We previously highlighted the top 5 cornerbacks and edge defenders of the 2016 draft class that best fit the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive scheme and ideology. Now we dig a little deeper into two of the other key positions the Steelers must address in the draft if they hope to regain the AFC North crown and become legitimate contenders. Starting off, we look at the interior defensive linemen in the draft, a class that is perhaps the deepest at the position in league history.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
1. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche was discussed as a top-5 player for roughly a calendar year. The off field issues are pushing him down teams’ boards, but the on field product that is Nkemdiche is a top-15 player on my boards. Nkemdiche is a big man, but not in a bad way. He’s a thick athlete, both in his upper and lower body, and is able to generate quite a bit of torque and power as a result. He’s built like a defensive tackle, but has the athleticism and agility of a defensive end. This resulted in Ole Miss using him both on the edge and in the interior, allowing him to overwhelm tackles and guards with his strength, power and speed. Nkemdiche’s spin move is often executed flawlessly and allows him to penetrate the backfield with quickness and ease. An underrated component of Nkemdiche’s game is his versatility along the defensive line. Nkemdiche can play every position along the line with success, including rushing off of the right edge. When discussing a potential fit with the Steelers’ defense, Nkemdiche could line up at right defensive end on pass downs and allow Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to penetrate the interior of the line as one-gap defensive tackles in a 4-3 formation. Nkemdiche, Heyward, Tuitt and linebacker Bud Dupree would be a special defensive line and generate one of the league’s best pass rushes.
The red flags are going to scare teams off of Nkemdiche. The concerns about his effort and will on the football field will also be questioned, and rightfully so. If, however, the Steelers’ front office is able to get the most out of Nkemdiche’s rare ability and talent, they would have one of the biggest steals in the draft. Nkemdiche brings not only the ability to rush off of the right edge in sub-packages, but brings with him the versatility to spell Heyward and Tuitt as a 5-technique defensive end without the talent level of the defensive line taking a plunge. We’re talking about the rare ability to be kicked both inside and outside and provide a viable, dominating pass rush. Nkemdiche brings this in spades. If coached properly, and one is able to bring the will to be great out of him, Nkemdiche can be a force in this league for a long time, particularly next to two of the best 34 DE’s/43 DT’s hybrids in Heyward and Tuitt.
I don’t know that the front office will take a shot on him in the first round, but I would not be surprised if they did. The end of the second round, should he be there, makes sense for Nkemdiche to the Steelers.
11th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round one to late round two selection.
2. Andrew Billings, Baylor
The strongest man in the draft, Baylor’s Andrew Billings will be a behemoth in the middle of any defense. Billings uses this strength and power generated from his tree-trunk lower body to overwhelm the interior of offensive lines, crashing the pocket and generating a solid pass rush and ability to disrupt the run game. Billings is much more than a traditional 0-tech nose tackle, however. His ability to chase down plays from behind from a man of his size is impressive and, quite honestly, fun to watch. Watching guards attempt to block Billings one-on-one was almost comical. Though when teams did double-team Billings, he was still able to be disruptive and productive. Billings also brings an element of versatility to the defensive line as he would not simply be used as a traditional nose tackle in the Steelers’ scheme. His ability to generate a consistent pass rush is raw, but it is indeed on tape, albeit not as frequent as I would like to see. Still, Billings brings the ability to spell Heyward and Tuitt as a three-down defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid.
I have my issues with the pick, mostly because I am currently concerned with Billings’ raw pass rush ability, but the correct coaching could fix this. On first and second down, Billings would slide easily into the nose tackle position and provide the Steelers a talented and versatile option in the interior of the defensive line.
29th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late first round, early second round selection.
3. Chris Jones, Mississippi State
There has not been much chatter connecting Chris Jones to the Steelers, but perhaps there should be. Jones, the talented and versatile defensive tackle, has the potential to be the best of an incredibly deep and exceptionally talented group. Jones, when keeping his pad-level low, absolutely dominates the interior of offensive lines. Jones’ strength shows up on tape consistently, keeping blockers off of his body and crashing the interior of the pocket. There are concerns over Jones’ burst, but I feel these are overblown. His first step is inconsistent, but when the motor and effort are there, it’s elite. The questions regarding Jones’ effort, however, are absolutely on-point. Similar to Nkemdiche, there are games that Jones gives half effort and isn’t as dominant as he should be. His length, strength and burst are all NFL ready and elite. Jones has raw elements to his game, but his upside and length make him an intriguing top-25 selection.
32nd overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-25 selection.
4. A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama
Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson is an intriguing prospect for a number of different reasons, but notably because of his potentially untapped upside. Robinson is an excellent run defender. In fact, there likely isn’t a better run defending tackle or end in the draft. His ability to stack and shed interior linemen is impressive. This, combined with his heavy hands and strength to play in a two-gap system, allowing the outside linebackers in a 3-4 to get free roam to opposing quarterbacks. Robinson’s ability to control the line of scrimmage is, without doubt, the best of this draft class. Robinson’s consistent dominance drew double-teams throughout his tenure with the Crimson Tide and still found a way to control the point of attack. Through and through, Robinson is seen as a traditional 3-4 defensive end, capable of controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing the linebackers to clean up sacks.
The intrigue with Robinson comes in when discussing his potential as a pass rusher. Robinson was almost exclusively used as a two-gap, traditional 5-technique defensive end in Nick Saban’s defensive scheme. This has set back Robinson’s ability as a pass rusher, as he shows little in the way of developed pass rushing moves. If a team remains patient with Robinson and allows him to develop in his pass rush while remaining stout against the run, Robinson has All-Pro potential written all over him. His length, size and strength are impressive. In my view, Robinson’s best fit in the NFL will be a traditional 3-4 defensive end to start his career, but may be best utilized as a one-gap defensive tackle after marinating and developing a legitimate pass rush. Robinson is one of the most polarizing players in the draft, and would provide stout depth behind Heyward and Tuitt. His value is up for debate, but based on what he brings, I would be comfortable spending a second round draft choice and simply allowing him to develop while spelling Tuitt on first and second down. Unfortunately, Robinson is likely to be a first round pick based on his ceiling.
42nd overall player on my board.
Projection: Mid to late first round draft pick.
5. Kenny Clark, UCLA
UCLA’s Kenny Clark is not a top-5 interior defensive linemen on my board, but his upside and versatility in a 3-4 defense is intriguing. At just 20 years old (will be 21 in October), Clark is still in his infancy of development. There is still plenty of room on Clark’s frame to continue to add size and strength, both of which may be necessary if he wishes to be a starting defensive end in the NFL. The intrigue with Clark begins and ends with his ability as a pass rusher and one-gap penetration ability. Clark’s weaknesses begin to crop up when discussing his motor and ability to plug the run. For starters, Clark’s ability against stronger competition was concerning. His impact in games against stronger offensive lines dwindled greatly when comparing his impact against weaker, non-NFL competition. His ability to anchor against the run was also alarming, as he was often moved off the line of scrimmage with ease, or penetrating his gap too far upfield and allowing a running back to cut back into the open lane. Maintaining gap integrity needs to be a priority for the young defensive end.
Clark’s versatility to play both nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 front is impressive, but he needs to do a better job anchoring against the run before becoming a true three-down lineman. There’s upside here as a pass rusher in a one-gap role, but it’s limited and raw to this point. The gamble on Clark would be tapping into his upside as a pass rusher and versatility to play as a nose and rotate in on third down to provide depth behind the starting two defensive ends.
67th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late second round to mid third round selection.
Early to late prospects at interior defensive line:
Jihad Ward, Illinois (Round 3)
Bronson Kaufusi, BYU (Round 3)
Sheldon Day, Notre Dame (Round 3)
Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State (Round 4)
Anthony Zettel, Penn State (Round 6)
1. Karl Joseph, West Virginia University, Strong Safety
The draft’s best safety hails from West Virginia University, just an hour and a half down I-79 from Pittsburgh. Karl Joseph is an aggressive, physical strong safety who isn’t afraid to play in the box and recklessly lay his body into receivers. More than just his physical nature and ability to lay absolutely devastating hits, Joseph is capable in both man and zone coverage and shows impressive ball skills for a strong safety. The concerns with Joseph on tape is his aggressive style, both in the physical and coverage game. Joseph’s reckless abandon for his body is going to concern scouts about his longevity at the next level. Joseph’s aggressive style in coverage will vacate his coverage, allowing for big plays on his watch. The biggest of the red flags, however, are going to come in the medical department. Joseph’s MCL injury is still cause for concern, and will likely lead him to drop in the draft.
Joseph likely would have been a top-20 selection in the draft had he not injured his knee. There’s a lot to Joseph’s game that is going to be intriguing to the Steelers, particularly his versatility in the secondary and talent in both the run and pass game. The lack of talent and depth at safety is troubling, and may be a more pressing need than cornerback at this moment.
18th overall player on my board.
Projection: First round draft selection.
2. Keanu Neal, Florida, Strong Safety
Florida’s Keanu Neal is only outmatched in the physical game by Joseph. Neal is a big hitter and doesn’t shy away from contact. Neal roams around the middle of the defense and, once a receiver has the ball, explodes like a bat out of hell to make contact. Neal has the ideal build and frame at the strong safety position, standing at 6 feet and 210 lbs. The speed for his frame is equally as impressive, and this is showcased time and time again on tape. The speed in which he closes on receivers in the box and in coverage makes him a versatile weapon in any defensive backfield. His aggressive style, much like Joseph, can work against him. Neal had 16 missed tackles last season with Florida. This is going to raise a lot of eyebrows in front offices across the league, but particularly with the Steelers. Missed tackles have been the thorn in their side for multiple seasons in a row now. Neal’s aggressive and physical play will be a welcome change at strong safety after two years of Will Allen now, but there’s playing physical and there’s playing recklessly. Neal toes this line too closely.
37th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round one, early round two selection.
3. Darian Thompson, Boise State, Free Safety
A facet the Steelers’ defensive backfield has been missing now for a while has been the ability to generate turnovers. The lack of a true ball hawk has led to the Steelers struggling to create interceptions and get off the field on third down consistently. Boise State’s Darian Thompson has quite a few assets to his game that should intrigue the Steelers. For starters, Thompson posted 19 career interceptions with the Broncos to go along with 15 career tackles for loss. Thompson provides adequately in coverage and brings a physical, consistent tackling effort to his game. Thompson’s ability to cover tight ends down the seam was impressive on tape, and something the Steelers have struggled with consistently over the last two seasons. The issues crop up when looking at Thompson’s lack of awareness in coverage, particularly deep coverage, and allowing receivers free reign in the backfield.
Thompson may be best suited to play in the box at the NFL level, which makes his free safety tag a little misleading. While Thompson is good, not great, in zone coverage, his consistent tackling ability and nose for the football may wind up putting him near the line of scrimmage at the next level.
48th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round two, early round three selection.
4. Jatavis Brown, Akron, Outside Linebacker Convert
One of my favorite players in the draft. Akron’s Jatavis Brown will be seen by some as a weak side outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but I see Brown as a strong safety convert. There’s a lot to like about Brown’s game, but let’s delve into what he does best — provide closing speed to ball carriers coupled with incredible instincts. I thought Brown’s play speed would be faster than whatever he ran at the combine, but Brown ran a very impressive 4.47 at 5 feet 11 inches, 225 lbs. His incredible closing speed and instincts for the football make Brown an intriguing option at safety for the Steelers. Brown’s coverage ability against tight ends was highlighted on tape. His speed and athleticism allows him to stay step-for-step with tight ends and receivers in the flat and down the seam. Brown notched 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in 2015. While an impressive feat for Brown no matter the conference, the intrigue here begins with what those numbers show beyond the surface. Double-digit sacks and tackles for loss showcase quickness and an explosive burst.
Brown’s athleticism, burst, speed and quickness are all built for the box at the NFL level. The concern here would be whether or not he’s considered less a hybrid linebacker/safety and more of a tweener. There isn’t a person on the planet that despises the term “Deone Bucannon-type role” more than I, but that may be his role with the Steelers.
Projection: Mid third to early fourth round selection.
5. Jalen Mills, LSU, Free Safety
I struggled for a long time with putting LSU’s Jalen Mills on this list because I’m not convinced he’s a safety. Mills’ ability in man coverage is thoroughly impressive. Even more impressive than his almost lock down-like ability is his versatility. Mills extensively at both cornerback and free safety for the Tigers defense, excelling at both roles. Mills is best suited to play in man coverage, but shows considerable upside playing the middle of the defense. His underdeveloped ability to read and react is going to need work from whatever defensive backs coach is tasked with fixing him, but there’s upside here. Mills’ ability in run support is also questionable as he isn’t a willing tackler and shows very little instincts in this aspect of his game.
Mills has the agility and athleticism to succeed at safety in the NFL, but he remains raw at the position. Again, Mills may best be suited in a man-coverage scheme at cornerback instead playing center field in the middle of a defense. Mills’ addition to this list is more of a pet project for myself as I would be thoroughly intrigued by putting him next to Mike Mitchell and allowing him to properly develop in a more traditional free safety role.
Projection: Late second round to early third round as a cornerback. Late fourth round as a free safety.
Early to late round prospects at safety:
Justin Simmons, Boston College (Round 2)
TJ Green, Clemson (Round 2)
Jeremy Cash, Duke (Round 3)
Vonn Bell, Ohio State (Round 3)
DeAndre Houston-Carson (Round 3)
KJ Dillion, West Virginia University (Round 4)