Steelers Draft Talk: Getting serious

Benz Seo

For fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there remains apprehension and uncertainty about what the team might be looking to fix, invest in, or upgrade in the upcoming NFL Draft. But I’m here to handicap the situation by adding new names to my plan of attack. Beware, that plan […]

For fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there remains apprehension and uncertainty about what the team might be looking to fix, invest in, or upgrade in the upcoming NFL Draft. But I’m here to handicap the situation by adding new names to my plan of attack.

Beware, that plan begins with what will be a controversial but necessary decision: I’m removing Najee Harris from consideration.

Oh, he’s my guy. If there’s one prospect about whom this old-school draftnik would like to bloviate, it’s Najee. The strength and power running game that could be hatched, over time, from a Derrick Henry-type running back, has its appeal. Harris is the quintessential Steeler in so many ways.

Yet, we must acknowledge a few things.

First, times have changed. That tends to happen. What the under-fortified roster of the Steelers can be proud of are the playmakers on offense. Just check the athletic traits of tight end Eric Ebron and the roster of wide receivers. That combines with a quarterback who wants to have involvement in the achievements and not simply as a side-show game manager.

There might be a better fit for the offensive scheme than power. Yes, that pains me a bit, but I’m trying to keep up with the times.

I take aim that the team will encourage the creativity and pre-snap motion of offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and, furthermore, they will be looking for explosion and big-play speed from a potential running back.

Hey, the issue might just resolve itself because I believe there’s greater than a 50/50 shot that Harris will be drafted before the Steelers select. He’s a top-15 prospect on my board, and I don’t believe the league is going to simply allow the Steelers to sit at No. 24 and have the consensus RB1 fall to them.

So, I’ve removed Harris from consideration for my upcoming Dazzling Dozen piece, but will bring forth at this time four new names, including the running back that I argue will ultimately be the selection.

Here are this week’s nominations for my slate of eventual targets:

Travis Etienne, running back, Clemson, (5-10, 215, senior, 22 on draft day)

The durable and electric Etienne would be an elite offensive addition to the Steelers. He did not miss a game in four years at Clemson and would add instant credibility to a unit that is begging for it. Etienne would bring talent and traits that have not been present at the position in a very long time. Sure, he’s lighter and less powerful than Harris, but let’s realize what Etienne has that’s better: agility, speed and vision to “go the distance” any time the ball is in his hands. While other teams have had studs with twitch and explosive acceleration, the Steelers have not had that factor.

It is time to take care of this obligation and I suspect the team will with their first-round selection. While we could take the time to review the resume – 78 touchdowns as a Tiger, three-time first team All-America, and many other attributes – it could serve as a waste of time because offseason fans are well aware of these attributes. My point is that Etienne could be the perfect storm of draft selection, availability, need, and traits to get the team their man.

James Hudson, offensive tackle, Cincinnati, (6-5, 313, redshirt junior, 22 on May 13)

Here’s the prospect who inflames me with optimism today. While analyzing a prospect or draft class, it’s important not to fall in love because it can cause a blurred, biased vision. But I couldn’t help it. Hudson is the guy. He’s needed. What team wouldn’t want an offensive lineman with his physical brand of play? I recently took an extra look at Hudson and ended up elevating his status on my draft boards.

To be honest, I’m sick and tired of working on some of these “stiffs” at offensive tackle. Sure, there’s a good half-dozen top-100 type prospects who have pedigree and efficient line play – but, really, many are stiffs. They’re boring and it’s awfully difficult to get excited about their “just a guy” attributes. They are prospects from big programs – Notre Dame, USC, Stanford, among other luxurious locations – but they couldn’t stand on one foot and juggle two tennis balls if you asked them to.

But let’s stick to Hudson. He’s different. He’s a 313-pound athletic freak who’s had some adversity but looks to utilize his athletic twitch, violent hands and overall balance to demolish defenders. Hudson was once with Michigan and transitioned from a defensive lineman to offensive tackle. There was some dispute and public angst when he transferred to Cincinnati and the feeling here is that it might ultimately leave this guy wanting to get even with a Harbaugh twice a year.

Hudson stands as a lock to make my final Dazzling Dozen and I think he’s in play for a selection in Round Two, where the Steelers select 55th. Yes, with transfers and public disputes comes the need for background checks – those the Steelers will be able to do that I can’t. I hope my guy checks out because here is the perfect long-term left tackle investment and I have a feeling he can be had at 55.

Chris Rumph II, outside linebacker, Duke, (6-3, 244, redshirt junior, 22)

Rumph’s father is the current Chicago Bears defensive line coach and has had many coaching stops along the collegiate game. More recently he coached the Houston Texans’ defensive line (2019) before taking the Bears job this year.

The traits within Chris’ game make one believe he had a father as a coach. He has that look of a disciplined, “know your assignment” type prospect who uses well-crafted technique to get the job done. The Duke product was a team captain in 2020 and a player who fits quite well for a team that might be content sliding second-year player Alex Highsmith into the starting role, but is not so satisfied with the depth of the position.

Rumph II is a high-ceiling, high-character prospect with traits that could lend a hand to the team now and in the future while also providing direct competition to the incumbent.

I really like Rumph as one of the defensive prospects to slide into that target-area of Round Three, where the Steelers are slotted to pick 87th overall. He’s in what I would classify as “fringe top 100 status” and ultimately makes the cut in an edge-rush class that contains several questions and health. Rumph adds a certain level of reliability, so I would have no hesitations with taking him in Round Three. His frame and athletic traits make me believe he’s a candidate for the Steelers’ defensive scheme. With 17.5 career sacks and 34 tackles-for-loss, the production is there in a competitive ACC Conference.

Anthony Schwartz, wide receiver, Auburn, (6-0, 186, junior, 20)

The final name for today comes as a hunch. It’s a what-if moment. What if the Steelers aren’t as engaged at solving the running back issue as some of us think? That’s about as off-the-wall as one could get right now, but let’s leave no stone unturned.

If the plan is to engage with what they’ve got, draft another mid-round superstar, and continue to accentuate offensive talent with a combination of short and long passes, Schwartz could be the perfect find. 

Depending on how the draft unfolds, there could be a level of virtue in dropping a wide receiver into one of the Round Four selections. Schwartz is a track superstar. No, literally, he is a record-breaking, nationally recognized sprinter. He holds several Florida records after competing in college track as well. What comes with that, as far as football traits, is a 4.25 40. The NFL game has been favorable to this type of prospect and Schwartz stands the chance to see elevation in status due to his wicked-fast speed. He’s likely to be slotted somewhere in that fourth-round area, and when one considers the possible future of Juju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers could decide to fortify the position.

Will Smith-Schuster be signed to a long-term contract after cap relief becomes a reality? Or is he here for one year with the quarterback he likes? Though wide receiver doesn’t appear a top-five need on this team, I envision the front office looking at a player they think can add to the dynamics on offense.

In viewing tape of Schwartz, I see a new play-thing for the Canada offense. Schwartz has efficient pre-snap motion and could be a gadget machine who matches up well with some of the other concepts we might expect from that scheme.

So, to recap this with past weeks, here’s a rundown of the eight prospects nominated for consideration to my yet-to-come Dazzling Dozen:

No. 25 on my big board, Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson – Round One

No. 60, James Hudson, OT, Cincinnati – Round Two

No. 66, Kendrick Green, C, Illinois – Round Two

No. 73, Jamar Johnson, S/slot CB, Indiana – Round Three

No. 82, Chris Rumph II, OLB, Duke – Round Three

No. 108, Cameron McGrone, ILB, Michigan – Round Four

No. 112, Anthony Schwartz, WR, Auburn – Round Four

No. 118, Derrick Barnes, ILB, Purdue – Round Four

I’ll be back in two weeks with final rankings, thoughts about this exciting time of the year, and the final Dazzling Dozen. I’m hoping someone convinces me of the perfect non-running back choice for No. 24 by that time.

In the meantime, please check out my offensive and defensive draft boards.

Offensive tackle James Hudson reacts to being ejected for targeting during the Peach Bowl last New Year’s Day. (Photo: Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports)

 

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