By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
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“With the 30th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…”
With the 2017 NFL Draft just under a month away, more and more rumors have began circulating about what players teams will be targeting in the early rounds of the draft. The Steelers are no exception to this. While drafting at the end of the 1st-round doesn’t always have the elite talent that early picks have, there will still be plenty of solid players left for the team to select from.
The Steelers have had their fair share of late 1st-round success during the Kevin Colbert era, finding anywhere from solid starters to Pro Bowl talents. Since 2000, the Steelers late 1st-round selections have been:
- 2002: G Kendall Simmons (30th Overall)
- 2005: TE Heath Miller (30th Overall)
- 2006: WR Santonio Holmes (25th Overall)
- 2008: RB Rashard Mendenhall (23rd Overall)
- 2009: DE Ziggy Hood (32nd Overall)
- 2011: DE Cam Heyward (31st Overall)
- 2012: G David DeCastro (24th Overall)
- 2015: OLB Bud Dupree (22nd Overall)
- 2016: CB Artie Burns (25th Overall)
With this year being such a deep draft class (luckily in positions of need for the Steelers), they should have plenty of options to pick from that will not only fill a position of need, but would also give the Steelers a high level of talent with a great scheme fit.
David Njoku, TE, Miami
Tight end might not be the Steelers’ top position of need this year, but it is definitely a position that needs to be addressed at some point due to the questions surrounding Ladarius Green’s long-term health. David Njoku is the consensus #2 tight end in this year’s class and if he were to fall to the Steelers at 30, they’d be hard-pressed to not consider pulling the trigger. Njoku has tremendous upside as a pass-catching threat with elite athleticism and the potential to be a very solid blocker if he continues to hone his skills in that area. At 6’4″, 246 lbs., Njoku has the frame to easily add another 10 pounds without losing any athleticism, which could help improve his abilities as an inline blocker. With elite upside to go along with his elite traits, Njoku has the looks of a potential future Pro Bowler.
Charles Harris, OLB, Missouri
News flash: the Steelers need help with their pass rush. With one of the deepest pass-rushing classes in quite some time, the Steelers will likely look to snag another pass-rushing weapon early on. Charles Harris would provide the Steelers with great size, length, and strength at the point of attack. Harris needs to improve his hand work as a rusher but his natural agility and footwork is out of this world and can’t be taught. On a side note, Harris has an absolutely nasty spin move due to his fluid hip work and quickness. If you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest that you check it out.
Carl Lawson, OLB, Auburn
Unlike Harris, Carl Lawson is a bit stiff in the hips and knees, making his lateral agility a bit suspect at times. But leave no doubt, Lawson is a great pass-rusher. Had injuries not derailed his 2014 and 2015 seasons, seeing Lawson go in the top half of the 1st-round would be more than expected (which speaks volumes with this year’s depth). His power is out of this world (as indicated by his explosion off the snap and his 35 reps on the bench press at the combine). His power, combined with his relentless motor, make him a desirable target for any team looking to add some thunder to their pass rush. The Steelers would be wise to pay attention.
Haason Reddick, OLB, Temple
After being a relative unknown as a former no-star safety walk-on at Temple, Haason Reddick’s stock absolutely exploded. Where Reddick will ultimately ends up is anyone’s guess but he is undoubtedly a 1st-round pick, pending any surprises over the next month. Possessing absurd athleticism (4.52s 40, 36.5″ vertical, 133.0″ broad jump), Reddick is an absolute blur on the field, always finding his way to the ball to make a play, which is clear by his production. The biggest knock he has is his lack of size, coming in at 6’1″, 237 lbs., causing some teams to be concerned about his ability as an edge rusher, but this could lead to potential versatility to play inside and outside. Reddick very well might be off the board by 30, but if he’s available, the Steelers will be taking interest.
Takkarist McKinley, OLB, UCLA
Coming in at 6’2” and tipping the scales at 250 lbs., Takkarist McKinley possesses the size and strength necessary to succeed off the edge in the NFL. His burst, bend, length, and motor off the snap makes him one of the most natural 3-4 outside linebackers in the draft this year. At UCLA, McKinley was asked to play with his hand in the dirt and as a stand-up rusher, giving him plenty of experience that teams covet in the 1st-round. McKinley isn’t necessarily the “power” rusher than Lawson is, meaning he won’t see much time as a defensive end in the NFL, but his 24 reps on the bench press demonstrate solid functional strength that will be on display with improved hand usage. Many mock drafts have the Steelers selecting McKinley and it is likely that he’ll be there due to shoulder surgery after the combine. McKinley could be the boost they need.
T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
Although he has a small sample size as a one-year starter, T.J. Watt impressed as a pass rusher and run stopper at Wisconsin. Watt’s pedigree (the younger brother of All-Pro J.J. Watt) gives NFL front offices the hope that he can eventually become a standout in the league. Watt has a long frame and gives A++ effort on every play. What makes Watt such a tantalizing prospect is his record of being a highly coachable player. He has moments of inconsistency, which is to be expected of an unpolished player without a lot of experience. But his hard working demeanor and strong understanding of the game will give scouts hopes that he will do everything he can to work on these deficiencies and improve his strengths. The Steelers (specifically Joey Porter) gave plenty of attention to Watt at Wisconsin’s Pro Day, with Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert wining and dining him afterwards. There appears to be mutual interest and Watt will definitely be on their radar come April 27th.
Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
While the Steelers addressed their cornerback need in the 2016 NFL Draft by selecting Artie Burns, there is a strong likelihood that they will address the position again this year. With Ross Cockrell’s future with the team in question, William Gay not being a long-term option, and the team’s desire to use more man-to-man coverage, selecting a talented corner in a deep class is imperative. Even with the signing of Coty Sensabaugh, the Steelers shouldn’t be afraid of adding another body. Tre’Davious White might not have the elite length of many corners in this class (5’11”), but he brings plenty of experience, serving as a full-time starter for most of his four years at LSU. White has shown the ability to consistently mirror-and-match opposing receivers when on an island and has the feet, athleticism, and instincts to effectively react to the ball. White lacks run-support physicality that team’s desire, but as one of the best man-corners in this draft, the Steelers could find an athletic compliment to Burns on Day 1 if he is still available.
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
Chidobe Awuzie has flown under the radar for much of the draft process, but his name is beginning to slip into discussions around the league that he could slip into the 1st round. Awuzie is a pure lockdown, man-cover corner who has the reactive athletic tools to maintain coverage responsibilities at many different points around the field because of his natural hip fluidity. Not only can he play on the outside, but Awuzie can also handle slot responsibilities, which could enable early playing time in the Steelers secondary. His scheme versatility allows him to play in man and zone coverage and off and press coverage. He possesses elite size (6’0″, 202 lbs.) and speed (4.43s 40), which fits extremely well with his natural coverage skills both near the line and downfield. One aspect of Awuzie’s game that stands out? His ability to blitz out of the slot, something that Keith Butler doesn’t hesitate to do. Awuzie is a dark horse prospect for the Steelers but one that is worth following.
Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State
While he might not be same polarizing prospect as his teammate Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley is still the high-end player the Steelers could use. As a press-corner with experience at both cornerback spots and the versatility to fit different coverage schemes, Conley seems like a natural fit for what the Steelers do in zone coverage. Just as many of the other corners in this draft, Conley has top-end speed (4.44s 40) with tremendous ball skills to compete passes all over the field. He would provide the Steelers with another long cornerback on the outside to pair with Artie Burns and could develop into a solid #2.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Primarily listed as a cornerback, Adoree’ Jackson could fill plenty of holes for the Steelers. As one of the most athletic players in the draft, Jackson has versatility and utility that give plenty of potential options of where he could fit on the next level. At cornerback, Jackson is raw but has shown flashes of potential in coverage and plenty of top-tier ball skills, as indicated by his 28 career defended passes and 6 interceptions. His ball skills provide playmaking ability as a receiver as well (39 career receptions for 628 yards and 6 touchdowns), but more importantly, his vision makes him a constant threat to score in the return game. In his career, he has returned 79 kicks for 2,141 yards and 4 scores with an additional 46 punt returns for 578 yards and 4 touchdowns. Jackson might seem like an odd fit for the Steelers, but it could pay dividends due to his playmaking prowess in all 3 phases of the game.
Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan
Let me preface Jabrill Peppers with this: I don’t envision the Steelers selecting him. If history is any indication, the Steelers are big lovers of natural size and athleticism, but they also weigh production heavily in all phases of the draft. The issue with Peppers is his lack of elite production that is often associated with 1st-round prospects. This lack of production drove down prospects like Mackensie Alexander, who had the athletic traits but terrible production (zero interceptions at Clemson). The difference this year is that Jabrill Peppers is one of the most versatile, athletic players college football has seen in some time. Michigan utilized him on offense, defense and special teams and while he might not be an offensive weapon in the NFL, his versatility on defense and special teams makes him worthy of a draft pick. Keith Butler could carve out a similar role for Peppers as Arizona did for Deone Bucannon, lining him up at safety and dropping him down into the box to also play linebacker. Peppers might not have a specified position in the NFL, but he could instantly add versatility and options for the Steelers defense for further exotic schemes by pairing him Ryan Shazier or Mike Mitchell/Sean Davis.
Obi Melifonwu, S, Connecticut
Just as with tight end, safety might not seem like a huge need for the Steelers. But listen to this scenario. Mike Mitchell is entering his 4th year of a 5-year contract with the Steelers, but carries very little dead money in 2018 (approximately $1.7M). At that point, Mitchell will 30 years old and it is unknown where his play will be at that point (at 31 years old) or what type of money he will demand. By selecting a safety this year, the Steelers could make Mitchell expendable in 2018 or 2019 and that player could be Obi Melifonwu. After becoming this year’s workout wonder at the combine (4.40s 40, 44.0″ vertical, 141.0″ broad jump), Melifonwu jumped into the spotlight in a similar manner as former teammate and workout warrior Byron Jones. At 6’4″, 224 lbs., Melifonwu is a towering presence and while he doesn’t bring the hammer on hits, he is an extremely sure tackler, especially when coming downhill to make the play. In addition, he covers tight ends quite effectively, something that is necessary in today’s pass-happy league. Melifonwu wouldn’t be pressured into playing right away, allowing him to continue his development. But once he puts it all together, he has Pro Bowl potential and could be a fixture in the Steelers secondary for years to come.
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