March is one of my favorite times of year as a sports fan. While March Madness is a nice distraction, what I like even more is all of the buildup to the NFL draft.
The NFL draft starts on April 22, meaning we are now less than a month away. For me, the NFL draft is probably my second favorite football event of the year, behind only the Super Bowl.
While some people get sick of all the mock drafts and draft-related articles, I don’t. I read as many as I can find. For Steelers fans, this year’s draft will be even better than usual, with the team drafting a bit higher than we’ve grown accustomed to over the last several years, opening up quite a few more possibilities for the first couple rounds.
I'll provide my projected Steelers picks up front and then explain why it may shake out this way.
No. 1: Bryan Bulaga, Tackle, Iowa
No. 2: Sean Lee, ILB, Penn State
No. 3: Major Wright, Safety, Florida
No. 4: Levi Brown, Quarterback, Troy
No. 5A: A.J. Jefferson, Cornerback, Fresno State
No. 5B: Shawn Lauvao, Guard, Arizona State
No. 5C: Travis Ivey, Defensive Tackle, Maryland
With their first pick of the NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…Bryan Bulaga , offensive tackle from Iowa. Yep, this is the year that some of us Steelers’ fans finally get our Christmas wish early, something we’ve secretly been wishing for the past three years.
While I’m not sure it will be Bulaga, I do think the Steelers draft an offensive tackle here. When drafting this high and in need of offensive line help, I think it almost always makes better sense to take a tackle over an interior linemen.
On the flip side, when drafting near the bottom of the first round, the interior lineman is usually the better value.
But, if the Steelers opt for Idaho Guard Mike Iupati because they see him as a nearly can’t-miss prospect, they’ll get no argument from me. There are five offensive tackles I think justify a pick either at No. 18 or before that, meaning I think at least one of these guys will be there when the Steelers pick.
Russell Okung will be long gone, going somewhere in the top five. Bulaga will likely be off the board by 18, but I think the Steelers may very well trade up to get him if he falls outside the first twelve picks, which I think will be the case. While that would invalidate one of my later picks, it is a risk I'm comfortable taking. Anthony Davis will probably still be there if a team goes for the safer Baluga.
While there are certainly immaturity flags with Davis, I think he will be gone in the first twenty picks and may go to the Steelers. I think his falling draft position is likely being overplayed.
Bruce Campbell is another possibility if injury concerns cause him to slide a bit.
If they covet one player over another, I would not be surprised to see the Steelers try to move up a few picks and get him, likely giving up a third and perhaps also a fifth round pick to do it.
I do not expect to see them trade down this year with so many picks.
Regardless, I don’t think all of these guys will be off the board before the Steelers pick, although at least some of the mock drafts predict that scenario. I’d prefer Campbell not be the pick because of his injury history, but he also has the potential to be the best of the bunch. Trent Williams from Oklahoma is also a possibility, although he'll likely go in the top ten picks.
I suspect the Steelers wanted to draft an offensive tackle in the first round the past couple years but got foiled when the players they coveted were drafted before they were on the board. That may actually help them. Several of the teams selecting ahead of them drafted those tackles and likely won’t be drafting another one this year.
Some mock drafts have all five blue-chip offensive tackles off the board before the Steelers pick. I just don't think that will happen. Too many of these teams being projected to take a tackle have bigger needs.
My one caveat is that if Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain is available here and the top three tackles are off the board, the Steelers will grab him. But, I think he’ll be off the board.
Ideally, they'd be able to slot the new tackle eventually in on the left side, meaning Max Starks would become one of the highest paid right tackles in the league. Willie Colon would move inside or become a very competent backup. However, at least a couple of these tackles are more suited to the right side, meaning Starks would stay at left tackle with Colon still moving inside.
I’ve seen a lot of mock drafts indicating the Steelers will select a cornerback with their second pick. I don’t think that will happen for the sole reason that they invested two picks on cornerbacks last year.
While William Gay certainly did not live up to expectations, I think they’ll give it one more season to see how the two picks develop and to see if Gay can improve. The decline of James Farrior is a bigger immediate concern.
I think they’ll use that second pick on an inside linebacker, especially considering there is decent depth there this year. So, with the 52nd pick of the draft, the Steelers select Penn State linebacker, Sean Lee . While he played outside in college, he’ll move inside in the pros if drafted by a 3-4 team.
He is a good tackler with very good instincts. If Sean Lee is off the board, Sean Weatherspoon is another possibility here, although barring a serious slide, he will likely be gone no later than the early second round.
Making educated guesses after the second round becomes very hard, because you simply don’t know who will be there. I think the Steelers will grab either a safety or cornerback in the third round.
Since both of their safeties have had injury issues and because they invested two picks in cornerbacks last year, let’s go with a safety here.
So, with their third round pick, the Steelers select Florida safety Major Wright . Why? Because he has a cool name.
Actually, he is a Steelers’ type of defensive player who is aggressive and loves to hit. He’ll need to improve his coverage skills, but could be a replacement for Ryan Clark not too far down the road.
Georgia safety Rashad Jones is another possibility if the Steelers opt for the better coverage guy.
Incidentally, if Alabama zip code Terrence Cody slides to the Steelers in the third round, I think they’ll take him there. But, I don’t think they’d take him any earlier than that.
The more I read about him, the less comfortable I get with picking him high, although I think somebody will take a chance on him by early in the third round only because the need for 3-4 nose tackles is so high.
After the third round, it is anyone’s guess.
I’m going with a quarterback in the fourth round as insurance in the event that they need to move in a different direction at the position a lot earlier than most of us would like.
With a suspension of Ben Roethlisberger at least a possibility, they also need another quarterback on the roster to start developing. I also don’t think Dennis Dixon will ever be a long-term option as a starter, although he is plenty good as a backup.
I’ll go with Troy quarterback Levi Brown here. There is a decent chance he’ll be off the board. If so, Central Michigan signal caller Dan LeFevour is another option, although his transition will take some time.
With their myriad of other picks, I expect the Steelers will take a flyer on a cornerback and defensive tackle, as well as add players they hope can help them on special teams.
While these will undoubtedly be wrong, let’s give the Steelers Fresno State cornerback A.J. Jefferson , Arizona State guard Shawn Lauvao , and Maryland defensive tackle Travis Ivey with their trio of fifth round picks.
There you have it. Only one more month until we know for sure which direction the Steelers will take. Anything we hear before that coming out of the Steelers camp is as likely be be a smokescreen as ground truth.