By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
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It’s finally that time of year again: NFL Draft season. With players being weighed, measured, and interviewed in the early days of the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, rumors and speculation are circulating like wildfire. With only two months to go until the Steelers are on the clock, I will give my first draft installment and predictions of players that could end up wearing the Black & Gold. Here’s a look at who those eight players may be.
Round 1 (30): Charles Harris, OLB, Missouri (6’3″, 253 lbs.)
After making Jarvis Jones their 1st-round pick in 2013, it safe to say that the Steelers’ experiment with him was a bit of a failure. Fortunately, their 2015 selection of Bud Dupree appears to be paying off, as he began to show off the explosive play-making ability that made the Steelers fall in love with him in the 1st-round. However, the Steelers are still in need for a long-term player opposite of Dupree who can make a similar impact. While James Harrison continues to defy time and just re-signed with the team on a 2-year deal for only $3.5M, he simply is not the long-term answer. That is where a player like Charles Harris can come into play. Harris had to wait is turn at Missouri, sitting behind Shane Ray (Denver Broncos) and Markus Golden (Arizona Cardinals) before finally getting his chance to show his talents. Harris is able to explode off the ball and shows a natural knack at finding the ball and the quarterback. One thing that has stood out to me about Harris is his ability to hustle each play, something that is desired by coaches in the NFL (especially with the Steelers). Even though Harris doesn’t possess elite length and fluidity, he makes up for it by being a highly effective pass-rusher with deceptive lateral quickness. He could smoothly transition into the spot opposite of Dupree, giving the Steelers a formidable pass-rushing duo for years to come.
Round 2 (62): Desmond King, CB, Iowa (5’11”, 206 lbs.)
The Steelers did not hesitate in 2016 to add athletic, ball-hawking cornerback Artie Burns in the 1st-round. Even though Burns appears to be a potential long-term option for the Steelers on the outside, that does not mean they should not entertain the idea of adding more young talent through the draft. Desmond King not only brings a more polished product to the secondary, but he also brings potential versatility similar to that of 2016 2nd-round pick Sean Davis. At one point, King was considered to be a consensus 1st-round pick due to his natural ball skills and pedigree as a solid tackler. However, recent concerns over his lack of elite straight-line speed have began rumors of a potential transition to safety in the NFL. Regardless of where he plays, he has the potential to be an alert, downhill defensive back who has tremendous cover skills. Because of his lack of elite speed, he might never be a true outside corner, but he could easily find a home in the slot or as a corner/safety hybrid in the Steelers’ numerous subpackages. Simply put, you can never have enough effective defensive backs in today’s pass-happy NFL. Oh yeah, King is also a top-flight return man with great agility and vision. You know, so the highest-paid receiver in the NFL doesn’t have to be back there every time to do it.
Round 3 (94): Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina (6’2″, 201 lbs.)
After re-signing Antonio Brown to a blockbuster deal to make him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, the Steelers now have some other questions to answer with their wide receivers. Will Martavis Bryant clean up his act to be a long-term option as a #2? Will Sammie Coates ever be healthy enough to be a legitimate NFL receiver? Will Eli Rogers ever be anything else other than an effective slot receiver? The Steelers could use some infusion of young, top-tier talent in their receiving corps to help take some of the pressure off of Antonio Brown. Zay Jones has been one of the quickest risers in this year’s draft class. He is a solid route runner that does a great job of selling his fakes. Off the snap, he is efficient in evading defensive backs at the line of scrimmage and accurately reads coverages to find open space. As he was able to show at the Senior Bowl, he is a beyond reliable pass-catcher, consistently catching most passes that are thrown in his direction. Zay Jones could quickly find a place in the Steelers passing game and would be a solid #3 option behind Brown and Bryant to start off and another insurance policy if Bryant can’t stay out of trouble in the future.
Round 3 (105; Compensatory Pick): Jake Butt, TE, Michigan (6’5″, 246 lbs.)
The Steelers have gone through their first full season without long-time fan-favorite tight end Heath Miller. The results were mixed, to say the least. Ladarius Green was expected to come in and be the electrifying presence in the pass game that made him such a tantalizing prospect. When healthy and on the field, he did just that. The main issue? He was barely on the field due to concussion and foot issues. Jesse James was far from a bad player for the Steelers and became a consistent player by the end of the season. Realistically, though, the Steelers need an every-down playmaker that can give the team an additional boost. This has the potential to be a historic tight end class and Jake Butt might just be one of the best players in the group. Before an ACL injury derailed his season, Butt was putting together yet another efficient and effective season at Michigan, showing the ability to be an excellent route runner and an even better receiver. He is a leader on and off the field and would be a welcome addition to the Steelers passing game. Butt still needs some work as a blocker, but showed some progress in that area before his injury. Butt has the ability to be the a more athletic but just as reliable version of Heath Miller, which is something the Steelers desperately need at tight end: consistency.
Round 4 (135): Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova (6’7″, 289 lbs.)
The Steelers are just about set along the defensive line in regards to their starters, with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the unquestioned bookends at defensive end and Javon Hargrave being poised to continue making strides in year 2. However, the depth behind the starting lineup is putrid and we got a glimpse of what can happen when starters fall with no quality depth. Reports surfaced recently that the Steelers are highly interested in the physically gifted Tanoh Kpassagnon. Kpassagnon has an incredible combination of size and explosiveness and simply looks the part of an NFL standout. His long, lean, broad frame makes him a truly physical presence and it is evident that he has taken a lot of dedication to being a strong football player. Off the snap, Kpassagnon fires off the ball, routinely blowing past offensive tackles with his initial burst to the outside. He has demonstrated time and time again that he can beat players one-on-one, as well as against double teams. There are not enough good things that can be said about Kpassagnon. So why is he being selected this late? He is a very raw prospect that has only began scratching the surface of his potential. With the Steelers already having two high-end starters in place at defensive end, Kpassagnon would not be pressured into starting right away and could continue to add some weight to his frame while learning the nuances of the NFL.
Round 5 (173): De’Veon Smith, RB, Michigan (5’10”, 220 lbs.)
The Steelers are in the process of trying to lock up Le’Veon Bell on a long-term deal but regardless if Bell remains with the team for the long haul, they still need to address the running back position. Bell has suffered with injuries in the past and DeAngelo Williams might not be back with the team next season. This is where De’Veon (not Le’Veon) Smith can come into play. Smith split carries during his time at Michigan, limiting the opportunities that he had. Even though that was the case, Smith still managed to rush for 846 yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith is a tough, downhill runner that never shies away from contact, but also has the vision and agility to make great cuts and put moves on defenders in open space. While at the East-West Shrine game, Smith displayed nice receiving ability out of the backfield, as well as being an above average blocker. Smith is one of the more under-the-radar picks in this year’s draft, which could make him a nice late-round pick for the Steelers that can eventually carve out a nice role as a compliment to Le’Veon Bell.
Round 6 (213): Ejuan Price, OLB, Pittsburgh (5’11”, 241 lbs.)
In today’s passing league, you can never have too many pass-rushers in your arsenal. The Steelers are likely to use more than one of their eight picks this year on adding some pass-rushers to their team, and in this scenario, Ejuan Price provides a nice high-upside player to add in the late rounds of the draft who could end up paying big dividends for the team that selects him. While he is undersized for the position, he is able to use this to his advantage by consistently dipping under offensive linemen with his superior flexibility, low leverage, and quick get off after the snap. He possesses strong hands at the point of attack and has demonstrated a knack for getting into the backfield time and time again. Price might struggle against physically opposing offensive linemen who can latch onto him and swallow him up, but at this point in the draft, Price is the perfect pick to give a chance to prove his worth. He has drawn comparisons to Elvis Dumervil, which is far from bad company.
Round 7 (248): Kai Nacua, S, BYU (6’1″, 216 lbs.)
Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell will be the unquestioned starters at safety for the Steelers next season, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t continue to address the position, especially with the likely departure of Shamarko Thomas. Just like Ejuan Price, Kai Nacua provides the Steelers with a nice late-round sleeper pick that could end up paying big dividends for the secondary. Nacua was a ballhawk at BYU, totaling 12 interceptions over the last two years of his career. Some scouts are worried about Nacua’s lack of speed, as he hasn’t always shown the ability to be the best athletically, but he makes up for that by having great instincts and a high motor to give it his all during each play. Does this sound familiar? Look no further than 2016 7th-round pick ILB Tyler Matakevich. Nacua can make the same type of impact in his rookie year.
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