The 2016 NFL draft provided the Pittsburgh Steelers an opportunity to add missing pieces to a team that was two wins away from Super Bowl 50.
For the second straight year, the Steelers drafted according to specific needs rather than the “best player available” policy. How did they do?
No. 25: Artie Burns, CB, Miami
Jr., 6’0″, 193 pounds
The Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round for the first time in 19 years and took someone who they probably could have had in the second or third round.
Artie Burns led the SEC with six interceptions in 2015, but the Steelers play a lot of zone and he’s more of a press corner. He’s not the best tackler, and Steelers corners often have to “tackle the catch.” The Steelers probably would have taken William Jackson III if the Bengals hadn’t drafted him at No. 24 out of spite. The dropoff from Jackson to Burns is much more than the difference in value between the 24th and 25th pick. The Steelers should have tried to trade out of the 25th pick or addressed another need.
Burns has been forced to grow up fast. His mother died during the 2015 football season, and he’s taking care of his younger brother and sister. With that in mind, it’s difficult to see Burns getting into any kind of trouble. Strictly between the white lines, however, this was a disappointing first-round pick.
No. 58: Sean Davis, DB, Maryland
Sr., 6’1″, 201 pounds
This is another player the Steelers probably could have taken in the third round, but Sean Davis looks like a tackling machine on tape.
Davis is listed as a cornerback but he’s really more of a safety. He’ll help the Steelers more getting into the thick of things and making tackles than he will in coverage. Davis led the Big Ten with 80 tackles in 2014 and was third with 70 last season. He had three interceptions in 2015 and forced five fumbles, so there’s some splash-play potential.
According to NFL.com Davis can speak English, Chinese and French. Perhaps that’s a sign that he can quickly learn the Steelers’ defense. He fills a gaping need because Mike Mitchell is the only proven safety on the Steelers’ roster, and while he’s probably not a long-term solution at corner his versatility can’t hurt.
No. 89: Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State
Sr., 6’1″, 309 pounds
Javon Hargrave was a big fish in a small pond in college, so there’s some risk here. But he’s shown signs that he can succeed in the NFL, and he’ll have to unless Daniel McCullers can make a big third-year leap. Someone has to start in place of Steve McLendon.
Hargrave had 16 sacks in 2014, including six against Bethune-Cookman, and was named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year. He added 13.5 sacks in 2015 and totaled 45.5 tackles for losses over the last two seasons. He overwhelmed the competition at the FCS level and he more than held his own against FBS talent at the East West Shrine Game. He’s ready for the next challenge.
This is a good point in the draft for the Steelers to address their need at defensive tackle. The first round is too early to take a player who will come off the field on third down, and the Steelers haven’t been able to unearth hidden gems in the late rounds. The Steelers also decided to eschew the Jabba the Hut types they’ve drafted in recent years and instead took someone who can get after the quarterback.
The Steelers must see something in Hargrave because they took him with Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings still on the board. Hall of Famer Harry Carson also came from South Carolina State, so the sky is the limit.
No. 123: Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
Jr., 6’6″, 305 pounds
You never want to count out Alejandro Villanueva. He could beat out not-so-special former Bronco Ryan Harris for the starting left tackle job, but the Steelers at the very least need some depth at tackle.
Jerald Hawkins doesn’t seem ready to contribute right away, but he shows left tackle potential. He started in all 36 of his games at LSU, playing right tackle for the first two years and then getting “promoted” to left tackle in his third year.
With Mike Munchak running the position group, any offensive lineman drafted by the Steelers has a chance to succeed.
No. 220: Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington
Sr., 6’4″, 230 pounds
A converted safety, Travis Feeney was a monster at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 40-inch vertical leap topped all linebackers, and he was second only to 20th overall pick Darron Lee among linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.5 seconds) and broad jump (130 inches).
Feeney had eight sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles in 2015. He might not have the size to succeed as a pass rusher in the NFL, however, and he’s had four shoulder surgeries. He gets high marks for his special teams play, and if he makes an impact in that department then this is a good use of a sixth-round pick.
No. 229: DeMarcus Ayers, WR, Houston
Jr., 5’9″, 182 pounds
DeMarcus Ayers caught 97 passes in 2015. He’s not a home run threat, averaging 12.6 yards per reception and catching six touchdown passes, but he did average 5.7 yards per rush on 26 carries. He also scored one kick-return touchdown and one punt-return touchdown in college. One scout told NFL.com that Ayers should have stayed in school, but if Ayers can relieve Antonio Brown of his punt-return duties, this would be a good pick for the Steelers.
No. 246: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple
Sr., 6’0″, 238 pounds
The 2015 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Tyler Matakevich is the NCAA career leader since 2005 with 338 solo tackles. Luke Kuechly is third on that list.
The intangibles and college numbers are there, but not necessarily the physical traits. Anything more than the practice squad would be a bonus.
OVERALL GRADE: B-minus
The Steelers addressed their four biggest needs in the first four rounds of the draft. They had to do that because they had no fifth-round pick, and banking on sixth- and seventh-round picks is like throwing darts at a board.
Sean Davis is their best pick. Even though the Steelers’ defense has allowed a lot of yardage over the last couple of years, they’ve regained their tenacity with sacks and takeaways. Davis can help keep that trend going. It would be nice if Davis, Burns and Hargrave could start right away.
The Steelers get points for drafting at the right positions, but that first-round pick drags down their draft grade.
Since Kevin Colbert took over as general manager in 2000, the Steelers haven’t had a flat-out first-round bust. So perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt on Artie Burns. They better be right, however, because time is running out for them to win another championship during Ben Roethlisberger’s career and they need this draft to instantly improve the roster.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.