Steelers' Initial 7-Round Mock Draft Post-Super Bowl
With the conclusion of Super Bowl LI on Sunday, the 2016 football season is now over. But that doesn’t mean the NFL is done doing business until September brings with it a new complement of games. No, it's time for the league's business season, and one important area of business is the NFL draft, which is scheduled for late April.
And once we start talking about offseason business and the draft, that can only mean one thing: It's mock-draft season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off an AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots and have eight picks in this year's draft. Let's take an early look at which players they could use these picks on and which positions they might address in hopes of remaining a conference contender in 2017.
Round 1, Pick 30: Tim Williams, EDGE, Alabama
The Steelers weren't quite the pass-rushing team they were in 2015—at least not until linebacker Bud Dupree returned from injury in Week 11 of the 2016 season. But that's not the only reason the Steelers could use additional edge-rushing help this year.
Both Jarvis Jones and James Harrison are unrestricted free agents in 2017. Jones doesn't seem primed for a new contract, and though Harrison vows to return at age 39 for at least another season, Pittsburgh needs to have young players fast-tracked to take over a portion of his snaps in the upcoming season and perhaps all of them come 2018.
Alabama's Tim Williams would be a strong selection for the Steelers at No. 30 in the first round. In his junior and senior years, he had 18.5 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss and 49 combined tackles. But there are red flags: A September 2016 arrest led to a gun charge, and there are also whispers of numerous failed drug tests, per Charlie Campbell of WalterFootball.com. So the Steelers will have to weigh risk against reward with Williams if the rumors prove true.
Round 2, Pick 62: Desmond King, CB, Iowa
The secondary has been an area of weakness for the Steelers for a few years now, even though they have made moves to shore it up via free agency and the draft.
Rookie Artie Burns had a good enough year to remain a fixture in the secondary, but 2015 second-round draft pick Senquez Golson has yet to take the field due to numerous injuries, and 2016 rookie Sean Davis was installed at safety, where he may remain for the early part of his career.
Though William Gay and Ross Cockrell did admirable jobs in 2016, with 21 passes defensed between them, the pair only combined for one interception. Cockrell is a restricted free agent in 2017, and Gay turned 32 years old in January and could be released as early as this offseason or perhaps in 2018, when his dead-money cap charge is only $633,334, per Spotrac.
Thus, the Steelers should spend yet another high draft pick at the cornerback position this year, and should that occur in Round 2, Iowa's Desmond King could be the choice. King doesn't have exceptional height, billed at 5'11", but the Steelers haven't shied away from slight cornerbacks.
And he makes up for that in ball skills. In four years at Iowa, King had 263 combined tackles (174 of those solo), 33 passes defensed and 14 interceptions. He had career highs in both in 2015 (eight picks, 13 passes defensed), but don't let his relatively decreased production in his senior year fool you; it was due more to offenses being afraid to throw his way than it was to any drop-off in skill.
Round 3, Pick 94: Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
While it's true that the Steelers possess one of the NFL's best all-around backs in Le'Veon Bell, his history of suspension and injuries requires the team to find quality depth to back him up. For the past two years, that has been DeAngelo Williams, but the 33-year-old is an unrestricted free agent in 2017 and may not be back for a third season.
While Bell is also set to hit unrestricted free agency without a new deal done, it appears he's on track to receive the franchise tag for 2017. That makes running back less of a pressing issue, in the sense that the Steelers don't need to focus first- or second-round resources on the position. But with a class this deep, the Steelers can find the perfect complement to Bell in Round 3 by way of Toledo's Kareem Hunt.
In 2016, Hunt had 262 carries for 1,475 yards and 10 scores while averaging 5.6 yards per rush. He also had a breakout year as a receiver, hauling in 41 receptions for 403 yards and another touchdown. While he's too small to be an every-down back in the NFL, he could be a strong change-of-pace back behind Bell and handle a starting workload should Bell be hit with the injury bug or another suspension.
Hunt's breakout at the Senior Bowl may make him a higher-round pick come draft day, but again, with the running back position so deep this year, the Steelers have a solid chance of scoring him in Round 3.
Round 4, Pick 134: Montae Nicholson, S, Michigan State
The Steelers remain short-handed at safety, but much like running back this year, the draft class at the position is relatively deep. The Steelers should be able to find a contributor in Round 4—someone like Michigan State's Montae Nicholson, for example.
Nicholson played in 38 games for Michigan State, amassing 200 combined tackles (109 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, four passes defensed and three fumble recoveries in three seasons. He had 86 combined tackles in 2016 and two passes defensed.
CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler (h/t Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press) discussed Nicholson:
There's plenty to like, but there's plenty of reasons to be concerned. He's a physical hitter. He loads up and delivers power at contact. He loves to lay the wood. That stopping power that he has makes him an impact run defender. But where I really struggle with where he projects at the next level is in coverage.
Still, those lacking coverage skills at the collegiate level can improve through NFL coaching. And again, this is a Round 4 safety, not a Round 1 instant-impact starter.
Pittsburgh carried four safeties on the roster in 2016, but only three—Robert Golden, Mike Mitchell and rookie Sean Davis—made much of an on-field impact. The fourth, Shamarko Thomas, has spent his Steelers career battling through injuries and working mostly on special teams and is now an unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to return.
Whether the Steelers focus on Nicholson in Round 4, look to another safety in the same round or address the position elsewhere in the draft, safety needs to be among the team's top draft priorities this year.
Round 5, Pick 175: Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan
Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton missed almost all of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury and is an unrestricted free agent in 2017—not a good combination in terms of job security. Meanwhile, fellow wideout Martavis Bryant is trying to work his way back from an indefinite suspension related to multiple substance-abuse policy violations, and there's no guarantees he will be reinstated for 2017.
In short, the Steelers need more receivers.
Eil Rogers and Cobi Hamilton were the de facto pair to step up in 2016. Rogers, who had 594 yards and three touchdowns, may have done enough to remain in the starting rotation this year. But Hamilton is more of a depth piece. The Steelers need a more reliable option, and they can get that in Michigan's Amara Darboh.
Darboh isn't a No. 1 type, but that's fine; the Steelers have Antonio Brown for that. And he may not have the most crisp routes or top run-blocking abilities, but those two things can be taught and improved upon. But what Darboh has is the ability to work the middle of the field, reliable hands, speed, size and, what should impress the Steelers the most, yards-after-the-catch prowess.
In three years as a starter for Michigan, Darboh has caught 151 passes for 2,062 yards and 14 touchdowns, with his 2016 senior year the best of the bunch. Darboh had 57 catches for 862 yards and seven scores. A strong possession receiver is just what the Steelers need to add to their offense this year, and Darboh has the perfect skill set to be that guy.
Round 5, Pick 183 (Compensatory): Cole Hikutini, TE, Louisville
While the Steelers' Jesse James may be a strong all-around tight end—blocking and receiving, with his skill level ranking in that order—the team still doesn't have a pass-catching game-breaker. They thought they'd get one when they signed free agent Ladarius Green last year, but he's been stymied by injuries.
Notably, there have been concerns over the number of concussions Green's suffered in his career and their lingering effects. That places his roster spot in jeopardy and could leave the Steelers short-handed at the position. Though addressing tight end earlier may prove to be Pittsburgh's strategy, it's not its only option. Round 5 could net the Steelers a useful receiving tight end in Louisville's Cole Hikutini.
Hikutini has only two years of starting experience and needs to gain confidence as a blocker. But as a receiver, he should be able to contribute right away. Hikutini went from 19 catches for 348 yards and three scores in his junior year to 50 receptions for 668 yards and eight scores in 2016. And he's billed at 6'5", 248 pounds, making him big enough and strong enough to handle receiving duties at the NFL level.
Round 6, Pick 214: Alek Torgersen, QB, Penn
It seems highly unlikely that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will retire this offseason. That day may be years away. But even if it's not, it also does not seem likely that the Steelers will be seeking out his replacement by way of the 2017 draft class.
Still, that does not mean Pittsburgh should ignore the position altogether. Backup Bruce Gradkowski, who missed all of 2016 with a hamstring injury, is an unrestricted free agent this spring, as is Landry Jones, who was drafted by the Steelers in Round 4 of the 2013 draft.
Jones has shown only minor improvement in his limited playing time, and it may be the right time for the Steelers to move in a different direction at backup quarterback.
That's where the relatively unknown Alek Torgersen of Penn comes in.
Torgersen, a three-year starter, exited Penn with a school-record 52 touchdown passes and 7,937 total yards from scrimmage, also a school record. Though he played in the Ivies, where competition is not as stiff as it is in the SEC or Big Ten, the fact that Torgersen held his own at the East-West Shrine Game this year (and as the first Penn player to play in the game since 1991) proves that he belongs in the NFL.
Sure, that's likely as a career backup. But if Torgersen can show off more pocket poise and more accuracy than Jones, he'll become a bench upgrade behind Roethlisberger for the Steelers.
Round 7, Pick 251: Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Adding even more depth to the secondary via the 2017 draft isn't a bad idea for the Steelers, even if it is a seventh-rounder with no guarantees to make the 53-man roster or even the practice squad. But that's what seventh-round players are for—and it is also where hidden gems can be found. Perhaps Florida State cornerback Marquez White is one such gem.
White spent four years at Florida State and only scratched the starting lineup as a junior. But in his final two seasons, he had 39 solo tackles (and 50 combined), as well as three interceptions and six passes defensed.
There's just one problem: While billed at 6'0", he weighs only 184 pounds and thus is quite undersized to cover receivers and tight ends in the NFL. But that doesn't mean White cannot work on his strength and conditioning and improve to the point where his weight and height complement one another (with the hope being that added weight won't cut into his speed).
If a seventh-round draft pick is to latch on with his team through his rookie year, it's because of his potential and not necessarily what he brings to the table immediately. If White can add weight and contribute on special teams, the Steelers would have few qualms using a Round 7 selection on him.