Most years, when I predict who the Steelers will select with their first pick in the NFL draft, my prediction comes easily for me. Usually I lock in on a player and, right or wrong, I feel 100% confident that is the player who the Steelers will draft. Mind you, I have not gotten a first-round prognosis correct since David DeCastro (2011), but that does not change the fact that going into each of the previous drafts I was completely locked onto a player.
Fast-forward to this current off-season where for several months, Karl Joseph (strong safety, West Virginia) has been the player who I have had my mind set on being Pittsburgh’s first-round pick. I have heard ESPN and NFL Network analysts discuss many names; I have read various rumors about the Steelers being linked to certain other players; but all along, my gut has told me that the pick is going to be Karl Joseph. Even when the NFL re-checked his knee and stated that Joseph would not be able to participate during training camp, I justified the pick by saying that Robert Golden was re-signed specifically to start the first few games of the season (until Joseph is ready).
Yes, that would be known as “rationalizing”.
Then on Tuesday morning, I woke up and my gut told me that Andrew Billings was going to be available for Pittsburgh’s first-round pick.
Mind you, that name should come as no surprise to most Steelers fans, because he has been linked strongly to the Steelers ever since Joe Greene had dinner with Billings’s parents. Add to that the fact that the Steelers allowed Steve McClendon to leave, creating a huge need at the nose tackle position… and, voila!!! A plus B equals C. That said, Billings is seen as a player who likely will not be available at #25, because teams such as Indianapolis, Washington, and Cincinnati have all been linked to Billings. Ergo, the odds of Billings still being there when the Steelers pick are slim.
But this morning, I woke up with a different outlook.
First, it should be noted that there is a bevy of defensive linemen in this draft. In fact, it is so deep, that one could get a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman in the second (and possibly third) round. The last draft that I saw this deep at the defensive line position was the 2001 draft, where Justin Smith, Andre Carter, Richard Seymour, Casey Hampton, Marcus Stroud, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Aaron Schobel, Kris Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, and Derrick Burgess were all drafted in the first two rounds, and all of them made it to the Pro Bowl.
At first, I used that information in order to validate picking Joseph. My thinking was that due to the sheer number of high-quality defensive linemen in this upcoming draft, the odds are that there will be several of them still available at #58. Then, I realized that every other team will likely have that same mindset of waiting until round two to draft a defensive lineman. Extrapolating upon that thought, I queried further: what if every team uses that philosophy, and in turn, not a single team drafts a defensive lineman before 25? Pittsburgh would have their pick of the litter.
Realistically, the truth lies somewhere in between. While I believe that several defensive linemen with still be drafted in round one, I no longer feel that it will be anywhere near the dozen that “could” go in round one. In other words, there is now a greater chance that Billings will indeed be available at 25… which brings me to my newest dilemma: if both Billings and Joseph are available, who should the Steelers choose?
The immediate response for most Steelers fans would be to draft Billings. But I go back to two things that I said earlier. First, this draft is so deep that a Pro Bowl level defensive lineman will likely be there at #58. Secondly, since I think that most teams will adopt this “wait until later” mentality, that many of the defensive linemen are going to slide, slide, slide all the way into round three. For example, a player such as Kenny Clark (UCLA) could possibly get drafted in the first round, but could just as easily drop all the way down to #58. Likewise, a player like Adolphus Washington (Ohio St.) could possibly go in round two, but could just as easily slide to the beginning of round four. Considering these factors, it would be more logical to wait to draft a defensive lineman at pick #58.
Now, I know that you are probably thinking that there are a ton of safeties in this draft, and you would be correct: there are about a dozen who will get drafted on day two. Thus, it might make more sense to target some other position in round one. The difference is that there is one lone blue-chip safety in this draft: Karl Joseph. The drop-off between Joseph and the next best safety is greater than the drop-off from Billings to the next tier of defensive linemen.
In other words, welcome to version 3.0 of my rationalizing the Steelers drafting Karl Joseph.
NOTE: Before I move on to my picks, I want to remind everyone that history has shown the majority of the players who the Steelers select had met with the coaching staff prior to the draft. Some were interviewed at the Combine or at the Senior Bowl. Others met one-on-one with the coaches at their college’s pro day. Thirty of them visited Heinz Field. And a select few ate dinner with Mike Tomlin. I mention this because it is sort of a “filter” that I use in order to create my mock; if a player did not meet with the Steelers, then I probably will not mock them.
With no further ado…
Joseph is the biggest hitter to come into the NFL in a while. The intriguing part is that he can play the pass, as well; Joseph was leading the NCAA with five interceptions, before he blew out his knee… and injury that pushed him out of the top ten (and into Pittsburgh’s outstretched arms). Not only did Karl Joseph come in for a pre-draft visit, during West Virginia’s pro day Mike Tomlin sought out & talked with Joseph. Furthermore, the Steelers were one of two teams highly interested in Joseph’s medical re-check. Lastly, while I understand the need for a defensive lineman (I have harped on it in my previous two articles), Pittsburgh’s defense is predicated on the play of its strong safety. When the strong safety was an All-Pro (Carnell Lake, Troy Polamalu), the defense was proportionally exceptional.
Without question, one of the first two picks is going to be a defensive tackle. Even at pick 58, there are going to be many high-quality possibilities: Chris Jones (Mississippi St.), Adolphus Washington (Ohio St.), Austin Johnson (Penn St.)… et cetera. I was undecided as to who exactly this pick was going to be. I really want this pick to be Kenny Clark, because Clark lined up at all four defensive line positions (nose tackle, defensive tackle, both ends) as well as playing standing up (as a quasi-outside linebacker). Clark’s versatility is EXACTLY what the Steelers need: a nose tackle who can also play defensive tackle (dime package), as well as rotate at defensive end. That said, I just do not see Clark dropping to 58. (Sorry, I used all of my “rationalizations” up on Karl Joseph.) I was at a loss… until I heard Merril Hoge on the radio, talking about Carson Wentz’s transition to the NFL. Hoge averred that “a player is a player, no matter the level of competition.” His point was that if a player from a small-school (Division II, FSC) can play, then he can play. He cited Randy Moss, Khalil Mack, and Jerry Rice. After hearing this, I decided upon Javon Hargrave, because the kid can flat-out play. He had 16 sacks as a junior and 13.5 as a senior. Despite those gaudy sack numbers, Hargrave has almost no pass-rush moves; he has gotten by on being the best athlete on the field. The good news is that he has the athleticism, which you cannot teach; whereas, you can indeed teach pass-rush moves.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert stated that they were no longer going to look for players who only fit one scheme. Ergo, players who would have been passed over in previous drafts (e.g. 4-3 defensive ends) might indeed be drafted in this draft. Considering that the Steelers need to improve their pass rush, what better way than to draft the NCAA leader in sacks (15.5) and forced fumbles (6). Naysayers will point to the fact that Nassib was only productive for one season and he was surrounded by NFL-caliber defensive linemen, but, however you slice it, the kid tackled the opposing quarterback more than any other player in college.
I really wanted to put a cornerback here, but losing both Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams for last season’s playoffs, necessitates drafting a backup running back. Moreso, I have heard & read Ervin’s name linked to the Steelers for as long as I can recall. Ervin is smaller than ideal (5’10 195 lbs.), but he runs harder than his size would indicate. Plus, he is a capable receiver out of the backfield. Simply, his style of play mimics that of Bell’s… only, in a smaller package. Last but not least, Ervin is a capable kick-returner (a position which the Steelers seemingly can never fill).
The Steelers met with Young twice… which tells me that he is essentially a lock to be drafted by the Steelers. Young is a feisty player who will fight for the ball. Alas, he is small (5’9” 185 lbs.) and his aggressive style draws penalties. Regardless, he is the physical type of cornerback that Tomlin prefers.
R7: Victor Ochi, OLB, Stoney Brook
After this season, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats might be gone, and James Harrison might retire. I would have liked to have drafted an outside linebacker earlier, but this is a weak draft for that position. Instead, I have opted to draft a small-school project. Victor Ochi was the standout player at the East-West Shrine game, and as soon as I saw him play, I decided that he would be in my mock draft.
The Steelers need some depth on the offensive line, and they almost always take an offensive lineman on day three. Benenoch was one of only two linemen to visit the Steelers, and thus, that visit is basically the only reason why I am mocking him here.
R1: Karl Joseph, SS, West Virginia
R2: Javon Hargrave, DT/DE, South Carolina St.
R3: Carl Nassib, pass-rush specialist, Penn St.
R4: Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose St.
R6: Tavon Young, CB, Temple
R7: Victor Ochi, OLB, Stoney Brook
R7: Caleb Benenoch, OG, UCLA