2019 NFL Draft: A Steelers mock draft that will “Mess With Your Mind” – Behind the Steel Curtain

2019 NFL Draft: A Steelers mock draft that will “Mess With Your Mind” – Behind the Steel Curtain

I write this article to make two points. First, the Steelers are a very good team that can afford to take an almost pure Best Player Available (“BPA”) approach to Round 1 of the 2019 NFL draft. Excise quarterbacks, offensive linemen and defensive linemen from the equation and anything else will fly if the player is good enough. Second, adopting a mostly-pure BPA approach means I can mess with your minds and still produce a more than solid, realistic draft by following the value clusters in subsequent rounds. No fantastic draft steals required.

But First: You all know that I am a lawyer in my real life. Speaking with that background I say with confidence that most arguments don’t come down to the points people raise, nor to emotional bias; it’s really about starting from different definitions. As the swordsman said, “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.” In this case that word is “value.” What makes a draft pick better or worse? My answer is “bang for the buck” (“BANG”), defined as the extra value produced in Years 2-4 compared to what would have happened if the team stuck with the players now on the roster.

Rookie contributions are gravy under this definition. Don’t get me wrong: I love gravy and I’m a serial abuser throughout the final week of November. But gravy makes the substance of your meal just a little better. It can’t turn Grandma Carrie’s [burned to a crisp] turkey or Aunt Gert’s pitiable [pillow] stuffing into something worth the time, and good turkey and stuffing can stand quite well on their own. As for Year 5 and beyond, those matter too but players get paid at full retail once the rookie contract expires. The special value a team can get from the draft lies in paying starters six- or seven-figure salaries in exchange for contributions that will cost seven- or eight-figure prices from the second contract on. Yes, there other advantages to building from within but those are relatively small factors compared to the cap space benefits from youngsters who outplay the money they receive.

Want proof? Look at what happens to any team that “hits” on a young, franchise QB. It’s no coincidence that last year’s Eagles were built on rookie-contract Carson Wentz, and this year’s Rams on Jared Goff. Look at what happened to the Ravens when they had to divert Flacco Money away from the rest of the roster, or to the Seahawks when they paid Russell Wilson what he deserved. They may be fair, they be earned, and they may be worthwhile compare to losing the star player, but full retail salaries also drag down the rest of the team. Look too at how the salary cap, free agency, and the bad-records-pick-first structure of the draft produces something close to parity. It all translates to the BANG factor for younger talents.

Time to start… almost. First I have to deal with the peculiar elephant in the Steelers war room. Will Antonio Brown get traded or stay? If the former what should we add to the Steelers’ draft capital? I will make this challenge even tougher by assuming the worst case scenario for a 2019 draft class:

Antonio Brown gets traded in March of 2019 for three 2020 draft picks, a 1st, a 3rd and a 4th. Yours truly gains an extra hole to fill with no extra ammo to do it because Colbert & Co. are betting they have enough draft picks already in 2019. Instead of current picks they want 2020 ammunition in case neither Dobbs nor Rudolph matures as hoped. Conversely, if one does grow into the Heir To Ben the team will have all the ammunition you could want to trade up for 2-3 more young stars for upgrade average talents and thereby build a dynasty.

So, no AB and no extra picks to play with. Disaster? Let’s mess with some minds!

NOTE: What follows is a realistic mock draft for the Steelers based on players I truly believe could be available at the spots I’ve named. That doesn’t mean it’s the the result I dream about at night. I am only arguing that Steeler Nation should be delighted even with these results because every pick will bring true BANG value and make the team better – from 2020-2023 primarily with a bit of 2019 gravy.

To start the 2019 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers shock the world by snubbing all three of the top ILB’s (White, Wilson and Bush), turning their noses at the top three Corners (Williams, Murphy and Baker), opting for Bud Dupree over an Edge Rusher steal (Burns and Polite), and ignoring the top Wide Receivers (Metcalf, Harry and Harmon) to select…

PICK #1:20 = Tight End T.J. Hockenson, Iowa.

Steeler Nation around the globe erupts with fury! And then everyone does the natural thing that any smart person would do: consults that estimable bible of all that is good, true and reliable for draft information – the BTSC Big Board:

(6’5”, 243 lbs.) What value would you assign to a prospect with an 80% chance to grow into the next Heath Miller, and a small but real chance to be even better? That is T.J. Hockenson. The similarities are uncanny, from height, weight, speed, hands and athletic profile to blocking skills, playing style, attitude, competitive edge, and more. The other top TE prospect this year is Hockenson’s teammate Noah Fant. Fant is a fully qualified WR2/3 who blocks far better than even a Hines Ward or a Juju. Hockenson may be “only” a WR3 but he blocks like a backup O-Lineman. The Draft Network scouting profiles catch the essence of what everyone seems to agree on. We can translate it this way: He just screams ‘Steelers’. If only he played some other position… These links go to a superb Draft Network article comparing Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, and to another article that compares those two to elite TE prospects in other drafts.

I’m not kidding about that comparison. Miller was a Junior when he declared, and got picked at #30 overall because he suffered from a sports hernia throughout his final year. Would he have been worth a pick at 1:20 if he’d been fully healthy? Hindsight won’t allow me to even dignify that with an answer. Thus: Hockenson.

Analyzing the BANG: Will Hockenson replace Antonio Brown by being an equivalent offensive cannon? Of course not. Will he replace Antonio Brown over Years 2-4 by being a whole squad of infantry in a single body? He’ll come as close as anyone. Trooper #1 would free Juju Smith-Schuster from pure double teams by adding a genuine receiving asset that would not weaken the running game. Opponents would have to pick their poison. Trooper #2 would improve the running game from good to great by blocking better than any TE on the roster. The things you can do with a great blocking TE make film watchers break out in helpless giggle fits. Trooper #3 would add more help to the passing game by blocking better than any RB, thus allowing longer developing patterns, and simultaneously messing with defensive coordinators who could not know which players, if any, would serve as the outlet receiver(s). Trooper #4 would be a short yardage machine because of the automatic mismatch as either a blocker or receiver depending on what the defense schemes up. Trooper #5 would be a red zone weapon by virtue of his height, size, hands and mismatch ability. Trooper #6 would be a scheme weapon giving Pittsburgh the chance to do multiple things with the same personnel. Trooper #7 would… You get the point.

No single weapon will replace the offensive firepower provided by a HOF player like Antonio Brown, especially when you add in the way he makes JJSS so much more effective. But a great TE can go a long way toward doing so by raising every other offensive boat on the team; he will do so for many years to come; this particular prospect has such a high floor that it’s a very safe bet; there is a small chance that he can grow to be more Gronk than Heath; and, as shown below, there are lots of great receivers who should be available in Rounds 2-4 of this particular draft class.

T.J. Hockenson isn’t a Corner, Mack ILB, or Wide Receiver but he could easily be the option at 1:20 who would give the Steelers more overall BANG than anyone else, and thus would be the BPA. But would that leave the team helpless when it comes to the areas that most of us consider the priorities? Read on.

PICK 2:20 = a CB from the Round 2 cluster.

Round 2 offers a very big cluster of quality prospects who project as reliable CB2’s from Years 2-4 with the potential to be CB1’s. There’s Amani Oruwariye (big & long), Trayvon Mullen (big & long), Lonnie Johnson (big & long), Julian Love (very accomplished and quick at 5’11”), Joejuan Williams (big & long), or Rock Ya Sin (accomplished, feisty and quick at 5’11¾”). At least one of them is bound to be available. Let’s go with… Amani Oruwariye, Penn St. {Meeting at Senior Bowl} (6’1¾”, 204 lbs.). Here is the current description from the BTSC Big Board:

Excellent size, length, hands, mirroring skills and ability to jam made him a dominant press man Corner against college receivers. Understands the need to tackle though he doesn’t seem to like it and isn’t any good at it. Our own Nick Farabaugh, an Oruwariye fan, did this gif-supported BTSC scouting report in early January. Oruwariye started on this Board with a late-1st grade but dipped when he was embarrassed in the Senior Bowl practice week (see this review too). This goes to the Draft Network scouting profile.

Analyzing the BANG: We all know the situation. Lord knows it’s been discussed often enough. If Artie Burns recovers his game, or Cam Sutton makes the expected leap, or Brian Allen can finally live up to the way he’s flashed, then the Steelers are already in good shape at Corner and the fans are making a mountain out of a mole hill. BUT if Artie Burns busts out completely, Joe Haden suddenly ages, Cam Sutton fizzles, and Brian Allen goes down as a could’a-been who never-was, then the Steelers have a gaping hole to be filled and the fans have (for once) failed to panic enough. The truth will no doubt be somewhere in the middle. Your (and my) view of that truth as we sit here today says more about our respective views on life than it does about that ultimate reality.

All of that averages out to the conclusion that drafting a good Corner prospect makes sense for Pittsburgh as a hedge against the worst case scenario and an investment toward the future. If no Corner gets picked in Round 1 we can confidently assume that 2:20 will offer a pretty darned nice alternative.

PICK 3:19 = oooh, I’m torn. BPA at ILB, WR or SAF.

There are three (3!) intersecting clusters of talent here. I am an ILB junkie and this is the bottom of a Round 2 & 3 group of Mack ILB’s such as Germaine Pratt (quite good all around), Ben Burr-Kirven (great ceiling but seriously undersized at 222 lbs.), Joe Giles-Harris (a younger Jon Bostic with a high floor but moderate ceiling), Kendall Joseph (another Bostic type), Dakota Allen (great ceiling with the work ethic he will need to improve a lagging football IQ), and Terrill Hanks (who could be the best of all but only if an NFL strength program can harden him up). One of those should be available to enhance the L.J. Fort/Bostic rotation.

There are also a few good Safeties in this band, who’d provide much needed depth behind Sean Davis while opening up good 3-Safety (a/k/a Big Nickel) sub package looks. I doubt Juan Thornhill will fall this far, and I’m excluding the guys whose talents belong in the box (looking at you Johnathan Abram), but there’s still the centerfield Free Safety Ugochukwu Amadi (a 5’10” version of Sean Davis), and the multipurpose Safeties like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (similar to Terrell Edmunds but even more raw), Jaquan Johnson (a classic fringe-1st if he was 2” taller and 15 pounds heavier), and Darnell Savage, Jr. (another guy who only lacks in the inches and pounds department). We could even consider the conversion prospects like Isaiah Johnson

But as the game show hosts like to say, that’s not all! The mid-3rd also features the heart of this year’s incredible cluster of WR talent. The BTSC Big Board lists nine (9!) players with grades from 2:12 to 3:01, with talents that include monstrous red zone weapons like Hakeem Butler (6’6”, 230 lbs.) and Antoine Wesley (6’5”, 200 lbs. and actually shifty as a route runner); Jujuesque tough guys with well-rounded games based on strength, such as J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and Denzel Mims; field stretching speed demons like DaMarkus Lodge; and fine all around receivers such as Riley Ridley, A.J. Brown, Keesean Johnson, and Alex Wesley.

What about Edge Rusher Christian Miller? Nah. I refuse to believe he will actually fall this far regardless of the public boards. Highway draft theft on the O-Line or D-Line could slot in too but that would break the rules.

Which way do I go? Antonio Brown is gone in this scenario, but I did go offense in Round 1 and there are nine (9!) more WR’s with grades from 3:12 to 4:01 on our Board. It’s an amazingly deep class. And if I think about it I have to admit that the Fort/Bostic combination already gives an acceptable floor. It’s certainly improvable but Steelers need a playmaker at ILB, not just a solid player. Do I trust this group of ILB’s to reach that level? Probably not. So let’s mix things up and assume the Safeties test fully up to what rumor sells. That being the case I see a lot of value in…

Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida.

Here is the current description from the BTSC Big Board:

6’0”, 207 lbs. [and genuinely fast for a Safety with an assumed-for-this-article 4.46 40-time identical to Sean Davis’]. He’s got boatloads of physical talent, range, and was a vastly improved player in 2018 who suddenly learned how to tackle and also take angles. Still inconsistent but now worth serious Day 2 consideration, especially since he has some coverage chops as well as center field range. Here is an early January scouting profile from Jon Ledyard. [FAIR DISCLOSURE: This player has had a Round 3-4 almost everywhere up to now but I just saw him mocked in the late-1st on Monday. If CGJ is not available substitute in one of the other listed names. Point being, Round 3 should be this year’s locus for a draft steal BPA at one of several positions and the Steelers can adjust schemes to incorporate whatever that talent might be.]

Analyzing the BANG: No need to repeat. A multipurpose Safety who can add depth behind Sean Davis plus the option of a high quality Big Nickel package would (to strain an analogy) shrink all holes in the Steelers’ defensive screen. It won’t do as much as a true playmaker would at ILB but that isn’t available. It will add about as much BANG to the defense as any receiver would to the offense, there are good receivers I expect to be there in Round 4, and adding more defense now will maintain some balance in my overall draft.

PICK 4:20 = WR Emanuel Hall, Missouri.

Oh lord, the midround receivers are overwhelming! It’s not fair to assume that one of the Round 3 guys will fall, but now there are ten (10!) more who are just about as good. Hall is one of my favorites. Here is the current description from the BTSC Big Board (slightly edited for context):

6’2”, 200 lbs. Sleeper alert! Emanuel Hall has the speed and COD skills you expect from a 5’9” jitterbug but he does it in a body that’s half a foot taller. The downsides are very raw route running skills, a limited route tree, and an old reputation for inconsistent hands that was much assuaged by better play in 2018. A successful deep threat against SEC defenses, with the tools to be a complete receiver once he learns his trade…? That is a high ceiling if ever there was one, and the pure speed creates a solid enough floor to work with. Here is the Draft Network scouting profile, and a Steeler-oriented, gif-supported scouting report. The NFL.com scouting profile compares him to a 6’2” Mike Wallace, which could actually be fair.

Analyzing the BANG: By this point all positions are on the table and there could be a steal almost anywhere. With Antonio Brown gone (remember the assumption), Pittsburgh has a need for some kind of weapon to loosen up the double teams that will blanket JJSS. James Washington should help with that but will still need to grow even after a Sophomore Leap. My Round 1 pick of a superb TE will help in numerous ways, but I know that defenses will counter by loading the box and betting they can win with tight man coverage. A genuine deep threat sounds just about right.

The potential “boom” from Emanuel Hall would make him a late-3rd in most drafts but not in this class. Yes, he could bust out. Yes, he won’t be much more than a take-the-top-off threat as a rookie and maybe even in Year 2. But there is real chance that he will “hit,” he would be a solid Round 1 value if he does, and he’s easily worth the bet at this point in the draft. Alternative high-ceiling picks would include talents like Parris Campbell, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Terry Mclaurin, Darius Slayton, Tyre Brady and Preston Williams. Plus the group of superb jitterbugs, some quality all-around and possession receivers, and a few more contested-catch big boys. Some of those rank higher on our Board than Hall but he’s a good one to indicate the sort of value that will be available without prompting cries of outrage that I’m assuming too much Steeler-beneficial luck. The depth at WR really does continue all the way through Round 5 and into Round 6.

PICKS 6:02 = a RB3.

There should be a quality talent at this point who will either fit the current and successful Steelers profile, like Wes Hills or Devine Ozigbo, or be a change of pace weapon, like Darwin Thompson or even Tony Pollard. FWIW I target this position in all my mocks because it’s an actual hole, but the pickings are going to be slim by this point even in a draft class where most of the talent should go in Rounds 3-6. If I thought the online draft games had any legitimacy you’d see a steal at this spot along the lines of Elijah Holyfield, Bryce Love, Miles Sanders or Darrell Henderson. But this is an exercising in blowing your mind fair and square, not stretching your credulity.

PICKS 6:19 & 7:20 = whatever BPA bargains appear.

The Steelers missed the playoffs this year due to a lot of fluke issues ranging from bad bounces and kicking problems to untimely turnovers on offense, lack of turnovers by the defense, bad officiating and individual oops moments at just the wrong times. That doesn’t change the overall bottom line: this is a very good team with very few holes. As I wrote above, there is much more need for a few playmakers than there is for players to fill out the 40-53 part of the roster. Who is left that will do either?

  • I didn’t address the need at Mack ILB but that can only be filled by a really special talent who won’t be available after Round 1. Maybe a player like Sutton Smith will fall this far because he has to learn a new position? Small school wunderkind E.J. Ejiyah? Maybe Gary Johnson, Jeffrey Allison, or Bobby Okereke?
  • I’d like to see the team get a boom-or-bust athlete at the Edge but have no names to offer just yet.
  • Or perhaps we can hypothesize a steal on the offensive or defensive lines? There are some very talented athletes who might fall through the cracks, particularly at the traditionally undervalued positions like Offensive Guard (Nate Davis looked great in the Senior Bowl) or 2-down, run stuffing Nose Tackle (Olive Sagapolu or Demarcus Christmas)?

Things become impossible to predict this late on Day 3. But I trust the point is made. You can create a dream draft that will address all needs – and not stretch reality – while going totally off the reservation in Round 1. BPA is the way to go. A few weeks ago Nick Farabaugh caused outrage on this site by suggesting that the Steelers should consider Hockenson’s teammate Noah Fant as a viable Round 1 pick. I’m doing something similar today to reemphasize his basic point: the Steelers can afford to go BPA in Round 1 however they define it. The team has only wants, not needs, and things look with the midround talent clusters will allow Pittsburgh to address those wants in Rounds 2-4.

You may now go and gather up the scattered bits of gray matter. I trust they aren’t unduly singed.

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