The Steelers hold the 20th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. Over the last two seasons, they have lost their best defensive player to injury and two All-Pro offensive talents to personal greed. Kevin Colbert said on the record he wished they had done more to address the void at inside linebacker after Ryan Shazier’s injury (though it is worth noting Colbert used 0 of his draft picks last year on linebackers). On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers need additional depth at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. On defense, any position other than the defensive line should be in the conversation in early rounds. Depth defensive or offensive linemen are always a possibility in later rounds. Former first round picks Bud Dupree and Artie Burns are in the last years of their contracts, which will create voids at outside linebacker and cornerback. In the secondary, the Steelers have all strong safeties and no true free safety. The good news this season is that with 10 picks in the draft, the Steelers have the opportunity to address all of their needs or make an aggressive move up the board to get a player they want. Taking this into account, the Steel City Blitz braintrust got together and created a First Round Draft Board that was weighted based on the Steelers team needs.
This year, I also took a deep dive into the Steelers draft tendencies since Kevin Colbert took the helm in 2000. They have shown a distinct preference (particularly in the first round) for players from Power Conferences who played on teams that finished in the AP Top 25. Additionally, in recent years highly athletic players that were 22 years old or younger have been distinct preferences. Taking into account the Steelers team needs and the prospects they have shown interest in during the draft process, here is a list of 10 players (including one “surprise” prospect) the Steelers could potentially select with the 20th pick.
Devin Bush (ILB – Michigan)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Of all the prospects on this list, Bush is the one that fits the Steelers mold the best. He is only 20 years old and has elite athleticism with a SPARQ score of 142.9 and an RAS of 9.33. He played for a Top 25 Power Conference team and the Steelers were at his Pro Day en masse. In addition to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler, defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin, and linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky were present. Inside linebacker is one of the Steelers’ biggest needs and Bush is a sideline-to-sideline player that is solid in coverage. If he is available when the Steelers are on the clock there is no reason why he should not be the pick. Additionally, he is a player that would be worth moving up in the draft to take and the Steelers have the ammunition to do so this year.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Bush is one of the top two inside linebacker prospects in the draft. As we saw last year, the top prospects got snatched off the board relatively quickly and the Steelers did not have a shot at any of them. Bush could go as early as the Broncos, Bengals, or Packers in the 10-12 pick range. Bush’s selection range is somewhat dependent on where top ILB prospect Devin White lands. It is expected that White goes 5th to Tampa, but if White somehow falls into the later half of the Top 10, Bush could slide a little further.
Mack Wilson (ILB – Alabama)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Last year the Steelers broke their streak of not having drafted an Alabama player since 1998 (DeShea Townsend) when they took DL Josh Frazier in the 7th round. This year, they had a heavy presence at the Crimson Tide Pro Day with Kevin Colbert, defensive coodinator Keith Butler, and linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky. They also reportedly met with Mack Wilson at the NFL Combine. He displayed some abilities in coverage, his athletic testing was just slightly above average. That said, he is likely the third best inside linebacker prospect in the draft, and if both Devin White and Devin Bush are off the board he could easily be the Steelers target.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: While Wilson checks a lot of the boxes for a potential Steelers pick, he does not have the freakishly elite athleticism that the Steelers have focused on in the first round. He grades out as a relatively average NFL athlete and may be better suited for the “buck” linebacker position (a la Vince Williams) than a true sideline-to-sideline “mack” linebacker (a la Ryan Shazier). Additionally, his college tape is sprinkled with excessive celebration and helmet-to-helmet penalties.
Clelin Ferrell (EDGE – Clemson)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The Steelers sent the house to Clemson’s Pro Day. Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, and linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky were all present. Ferrell was a productive college player for the National Champion Tigers. Ferrell has the size and power to set the edge against the run and to collapse the pocket. He would be able to step in as the 3rd man in the outside linebacker rotation and be slated to take over as a starter next year after Bud Dupree’s contract ends.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Ferrell sat out Clemson’s Pro Day because of a toe injury, which also prevented him from running the 40-yard dash at the Combine. Due to this, athleticism metrics such as SPARQ and RAS don’t have enough data for a score. This is not an eliminating factor, but it makes it harder to say if Ferrell meets certain athleticism thresholds that the Steelers like to target. Additionally, after the top two pass rushers (Bosa and Allen), it is hard to say which order the next group of EDGE players will come off the board, so Ferrell may be gone.
Rashan Gary (EDGE – Michigan)
SCB Prospect Profile
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Like with Clemson, the Steelers had a heavy presence at Michigan’s Pro Day with Colbert, Tomlin, Butler, Austin, and Olsavsky. Gary checks all the boxes to be an early-impact pass rusher. His tape shows flashes of absolute dominance, but can be inconsistent at times.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Gary may be better suited to a 4-3 than to a 3-4 defense. At 6’4″ and 277 pounds, Gary was used both as an interior and edge defender for Michigan. He could add some weight and play as a 3-4 DE or lose a little and move to the outside linebacker role. The Steelers may not view Gary as a good fit in their defensive scheme.
Chase Winovich (EDGE – Michigan)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Winovich is a local player from Thomas Jefferson High School who went on to star at Michigan as a relentless pass rusher. His effort level can not be questioned and shows up in every game, similar to TJ Watt’s tape. Winovich is also the only player that the Steelers reportedly have had dinner with during the Pro Day circuit (though there were likely many more unreported dinners and meetings).
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Winovich just turned 24 years old. As previously discussed, only one of the Steelers last 16 first round picks was older than 22 years old. The last time the Steelers took a 24-year old in the first 3 rounds of the draft was Casey Hampton in the first round in 2001.
Greedy Williams (CB – LSU)
SCB Prospect Profile
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Mike Tomlin only attended four Pro Days this year and LSU’s was one of them. With Tomlin and Colbert both present, and Williams entering the draft as a 3rd year sophomore from a ranked power conference school, he fits the Steelers trends for draft prospects. Williams recorded a blistering 4.37 40-yard dash and has plenty of experience battling against SEC receivers. With Artie Burns on his way out and Joe Haden entering the last year of his deal on the wrong side of 30, the Steelers need additional talent at cornerback.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Williams reportedly had no pre-draft visits with any team. This may mean that teams feel confident in their assessment of his talents. Williams is arguably one of the top two corners in the class, but the Steelers may have him ranked lower than Byron Murphy, who is more physical in run support.
Byron Murphy (CB – Washington)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Murphy, along with Greedy Williams, is one of the top corners on the board. The Steelers should love his physicality and willingness to stick his nose in against the run. Murphy has great instincts and a knack for finding the ball when it’s in the air. He tallied 7 interceptions and 20 passes defended on 87 balls thrown his way. He does not have the long speed to keep up with faster receivers but is best in short areas and has good closing speed.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: The Steelers met with Williams at the Combine and had him in to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit. However, his Pro Day was relatively lightly attended with only defensive assistant Teryl Austin present. The lack of Steelers brass at his Pro Day may be due to a lack of interest or because the Steelers were hosting pre-draft visitors in Pittsburgh on the same day. Murphy could be the first corner taken, so he may not make it to the Steelers at #20.
DeAndre Baker (CB – Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Baker is widely considered one of the top 3 corners in the draft who are all likely to go in the first round. If the first two are off the board, the Steelers could turn to him. While he did not have Colbert or Tomlin at his Pro Day, defensive coordinator Keith Butler was present. Additionally, like Byron Murphy he came to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit. Baker is a solid press corner who showed consistent play over multiple seasons with the Bulldogs.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: In addition to not having Kevin Colbert at his Pro Day, Baker tested a bit below-average athletically. The Steelers have shown a preference for freak athletes in the early rounds whereas Baker is right on the bottom side of average. The possibility exists that a run on corners does not happen and one of the other two are available for the Steelers at 20.
Justin Layne (CB – Michigan State)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Kevin Colbert attended Michigan State’s Pro Day and the Steelers brought Layne in to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit. Layne is part of the second tier of cornerbacks behind the top 3 of Williams, Murphy, and Baker. The Steelers have spent time with nearly all the second tier, including Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin, Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen, Notre Dame’s Julian Love, and Michigan’s David Long, and Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson. Layne was among the better athletic testers in the cornerback group, with a SPARQ score higher than the top three. The Steelers have a good scouting relationship with the Michigan State coaching staff which they have employed in the past.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Michigan State did not finish ranked in the Top 25. While this might seem like a small factor, 15 of their 19 first round picks under Kevin Colbert have come from ranked schools. Additionally, Layne seems like a player more likely to land with the Steelers in the second round rather than the first.
Over the last five years, the Steelers have pulled some surprising moves on draft day. Notably their selections of Artie Burns and Terrell Edmunds were seen by many analysts as “reaches.” As I detailed in my analysis of the athletic traits of recent Steelers draft picks, they have tended to favor highly athletic players in the first round. Therefore, I’m also throwing out one potential “surprise” prospect in the list who is not considered a first round talent but who may draw the Steelers attention. This year’s “surprise prospect” is….
Miles Boykin (WR – Notre Dame)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Boykin was the highest-scoring SPARQ player at the Combine, with a total score breaking the 150 mark. At nearly 6’4″, Boykin ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. Kevin Colbert attended Notre Dame’s Pro Day this year and Boykin visited the Steelers for a pre-draft visit. His explosiveness drills (broad jump and vertical jump) ranked in the 98th percentiles for wide receivers. Boykin has the height and the speed to be an immediate deep threat, which is the one piece the Steelers are missing in the receiving corps.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Boykin is more likely a player that will come off the board between the late 2nd and early 3rd round (and very likely could go to the Steelers in that range). His collegiate numbers don’t jump off the charts, but some of that was due to Notre Dame’s suspect quarterback play. Boykin seems like a Steelers-type prospect, and if they don’t take him in the first round I would not be surprised at all to hear his name called on Day 2.
Why the Steelers Will Trade Up: The Steelers have 10 picks in the draft and currently 15 available roster spots. They may use all 10 picks then only be able to sign a handful of undrafted free agents. On the other hand, they could use some of their additional selections to move up in the first round. While it seems unlikely that one of the “Devins” (White or Bush, the top ILB prospects) make it past Cincinnati at #11, if one does the Steelers should give serious consideration to moving up the board to grab a true Mack linebacker.
Why the Steelers Won’t Trade Up: In all likelihood, both Devin White and Devin Bush will be off the board by the 11th pick. Devin White has strong ties with Tampa Bay at the 5th overall pick and Bush has been tied to both Denver and Cincinnati at 10th and 11th. If both Devins are off the board, there may not be another prospect worth moving up to select. The Steelers should have their choice of a number of good players at 20.
Why the Steelers Will Trade Down: The Steelers have 10 picks in the Draft, so trading down to accumulate more picks may not make the most sense. That said, in his pre-draft press conference Kevin Colbert talked about having 4 picks in the top 83 and how the Steelers would essentially be picking once every 20 picks. If a team offered the Steelers additional early-round compensation (or future early-round compensation) it may be worth considering.
Why the Steelers Won’t Trade Down: The teams drafting immediately after the Steelers will also be looking to trade down. Seattle (21st) has the fewest picks in the draft and the Steelers won’t trade with Baltimore (22nd). If a team from the late 1st round or early 2nd round is looking to move up, they will likely have more willing sellers in Seattle and Baltimore than they would in Pittsburgh, which could hinder getting a deal done.
Why the Steelers Will Draft Someone Else: There are a number of other prospects the Steelers have been connected to during the pre-draft cycle. A player like Devin White who is the top inside linebacker prospect will likely be taken in the Top 10 and not even in the Steelers range. Both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin attended West Virginia’s Pro Day but WRs Gary Jennings and David Stills along with inside linebacker David Long are not considered first round-caliber prospects. (Of course, that didn’t stop them from taking Terrell Edmunds last year.) While the cornerback class may not have a truly elite player, there is some talented depth in the second tier that the Steelers have scouted including Trayvon Mullen, Julian Love, David Long, Rock Ya-Sin, and Lonnie Johnson. Alabama safety Deionte Thompson missed the Combine due to injury so it’s hard to gauge where he will land on the board.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Someone Else: The Steelers pick 20th in the draft. There will definitely be 1 QB (Murray), 2 offensive linemen (Taylor and Williams), 2 defensive linemen (Williams and Oliver), 2 edge rushers (Bosa and Allen), and an inside linebacker (White) taken in the Top 20. Though it seems unlikely, there could be up to 4 quarterbacks taken in the first 15 picks (this is an ideal scenario for the Steelers). In all likelihood, at least 2 come off the board. After those 8 players, it is possible that a wide receiver (DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, or Marquise Brown) or tight end (TJ Hockenson) is also taken. Other edge rushers such as Brian Burns or Montez Sweat may come off the board. Given the 8 guarantees and 9 potential others that could be drafted in the first 19 picks, the Steelers should have a number of good players to choose from. There were 10 potential prospects listed here, with Devin Bush being the most likely to be drafted early but also the most likely trade up target. In all likelihood the Steelers will have their choice from at least 8 of the 10 players listed here.