The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2020 season 11-0 before a 1-4 slide and disappointing playoff loss. Mike Tomlin’s team parted ways with James Conner, Bud Dupree, Matt Feiler, Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson, Alejandro Villanueva, and Vince Williams in the offseason. Pittsburgh needs to hammer the 2021 NFL Draft to stay relevant in the ultra-competitive AFC North.
Cap casualties, free agency, and retirements created significant chinks in the Steel City’s armor. The offensive line struggled last season and had three starters depart over the past few months. Losing Hilton and Nelson opened up significant snaps in the secondary, and Pittsburgh needs two new starting linebackers as well.
The Steelers hope 2020 draft picks Kevin Dotson and Alex Highsmith can become full-time starters, but that shouldn’t prevent them from drafting high-level talent at guard and outside linebacker. However, the team should focus more on positions where no successors are waiting in the wings.
While I would’ve loved to create an ideal mock draft where everything went perfect for Pittsburgh, I also wanted to make this article realistic. So, I used The Draft Network’s mock draft machine and Pro Football Focus’ mock draft simulator to check each selection. Out of several mock drafts, this is the best scenario I came up with.
I did not predict any trades and included ideal picks after every selection for those overly optimistic fans.
Round 1 (No. 24): Teven Jenkins, OT Oklahoma St.
Jenkins rarely made it to Pittsburgh in TDN’s machine while he was always on the board in PFF’s simulator. The Steelers might pass on taking a tackle if an outside linebacker or cornerback they love falls to 24. Alijah Vera-Tucker could also shake things up. In most situations, Pittsburgh should go after a tackle with its first selection.
Zach Banner missed most of last season, but he’ll compete for the starting right tackle job. Chukwuma Okorafor, who started most games at right tackle last year, is returning as well. The issue for Pittsburgh comes at left tackle. Villanueva hasn’t signed with another team in free agency, but the Steelers don’t have enough cap space for a veteran blindside protector.
Jenkins can play both left and right tackle. Texas’ Samuel Cosmi and North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz have much more experience as pure left tackles, but Jenkins projects as the better prospect. He’s a destructive force in the running game too, which Pittsburgh desperately needs.
There’s a slight chance the Steelers get lucky and have Christian Darrisaw, the best pure left tackle in this class, fall into their laps.
Ideal pick: Christian Darrisaw, OT Virginia Tech
Round 2 (No. 55): Landon Dickerson, IOL Alabama
Alabama’s star center was still on the board at 55 in both mock draft machines. The three top running backs had already heard their names called in both instances. I’m a firm believer that the offensive line makes the running back and not the other way around. It makes no sense to draft a running back when the offensive line can’t run block.
Dickerson is an energetic, powerful prospect that can play center or guard in the NFL. He has a lengthy injury history, but he’s the best center in the draft by a decent margin. With Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to throw deep in question, the Steelers could become more of a run-based offense in 2021.
Dickerson and Jenkins can revive the running game together and reset Pittsburgh’s aging offensive line.
Ideal pick: Dickerson
Round 3 (No. 87): Jamin Davis, LB Kentucky
PFF’s simulator still had Davis and fellow Kentucky product Kelvin Joseph still on the board. TDN’s board had neither. Quincy Roche was available in both situations, and I believe he’s the most likely prospect of the three mentioned here to fall to 87th overall. After a fantastic pro day, Davis could sneak into the bottom of the first-round, but he’s only a one-year wonder.
Alex Highsmith and Roche could work together to replace Dupree’s production, but Highsmith showed flashes of starting potential on limited snaps last year. The second-year linebacker’s rookie performance makes it easier for the Steelers to pass on an edge rusher and solidify the interior of their linebacking corps.
Davis is one of the hardest players to project a draft positioning for. This is probably an optimistic pick that might even qualify as an ideal pick because of Davis’ terrific traits, but there’s still an extremely slim chance the Steelers get him at 87.
Ideal pick: Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB Syracuse
Round 4 (No. 128): Benjamin St-Juste, CB Minnesota
Pittsburgh could take a long look at St-Juste and Syracuse’s Trill Williams here. However, both tall corners were only available in the PFF simulator. Guard Kendrick Green was on both boards in this range. I could see the Steelers taking him if they feel uneasy about Kevin Dotson starting for all 17 games.
If general manager Kevin Colbert whiffs on Melifonwu, he could search for Nelson’s replacement in the fourth-round. St-Juste didn’t record an interception in college, but he’s 6-3, 202 lbs. St-Juste doesn’t have great straight line speed, but he flashed impressive mobility in the short shuttle and three-cone drills at his pro day.
While the Steelers need a cornerback, they’d love to get Trey Sermon here. Running back isn’t as valuable a position as some fans believe, but Pittsburgh needs some new blood in the backfield. Sermon elevated his stock when he gained 636 rushing yards in three games late last season.
Ideal pick: Trey Sermon, RB Ohio St.
Round 4 (No. 140): Khalil Herbert, RB Virginia Tech
It was tempting to add South Carolina’s Sadarius Hutcherson to an intriguing offensive line haul, but Pittsburgh can’t roll into next season with Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. as the top backs. Snell had a promising 100-yard game to open the 2020 season before disappearing for the rest of the year. McFarland didn’t make an impact as a rookie.
McFarland and Snell were both fourth-round selections that haven’t panned out. Perhaps adding another fourth-round back is a fool’s errand.
Stanford’s Walker Little must be the pick if falls this far. Little had first-round draft stock before suffering a string of setbacks that resulted in him missing most of the last two seasons. At worst, he never sees the field. At best, the Steelers find a franchise left tackle that thrives in pass protection.
Ideal pick: Walker Little, OT Stanford
Round 6 (No. 216): Tarron Jackson, EDGE Coastal Carolina
Even if the Steelers believe in Highsmith, they should throw a dart in the late rounds at an edge rusher. Coastal Carolina listed Jackson at 6-2, 260 lbs. during his final year with the Chanticleers. Over his last two seasons with the program, Jackson tallied 18 sacks, 26.5 tackles for loss, and 110 tackles.
Jackson didn’t face a high level of competition in the Sun Belt Conference, but neither did Highsmith in Conference USA when he played for Charlotte. Assuming Jackson is comfortable moving to outside linebacker, he could work as a rotational player in 2021.
Tay Gowan is an interesting prospect. PFF is extremely high on the one-year standout cornerback from UCF, but other sites and analysts don’t share their enthusiasm. Gowan weighed in at 6-1, 186 lbs. on his pro day and ran a 4.44 40-yard dash.
Ideal pick: Tay Gowan, CB UCF
Round 7 (No. 245): Sam Ehlinger, QB Texas
Ehlinger came off the board at 218 for TDN, but he was still around in the PFF model. Seventh-rounders hit so rarely that it’s worth throwing a few darts at players with high upside. Ehlinger threw for 11,436 yards, 94 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions at Texas. He isn’t the most accurate quarterback but possesses dual-threat capabilities.
The Steelers have a quarterback problem. Roethlisberger is past his prime and got crushed by Cleveland in the playoffs. Ehlinger is hardly an heir apparent, but I’m more than willing to use pick 245 on him. Hopefully, the former Longhorn can out-develop Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins.
Ideal pick: Chris Rumph II, EDGE Duke
Round 7 (No. 254): Marco Wilson, CB Florida
Wilson was long gone on the PFF board but was the top corner remaining for TDN at 254. Most people know Wilson as the cornerback that cost the Gators a shot at the College Football Playoffs by throwing a cleat in the fourth quarter against LSU. It’s a narrative he could spend years trying to overcome.
If we look beyond that one moment, Wilson is a legitimate NFL prospect that could go as high as the fifth-round. Wilson intercepted three passes in 2019 and captured the spotlight at Florida’s pro day. According to PFF, he finished in the 99th or 100th percentile historically among cornerbacks with a 44-inch vertical, 136-inch broad jump, and 26 reps on the bench.
Wilson also ran a 4.37 40-yard dash. At 6-0, 191 lbs., Wilson is an incredible athlete with a bright future in the NFL.
Ideal pick: Tony Poljan, TE Virginia