The Steelers are slated to pick 17th 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. While the Fitzpatrick move proved to be incredibly beneficial, the Bush move did not pan out. They held fast the last two years and landed Najee Harris and Kenny Pickett.
We have been tracking the defining characteristics of recent Steelers first round picks. One of the interesting dynamics this year will be if Omar Khan continues the trends of his predecessor Kevin Colbert or if there is divergence with the new regime. Mike Tomlin’s voice will still carry weight on the draft decisions so some of the trends will likely continue. Since 2004 all of the Steelers first and second round picks have come from power conferences. Additionally, 18 of Colbert’s 22 first round picks came from programs that finished ranked in the AP Top 25. Age was somewhat of a factor as only three first round picks since 2003 were older than 22 years old (though they broke that trend with Harris and Pickett the last two years). Since 2014 the Steelers have put heavy weight in athletic metrics (such as SPARQ and RAS).
Interestingly, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin had attended the Pro Day of the last 11 first round picks (Ziggy Hood in 2009 was the last one they did not attend). Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin did hit the Pro Day circuit this year and went to Clemson, Georgia, Michigan, Iowa, Iowa State, Ohio State, and Alabama. While Tomlin and Colbert were at the Owner’s Meetings in Arizona, assistant GM Andy Weidl went to Pro Days at Tennessee and Penn State. Another factor to consider with the new regime is if Weidl’s Pro Day visits will carry similar weight to Khan/Tomlin’s visits. Under Kevin Colbert’s direction, pre-draft visits were not always a great indicator of first round interest but that could change as well.
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.
Out of Range
There are a number of prospects at the top of the draft class that the Steelers have spent a minimal amount of time scouting. This starts with the four quarterbacks – Bryce Young (Alabama), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Anthony Richardson (Florida), and Will Levis (Kentucky). Additionally, the Steelers have spent very little time scouting Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon, Texas Tech EDGE Tyree Wilson, and Texas RB Bijan Robinson. It can be safely assumed that these players are not among the likely group that the Steelers will draft, and with the possible exception of Robinson will all be off the board in the Top 15 picks.
Trade Up Scenarios
Rumors have floated out there that the Steelers could be willing to move up into the Top 10 of the draft. Given that the Steelers have the #32 pick along with their normal second round pick (#49), a number of scenarios are available to them. Trading the 17th and 49th pick could get them up to about the #9 pick with Chicago, a recent trade parter. If the Steelers do trade up that far, it brings into range some players that may not be seen as the most likely candidates. Alabama’s Will Anderson is the top pass rusher in the draft, but depending on what happens with quarterbacks in the Top 5 he could slide. Georgia DT Jalen Carter has some significant off-field concerns that could cause a slide, but on tape his talent is undeniable. Teryl Austin attended Georgia’s Pro Day along with Khan and Tomlin. Northwestern OT Peter Skoronski is the best lineman in the draft but shorter-than-ideal arms may force him inside to guard which could lower his draft stock. The Steelers met with Skoronski at the Combine and sent OL coach Pat Meyer to his Pro Day. Finally, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez was the top player on our SCB Draft Board but other than an area scout attending his Pro Day, his only connection to Pittsburgh was a pre-draft visit. Gonzalez displays amazing footwork and is our top corner of the draft.
Paris Johnson Jr (OT-Ohio State)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Johnson has tremendous size and measurables for the position. At 6’6″ tall and with arms over 36″ long, only one other player in the draft class (fellow Buckeye Dawand Jones) has a bigger wingspan than Johnson. He fits the mold of a Steelers pick in that Mike Tomlin was at his Pro Day, he came from a ranked program, and he is an underclassman, turning 22 in July. Johnson has size and athleticism to be able to get out into space as a lead blocker and has the length to put pass rushers at bay. In the locker room, he was hailed for his leadership traits and work ethic.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: If teams view Skoronski as a guard, Johnson is the top tackle of this draft class. At a premium position, this likely means that he will be gone in the Top 15 picks and the Steelers would have to make a move up the board if they want to get him. They may not need to go all the way to #9 to take Johnson, but he is certainly in the Top 10 conversation in this draft class.
Broderick Jones (OT-Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: If Broderick Jones is available when the Steelers pick at 17, he is absolutely a “run to the podium” type player. Jones is an absolute mauler who finishes blocks with violence but has strong technique to avoid penalties. Impressively he was never called for a holding penalty in college. He had very good athletic testing for a player of his size. Overall, Jones is the kind of player you can build an offensive line around and who can anchor either side for years to come. Offensive tackle is one of the biggest needs and in addition to having Khan and Tomlin at his Pro Day, Jones came to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: As the second-best tackle prospect in the draft, Jones may very well be off the board in the Top 15 picks. The Steelers may need to trade up (though possibly not into the Top 10) to get Jones. If Jones somehow makes it to 17, they will be very hard-pressed to pass on a player of his caliber.
Darnell Wright (OT-Tennessee)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Wright did not allow a sack in 2022, including an absolute shutout of Alabama’s Will Anderson. Wright plays with a nasty edge and improved his technique over the last year. After 10 penalties as a junior he was flagged just twice last year (only once for holding). An impressive feat for a player that did not allow a sack. He has played both guard, left tackle, and right tackle (which may be his most natural position). Wright will be a test of how much Tomlin’s Pro Day attendance matters, though the Steelers certainly have an interest in him as Assistant GM Andy Weidl and Offensive Line coach Pat Meyer were in Knoxville. Wright also came to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Wright (somewhat) violates the trend of Tomlin attending the Pro Day of the eventual first round pick. That said, Tomlin and Khan had a prior obligation in Arizona for the Owner’s Meetings during Tennessee’s Pro Day so that may be an exception to the rule here. Furthermore, Wright’s most natural position appears to be right tackle, and the Steelers may be looking more for a true left tackle as Chuks Okorafor is under contract at RT.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba (WR-Ohio State)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: JSN is the top receiver in the draft and the only one that seems to be a consensus first round pick. While he missed most of this past season with injury, he tested very well athletically and has the short-area quickness to be an immediate impact receiver in the NFL. Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan attended Ohio State’s Pro Day and Tomlin always loves route-running technicians which is JSN’s strong suit. The biggest thing missing from the Steelers offense are dynamic playmakers who are threats to create big plays and score any time they get the ball in their hands. JSN has that ability and would be a boon to the offense. Oh, and his brother plays for the First Place Pittsburgh Pirates.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: With George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, and Allen Robinson in the fold, wide receiver is not the most glaring need for the Steelers. As the best WR in a class relatively weak on top-end talent, someone may snatch up JSN in the Top 15. Additionally, this would be a fairly sizeable break from the Steelers historical trend of not drafting receivers early.
Nolan Smith (EDGE-Georgia)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: Smith is lightning-quick off the edge and can be a disruptive force against both the run and the pass. He may have some ability to play either inside or outside as he weighed in at a shade under 240 pounds. Despite his weight, he showed an ability to set the edge with his strength and his explosiveness means that he can be in the backfield in a flash if the line gives him a crease. He flashed the ability to chase down running plays to the far side as well as closing on a quarterback in a heartbeat.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Smith’s speed and athleticism will make him a highly coveted prospect and he will likely be off the board in the Top 15 picks. Additionally, since his weight makes him a bit of a tweener and a little light to play on the edge, the Steelers may not see him as a player that fills an immediate need. Smith battled some injuries through college but recovered enough to light up the Combine.
Lukas Van Ness (EDGE-Iowa)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The only two EDGE rushers currently on the roster entering the draft are TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith. With the later entering the final year of his contract, the Steelers need both immediate depth and a potential long-term starter at the position. Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin attended Iowa’s Pro Day. Van Ness fits the Steelers mold of being a young and highly athletic player. Van Ness plays with power and explosiveness with one scout comparing him to a grizzly bear. While he doesn’t have a refined set of pass rushing moves, he will often just bully his way into the backfield.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Van Ness did not start a single game at Iowa. While he was the most productive of their EDGE rushers, his inability to crack the starting lineup may be seen as a concern. That said, teams will gamble on athleticism and he may be off the board in the Top 15 of this draft.
Myles Murphy (EDGE-Clemson)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The Steelers need depth at EDGE rusher. With only Watt and Highsmith on the roster, the need at the position is one of the greatest on the roster. Omar Khan, Mike Tomlin, Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin, and D-Line coach Karl Dunbar were all in attendance at Clemson’s Pro Day. Murphy put in a strong workout at his Pro Day with excellent athletic numbers for an EDGE rusher. If the top four EDGE rushers are off the board in the Top 15, Murphy fits the mold as a target for the Steelers. He is athletic and powerful at the point of attack and knows how to get into the backfield, posting doublee-digit TFLs all three years at Clemson.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: Murphy’s size may best suit him for a 4-3 DE role moreso than a 3-4 OLB. He didn’t have outstanding numbers in college, but that has not scared the Steelers off from drafting players in the past (see: Bud Dupree). His 3-cone time at Clemson’s Pro Day was 7.21, which is not bad but a relatively average number in the one drill that tends to be a very good predictor of EDGE rusher success.
Will McDonald IV (EDGE-Iowa State)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The Steelers in recent years have seemingly loved to pull one out of left field and surprise everyone. Omar Khan, Mike Tomlin, and Teryl Austin all attended Iowa State’s Pro Day. McDonald tested very well athletically, including a blistering 6.85 second 3-cone time, putting him among the top players in that drill (under 7 seconds is considered elite). McDonald was a productive player with 10+ sacks and 10+ TFLs in 2020 and 2021, but his production dropped off when Iowa State moved him inside to a DE position in a 3-man front this past year.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: McDonald is a 5th year senior and will turn 24 on June 4. For reference, Alex Highsmith will turn 26 in August. While the Steelers have drafted older players the past two years, it is not their general modus operandi. Additionally, Iowa State did not finish the year as a ranked team, which would tend against the trend of drafting players from winning programs. McDonald is generally listed in the 30-50 range on most draft boards and would probably be considered a bit of a reach at 17 but could be a very viable candidate in a trade down scenario.
Joey Porter Jr (CB-Penn State)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: His name is Joey Porter, Jr.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: He has the potential to be a penalty machine. JPJ was flagged 11 times over the last two seasons and can be very grabby in coverage. While his physicality is an asset in press coverage, he continues that physicality all over the field which in turn results in penalties. He had just 1 interception in his college career. While Tomlin and Khan did not attend JPJ’s Pro Day, it was because of their prior commitments at the owner’s meeting. Assistant GM Andy Weidl and defensive backs coach Grady Brown were at Penn State’s Pro Day and Porter came to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft visit.
Brian Branch (S-Alabama)
Why the Steelers Will Draft Him: The missing piece on the Steelers defense right now is a player that can cover tight ends and slot receivers over the middle of the field. Branch is reminiscent of Minkah Fitzpatrick in his ability to play either as a slot corner or as a free safety. With Branch and Minkah together, the Steelers could potentially be able to mix and match coverages. Branch has tremendous football IQ and is able to diagnose plays to anticipate where the ball is going. Omar Khan, Mike Tomlin, and defensive backs coach Grady Brown attended Alabama’s Pro Day so Branch is certainly on their radar.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Him: With Minkah Fitzpatrick and offseason signees Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, the Steelers may feel that safety is not the highest-priority position in the draft. Branch is clearly the top safety in this year’s class, so an ambitious team looking to improve their secondary may snatch him earlier in the draft.
Why the Steelers Will Draft Someone Else: If the trends continue of Mike Tomlin’s Pro Day visits and dinners being indicative of players the Steelers are considering for their first round picks, there are a few others that are generally ranked in the 30-50 range that could be surprise picks. These would include Michigan DT Mazi Smith, Clemson DT Bryan Bresee, and Georgia CB Kelee Ringo. Other players the Steelers have had in for pre-draft visits and spent time with during the process include Maryland CB Deonte Banks, Pitt DT Calijah Kancey, and Oklahoma OT Anton Harrison. Despite what folks on Steelers Twitter may clamor for, the Steelers have not invested much time in the pre-draft process on Pitt/USC WR Jordan Addison so he does not seem to be in strong contention to be selected.
Why the Steelers Won’t Draft Someone Else: The basic answer here is simple math. The Steelers have the 17th overall pick in a draft where some sources only have 20 players with 1st round grades. At 17, the Steelers will have the opportunity to take one of those top-end players. From a sheer numbers standpoint, it seems almost certain that 4 QBs, 2 EDGE Rushers (Anderson and Wilson), and 2 CBs (Witherspoon and Gonzalez) will be taken before the Steelers pick. Add to that Jalen Carter and Peter Skoronski which accounts for 10 players essentially guaranteed to go before the Steelers pick at 17. Even in a worst-case scenario, only 6 of the 10 players that we listed will be taken by the time the Steelers pick, leaving (at a minimum) 4 players from our list to choose from when they are on the clock at 17.