The Steelers have come a step closer to the Super Bowl every year since 2014.
They reached the wild-card round of the playoffs two years ago, the divisional round in 2015 and the conference championship game last year.
The next step is the most difficult. The Steelers have to find a way to get past the Patriots. That might require beating Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium for the first time.
There are players in the 2017 draft who can help with that. Gone are the days when the Steelers felt they could afford to just draft the best player available regardless of position. If they’re going to beat the Patriots, they’re going to have to fill specific needs. They have to improve their pass coverage and they haven’t had a player with double-digit sacks since 2010, the last year they reached the Super Bowl.
This mock draft starts in the seventh round to build up the suspense before the unveiling of the Steelers’ first-round pick.
Round 7 (No. 248)
Jeremy Clark, CB, Michigan
Jeremy Clark tore his ACL in the third game of the 2016 season, but the Steelers are willing to take a flier on him this late in the draft. No cornerback who was invited to the scouting combine is taller than the 6’3″ Clark, and at 220 pounds Clark is the heaviest corner who took part in the combine even if all he could do was bench press. His 20 repetitions in the bench press was third among cornerbacks. This doesn’t mean the Steelers will wait until the seventh round to draft a cornerback, but how early will they choose the other one?
Round 6 (No. 213)
Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas
The Steelers draft someone who Alejandro Villanueva can look up to. Literally. If the Steelers draft Skipper and he makes the team, he won’t necessarily take over for Villanueva at left tackle, but he’ll beat him out as the tallest player on the team. The 6’10”, 309-pounder started 39 games at left tackle since 2014. While offensive line is a strength, the Steelers could use some depth. Jerald Hawkins, a fourth-round pick last year, sat out the season with a torn labrum. He’ll have the chance to be the third tackle in 2017, but Skipper could be an asset on special teams. He used his height to block three field goals at Arkansas.
Round 5 (No. 173)
Rayshawn Jenkins, S, Miami
Robert Golden is a nice role player, but the Steelers need more safety depth behind Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis. In four seasons at Miami, Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted nine passes and broke up 15, including a career-high seven last season. The 6’1″, 214-pounder placed in the top five among safeties at the combine in the bench press, vertical leap and broad jump. There’s a chance the Steelers have to trade up a few spots to get Jenkins, possibly giving up a draft pick next season.
Round 4 (No. 135)
Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama
Ryan Anderson probably will be the fourth defensive player drafted from Alabama this year, but don’t expect the first three to needle him about that. “Everybody in the locker room at Alabama respects him and is afraid of him,” one scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Anderson isn’t the most physically gifted linebacker, but he improved every year in several statistical categories. In four seasons at Alabama, Anderson had 19 sacks, 39.5 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. Anderson seems like an AFC North kind of guy, and one NFC specifically told NFL.com that he would be a good fit in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Round 3 (No. 105)
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova
Pronounced (Tawn-o Pass-N-Yo), this 6’7″, 289-pounder was sixth in the FCS with 21.5 tackles for loss and tied for fifth with 11 sacks. He had a sack, two hits and a hurry at the Senior Bowl. Intelligence wouldn’t be a problem with Kpassagnon. He was an accounting-finance double major. Kpassagnon boasts 35 5/8″ arms and 10 5/8″ hands. Drafting physical freaks like this doesn’t always work out. Kpassagnon has been compared in a couple of places to Margus Hunt, a 6’8″, 277-pounder who the Bengals took in the second round of the 2013 draft. Hunt had 1.5 sacks in four seasons and is now in Indianapolis. The Steelers are willing to take the risk after addressing needs with their first three picks, using their compensatory pick on a player who they don’t need to contribute right away. The Steelers went the FCS route with Javon Hargrave last year and he’s heading in the right direction.
Round 3 (No. 94)
D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas
Le’Veon Bell needs a backup and DeAngelo Williams‘ work in Pittsburgh is done. The 6’0″, 233-pound Foreman broke out for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016. Foreman isn’t a finished product. He fumbled six times in 2016 and he’s not a good pass protector. But like Kpassagnon, the Steelers wouldn’t need him to contribute right away. They just need someone who gives Bell enough rest to make it through a full regular season and postseason for the first time in his career.
Round 2 (No. 62)
Jordan Willis, OLB, Kansas State
The Steelers are going to pick an edge rusher in one of the first two rounds. Jordan Willis is the 2016 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. That has to be taken with a grain of salt. Kansas State went 6-3 in the conference but twice allowed 38 points and allowed 43 points in one game. The only defensive player from Kansas State to make the Pro Bowl since 2000 is cornerback Terence Newman. That’s why the Steelers buffer their pass-rushing haul in this draft with the SEC guy in the fourth round.
Despite the risk of drafting defensive players from the Big 12, Willis won’t last until Day 3. He had 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss last season, both career highs. He had three passes defended, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in both 2015 and 2016. The 6’4″, 255-pound Willis was second at the combine among defensive ends and outside linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.53), vertical leap (39 inches) and third in the 3-cone drill (6.85). Bud Dupree‘s arrow is pointing up, but James Harrison won’t play forever. The Steelers need to keep the supply line moving at outside linebacker.
Round 1 (No. 30)
Tre’Davious White, CB, LSU
The Steelers hope to achieve with cornerbacks what they did with offensive linemen. They drafted four offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft between 2010 and 2012. That line now includes two Pro Bowlers and Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 37 times in the last two seasons. There have been six single seasons when he’s been sacked more than that.
Tre’Davious White would be the Steelers’ third cornerback drafted in Rounds 1 or 2 since 2015 and the second consecutive one chosen in the first round. White’s interception numbers don’t stand out. He had six interceptions in four years at LSU, two each in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Last season was a bounceback year for White after a disappointing 2015, and he broke up a career-high 14 passes. Steadiness and consistency seem to be a theme with White in the scouting community. According to Pro Football Focus White allowed a completion rate of 41.7 percent last season. White isn’t the most physical tackler, but neither was Artie Burns coming out of college and so far he looks like a thumbs-up pick. “He’s kind of soft, but he can cover,” one NFC scout told NFL.com about White.
The 5’11”, 192-pound White has been pegged as a second-rounder in some places, but the Steelers are picking so late in the first round that this wouldn’t exactly be a reach.
White wore the No. 18 jersey at LSU in 2016. Not just anyone wears No. 18 at LSU. The tradition of that number began when quarterback Matt Mauck wore it in 2003 and led LSU to a national championship. Since then, it’s been worn by a player who’s successful both on and off the field and displays a selfless attitude.
Whatever number White wears in Pittsburgh, the Steelers hope no one else wears it for a long time.
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