It is finally Draft Day, and we as fans are all nervous and excited. We’ll have to wait until probably 11:30pm EST until the Pittsburgh Steelers are officially on the clock, but it is all in good fun. Speaking of fun, everyone loves reading mock drafts. This is my final mock draft of the 2018 offseason. Enjoy!
Round 1, Pick 28: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State [Prospect Profile]
2017 Stats: 141 tackles (91 solo), 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 INT, 5 PD, 4 FF
The Steelers have a glaring need at inside linebacker with Ryan Shazier suffering an injury that is looking to be career ending. Most people don’t think Vander Esch will make it to 28. I concur, but the Steelers have been lucky with prospects falling into their lap. David DeCastro, Bud Dupree, and some even say TJ Watt shouldn’t have made it to the Steelers. We once again prosper. There has been recent reports about Vander Esch having a neck/spine injury but Gerry Dulac has said that the Steelers have no concern about this. The Steelers like having their early round draft picks contribute and the Boise State product can do just that.
Vander Esch was brought in for a pre-draft visit, the Steelers were heavily represented at his pro day, taking him out to dinner, and had a private meeting with the Steelers at the NFL Combine.
Just so y'all know, there are no concerns from Steelers about Leighton Vander Esch's neck injury. There is no major problem.
— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) April 24, 2018
Previous selection: Linebacker Rashaan Evans
Round 2, Pick 60: Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M [Prospect Profile]
The Steelers are set to have a need at wide receiver with only two being under contract after the 2018 season. As I said on the Steel City Blitz Podcast, I believe the Steelers will take a wide receiver in the first three rounds and we discussed the possibility of Kirk being available at pick 60. In this case, he was, and the Steelers have found a very good returner along with a productive slot receiver. As you can see above, Kirk has been extremely productive in multiple phases his entire collegiate career. Playing in the SEC is no joke, and Kirk has the physical and mental toughness that will translate beautifully to the NFL level. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kirk can play both the slot and the outside, so moving forward they can play together well simultaneously.
Kirk was brought in for a pre-draft visit and a Steelers scout was present at his Pro Day.
Previous selection: Same
Round 3, Pick 92: Tarvarius Moore, S, Southern Miss
2017 Stats: 87 tackles (59 solo), 3 TFL, 3 INT, 10 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR
Who? You probably haven’t heard much about the Southern Miss product but he has been under the radar until late and has been gaining steam since his Pro Day. The Steelers can wait until the third round with the infusion of Morgan Burnett into the mix. Put up some very rare athletic testing numbers at his Pro Day: 4.32 40-yard dash, twice, along with a 38.5” vertical jump and a 11’1” broad jump. Has experience in the slot against man, in the box against the run and in a center fielder role. Is a physical and willing tackler. Takes good angles. This is my dark horse selection for the Steelers.
Moore was brought in for a pre-draft visit.
Previous selection: Safety Kyzir White
Round 5, Pick 148: Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State [Prospect Profile]
2017 Stats: 157 attempts for 669 yards (4.3 avg), 6 TD | 20 receptions for 91 yards
Ballage has been my guy for a few years now so this may be a bias selection, but it fits what the Steelers are looking for. As a running back out of the backfield, split out wide as a receiver, or as a return specialist, Ballage can be a true weapon for the Steelers. His numbers dropped in college due to his playstyle not suiting the offensive scheme. Ballage is very athletic and is one of the best pass catchers out of this running back class. He is a violent runner who hates being tackled and exerts 110% effort every run. This is good value for a player who can contribute early, in many ways and may possibly be the starting running back in 2019 if the Steelers don’t come to a long term deal with Le’Veon Bell.
Running back coach James Saxon was present for Arizona State’s Pro Day.
Previous selection: Kendrick Norton
Round 5, Pick 165: Bilal Nichols, NT, Delaware
2017 Stats: 56 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PD, 1 blocked kick
As with many defensive linemen, Nichols is a guy that I was late to getting to. He performed very well at the NFL Combine which triggered the Steelers interest in the Delaware product. He was asked to one gap until this past season where he moved to nose tackle and was productive in a two-gapping role. With Daniel McCullers never living up to being a competent nose tackle and the LT Walton project at nose tackling ultimately failing, a backup is needed.
Previous selection: Kalen Ballage
Round 7, Pick 220: Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB, Western Kentucky
2017 Stats: 117 tackles (54 solo), 11.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR
Iyiegbuniwe had some injury issues earlier in his football days, but has since then put together some productive seasons. A two time captain, the former hilltopper is an athletic player who has some special teams background and that’s where he starts off his career in Pittsburgh. If he makes the final 53-man roster, Iyiegbuniwe could see time in goal line formations and some subpackages as well as special teams.
Iyiegbuniwe was brought in for a pre-draft visit.
Previous pick: Same
Round 7, Pick 246: Russell Gage, WR, LSU [Prospect Profile]
2017 Stats: 21 receptions for 285 yards (13.6 avg), 3 TD | 28 rushes for 232 yards (8.3 avg), 1 TD
As you read above, Gage wasn’t productive at LSU, but was overall a valuable asset on both offense and special teams. Making the most out of his NFL Combine invitation, Gage put up good numbers with a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 39 inch vertical. With only two wide receivers under contract, I could see the Steelers doubling down at the position and Gage can hold onto the fifth wide receiver spot. At LSU, the quarterback situation is a mess and Gage has good potential and would be an ideal project for new wide receiver coach Darryl Drake.
The Steelers brought Gage in for a pre-draft visit and were present at his Pro Day.
Previous pick: Heath Harding
Summary: I really wish there was an edge rusher with some value but with the lack of interest in any at the position throughout the process and the exercising of Bud Dupree’s fifth year option, it just wasn’t in the stars. I could see the Steelers taking an interior offensive lineman with their last selection. I think I hit the needs pretty well and the team would be well improved if this draft comes to fruition.
1. LB – Leighton Vander Esch | Boise State
2. WR – Christian Kirk | Texas A&M
3. FS – Tarvarius Moore | Southern Miss
5a. NT – Bilal Nichols | Delaware
5b. RB – Kalen Ballage | Arizona State
7a. LB – Joel Iyiegbuniwe | Western Kentucky
7b. WR – Russell Gage | LSU
Stats credit: Sports-Reference