By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
After three long days, the Steelers draft class has come to full fruition. Most people know that the Steelers had some very big needs heading into the draft, namely in the secondary and along the defensive line. Although the team didn’t blow anyone away with their selections, they made very smart selections, addressing needs from top to bottom while adding tremendous upside through each round.
After ignoring the secondary (and much of the defense in general) in recent drafts, the Steelers have been clearly invested in improving their defense over the past two drafts to regain the dominance that the team has always been known for on that side of the ball. Last year, the team used 6 of their 8 picks on defensive players and this year was nearly identical, using 5 of 7 picks on defense. This year also was the first draft since 1987 when the team drafted a defensive back in the first two rounds.
After making cornerback Artie Burns their 1st round selection this year, they didn’t stop their defensive onslaught, as they drafted safety Sean Davis in the 2nd round and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round. By using their first 3 picks on their biggest needs, the Steelers really followed their gameplan and made strides in improving their defense.
1st Round: Artie Burns, CB, Miami (6’0″, 193 lbs.)
The selection of Artie Burns in the 1st round was met by much controversy among Steelers fans and analysts everywhere. In my previous article, I defended the selection of Burns and I still stand by that. After the dust settled, rumors began surfacing about the reasoning behind the selection. Apparently, the Steelers had trade offers to move back (mainly from the Broncos attempting to move up and select quarterback Paxton Lynch). After William Jackson III went the pick before the Steelers, Burns became the top corner on the board, who GM Kevin Colbert believed would not still be there at #31 if they traded back. As it turns out, the Kansas City Chiefs had planned on taking Burns at #28, validating the fears of the Steelers top brass. Although people criticize the pick by the Steelers, the fans need to realize that they are getting a tall, long, athletic, ballhawking cornerback that fills a huge need for the Steelers. Although he isn’t a #1 cornerback right this instant, his upside and potential should have the Steelers excited. If he reaches his potential and upside, the Steelers will have their #1 shutdown corner for the next decade, especially when you consider than some teams feel like he could be the best corner in this draft.
2nd Round: Sean Davis, S, Maryland (6’1″, 201 lbs.)
Many people (including myself) consider safety to be the biggest need for the team this offseason. When you look at the depth chart, there are no starting caliber safeties other than Mike Mitchell, who is an aggressive, hard hitting player. Enter Sean Davis. While at Maryland, Davis played both safety and cornerback, showing the versatility to help the Steelers in multiple ways. When viewing his tape, an argument can be made that he is not suited to play cornerback in the NFL due to his ability to lose receivers in coverage, but his ability to play near the line of scrimmage and roam the secondary as a high safety give the Steelers options in how to use him. At 6’1″, 201 lbs., Davis brings 4.44 40 speed with great power and aggression, leading the FBS with five forced fumbles last season. Carnell Lake fell in love with what Davis brings to the table, even ranking him as his #1 safety in this draft class. Many fans wanted the Steelers to draft Ohio State’s Vonn Bell here considering that he is an elite cover safety but he has a bad habit of shying away from contact and avoiding getting involved with group tackles. That is not what the Steelers look for in players. Davis’s coverage technique can use some work (as do nearly all defensive backs) but he has potential to step in early in his rookie season next to Mitchell and be a starter for years to come and help jumpstart the Steelers porous secondary. He has “Steelers” written all over him.
3rd Round: Javon Hargrave, DL, South Carolina State (6’1″, 309 lbs.)
After addressing the the secondary with their first two picks, the Steelers addressed the glaring lack of depth along the defensive line. Many people believed that the Steelers were going to address the defensive line earlier in the draft by selecting Andrew Billings, who suffered an unexpected fall on draft weekend from a projected 1st rounder to not being chosen until the 4th round by the Bengals. It was later released that Billings was dealing with an undisclosed knee injury which scared off many teams. Javon Hargrave fell to the Steelers in the 3rd round after having projections as early as the 2nd round. Boasting similar size to Billings, Hargrave brings much more versatility and athleticism along the defensive line with the multiple fronts that the defense loves to employ. He possesses superior burst off the line and a relentless motor that routinely wears out opposing offensive linemen. Defensive line coach John Mitchell said in his press conference that he plans to play Hargrave at nose tackle in their base 3-4 and bump him out to defensive end to spell Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt due to his vast versatility. Additionally, Hargrave is expected to play as a 3-technique in the Steelers subpackages, giving them even more options. Even though Hargrave played at an FCS, he has tremendous upside and room to grow into the next dominant Steelers defensive lineman that can make an already great defensive line into an amazing one.
4th Round: Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU (6’6″, 305 lbs.)
With the three biggest needs addressed in the first three rounds, the Steelers looked to shore up their offensive line depth by adding the big, lean, athletic offensive tackle from LSU: Jerald Hawkins. At 6’6″, 305 lbs., Hawkins possesses the natural size that teams love in linemen. As a 3-year starter at LSU, Hawkins has experience at both tackle spots and will likely be a swing-tackle for the Steelers starting out. One knock on Hawkins is his high pad level in both the pass and run game, which he mainly makes up with his heavy hands and power at the point of attack. This will probably be worked out early on as he has the chance to be coached by one of the best under offensive line guru Mike Munchak, who brings out the best in his offensive linemen. Hawkins shows great skills in zone blocking, which will be utilized greatly by the Steelers with their zone heavy offense. While most project Hawkins as a right tackle, Munchak said in his press conference that he sees the former Tiger as a future left tackle. With the left tackle spot up for grabs at this point, it is likely that Hawkins will be thrown into the position battle and may even surprise some people in the process.
6th Round: Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington (6’4″, 230 lbs.)
The Steelers had a long wait between their 4th and 6th round selections, where they selected uber athletic outside linebacker Travis Feeney. A former safety, Feeney has great cover skills, especially against running backs and tight ends. He carries an aggressive demeanor that will make him an exciting special teams player starting out for the Steelers, a spot where he was highly effective while at Washington. With the frame to put on more weight, Feeney will provide the Steelers with much needed depth, both at outside linebacker and potentially inside in a similar role that recently departed linebacker Terence Garvin played. One area of concern with Feeney is his repetitive shoulder injuries but doctors seem convinced that they should not plague him during his career. Outside linebacker coach Joey Porter was very excited to talk about Feeney’s athleticism and ability to get after the quarterback and will provide the Steelers with another versatile, athletic playmaker on their defense that can potentially work his way into the Steelers rotation.
7th Round (Pick 1): DeMarcus Ayers, WR, Houston (5’9″, 182 lbs.)
When the Steelers selected Houston receiver DeMarcus Ayers with their first 7th round pick, many fans were left scratching their heads, and rightfully so. Ayers is an undersized receiver that lacks any true explosion or speed, running only a 4.60 40 at his pro day, which is a bit off-putting. All questions aside, Ayers does have qualities that make him an interesting prospect. As a receiver, he has unbelievably strong hands, dropping only 2 passes out of 101 targets, giving him the 2nd-best drop percentage of any receiver in this class. Additionally, he is a top-class punt returner with great vision and shiftiness, which special teams coach Danny Smith validated by having Ayers as his top rated punt returner in this class. The issue with this pick is whether or not Ayers can contribute more than just as a punt-returner. Don’t get me wrong, the Steelers need someone to return punts other than Antonio Brown. But what can Ayers bring to the table other than potentially a future slot receiver? If Ayers struggles to find a role on an offense already loaded with lengthy, explosive playmakers, his career in Pittsburgh could be short lived, especially if he can’t carve out a role as the primary punt returner, much like former Steeler Dri Archer (who had similar size but elite speed).
7th Round (Pick 2): Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Temple (6’0″, 238 lbs.)
When you watched Temple play, one thing always stood out: #8 was involved in making the tackle. Three-year captain Tyler Matakevich rounded out the Steelers draft in the 7th round, finishing a college career that saw him accumulate 493 career tackles, 40 tackles for a loss, and the 2015 Bronko Nagurski trophy (given to college football’s top defensive player). Widely considered as an “overachiever” that does it all, Matakevich plays relentless football, primarily to make up for his lack of size and speed. Although he ran a 4.72 40 at his pro day, the tape shows a player who realistically plays in the 4.5 range. He was a leader on and off the field at Temple and was projected to be selected between the 4th-6th round. Matakevich is the type of player who won’t likely make a huge impact immediately in the Steelers rotation, but he is the player who will instantly play on special teams and make a difference. His natural grit and determination will allow him to stick around with a team like the Steelers for some time and with proper coaching and development, he could turn into a rotational player or spot-starter for the Steelers down the road. The production and heart are already there. Now it’s just time to see how he translates to the NFL.
Best Selection: Javon Hargrave; selecting arguably one of the best and most versatile nose tackles in this years class in the 3rd round, Hargrave would have likely been a late 1st rounder in any other class. Of any of the rookies in this class, Hargrave has the greatest chance of seeing the field early.
Worst Selection: DeMarcus Ayers; a puzzling selection by the Steelers, especially considering that they love weapons with elite speed. Unless Ayers becomes an elite punt-returner for the Steelers quickly, it is hard to see him having a long-term future with the organization.
Steal of the Draft: Tyler Matakevich; widely considered to be one of the top 5 middle linebackers in this class, Matakevich slipped to the Steelers at the very end of the draft. He feels like he can be one of those guys that sticks around the team for many years and has much of his work go unnoticed while being an instant fan favorite. It is unbelievable that he was still available 7 picks from the end of the draft.
As you can see from this draft class, the long-term upside is definitely there. The Steelers didn’t draft with great value this year, more or less taking the players they had high on their board. On paper, the Steelers filled almost every single one of their needs in some capacity and that alone is reason for a good grade. While we might not see the instant impact this class has on the Steelers, there are quite a few players in this class (like Hargrave and Davis) that are primed to see the field early and often, especially if they progress in the manner that the Steelers are hoping. The Steelers definitely got better as a team and made moves that should set them up nicely for the long-term. As the offseason turns into the preseason, it will be interesting to see how these rookies pan out. Many people are critical of the Steelers selections but, as I discussed previously, it is hard to truly gauge the draft class before they even step foot onto the football field. About 3 years from now, we will really see how this class turns out but on paper, the Steelers hit their needs and it appears that they will be making a return to their former defensive dominance in the very near future.
Final Overall Draft Grade: B