack. Able to leverage blockers and displace them. Plays with enough motor to chase the play down the field. If single blocked, will absolutely push the pocket as a rusher. Squatty, strong nose tackle who is able to push smaller centers around in phone booth battles, but unable to consistently be a disruptive force up front. Reader has the strength and potential to believe that his Senior Bowl flashes could turn into something more in the NFL, even though that might just be as a career backup.
After addressing defensive end in the 3rd round, the Steelers would be wise to also address the interior defensive line with a space eater by the name of D.J. Reader. At Clemson, Reader had an interesting conclusion to his collegiate career by taking a leave of absence from the football team. When he came back and competed at the Senior Bowl, he regularly impressed with his ability to win almost every one-on-one battle he encountered. Reader has some work left to do due to his raw skill but with size and strength already set in place with flashes of great potential, the Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell can mold him into a nose tackle like the Steelers used to regularly employ. With Daniel McCullers being the only true nose tackle on the roster and being a true work-in-progress, the Steelers could add another body into the fold to give them options to find a player to be a force to clog the middle. Reader has the potential to be that player.
–Round 7 (229): Tavon Young, CB, Temple (5’9″, 183 lbs.)
(Photo from Behind the Steel Curtain)
“Plays bigger and more physically than his listed height/weight. Drives through receivers with force at the point of the catch and can jar the ball free. Plays with winning ball skills. Grabbed four interceptions and had 14 passes defensed in 2014. Crowds receivers upfield and gets his head around to find the ball. Will violently rip and thrash at the ball to prevent a catch. Comfortable in bail coverage.
The Steelers have clearly not been afraid to have small, scrappy defensive backs on their roster (e.g. Antwon Blake, Senquez Golson, & Shamarko Thomas). Throughout the pre-draft process, the Steelers have shown substantial interest in another small corner: Temple’s Tavon Young. Young plays much larger than his size would indicate, never shying away from delivering a huge blow and always willing to aggressively defend against the pass with tall receivers. As it currently stands, Golson figures to start out playing the nickel and an early round cornerback like Jackson will play on the outside eventually, which might cause some people to question why the Steelers even need to draft another cornerback. The answer is simple: you can never have too much cornerback depth and competition on your roster. There have been plenty of rumors circulating around the team that 2015 4th round draft pick Doran Grant could move to safety and William Gay is not getting any younger. The Steelers need to add depth to the position and find playmakers that can help shore up their porous secondary. Although Young will likely never be a #1 or #2 cornerback, he could serve effectively on the defense as a rotational piece and eventual nickel starter.
–Round 7 (246): Caleb Benenoch, T, UCLA (6’5″, 311 lbs.)
(Photo from Footballs Future)
“Plays with good knee bend. Above average athlete with long arms. Has lateral quickness off the snap to put himself in position for difficult zone blocks. Able to get to backside cutoff blocks when his angles are right. Has feet to mirror in space in pass protection. Aggressive worker with some recovery athleticism to work himself back into the play. Bumped inside to guard due to injury issues on team and handled his duties effectively.
In the 7th round of the draft, most teams look for diamonds in the rough that can develop into serviceable players for their team. At this point in the draft, the Steelers have the potential to select one of the “feel good” stories of the draft while also selecting a highly versatile, underrated offensive lineman. UCLA’s Caleb Benenoch has taken a long route to make it to the NFL (you can check out the story by Bleacher Reports Brent Sobleski here). Benenoch plays with excellent pad level, aggression, and quickness that gives him potential to play both guard and tackle, both of which he played at during his time at UCLA. The Steelers utilize athleticism and versatility in their depth offensive linemen and Benenoch would fill that need perfectly, especially with the team’s injury history across the line. If he can add more size and strength to his lanky frame, he even has potential to replace Ramon Foster at left guard after his 3-year contract ends, or even potentially compete at left tackle with Alejandro Villanueva and Ryan Harris. With an offensive line coach like Mike Munchak, the sky is the limit for the player from Nigeria and could pay huge dividends for the Steelers selecting him this late (does the name Kelvin Beachum ring any bells?).
Check out my first three mock drafts here: