With the 2018 NFL Draft quickly approaching, the official “top-30” pre-draft visits have shed some light on the potential targets of each team in the league. The Steelers have a history of keeping their cards close to their vest but a lot can be made from their pre-draft visits, combine meetings, and pro day dinners when considering which prospects Pittsburgh has legitimate interest in drafting. These visits, combined with the Steelers’ needs and draft flexibility due to smart signings in free agency, has led me to this first mock draft of the offseason.
1st Round: Justin Reid – S – Stanford
The signing of Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic gives the Steelers some flexibility heading into the draft. However, they don’t really change their draft plans unless a player high on their board unexpectedly falls in the 1st. If that doesn’t happen, I would expect them to maintain their stance in looking at safety or linebacker in the 1st round. Justin Reid is a player that I have been very high on dating back to last season and comes into the draft as one of the most well-rounded safeties this class has to offer. With great size (6’1″, 241 pounds), top tier speed (4.4s 40), and the athletic traits teams want in safeties in today’s NFL, Reid could integrate himself into the defense with relative ease. Whether he’s playing over the top, covering slot receivers and tight ends, or playing near the line of scrimmage in the box, Reid does a great job. Reid’s coverage and ball skills are obvious (14 passes defended & 6 interceptions in 3 seasons), but what makes Reid so intriguing is his intelligence and his ability to effectively communicate from the back end. Because of this, he is rarely seen out of position and is able to accurately lift up the defense by giving them the comfort that they know they have help behind them. The addition of Reid would allow the Steelers to move Burnett around in different dime package looks and allow Reid and Sean Davis to roam the secondary.
Other players considered: ILB Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State); ILB Rashaan Evans (Alabama); RB Derrius Guice (LSU)
2nd Round: Darius Leonard – ILB – South Carolina State
As I previously mentioned, the Steelers have some draft flexibility after signing Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic. Darius Leonard is another prospect that I have been high on for some time and for good reason. After coming in as an undersized defensive player, the former teammate of 2016 3rd round pick Javon Hargrave has added around 50 pounds to his lean frame, now coming in at 6’2″, 234 pounds. This additional weight hasn’t taken anything away from his game. Leonard is an explosive player that has an innate ability to change direction and make split-second decisions due to great speed and reactiveness. Leonard is far from a polished product, however. He would benefit greatly from being involved in an NFL weight and conditioning program in an attempt to continue improving his strength. I honestly believe that his best days are still ahead of him. With the addition of Bostic, Leonard wouldn’t be forced into starting action right away and could get acclimated to the speed of the NFL while playing in a rotational role before eventually taking over starting duties.
Other players considered: S Jessie Bates III (Wake Forest); EDGE Lorenzo Carter (Georgia); WR James Washington (Oklahoma State)
3rd Round: M.J. Stewart – CB/S – North Carolina
Many fans have scoffed at the idea of the Steelers selecting a cornerback at any point during the draft and while it is far from the greatest need, I think it makes sense to consider it if the right player is there. M.J. Stewart could be that player with some potential position versatility. I have him listed as a cornerback (where he started for the last 2 years at UNC) but it isn’t inconceivable that he could make the move to safety in some sub-packages. Stewart’s intelligence and instincts have allowed him to play both inside and outside (Cameron Sutton, anyone?) and has more than held his own in both press- and off-man coverage looks, something the Steelers have continued attempting to integrate into their defensive schemes. But what else should excite fans? Stewarts ability to come up and help in run support, an area that saw plenty of improvement with the addition of Mike Hilton last year. Stewart very rarely abandons his contain responsibilities and is a sound wrap-up tackler. Selecting a cornerback might be seen as a “luxury” but you can never have too many effective defensive backs on your roster. With Burns awaiting his breakout year (hopefully in 2018), an unproven Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, a non-extended Mike Hilton, and a pricey Joe Haden, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Steelers to continue adding talent in their secondary.
Side note: I do like the Steelers’ corners and believe that they will take steps forward this season. I still think adding smart, talented, versatile cornerback prospects can only continue improving the roster and increasing their chances of long-term success.
Other players considered: ILB Josey Jewell (Iowa); RB Kerryon Johnson (Auburn); S Kyzir White (West Virginia)
5th Round (1): Kalen Ballage – RB – Arizona State
The Le’Veon Bell saga has carried on for a large portion of the offseason and at this point, it is looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll be in Pittsburgh in 2019. The Steelers selected James Conner last season to add quality depth behind Bell, but that shouldn’t prevent them from considering another addition in the draft this year. Although this is a dream scenario, Kalen Ballage makes a ton of sense for the Steelers, especially if given the chance to learn behind Bell and Conner this year before stepping into a bigger role in 2019. Ballage has seen his stock vary anywhere from a late 2nd round pick to a 5th rounder, depending on the team or analyst. I personally have Ballage ranked as my #12 running back, as he never really had a breakout year and most of his evaluation is based off of projection rather than production. Ballage fits the size profile that the Steelers have liked in their running backs (6’1″, 227 pounds) but what makes him so scary of a runner is his top-end speed (4.46s 40). Ballage isn’t a one-trick pony, either. His experience returning kicks and catching passes out of the backfield only adds to his potential value. Beyond that, he has an incredible 2nd gear once out into the open field and can separate from linebackers with relative ease, something Bell has struggled with since entering the league. His biggest issue? Some vision problems seeing open lanes in front of him and often running far too high, which allows defenders to square him up and make a tackle. Honestly, I blame most of that on relative inexperience that could develop with more touches and improved NFL coaching. Ballage best days could still be ahead of him, which provides great value for a 5th round pick that could turn into a steal.
Other players considered: TE Durham Smythe (Notre Dame); DL Nathan Shepherd (Fort Hays State); DT B.J. Hill (N.C. State)
5th Round (2): P.J. Hall – DT – Sam Houston State
Just like Ballage at running back, P.J. Hall might not be available at this point after seeing his stock steadily increase during the draft process. If he somehow manages to still be here at this point, this selection should be a no-brainer. Defensive line certainly isn’t a huge need, but depth could be improved, especially behind Javon Hargrave. Daniel McCullers has been on the bubble for some time now and adding a player like Hall could add a legitimate interior defender that provides the athleticism to push the pocket against the pass and the strength to anchor down against the run. And don’t think that’s all talk… Hall absolutely destroyed his pro day, reportedly running a 4.68s 40 and throwing around 225 pounds on the bench for 36 (36!!!) reps. He also reportedly has a personal squat of an unbelievable 700 pounds. Oh yeah, did I mention that he tallied career totals of 86.5 tackles for a loss and 42 sacks? At 6’1″, 310 pounds, Hall doesn’t have elite size, but plays much bigger than anyone would expect. A small school prospect reminiscent of Javon Hargrave, Hall has the ability to come in and dominate in the NFL if he can prove that his production was real and not just a result of lesser competition. There’s a real chance that he won’t be there but I would love to see him added to the Steelers’ defensive line.
Other players considered: WR Jaleel Scott (New Mexico State); G Tony Adams (N.C. State); CB Isaac Yiadom (Boston College)
7th Round (1): Shaun Dion Hamilton – ILB – Alabama
Reuben Foster. Tim Williams. C.J. Mosley. Dont’a Hightower. Rolando McClain.
Under Nick Saban, Alabama has a great reputation of putting big, physical, tackling machine linebackers into the NFL. This offseason, the hype has been all around Rashaan Evans. But what if I told you that the Steelers could snag an Alabama linebacker on day 3 that has the traits of a top linebacker prospect? Shaun Dion Hamilton isn’t the type of prospect that falls because of a lack of talent or off the field issues. In 2016, Hamilton exploded onto the scene next to Reuben Foster but had his year cut short after tearing his ACL. Last year, Hamilton was on pace to have an even more impactful year at linebacker before fracturing his patella. This injury has prevented him from participating in any meaningful combine or pro day drills to display his athletic traits. Two unfortunate injuries, no testing numbers, and a player that is admittedly undersized for the position (6’0″, 233 pounds) has Hamilton likely falling down draft boards this year. But don’t be mistaken: Hamilton might be one of the most talented linebackers in this class when healthy. Even with his small stature, Hamilton has been stout against the run and effectively works through the mess to fill lanes and make a play. The valedictorian of his class in high school and a captain for the Crimson Tide, Hamilton has repeatedly been called the quarterback of Alabama’s defense that has an elite football IQ. Where Hamilton gets drafted (if he gets drafted at all) will largely depend on his medical evaluations by team doctors. But if he can put these injuries behind him, he could turn into the biggest steal of the entire draft.
Other players considered: CB Trey Johnson (Villanova); WR Braxton Berrios (Miami); EDGE Joe Ostman (Central Michigan)
7th Round (2): Russell Gage – WR – LSU
Here’s a fun fact for you: since 2005, the Steelers have taken at least one receiver in every draft except in 2011. Over the past 30 seasons, they have taken at least one receiver in all but FOUR drafts. So if we’ve learned anything, it’s that they’ll likely continue restocking the position this year. I believe that the Steelers could address the position earlier if someone they like falls (like JuJu Smith-Schuster did last season) but in this scenario, they wait until the end of the 7th round. Russell Cage is the type of player that the Steelers would be interested in taking a shot on with their last pick. He won’t jump off the page as a player that belongs in the same category as the day 1 and 2 receiving targets. But what makes Gage stand out among the rest is his pure love of the game of football. This isn’t a huge football factor, but it lends well to an area where Gage has displayed great talent: special teams. On both punt and kick coverage, he has cherished the opportunity to make an impact to help his team win. At this point in the draft, the best chance for a player to stick on a roster is on special teams and that would give him the opportunity to make his name known. But that’s not to say that he has no potential to help the offense. Given some time to develop, Gage could step in and give the team another weapon in the slot (or even on the outside if he can continue developing his underwhelming route tree and route running) and become another player in a line of Steelers’ late-round success stories.
Other players considered: S/CB Trey Walker (Louisiana-Lafayette); TE/H-Back Donnie Ernsberger (Western Michigan); WR Quadree Henderson (Pittsburgh)