It’s officially draft week. The week in which, perhaps thankfully, the mock drafts, big boards, analysis and ambiguous (often intentionally so) critical evaluation of players officially ends. Since the moment the Super Bowl has ended (and, really, it has started far before then), the draft has been the talk of the league. If you’ve paid any attention to the big draft media analysts, they’ve all seemingly asked the same question: what position are the Pittsburgh Steelers going to target, and why is it cornerback?
I don’t know about you, but I’m most excited about no longer having to read about why the Steelers desperately need to target a cornerback in the first round or face the consequences of the universe imploding into itself in a super massive black hole. Death, taxes, and Eli Apple being mocked to the Steelers are all pillars of human life as we know it.
Leading up to the draft, it’s important we get an accurate gauge as to not only the players in the first round the Steelers may be interested in on Thursday, but the depth of the positional groups beyond the early rounds as well. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be taking a look at the positional groups I deem most important to the Steelers in this draft class. To kick things off, let’s get the most annoying out of the way.
1. Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
Vernon Hargreaves has been the best cornerback in this draft class since… well, since there has been an official draft class. Hargreaves’ fluid hips and explosive burst to the ball are fun to watch on tape. Hargreaves, despite his size, does not surrender the inside hip to receivers and maintains leverage inside the receivers pocket. His fluidity continues with his backpedal and ability to match receivers routes with ease. His scheme and coverage versatility is impressive as Hargreaves is capable of playing both at the line of scrimmage in man and off in zone. His physicality at the line and ability to knock receivers off their routes is first-rate. This weaves nicely into his ability in run support. Hargreaves is a physical, willing tackler in the run game. One of the major concerns scouts are going to have with Hargreaves is his will to throw his body around in the run game. At his build, Hargreaves runs the very real risk of wearing his body down this way. Still, a corner that excels in coverage and does not shy away from run support is a coveted asset in today’s NFL.
14th overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-12 selection.
2. William Jackson III, Houston
I struggled with this for a long, long time. I battled with having Jackson at number one because of his incredible coverage ability. If we’re just talking coverage here, Jackson is indeed the best cornerback in this draft class. Jackson is ideal height and build for the position. Standing at 6 feet, 189 lbs., Jackson’s build is most suited for today’s NFL. More than just his build, however, is his incredible speed. Jackson clocked a 4.37 40-time at the combine, showcasing his recovery speed and incredible quickness. You’ll often hear analysis of a cornerback being sticky in coverage. Jackson is what they’re talking about. Jackson’s instinctual play is highlighted throughout his tape as well. His ability to diagnose routes and attack the ball is prevalent throughout. Jackson allowed under 50% of passes thrown his way to be completed (49.5%) and allowed a passer rating of just 57.9 when balls were thrown his way, per Pro Football Focus. Jackson, like Hargreaves, is scheme versatile and possesses the ability to excel in both press and off coverage.
18th overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-20 selection.
3. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander was once talked about as a potential top-10 pick, and there were debates over which cornerback was better: Hargreaves or Alexander? Those particular talks have cooled, and now the conversation has begun whether or not Alexander is even a first round cornerback. To me, Alexander is a top-25 player and should absolutely be the third cornerback drafted after Hargreaves and Jackson are off the board. Watching Alexander’s tape in coverage was flat out fun. Alexander allowed an incredibly low 29.6% completion percentage of passes thrown his way without allowing a single touchdown. His coverage ability speaks for itself. The red flags only begin to come into play when discussing his less than ideal height for a boundary cornerback and the fact that he has not generated an interception in his time with Clemson. I put less emphasis on this than everyone else appears to, evidently. While it would be an added bonus that Alexander could generate interceptions, his ability to blanket receivers and break up passes should be coveted in this draft. While Alexander did only have 10 pass break ups in his two seasons at Clemson, teams stopped throwing the ball his way. Alexander possesses the skill set to excel in both zone and man coverage. While I’d like him to be a bit more aggressive and physical at the line of scrimmage, this should be negated in the Steelers’ defensive scheme.
25th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round one, early round two pick.
4. Eli Apple, Ohio State
I’ve been harsh on Ohio State’s Eli Apple. I do not believe that Apple’s strengths play into the Steelers’ defensive ideology, and he would struggle mightily, at least initially, in a starting role on this defense. Apple possesses an exceptional build for a cornerback in the current NFL climate. Standing at 6 feet 1 inch and 200 lbs., Apple possesses the build that a scout would Frankenstein in a lab. Apple also has impressive speed for someone his size, clocking a 4.40 40-time at the combine. Apple excels in man coverage, fighting for balls in the air and having active hands on receivers during routes. His build allows him to be physical and maintain leverage on the inside of a receivers hip on slants and in-routes. The red flags begin pouring in here, however. Apple’s active hands are going to get him flagged at the NFL level. His grabby coverage style is asking for holding and defensive pass interference calls to be rained down on him every Sunday. Apple also shows slow diagnosis in zone coverage and, at times, seemingly loses where he is on the football field. His awareness when asked to play in zone coverage was sub-par. Apple is also a sub-par tackler, lacking the ability to wrap up and make form tackles.
Apple has arguably the highest upside of any cornerback in this draft class, but is not a day one starter in the NFL. He’s far from a traditional project player, but there are concerns about his ability to play significant snaps in his first season. Apple would be best suited to marinate for a year and fix his technique before being asked to be a contributor for a defense. Apple’s skill set is best suited for a man-first defense.
38th overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-25 selection.
5. Artie Burns, Miami
Miami’s Artie Burns has sky-high potential and has likely put himself into round one consideration based solely off of what he could be. Burns has an ideal build, standing 6 feet, 193 lbs. and tacks on great speed as well, clocking a 4.46 40-time at the combine. Burns’ tape is just average, however, and this ranking is based more on his potential than anything else. A track star that has not really had time to focus on football, Burns brings incredible athleticism to the position and is fluid with his hips. Burns would bring an element to the Steelers secondary that is currently non-existent in his natural ball skills ability. All of that said, Burns is raw. His technique is going to need to be coached up significantly before providing significant snaps for a defense. His athleticism and build play directly into what the Steelers are attempting to build with their secondary, but would have to be coached up under Carnell Lake for at least one calendar year before being asked to step in and play the boundary. Burns is more flash than substance right now, but is an intriguing prospect in the second round. The potential is there, but Burns is definitely more athlete than football player as it currently stands.
59th overall player on my board.
Projection: Mid-to-late round two selection.
Early to late round fits at cornerback:
KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame (Round 2)
Xavien Howard, Baylor (Round 2)
Eric Murray, Minnesota (Round 3)
Cyrus Jones, Alabama (Round 4)
Tavon Young, Temple (Round 5-6)
(*For the purposes of this article, I will only be using edge rushers that suit the Steelers’ defensive scheme. Rush outside linebackers are highly coveted, and smaller, more athletic 4-3 WOLB are not mentioned.)
1. Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
My love for the Eastern Kentucky edge rusher Noah Spence knows no bounds. I won’t continue to write about it much here, but Spence is an incredibly talented edge defender with one of, if not the highest ceiling as a pure pass rusher in this draft class. His bend, active hands and inside/outside counter is NFL ready. Spence will struggle against the run early in his career which will relegate him to a situational pass rusher in his rookie season, but Spence brings to the Steelers what they currently lack — a true edge rusher.
4th overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-25 selection.
2. Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Shaq Lawson is currently projected solely as a 4-3 defensive end and I think this does him an injustice. Lawson is a versatile, talented edge defender that possesses exceptional athletic ability and the ability to play out of both a 2- and 3-point stance. Lawson is incredibly quick out of either stance and has upfield burst and strength to overmatch left tackles at the NFL level. On top of being a good, but raw, pass rusher, Lawson is a talented edge setter and run defender. Lawson can stack and shed blocks with ease, allowing him to penetrate and disrupt the backfield. The debate over what position Lawson is (3-4 defensive end, 3-4 rush linebacker, 4-3 defensive end) seems moot to me. The versatility Lawson brings should be an added bonus to any team. Lining Lawson up at RDE/ROLB next to defensive end Cameron Heyward, for example, would provide the Steelers an excellent pass rush off of the right side.
10th overall player on my board.
Projection: Top-15 selection.
3. Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State
Freak. That’s the first word I come up with when watching Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah. Ogbah is an athletic edge rusher that really dominated the NFL combine. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches and 270 lbs., Ogbah ran a 4.63 40-time and was the top performer in the vertical jump and broad jump. Ogbah’s tape matches this athleticism and he dominated collegiate tackles, overwhelming them with his excellent speed, size and strength. Ogbah, when he’s focused and provides the effort, is a freak off the edge who is capable of bringing a dominant edge rush to a team that desperately needs it. For a player of his size, Ogbah shows surprising bend and agility off of the edge. Ogbah struggles against the run perhaps greater than any edge defender mentioned on this list. For Ogbah, it appears to be more than just a lack of technique and ability, it appears to be a lack of will. Ogbah’s effort level can be questioned as there are snaps he took off in games. He needs to continue to dominant throughout games and will himself to be great. As it stands currently, Ogbah can be lazy in defending the run and properly chasing down plays from behind. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report echoed this sentiment.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Ogbah’s game, particularly from a pass rush standpoint. He isn’t a perfect prospect and would be a situational pass rusher in his rookie season, but, under the right coaching (Joey Porter, anyone?) Ogbah could be an absolute force on the edge.
36th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round two selection.
4. Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun is an interesting prospect for a number of reasons, but mostly because I am not entirely sure what position to play him in. I have mentioned before that, because of the scheme the Steelers currently operate out of defensively, a pure rush outside linebacker is not the only position in play on the edge. A versatile defensive end/rush linebacker hybrid is perhaps more important to this scheme than one or the other. Calhoun fits this bill and can play both positions on the edge. Calhoun, like most other edge rushers in this draft class, is weak against the run but excels in rushing the passer. Calhoun’s notable strengths are a very quick first step and burst off the line, combined with natural athleticism and bend around the edge. Calhoun also brings a good amount of pass rushing moves, including a good inside and outside counter. He’s able to beat tackles with more than just speed around the edge with a good, if not underused bull rush and inside rip. Calhoun’s biggest weakness is his ability to stack and shed tackles at the line of scrimmage in the run game. Setting the edge for Calhoun is an issue and does not use the strength he possesses rushing the passer as he does in the run game.
Calhoun’s issues aren’t exclusive to him as the common theme in this years draft class is filled with good pass rushers with upside, but weak against the run. Situational pass rushers aren’t necessarily a bad thing for the Steelers, however, as the Steelers will rotate a rookie on the right side with linebackers Jarvis Jones and James Harrison regardless. Calhoun’s versatility and pass rush ability would be welcomed among a group that currently lacks it.
56th overall player on my board.
Projection: Late round two selection.
5. Tyrone Holmes, Montana
I am going to cheat a little bit here. Montana’s Tyrone Holmes is not in my top-5 edge defenders in this class, but I feel the need to write about him regardless. Holmes was the FCS Defensive Player of the Year because of his pass rush productivity this season. Holmes registered an impressive 18 sacks with 21.5 tackles for loss in 2015. These are the sort of numbers you’d expect from a player dominating his conference. Holmes’ pass rush arsenal isn’t terribly vast and needs to work on developing an inside and outside counter. His jab is impressive in keeping tackles off of his body, but Holmes must work on relying less on his athleticism in beating tackles. His ability to set the edge in the run game is questionable (deja vu?) and will be a rotational, situational pass rusher early in his career (deja vu) as a result.
Holmes is a mid-round guy with huge upside and potential as a pass rusher. Development of pass rushing moves and ability in run defense is required before receiving significant snaps on the right edge, but there’s a lot to admire about Holmes’ game and potential.
Projection: Late round four to early round five selection.
Early to late round fits at EDGE:
Kamalei Correa, Boise State (Round 2)
James Cowser, Southern Utah (Round 3)
Victor Ochi, Stony Brook (Round 4)
Matt Judon, Grand Valley State (Round 4)