Overreactions from Steelers Nation: 2023 NFL Draft priorities

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

Talk about jumping the shark… the 2022-23 NFL season isn’t even over yet, and we’re already seeing mock drafts…

That’s how I feel each season, and it will never change. There’s still a lot of football left: four teams are vying for the Super Bowl trophy as we speak, yet everyone is pushing their opinions on a group of college athletes who won’t be “assigned” a team until April.

Before we get there, we have to know a little bit more. While it sounds silly, there’s still an impact of the ongoing games. For example, the San Francisco 49ers traded their 2023 first round pick to the Denver Broncos. That selection can range from pick 29 to pick 32.

Yes, that’s trivial, but it’s only a start.

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Before we get to the 2023 NFL Draft, we have to get to the NFL Combine, and then free agency. The Combine will begin to weed out a pecking order: players currently in the first round by online draft gurus can easily “fall” out of that category with a poor physical performance. Actually, those online “experts” are probably the only place where some of these players are even ranked that high, although there are winners who will rise and losers who will fall based on how fast they run in shorts.

In fact, if we listen to all of the online noise, there are probably 70-80 players with a “first round” grade. If you’re doing the math, that’s more players than there are picks in the first and second round combined!

That’s why a lot of these exercises are a moot point in January – or even February and into March. Free agency will impact what holes organizations have left to fill in the draft. The teams in the Super Bowl, especially the winner, will be hard-pressed to re-sign their free agents.

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Remember Larry Brown? Steelers fans will never forget, but no one knew who he was prior to Super Bowl XXX, and his becoming Neil O’Donnell’s favorite receiver in that game. (For you younger fans, Brown played for the opposing Dallas Cowboys, not the Steelers.)

Brown would go on to sign a huge contract that offseason with the Oakland Raiders, never to be seen or heard from again.

It’s easy to pick on one player, but there’s always a Brown or two that surfaces out of the Super Bowl competing teams to land a deal elsewhere. It creates a chasm when talking draft, as using the Brown example, that’s a team which gains a Super Bowl MVP cornerback (Raiders) and another loses one (Cowboys).

Where those players land is anyone’s guess, but in this year’s draft, the Philadelphia Eagles have a prime spot at pick 10 overall to replace anyone they lose – or do as GM Howie Roseman has in the past few seasons, and wheel and deal around, creating more unpredictable draft day chaos.

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It’s that sort of thing that makes mock drafts nothing more than entertainment. I see the purpose, and I even indulge in the fun, but I also attempt to treat it with a bit more integrity when doing so. Thus far, I’ve seen the Steelers drafting an offensive tackle, purely on speculation that fans don’t like current starting left tackle Dan Moore Jr.

They’re also selecting Penn State CB Joey Porter, Jr., whose father was a Steelers stalwart as well as a position coach. There’s a sizeable part of Steelers Nation who are Penn State fans, so that makes sense, just as there were those vying for Kenny Pickett last season due to his ties with Pitt. (Speaking of, Pickett’s old Pitt target, WR Jordan Addison keeps showing up in Steelers mocks too.)

That’s an OT, CB, and WR where I feel the Steelers may pass on all three positions with three of their picks in the top 50 of this year’s draft, namely, because they don’t draft tackles or corners.

While Kevin Colbert has been at the helm of the Steelers for some time, the draft trends predate his tenure which began in 2000. The new regime, featuring Omar Khan and his assistant GM, Andy Weidl, may run things differently. That much, waits to be seen.

Weidl, in particular, could bring Roseman’s chaotic brand of moving around the draft board to Pittsburgh, yielding perhaps more picks than the current crop of three in the top 50.

Yet, I can’t see past the Steelers way of doing business. Colbert or not, they simply do not burn high picks on offensive tackles or cornerbacks. Instead, they aim for long-term contributors to the interior of the line: offensive guards like Alan Faneca or David DeCastro. Their tendency to have centers almost as long as head coaches, dating back to Mike Webster on through Dermontti Dawson and Maurkice Pouncey (two Hall of Famers, and a potential third in Pouncey) speaks to an in-house secret recipe of roster building.

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If it’s not offensive line, I could feel a desire for a Ryan Shazier replacement that Devin Bush never materialized into. Those off-ball linebackers, league-wide, haven’t quite lived up to their draft position for the most part, however, which leaves one more train of thought: someone to eventually fill Cameron Heyward’s shoes.

Would the Steelers spend a high pick on a defensive lineman instead? I guess that depends on the value and again, free agency. They already drafted a potential stud in the making last year, snagging DeMarvin Leal in the third round. Another pick, that high, may be primed to sit and observe from the sidelines early, a luxury the Steelers can ill afford with other needs.

That leads a lot of mock drafts back to offensive tackle, but a reminder that other teams value protecting their quarterback too. Is the fifth tackle taken by pick 17 carry the same value as getting the first guard off the board?

This was the same conundrum Pittsburgh faced in each of the last two seasons. Under the gun, they took the first running back (Najee Harris), first quarterback (Kenny Pickett) and second tight end (Pat Freiermuth). All are now fixtures on the offense.

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I surmise that whatever the new regime does, that first pick – and pick 33 (first selection of the second round, from Chicago) will be viewed as day one starters rather than developmental players.

I suppose the best thing about this year’s draft speculation is that the Steelers no longer have to be linked with getting their quarterback of the future. With Pickett’s prospects peeking, it would appear they made a wise move last year that will help position them to take the best player available this time: as long as it’s not a wide receiver.

I hear you naysayers, but George Pickens is already the Steelers version of Ja’Marr Chase, and he didn’t cost them a sixth overall pick. Should Addison drop into round two, you may have my attention – but I won’t endorse it, at least until I see it. Besides, they already have Calvin Austin and Anthony Miller returning, so the receiver room should be set.

(You’re better off keeping those Porter Jr. hopes alive!)

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