The Steelers are slated to pick 20th 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. Last year, they held fast at 24 and landed Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris.
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, 17 of Colbert’s 21 first round picks came from winning programs that finished ranked in the AP Top 25. Age is a factor as only two first round picks since 2003 were older than 22 years old (though they broke that trend with Najee Harris last year). 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 11 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.
Malik Willis (QB – Liberty)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The Steelers have spent a ton of time with quarterbacks in this draft process from the Senior Bowl to the Combine and hitting all of their Pro Days. Willis may not fit the Steelers traditional mold of a Power 5 prospect and he will turn 23 just a month after the draft. That being said the last time they went outside the power conferences in the first round was when they selected Ben Roethlisberger. Mike Tomlin seems to be enamored with mobile quarterbacks and Willis is certainly the best of that group in the draft, running for over 800 yards and double-digit TDs on the ground each of the last two seasons.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Willis is a boom or bust prospect. It only takes one QB-needy team drafting ahead of the Steelers to gamble on that “boom” and Willis won’t even be available for consideration. His name has been brandied about as high as the #2 pick to Detroit but more realistically Atlanta or Seattle at the bottom of the Top 10 could target him. On tape, Willis makes some questionable decisions with the ball and will definitely need a year to acclimate to the NFL before stepping into a full-time starting role. He threw 12 interceptions this past season at Liberty, a number that could be concerning if he doesn’t clean up his footwork and decision-making.
Kenny Pickett (QB – Pitt)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Of all the quarterbacks in this draft class, the Steelers should be the most familiar with Pickett after he spent five years right down the hallway. He was a 4-year starter at Pitt who lit it up for over 4300 yards and 42 TDs this past season. He didn’t run as much as some of the other quarterbacks in the class, but displayed good mobility when necessary. Pickett probably is the most pro-ready of this quarterback class and has the highest floor. If a team needs a rookie QB to step in and start this year, Pickett looks like the best bet.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Pickett will be 24 years old by the time the 2022 season starts. While he has a high floor in this class, there is some concern that he may also be very close to his ceiling. Pickett is double-jointed and his hands measured much smaller than any quarterback in history but it doesn’t seem to effect the way he holds or throws the football. Pickett may very well be the first quarterback off the board, as Carolina (who holds the #6 pick) has put in a lot of time scouting him.
Desmond Ridder (QB – Cincinnati)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: If the top two quarterbacks in this class are off the board, there is a very realistic scenario that the Steelers could take Cincinnati’s Des Ridder. He is a four-year starter but is still just 22 years old. While he didn’t play for a Power Five conference, he led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff this past season. He is a quality athlete who can make plays with his feet when needed but it is not an integral part of his game like it is for Malik Willis. Ridder threw for over 3300 yards and 30 TDs this past season. He was a team captain and has the mental fortitude and winner’s resume (a 43-6 career record!) to be an attractive option.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Ridder likely needs to sit for a year before being thrust into a starting NFL role. He is a quality athlete who is mobile in the pocket but his eyes can linger on targets and he can get check-down happy at times (see: the Alabama game).
Matt Corral (QB – Ole Miss)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Corral is a tough, hard-nosed quarterback who played in an RPO-based offensive attack at Ole Miss. He threw for over 3300 yards and 20 TDs this past season and showed off his running abilities on numerous occasions. He is not afraid to take a hit and will bounce back up. He has the on-field swagger and demeanor to succeed at the next level.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: The Steelers watched Baker Mayfield play for four years and decided they don’t need that kind of player on the team. Corral is on the shorter side for a QB (6’1″) and is coming off an injury he suffered in Ole Miss’ bowl game. Coming out of Lane Kiffin’s offense can be hard to project into the NFL because of the specific scheme-based reads he uses for his quarterbacks. Corral will need a similar system in the NFL and if that isn’t a fit for Matt Canada’s offense then the Steelers will likely look elsewhere.
Jordan Davis (NT – Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The Steelers had the worst run defense in the league last season. Additionally, Stephon Tuitt’s situation is still undecided and Tyson Alualu has been injury-prone the last few seasons. Davis is an absolute space-eater in the middle of the defensive line who would immediately add youth and depth to a position group where the three starters are all over 30. Davis was a stud in the middle of Georgia’s line who commanded multiple blockers and frees up the linebackers to rove around and fly to the ball.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: After Alabama somewhat neutralized Davis’ impact in the SEC Championship game by taking a pass-happy approach, there were some questions about whether Davis could be an effective three-down player at the next level. Those concerns should have been put to rest after Davis blew the roof off the Combine with his athletic testing. That said, his stock may have risen so much that he gets selected before the Steelers are on the clock.
Devonte Wyatt (DL – Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: If the Steelers aren’t able to land Jordan Davis, his counterpart on Georgia’s line is certainly a viable option. Wyatt played the 3-4 defensive end spot for Georgia and looks capable of playing both a 3-tech and 5-tech roles. This would make him a three-down lineman capable of contributing in any situation. Wyatt has excellent hands and can maneuver his way through the traffic of the line. He has the athleticism to carry down the line and shut down gaps against outside zone runs.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Wyatt tested well athletically but his overall production was somewhat limited. In 2021 Wyatt had career-highs in sacks (2.5) and TFLs (7.0). He is one of the older players in the draft and has already turned 24, which would break away from the Steelers historical trend of taking younger players.
Nakobe Dean (LB – Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: For anyone who watched Georgia’s defense last season, Dean looked like the fastest player on the field at all times. He flies around from the inside linebacker position and can diagnose and attack from sideline to sideline against the run. A player like Dean would give the Steelers a succession plan on the inside in the event Devin Bush does not fully bounce back from his knee injury. Dean is an explosive playmaker who had 10.5 TFLs and 6 sacks this past season to go with 8 passes defended and 2 interceptions. Dean is a high-character player and team leader along with being a quality student in the classroom in his pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree. Dean’s leadership and playmaking abilities would add an additional dynamic to the defense that was last in the league against the run.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Dean is viewed as an “undersized” prospect at 5’11” 230 and he did not do any athletic drills at the combine or his pro day as he recovered from a knee injury. With his size, he may not be able to match up with bigger tight ends in coverage but has the speed to run with wide receivers and running backs.
Andrew Booth (CB – Clemson)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Booth is just 21 years old and is a true junior who was First-Team all conference this past year. After the top two corners (Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner and LSU’s Derek Stingley), he is the best cover corner in the draft. Different rankings will have either Booth or Washington’s Trent McDuffie as the third best corner in the draft. McDuffie is more of a zone corner while Booth is a better man corner with long arms. He is a physical corner that attacks the ball with 8 passes defended and 3 interceptions this past season.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Booth’s college career was spotted with injuries. He has had knee issues dating back to high school (tendinitis) and had surgery to repair his patella tendon after his freshman season. He missed the athletic workouts in the predraft process due to a quad strain and hernia. If Booth’s medicals don’t check out, the Steelers would not invest a first round pick in him.
Kyle Hamilton (S – Notre Dame)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Hamilton was the #1 overall player in the draft class in our SCB Steelers Draft Board. Hamilton is a play-making safety who has a combination of physicality against the run and ranginess to play against the pass. He is ferocious in attacking the ball and in his 3-year career totaled 24 passes defended and 8 interceptions to go along with 7.5 TFLs. Hamilton would give the Steelers a succession plan behind the recently re-signed Terrell Edmunds and give them the opportunity to mix up coverages this season with multiple safety looks.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Hamilton’s 40-yard dash time at his Pro Day was over a tenth of a second slower than at the Combine. That 4.7 time raised some eyebrows about Hamilton. He missed the final 6 games of 2021 with a knee injury, so the medicals would need to check out for the Steelers to take him. That said, he is overall the best safety in the draft and will likely be taken in the top 15 picks. Hamilton falling to the Steelers would be an absolute dream scenario.
Dax Hill (SS – Michigan)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Kyle Hamilton will almost certainly be off the board by the time the Steelers draft. If the Steelers decide to go the safety route early in the draft, Dax Hill is a great option. He has the potential to be what they had hoped Sean Davis could be. Hill has the athleticism to cover in the slot and is tenacious coming downhill to attack the ball. He is primarily a strong safety but with a sub-4.4 40-yard dash he is also capable of playing in a 2-high look and covering sideline to sideline. Hill is a versatile chess piece that can be played all over the Steelers defense.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: The Steelers had the worst run defense in the league and may look to address the front seven before looking to the secondary. The potential for drafting Hill seemed a lot more likely a week ago before Terrell Edmunds was re-signed to a 1-year contract.
Why the Steelers Will Trade Up: If the Steelers truly have their mind set on taking a quarterback this year, they could make an aggressive move up the draft board to nab one. That could mean trading up to snag a player like Malik Willis, who has the most upside of any quarterback in this draft. That could also mean a panicked move up if Willis and Pickett both go off the board in the Top 10 and they feel the need to get Desmond Ridder. If the Steelers feel the need to solidify their league-worst run defense, a move up (not as far) for Jordan Davis or if Kyle Hamilton slips out of the Top 10 could be a defensible move.
Why the Steelers Won’t Trade Up: This is Kevin Colbert’s last year as General Manager. Would he mortgage the future and trade away next year’s first round pick in a move into the Top 10 to get a quarterback? It seems unlikely that the Steelers would be willing to handcuff their next GM in that way (without a first round pick in his first season). The Steelers only have 7 picks in this year’s draft and only three of them are in the Top 135 picks.
Why the Steelers Will Trade Down: The Steelers have needs for depth at a number of positions and being able to acquire additional picks in subsequent rounds of the draft has some value. If the draft board breaks in an absolutely dreadful way for the Steelers (i.e. if the Top 4 QBs are all gone) they may be willing to trade down and acquire more picks. The other side is if a number of receivers and linemen are taken, they may have multiple players remaining on their “Top 20” list that they would be comfortable taking and be willing to trade down a few spots in order to still have a chance at one of them.
Why the Steelers Won’t Trade Down: Kevin Colbert’s only trade down in the first round was when they took Casey Hampton when they moved down three spots. In his Monday press conference, Colbert mentioned that when they did trade down it was because they had 3 guys left on their board that they were all comfortable with drafting. For the Steelers to move down from 20 they would need to have multiple players remaining on their board that they would feel certain they could get one of at a later point in the draft.
Why the Steelers Will Draft Someone Else: The Kevin Colbert + Mike Tomlin Pro Day tour hit all of the major quarterbacks available. They saw Kenny Pickett at Pitt, Malik Willis at Liberty, Matt Corral at Ole Miss, and Desmond Ridder at Cincinnati. Due to NFL meetings, Mike Tomlin did not make it to Sam Howell’s Pro Day at North Carolina. The combo also went to big-time schools including Georgia, Clemson, Michigan, and LSU. Without Tomlin, Colbert hit Pro Days at Notre Dame, Duke, NC State, and Alabama. This means a number of prospects not listed above could potentially be in play. If a top player such as LSU CB Derek Stingley or Alabama WR Jameson Williams falls to 20th they would certainly garner consideration. Georgia’s defense was absolutely loaded with playmakers and only 3 were listed above but there are other potential impact talents such as LB Quay Walker or S Lewis Cine. Colbert and Tomlin did not attend Pro Days at Mississippi State or Ohio State, but if OT Charles Cross, or WRs Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were available, the Steelers couldn’t be faulted for pulling the trigger on one of those players.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Someone Else: The Steelers have the 20th pick in the draft. In advance of their pick there will almost certainly be 4 edge rushers, 3 offensive tackles, and 2 cornerbacks taken. In all likelihood at least one if not more of the 10 players listed above will be available. They all fit the bill of players the Steelers have heavily scouted with Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert attending their pro days. They tested well athletically and played on successful teams. With the departure of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers need players who are strong leaders in the locker room and most of these guys would be able to provide that presence.