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What to Expect From the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Class

Steelers have high hopes that Sean Davis (left) and Artie Burns (right) can transform the secondary this year.

Steelers have high hopes that Sean Davis (left) and Artie Burns (right) can transform the secondary this year.

One of my least favorite things in sports is the gut reactions and grading to a draft class immediately after it happens. You all know them, the ‘Winners and Losers of the Draft’ and ‘Grades for All 32 Teams After Day 3 of the Draft’. All of this happens, mind you, before any of the players play a down of professional football. It’s widely accepted that to properly grade a draft and critically evaluate the picks, round by round, three full seasons of tape of individual players is required.

Let’s not mince words here, however. I completely understand the idea of wanting instant gratification for your team after their draft. After all, it’s a long four months before teams begin winning anything tangible.

That said, I refuse to grade a draft immediately after it happens. It isn’t fair to the player, organization, or reader to provide second-rate analysis and grades before any football is actually played. I’m funny that way.

Artie Burns, cornerback

I struggled with this selection initially. Cornerback Artie Burns was a player I had a mid-to-late round two grade on, labeling him a project and developmental player with high upside. Burns’ selection in the first round really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, however. Whether or not the Cincinnati Bengals “stole” cornerback William Jackson aside, (there continue to be conflicting reports whether or not he was indeed the target, despite defensive backs coach Carnell Lake’s latest quote) Burns brings size, speed and athleticism to a position that desperately needs it. His play in zone coverage has been contested and questioned, but his tape at Miami shows a prospect with enough fluidity and athleticism in his hips and ability to read and react to play off receivers in zone adequately to start. The one thing that did jump off tape for me was Burns’ surprising ability in man coverage. He’ll struggle to stay inside the receiver’s hip pocket at times, but his exceptional long speed and length will prevent Burns from being beaten over the top.

I was unsure of Burns’ potential playing time. Starting rookies has been something out of the norm for this coaching staff, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. This ideology has quickly shifted, however. No longer are there defensive stalwarts strutting into training camp with their jobs safely intact. Burns remains a developmental player to this point. He’s far more athlete than cornerback, but this has the potential (and, really, necessity) to change quickly. Burns has a very good chance of starting for the secondary quickly out of camp. While I don’t believe he will win it initially out of camp, Burns’ athleticism and scheme versatility may force the hands of the coaching staff. Ross Cockrell is a chess piece; he’s the journeyman placeholder of the cornerback position – simply good enough until a better player can be drafted to the position. It appears as if Burns is going to be this player.

Loses the starting job to Ross Cockrell out of camp, but quickly becomes a key piece in the defense early in the season before taking over starting reps on the boundary.

Sean Davis, strong safety

Maryland’s Sean Davis is an interesting case study in how not to play safeties out of their natural position. While at Maryland, Davis was utilized as a cornerback in his senior season – a position that quickly highlighted all of his weaknesses while playing to none of his strengths. Davis is a strong safety, through and through. His physicality at the line of scrimmage and ability to play in the box are his biggest assets. His physicality can’t be noted enough – Davis is a devastating hitter. His downhill running ability works in unison with his surprising speed to crumple receivers. This speed is also accentuated in his coverage ability, showcasing the ability to play in both man and zone coverages with ease. That said, Davis’ physicality and coverage ability are tailor made to playing safety. Davis’ lack of fluidity in his hips, combined with an awkward back peddle allows for smoother receivers to get separation with ease and quickness.

If one were to just watch Davis’ senior tape, it would be hard to convince them this was a draftable defensive back. Fret not, however, as Davis shows the quickness and athleticism to excel in the box. Davis, like Burns, is going to vie for significant snaps in the secondary. Unlike Burns, however, I expect Davis to walk out of camp the unquestioned starter at strong safety. His competition is light, to say the least, and brings an element to the secondary that has not been showcased since the loss of Troy Polamalu. Fellow safeties Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas have their place on this team, but neither are capable of starting in an NFL secondary. Golden has found his niche, it appears, as the safety/linebacker hybrid in the teams Dime defensive look, while Thomas will continue to get special teams snaps. Davis is not only the most talented player in this group, but is likely the most versatile as well.

Wins the job out of camp.

Javon Hargrave, nose tackle/defensive end

My favorite pick of the draft. After Javon Hargrave stomped around the FCS like Godzilla, he quickly turned his attention to the East-West Shrine Game. The week ended with a similar result. Hargrave then took his talents to Mobile, Alabama, so to speak, and ripped through the Senior Bowl. After showcasing that his destruction of the FCS was not due to the level of competition, Hargrave ended up being the 89th overall selection to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every draft has a few players when looked back on where fans and media alike are stunned how a player fell that far. It is of my opinion that Hargrave is going to be one of these players.

Hargrave is an incredible, albeit limited, one-gap pass rusher. For the Steelers, at least initially, he is going to make his most profound impact spelling defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on third down. Hargrave’s impressive athleticism for his size allows him to quickly overpower interior offensive linemen with eye-opening leverage. Hargrave’s initial burst off the line of scrimmage was the best of any interior defensive linemen of the draft class – period. In a draft class of incredible defensive tackle depth, Hargrave’s athleticism and burst were unmatched. His rawness begins to show when asked to two-gap. He was able to simply overmatch interior linemen regardless at the FCS level, but this is going to be an issue at the professional level. I’ve watched as much tape as one can find on Hargrave and the only major concern I have in his game is his struggle to two-gap and struggle with lateral agility, particularly against more athletic offensive linemen. Even as I write this, however, it feels nitpicky.

There has been the idea floating around that Hargrave can line up as a traditional 0-shade nose tackle. While I heavily disagree with this sentiment, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him utilized this way. Talented players must be on the field for this defense, regardless of position. If Hargrave can collapse the pocket with Heyward and Tuitt cleaning up the tackles in the run game, so be it.

Hargrave isn’t going to start on this line with Tuitt and Heyward entrenched in that role. That being said, depth and talent at the position was absolutely necessary. Cam Thomas’ inability to generate anything at the line of scrimmage could no longer be acceptable to this team. Hargrave’s addition ensures that Heyward and Tuitt can be rotated in and out with ease, particularly on passing downs, without being burned out by season’s end. In a league that currently thrives on versatility and depth, Hargrave brings both to a line that desperately needs it.

Sees significant defensive snaps throughout the season. Used as a rotational pass rusher/nose tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, offensive tackle

Jerald Hawkins’ selection was the only one of the draft class that confounded me. The offensive line was one of the biggest strengths on an offense that, when healthy, is the undisputed best in football. The release of tackle Mike Adams made this pick a little more logical. With all of the uncertainty amongst fans at just how serious Adams’ back injury was, perhaps it should have been a giant red flag and prophecy of Adams’ future with the organization. Regardless of how one feels about Adams (I have my own opinions on his play), it is disappointing that his injury made this selection necessary.

Hawkins is best utilized on the right side of the offensive line, but brings with him versatility to swing to either side. The team truly lacked right tackle depth after Adams’ injury, and this pick screams insurance behind the underrated Marcus Gilbert. Hawkins is also a project with poor technique and footwork, particularly his kick slide. His strong upper body doesn’t allow for pass rushers to work through him, but his poor footwork and technique allows for edge rushers to exploit his far shoulder to create an easy lane on the outside.

This isn’t a bad pick, per se, but it isn’t a “sexy” one. If offensive line coach Mike Munchak had a say in this selection, and I have a hard time that the front office would draft an offensive linemen without the Hall of Famer’s blessing, then it’s incredibly hard to argue against.

Right tackle depth with swing-capability. Should see zero offensive snaps.

Travis Feeney, linebacker

Narrowing down exactly what linebacker Travis Feeney does here is perplexing. Like your annoying friend on Facebook, Feeney’s relationship with this defense remains “complicated”. Feeney’s ability as a pass rusher is intriguing, but I don’t believe he’s a 34 OLB. His speed and athleticism are eye-opening, however. Feeney’s combine numbers are absurd for a prospect of his size and brings intrigue to the defense. Feeney, like Ryan Shazier, runs much faster than a man should for a linebacker. After his 40″ vertical and 130″ broad jump, Feeney went much lower than I had expected. His tape at Washington was fun to watch.

Feeney’s selection was also a bit puzzling. I had originally pegged Feeney’s best fit in the NFL as a WOLB in a 43 because of his coverage and pass rush ability. I may have pigeonholed him too early, it seems. Feeney is an intriguing fit in the Steelers defense as a Swiss Army knife of sorts, allowing him to be moved all over the defense. Feeney’s aforementioned coverage ability with his above-average ability in run support opens up the possibility of moving him to inside linebacker in the Steelers’ 34 defense. In different looks, however, Feeney can be lined up as a weak outside linebacker and blanket tight ends in the flat. There will also be looks where his pass rush ability is utilized, much like Shazier. Whether on stunts or overloading an edge, Feeney’s edge presence is going to be felt.

He may not see significant snaps as a rookie, but Feeney’s upside as a linebacker is thoroughly intriguing.

Linebacker depth while his understanding of the defense advances. May be used in certain formations and looks to utilize his freakish athleticism and speed.

Demarcus Ayers, return specialist

Demarcus Ayers scared a lot of teams off with his 4.7 at the combine. This was due to an apparent injury which greatly hindered his ability to run.

This pick isn’t going to have the impact of the ones before it, but it may have been necessary. If you’re at all like me, you hold your breath every time All-World receiver Antonio Brown returns a punt. He’s exceptional at returning kicks, but I don’t want to up the chance of him being injured on any play. Getting him off return duties appears to have been a priority for Tomlin and Co., as they have now emphasized speedy return specialists in two of the last three drafts. Ayers’ ability to return kicks was evident on tape and could turn into a key contributor on special teams in his rookie season.

In the deepest receiver crop in football, Ayers is going to have to impress on special teams to chisel out a spot on this team. I believe he does just that.

Starting kick and punt returner.

Tyler Matakevich, linebacker

Tyler Matakevich is one of those players of whom it’s impossible to root against. He’s a tackling machine and was consistently all over the field for the Owls. If you’re at all interested in watching film of Matakevich, he’s the one making all of the tackles for Temple.

Matakevich notched over 490 tackles for the Owls in his 49 games for the Owls. Matakevich averaged an absurd 10 tackles per game in his career at Temple. Matakevich isn’t fast nor flashy, but he’s all over the field and a reliable tackler. He may never see significant snaps for this defense, but Matakevich has special teams demon written all over him. His sound fundamental tackling ability is something this special teams has been missing for a long while now.

Special teams contributor.

The key thing to take away here is that all seven draft picks of the 2016 draft make the team. The only one of the seven picks above I would have issues making the final roster would be Ayers, and that’s largely not his fault. The Steelers have the deepest and most talented receiver crop in football, and Ayers is going to have to make himself an indispensable return man to make the roster.

About Connor Isted (39 Articles)
Connor is a Steelers contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh.
Contact: Twitter

2 Comments on What to Expect From the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers Draft Class

  1. Jamie Barnhart // June 16, 2016 at 12:29 PM // Reply

    Between Tomlin , Colbert and Rooney, their statement about Burns was that they had decided before the draft that if he were there at #25, they were going to take him. But that doesn’t mean that the same wouldn’t have been said about Ramsey, Apple, Hargreaves and Jackson. What it means is that they weren’t going to wait until later. They also had two reasons to make that public statement. One, they didn’t want to give the Bungles the satisfaction. And two, they didn’t want to leave Burns knowing they had to settle for him. What also makes sense is that Lake let that whole cat out of the bag. He had little reason to lie about Burns, and even less about Boykin, so I’m heavily inclined to buy Lake’s story over any of the other reports.

  2. Jamie Barnhart // June 16, 2016 at 7:01 PM // Reply

    Connor,
    I love the pick of Hargrave, too. It doesn’t sound like you see him unseating Shade Tree at NT, and certainly not either DE. Since those 3 are young enough to be with the team long term, where do you see a role for Hargrave in a couple years? Journeyman backup and exhaustion relief, or ever becoming a starter?

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