The Steelers are slated to pick 24th in this week’s NFL Draft. After standing pat on their first round pick for the first 12 years of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers made a massive move up the board in 2019 to get Devin Bush then traded away their 2020 first round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both of those trades proved to be good moves as Bush and Fitzpatrick vastly improved the middle of the defense.
Back in 2019, we broke down some of the defining characteristics of recent Steelers first round picks. Since 2004 all of the Steelers first and second round picks have come from power conferences. Additionally, 16 of Colbert’s 20 first round picks came from winning programs that finished ranked in the AP Top 25. Age is a factor as only one first round pick since 2003 was older than 22 years old. Since 2014 the Steelers have put heavy weight in athletic metrics (such as SPARQ and RAS). Finally, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have attended the Pro Day of the last 10 first round picks (Ziggy Hood in 2009 was the last one they did not attend). With the draft only a few days away, here is a look at the ten prospects we feel are most likely to be the Steelers first round selection, based on those past trends and our own intuition.
Najee Harris (RB-Alabama)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Running back seems like the most obvious position of need for the Steelers. With James Conner signing in Arizona, the Steelers do not have a starting-caliber running back on the roster. Harris is without a doubt the top running back in this class and has a rare combination of speed, size, power, and quickness. Harris is a capable receiver out of the backfield and is dangerous in the open field against smaller defensive backs. Simply put, Najee Harris looks like an old-school Steelers running back.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Harris is 23 years old, which would be a departure from their trend to select younger players early in the draft. Additionally, running backs tend to have a short shelf life in the NFL and tend to burn out within five years. This leads to the notion that it is inefficient to use a first round pick on a running back.
Travis Etienne (RB-Clemson)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Etienne opted to stay in school for his senior year when he likely would have been the top running back taken last year. He has some of the best burst and acceleration in the Draft and often looks like he is shot out of a cannon. Etienne has the breakaway speed the Steelers have not had in the backfield since Willie Parker, but has much better contact balance and is a better receiver than Parker. Etienne would be a great fit in Matt Canada’s motion offense. The Steelers went heavy to Clemson’s Pro Day with Colbert, Tomlin, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: As mentioned with Harris, the running back position has become somewhat devalued over the last decade. If Harris is still on the board, Etienne is nearly universally seen as the second-best back in the class, so if the Steelers go Running Back then Harris seems like the preferable pick. Additionally, Etienne needs some work in the blocking department making his ability to initially play on 3rd downs questionable.
Pat Freiermuth (TE-Penn St)
Why the Steelers will draft him: There is one elite tight end in this draft that will go in the top 6 picks – Florida’s Kyle Pitts. Behind him, Freiermuth is the only tight end worth a selection in the first two rounds. He is a well-rounded player who is a strong blocker and a good receiver all over the field. If there is a tight end in this draft who is the most similar to what Heath Miller could do, it is Pat Freiermuth. Tomlin, Colbert, and TE Coach Alfredo Roberts went to Penn State’s Pro Day to check out Freiermuth.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Tight end is not a position where the Steelers are currently in need of a starter. Eric Ebron is under contract for one more season. The Steelers do need a tight end of the future, but they have bigger immediate needs to address at the top of the 2021 Draft. The team needs starters at other positions (Running Back, Center, possibly Tackle, slot Corner) which could drive the need for a tight end down. Freiermuth would not fit the trend of “players from winning programs” as Penn State had a down year and did not finish in the Top 25.
Teven Jenkins (OT-Oklahoma State)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Jenkins is a mauling tackle who might be best suited as a right tackle in the NFL. He is in the second tier of offensive linemen who will likely be taken in the later half of the first round. Jenkins is one of the top five tackles in a very deep tackle class.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did not go to Oklahoma State’s Pro Day. The team brass did have zoom meetings with Jenkins, but they did not attend his Pro Day which is usually a strong indicator of early-round interest. It is also very possible that Jenkins is off the board before the Steelers pick as one of the five best tackle prospects in the draft. Furthermore, Jenkins is 23 years old, which would be a departure from the Steelers trend of taking players that are 22 and younger in the first round.
Alex Leatherwood (OT-Alabama)
Why the Steelers will draft him: The Steelers certainly have a need at offensive tackle and while they won’t be in the range for the top ones in the the draft class, the second-tier of tackles is also very talented. Colbert, Tomlin, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada attended Alabama’s Pro Day. Leatherwood’s greatest trait is his massive frame. He has the largest wingspan of any of the top-tier linemen at over 84.5″. With a wingspan like that, and his mauling mentality, he seems ideally suited to the right tackle position.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Some scouts view Leatherwood as more of a guard than a tackle because he is not the most mobile lineman, but he tested well athletically. If the Steelers view him as better suited to the guard position, then they could look in another direction. While Leatherwood does check all the boxes for a Steelers first round pick, he is one of many quality linemen in this draft and the Steelers may rate others ahead of him.
Creed Humphrey (C-Oklahoma)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Humphrey looks the part as the best center in this draft class. With Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement, the Steelers have a massive need to fill in the middle of the line. While on tape, Humphrey looks like he is well-suited for a power running scheme, his athletic testing at his Pro Day was through the roof, which leads us to believe he has the versatility to play in any scheme. Some think Alabama’s Landon Dickerson is the better center prospect and that Humphrey is more of a guard, but Dickerson has a concerning injury history which puts Humphrey at the top of our list of center prospects.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did not attend Oklahoma’s Pro Day. Assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan was in attendance, but the Steelers history of using first round picks on players Colbert and Tomlin personally scouted weighs heavily on this choice. Additionally, if the Steelers feel that Landon Dickerson’s medicals check out (which is a big “if” given his history) they may prefer the Alabama center. Some scouts see Humphrey as more of a guard than center but he has the versatility to play either position.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB-Notre Dame)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin attended Notre Dame’s Pro Day where JOK displayed great explosiveness and agility. He was a swiss army knife in Notre Dame’s defense, able to line up all over the field and play a number of different positions. Having a player with his explosiveness and abilities on defense is certainly enticing.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: JOK is a bit of a tweener in that he is undersized for a linebacker but a little large for a safety. He measured at 6’1″ 221 pounds at his Pro Day, which would be among the lightest linebackers but among the heavier safeties. That said, his overall talent shows up on tape and he may be off the board well before the Steelers make a selection. If the Steelers view him as more of a safety than a linebacker, then the fact that they already have two established starting safeties could send their draft priorities in other directions.
Zaven Collins (LB-Tulsa)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Collins is a rangy linebacker who has sideline-to-sideline speed and packs a whallop when he hits. He moves very well for a player of his size and has the explosiveness and agility to play in space against the run and the pass. Collins is almost Levon Kirkland-esque with his combination of size and speed and range. Even though Colbert and Tomlin did not attend his Pro Day, Collins reportedly met via zoom with the entire Steelers management team.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: While JOK may be a bit undersized for an inside linebacker, Collins may be a bit oversized. He weighed in at 259 at his Pro Day and was reportedly up to 270 at the medical Combine earlier in April. Given his size and athletic traits, there may be some questions about where his best fit is in an NFL defense. He has the size to play EDGE rusher but the range to play inside linebacker. As such, he may be best suited for a strongside linebacker role in a 4-3 defense. Additionally, Collins is the only player on this list who is not from a Power Conference school, which makes his selection a little more unlikely.
Asante Samuel Jr (CB-Florida State)
Why the Steelers will draft him: With Steven Nelson’s release, the Steelers have a massive need for a starting-capable corner. Joe Haden and Cam Sutton will likely be the starters on the outside, but given that a nickel corner plays over 70% of the snaps, third corners are essentially starters. Samuel has the ability to play either the slot or the outside. In an ideal world, he could play the slot as a rookie then move outside after Joe Haden retires. Even though Florida State did not finish the year as a ranked team, Colbert and Tomlin attended their Pro Day and Samuel has NFL bloodlines after his father’s excellent career.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: Samuel, like his father, is best suited for off-coverage rather than a press man scheme. Asante Samuel (Sr) was one of the best zone corners of the 2000s, able to quickly break on a ball and recording a number of pick-sixes by undercutting routes. His son is much the same in that he is better playing off coverage and using his explosiveness to close rather than running around the field in man coverage. The Steelers have used more man coverage in recent years and if they prefer man corners to zone corners then Samuel may not be rated as highly on their board.
Tyson Campbell (CB-Georgia)
Why the Steelers will draft him: Among the second tier of corners in the draft, Campbell might be the best press man corner. He has the athletic ability to run with receivers down the field and is a physical player. He flies in against the run to make tackles on the edge and has good awareness with the ball in the air. Campbell does all of the things that the Steelers like in their corners and has the size to match up with bigger receivers.
Why the Steelers won’t draft him: If they watched the Bulldogs game against Alabama, Campbell got absolutely torched. That said, guys like South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn also got worked by the Tide receivers. Campbell’s strengths are in his physicality and straight-line speed but he did not test well in agility drills. He can run vertically with receivers down the field but there might be a question if he can stay with them through breaks in the route tree.
Why the Steelers will trade up: The Steelers have a plethora of needs this year, but there is one scenario that would make sense for a trade up. If Justin Fields falls out of the top 7 picks, there is a case to be made for the Steelers to make an aggressive move up the draft board to secure their quarterback of the future. This will be Ben’s last year and to have his heir apparent on the sidelines and able to learn the offense before being forced into the starting role would be a huge boon for the future of the team.
Why the Steelers won’t trade up: The Steelers have a number of significant needs on their roster. They need starting-caliber players at running back, center, offensive tackle, and slot corner. They also need a second tight end and could use depth at inside and outside linebacker. With all of these needs, the Steelers can’t afford to give away many picks in this year’s draft for an aggressive move up the board. The only scenario in which this could make sense would be if a team was willing to accept multiple future picks in lieu of getting a bunch of picks in return in this year’s draft.
Why the Steelers will trade down: Given all of the team’s needs (as detailed in the “Trade Up” section), trading down to acquire more picks may be a very good scenario. Trading back into the late first round with a team like Green Bay (who has 10 picks) or Buffalo would make a lot of sense for both teams. The Steelers could likely acquire an extra third round pick to move down 5-6 spots on the draft board. If Green Bay wants to move up for a wide receiver or Buffalo wants to come up for an EDGE rusher (both positions the Steelers don’t have much interest in), it could behoove both teams to make a deal.
Why the Steelers won’t trade down: Given the uncertainty of this year’s draft in general, there is a chance that a very good player will still be available at 24. For the first 12 years of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers did not make a move in the first round, but they have been more aggressive the last two years – moving up to get Devin Bush then trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers have not traded down since 2001, but in a year like this when they are in “win-now” mode, adding another Top 100 pick would be worthwhile as long as there isn’t a premier talent still on the board.
Why the Steelers will draft someone else: If the Steelers make a big trade up the board for Justin Fields (or possibly Trey Lance, depending on where he lands) then that obviously blows up the whole list. Additionally, if the Steelers trade back some of the players listed may not be available while guys like Eric Stokes or Liam Eichenberg may garner consideration. The Steelers did attend Alabama’s Pro Day but it seems like Mac Jones will go in the Top 10 and Landon Dickerson’s injury history is concerning. The Steelers lost Bud Dupree in free agency, and this is not a great EDGE rusher class but if none are taken by 24 could the Steelers look at someone like Azeez Oljiari, Jaelan Phillips, Jayson Oweh, or Kwity Paye? The other scenario which could lead them to taking someone else is if a highly talented player like Micah Parsons or Christian Darrisaw slides down the board to them at 24 (which seems unlikely but they did get David DeCastro at 24 so you never know).
Why the Steelers won’t draft someone else: The Steelers hold the 24th pick in the draft. There are 14 players who are nearly guaranteed to go ahead of their pick in the draft (Lawrence, Wilson, Jones, Fields, Lance, Pitts, Sewell, Slater, Chase, Smith, Waddle, Parsons, Surtain, and Horn). With those 14 players plus the 10 listed here, it is almost a certainty that at least one of the guys listed will be available for the Steelers (and likely more than one as guys like Darrisaw, JOK, and Vera-Tucker will probably also be off the board before 24).