The NFL draft has become must-see TV for NFL fans. Their teams spend months scouting, studying film and interviewing players, and then hope the players they covet are available when it’s their turn to pick. Just like an actual game, the process can be an emotional roller coaster.
All that drama doesn’t end when Mr. Irrelevant’s name is called on Saturday evening. That’s when teams race to get in touch with undrafted players. That’s how James Harrison’s career began in 2002. Current Pittsburgh Steelers Ramon Foster, Steve McLendon, Will Johnson and Antwon Blake also went undrafted.
That means that in addition to their eight picks in the 2015 NFL draft, the Steelers are likely to find contributors among the 12 undrafted free agents they signed after the draft.
Here are the top 10 among this group of 20 rookies. The rankings are based on projections, with value also factoring in. If an undrafted player’s career projection is similar to an early-rounder’s projection, the undrafted player will rank higher because the Steelers will get more value.
No. 10: Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn
Reese Dismukes filled up his trophy case with the 2014 Rimington Award as the nation’s top center and First-Team All-SEC honors in 2013 and 2014. He’s undersized, however. He can add a few pounds in the weight room, but there’s nothing he can do about his 32 1/4″ arms and 8 7/8″ hands. The Steelers need depth on the offensive line, so Dismukes has a shot to make the team.
No. 9: Leterrius Walton, DT, Central Michigan
Round 6 (No. 199)
If Leterrius Walton matches the impact of the last Central Michigan player the Steelers drafted in the sixth round, he’d be No. 1 on this list.
But lightning would have to strike twice for Leterrius Walton to do for the defense what Antonio Brown has done for the offense.
Walton is the type of developmental defensive line prospect from a low-profile program that the Steelers seem to crave. They drafted Nick Williams from Samford in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, but he hurt his knee and was eventually picked up by the Chiefs.
Considering the Steelers’ lack of depth on the defensive line behind Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt, they don’t need a project. They need someone who can step in right away and make Cam Thomas expendable.
No. 8: Anthony Chickillo, DE, Miami
Round 6 (No. 212, compensatory pick)
Anthony Chickillo was fourth among defensive linemen in the three-cone drill (7.17 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.25 seconds) at the NFL Scouting Combine. He wasn’t asked to rush the passer in Miami’s defensive scheme. He went from five sacks in 2011 to four sacks in 2012 to no sacks in 2013, then rebounded with three sacks last season. He shed some weight and will try to make it in the NFL as an outside linebacker.
Chickillo didn’t live up to the hype that surrounded him coming out of high school, but he’s a hard worker who can fight through injuries. He was impressive at the East-West Shrine Game and seems to be the type of competitor who could help restore the tenacity of the Steelers defense if he ever cracks the starting lineup.
No. 7: B.J. Finney, C, Kansas State
B.J. Finney started 52 straight games at Kansas State. He was named First-Team All-Big 12 three times and the conference’s co-Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2014.
Not bad for a walk-on.
Reese Dismukes beat out Finney for the Rimington Trophy, but Finney ranks ahead of Dismukes on this list. Finney allowed just 2.5 sacks in four years at Kansas State and unlike Dismukes he doesn’t need to get any bigger. Finney won a state championship in Kansas as a high school wrestler. That background gives him a leg up in terms of blocking technique.
The Steelers have some center/guard swingmen but no pure center to back up Maurkice Pouncey. Finney can be that guy if he responds to not being drafted the way he responded to not receiving a scholarship.
No. 6: Jesse James, TE, Penn State
Round 5 (No. 160)
The Steelers are looking for an eventual replacement for Heath Miller, who turns 33 next season.
Western Pennsylvania Steelers fans will get excited about a Penn State product from Glassport. Steelers fans all over the world will get excited about James’ height and weight, which suggest he has the frame to become not only the heir apparent to Miller but the next Rob Gronkowski.
But he doesn’t have the athleticism of Gronkowski, a second-round pick in 2010.
James’ size is comparable to the 6’6″, 265-pound Gronkowski, but so is Matt Spaeth’s. James caught 11 touchdown passes in three years, a record for Penn State tight ends. But his 78 receptions during that time, including 38 in 2014, don’t exactly jump off the page.
James might primarily be a blocker at the next level, which would essentially make him the next Speath rather than the next Miller. But Spaeth was a third-round pick in 2007, James has a chance to provide the Steelers with better value for the same role.
No. 5: Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
Round 3: (No. 87)
There are a lot of parallels between this pick and the Steelers’ selection of Mike Wallace in 2009.
Sammie Coates was taken with the 87th pick. Wallace was taken with the 84th pick.
Coates averaged 20.9 yards per reception at Auburn. Wallace, also coming from the SEC, gained 19.4 yards per catch in his rookie year and 21 in 2010.
Wallace was a little faster than Coates at the NFL Scouting Combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. Coates ran it in 4.43. But Coates is a little bigger than the 6’0″, 199-pound Wallace.
Both receivers have dropped some passes and both have a selfish streak.
The Steelers really didn’t need a Mike Wallace clone on Day 2 of the draft. If Antonio Brown maintains his elite performance level and Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton continue to develop at their current pace, all the Steelers need is a fourth receiver. They could have had one of those in the later rounds.
Six of the Steelers’ eight draft picks were defensive players, so it’s not like they neglected that side of the ball, but most receivers they draft tend to sign elsewhere when they become free agents after four years. They could have used their third-round pick on a defender who will be around a little longer.
Of course, defense won’t be so paramount if Coates can add another vertical dimension to a Steelers offense that ranked second in the NFL last season. That upside is what ranks Coates ahead of James.
No. 4: Gerod Holliman, FS, Louisville
Round 7 (No. 239)
Gerod Holliman slipped to the seventh round because he’s a lousy tackler.
On the other side of the coin, Holliman led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 14 interceptions in 2014, tying the record set by Washington’s Al Worley in 1968.
The Steelers haven’t intercepted 14 passes as a team since 2010, when they intercepted 21 and went to Super Bowl XLV.
The candidates to replace Troy Polamalu are Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden and Will Allen. Thomas and Golden have been limited mostly to special teams. Allen is 32. Holliman is officially listed as a free safety and Polamalu was a strong safety, but even if he’s not in the running for the strong safety job, the Steelers needed to add a body to that thin position group.
Holliman and his gaudy interception numbers are reminiscent of linebacker Bruce Davis in 2008. The Steelers were enamored with Davis’ 24.5 combined sacks for UCLA in 2006 and 2007 and chose him in the third round. Davis played in five games for the Steelers and never made a tackle.
If Holliman flames out like Davis, he can’t really be called a bust because it would be typical of a seventh-round pick. It wouldn’t be nearly as costly for the Steelers.
The Steelers passed on Alabama safety Landon Collins in the first round. In a weak safety class, the talent dropoff was steep after Collins. So the Steelers were wise to wait until the seventh round and not risk a mid-round pick on a safety.
No. 3: Doran Grant, CB, Ohio State
Round 4 (No. 121)
Doran Grant’s 21 bench press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine were second among cornerbacks and his 4.44-second 40-yard dash was tied for third in the position group.
Grant’s strength in the bench press translates to the playing field a little more than his speed in the 40. While he’s a willing tackler, he can get beat in coverage. He can be grabby and will be flagged for pass interference if he doesn’t clean that up.
Grant was third in the Big Ten with five interceptions in 2014, improving from one in 2012 and three in 2013. Two of Grant’s five interceptions came in the Buckeyes’ 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Steelers did well with fourth-round picks Ike Taylor in 2003 and Martavis Bryant last year. But the fourth-rounders in between have included Fred Gibson, Orien Harris, Tony Hills, Alameda Ta’amu and Landry Jones.
It’s unlikely that Grant would be the Steelers’ worst fourth-round pick of recent vintage. The First-Team All-Big Ten honoree makes the top three on this list because he’s a solid player with fixable weaknesses who could settle into a role as a slot corner.
No. 2: Alvin “Bud” Dupree, DE, Kentucky
Round 1 (No. 22)
Bud Dupree was a “run to the podium” pick for the Steelers in the same way that David DeCastro was in 2012.
DeCastro was expected to be long gone by the time the Steelers picked at No. 24 in 2012. But when their turn came and he was still on the board, the Steelers couldn’t hand in that card fast enough.
That’s what happened on Thursday night.
Dupree’s draft stock skyrocketed into the top 10 after he lit up the NFL Scouting Combine. He was the top linebacker in the broad jump (11 feet, 6 inches), second in the vertical leap (42 inches) and tied for third in the 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds).
The Steelers drafted Dupree to get to the quarterback. After leading the NFL with 48 sacks in 2010, the Steelers have averaged less than 35 sacks per season.
Dupree had 23.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss at Kentucky, but in his four seasons never ranked in the top five in the SEC in either category. While he’s a rare physical specimen who can rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage, multiple scouts bring up his lack of instincts.
That could be why so many teams cooled on Dupree at the last minute. The Steelers were willing to take the risk. They’re banking on Dupree’s huge upside, but he’s far from a can’t-miss prospect.
No. 1: Senquez Golson, CB, Mississippi
Round 2 (No. 56)
Even though Senquez Golson was drafted in the second round, he ranks ahead of the Steelers’ first-round pick on this list because based on the scouting reports, he projects as the best player in this draft class.
Like fourth-rounder Doran Grant, Golson will be vulnerable to fade passes in the end zone because of his lack of height. But Golson was second only to Steelers seventh-round pick Gerod Holliman in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 10 interceptions.
Unlike Holliman, Golson is no one-year wonder. Holliman made all 14 of his collegiate interceptions last season. Golson intercepted 16 passes and broke up 19 in four years at Mississippi.
A first-team All-American, Golson can bring ball skills to the Steelers’ turnover-starved defense, and despite his size he’s not afraid to mix it up against the run, making six tackles for losses in his career at Mississippi.
Golson is one of four 5’9″ cornerbacks to be drafted, but the only one drafted before the fifth round.
Size didn’t matter to the Steelers, and Golson’s size disadvantage won’t matter if opposing quarterbacks don’t want to throw the ball to his side of the field.
Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets