March 4, 2021

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The Steelers 2021 Wants, Needs, and Draft…

17 min read
The Steelers 2021 Wants, Needs, and Draft...


Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.

Important Want = should improve rather than could.

Need = a missing starter.

This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.

The Steelers had all but astonishing depth at Offensive Tackle going into 2020. That won’t continue into 2021.

Most teams are lucky to have two starting-caliber OT’s on the roster. Good teams may be blessed to have three. Pittsburgh had four – four! – capable men on the same roster: Al Villanueva; Matt Feiler; Zach Banner; and Chuks Okorafor. None are stars, nor ever likely to be, but that extraordinary depth makes an appropriate starting point for this discussion.

Here is a summary of the players and their contract situations.

  • Al Villanueva will be 33 and a free agent in this 2021 offseason. He continues to be a solid pass protector and an average-at-best run blocker. He’s also showed some signs that his game may be beginning to slip, though OT’s often play well into their mid-30’s and he should still have a few years left on the clock. The biggest issue is whether he wants to keep playing. Big Al is one of those men who have a lot more going on in their lives than just football. No one would be surprised if he sees so much to do in the next part of his life’s work that football comes in second. His availability for the 2021 season will play a large role in determining whether Pittsburgh needs to focus on someone who is closer to pro ready, or can afford to invest in a higher ceiling that might take more time to develop.
  • Matt Feiler will be 29, a free agent, and will probably land a big contract on the open market from some team that needs a proven starter. Pittsburgh’s salary cap issues are going to prevent the team from seriously competing against that kind of money. It would be wonderful if the market does not match what Steeler Nation believes, and the team could manage to sign him as a longer term RT. That would restore a ton of depth and leave the team free to focus on potential in its draft picks rather than immediate performance.
  • Zach Banner will be 28 and is just entering the prime of his career. He was drafted in the 4th round by Indianapolis, and then managed to almost lose his career over an inability to keep his weight under control. Pittsburgh took him on as a project, helped him to shed 80 unwanted pounds (from 420 to 340), and then developed his skills to the point where he could overcome Chuks Okorafor for the starting RT job in 2020. A fan favorite for his vibrant personality, Banner tore his ACL in the first game of the year. Knees are tough for big men to heal, but modern medicine has gotten good enough to all-but-expect a successful rehab. Most of the fan base expects Banner to sign a 1-2 year “prove it” deal before cashing in on a big contract in 2022 or 2023.
  • Chuks Okorafor is the baby of the room. A 3rd round pick from 2018, he will be 24 and entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2021 (free agent in 2022). His style of play is kind of similar to Al Villanueava; a long, athletic OT who pass protects better than he blocks in the run game, but who quietly gets the job done week in and week out without any real fanfare – positive or negative. He’s become a pretty good positional (a/k/a ‘get in the way’) blocker, but still hasn’t shown much in the way of digging out opponents and moving them to where they do not want to go.
  • Jerald Hawkins will be a 6th year pro and long time backup in 2021. The Steelers 2016 Round 4 pick could not earn snaps when the line was strong, and then got traded to Tampa in 2019 for draft picks. The Texans picked him up in 2020 and then moved him to the practice squad, where the Steelers poached him back when injuries decimated the OL later in the season. He looked okay as a Guard in a few snaps during December but that is just about all we have to go on. May be able to serve as a T/G swing backup, but at this point it is hard to see him as a potential starter.

So, out of the four top OT’s on the roster in 2020, we have to expect the team to have only two in 2021; most likely Chuks Okorafor, possibly with an extension, and Zach Banner, on a shorter term deal with the medical red flag to overcome. Villanueava may be back, but the best guess would be that he’ll be on a shorter term deal as well. Feiler is the longest shot of the group.

All of that makes Offensive Tackle a genuine “Want”, and probably an “Important Want.” A star would make such a big difference, and depth is so important. And that gets us to the good news: the 2021 draft may offer the best array of Round 1-3 Tackle talent in recent memory. There will almost certainly be bargains available in all three rounds: a mid-1st talent for some weaker year in the late 1st, and so forth. It’s like looking at the WR class from 2020.

Hot tip: this means that Pittsburgh is more likely to pick an OT than any other position, but draftniks who obsess over online mocks will get better results by picking some other position in Round 1 and then circling back for the Tackle in Round 2. It’s always more satisfying in the abstract to get two fringe-1st values than a solid 1st and a solid 2nd.

One final note before we move on to this year’s prospects. History suggests that the Steelers tend to prioritize the Offensive Line positions a little differently than everyone else. Most pundits consider the all-star Tackle as the #1 goal for a good offensive line. Not the Pittsburgh Steelers. The closest I can remember to a dominant Tackle around here was RT Marcus Gilbert, and before him Tunch Ilkin. Going back 50 years shows only three Round 1 OT picks in all that time: two who were basically busts (1989’s Tom Rickets at #24 overall and 1996’s Jamaine Stephens at #29), plus a disappointment in 1992’s Leon Searcy at #11. No Tackle has been picked in Round 1 since then – a period that’s now pushing toward three full decades.

Look at Center and Guard by contrast. There isn’t a team in the league that can match Pittsburgh’s history of talent at Center (Webster, Hartings, Dawson, Pouncey, and others). And between Faneca and DeCastro we’ve gotten used to having a HOF level Guard too, along with a running mate who was more than solid (Willie Colon, the Big Ragu, and others).

All that makes for a long pattern in which Colbert and the head coaches have aimed for “solid and competent” at the OL’s edge but very close to great in the middle. Is that history a matter of team philosophy? Or is it an accident of history? This year’s draft picks could provide some meaty bones for that ongoing debate.

On to the prospects. I remind everyone that the grades are still extra tentative because full scouting reports are hard to find at this early date. For this reason I have made no effort to draw finer gradations among the different clusters. It’s only (A) those who won’t be around at 1:24, (B) the ones to dream for in Round 1, (C) the realistic targets for in Round 1, (D) the likely targets for Round 2, and (E) the best of the rest. The depth continues into the later rounds too, but one has to draw the line somewhere. I currently have no less than 26 Tackles listed as fair value or better when the Steelers pick in Round 4!

“COLBERT SPECIALS”

  • T/G Penei Sewell, Oregon. (Junior). 6’5”, 325 lbs. A country strong run blocker from a pass first program with fantastic movement skills as well, Sewell could also move inside where he’d be just as dominant at Guard. Ain’t Gonna Happen.

ROUND 1 BARGAINS

  • OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas. (RS Junior). 6’7”, 300 lbs. Will turn 21 just before the draft. Think “higher pedigree and potential Chuks Okorafor” and you’ll get the idea. Cosmi has top 5 natural talent, a Round 2 skillset, and the advantage of a body and mind that are both still maturing. Nature built this young man to be a super athletic NFL blindside protector for the next 15 years. Or more accurately for the 13 years after a 2-year learning curve in which he’ll fill in the physical and technical corners. A year or three in an NFL strength regime will serve him extremely well.
  • OT Christian Darrisaw, Va. Tech. (Senior). 6’5”, 314 lbs. Remarkable movement skills even for the NFL, with good, quick hands to pop oncoming rushers off their gait. The power is sufficient, especially if you project improvement from professional strength training. Same for the basic technique: sufficient but improvable in all the little ways that usually do improve. An excellent prospect with more promise as a blindside pass protector than run blocker.
  • T/G/C Rashawn Slater, Northwestern. (Senior). 6’4”, 315 lbs. Draftniks argue that his arm length will limit Slater to Guard and Center, but your humble author cries BS. This is a Football Player who might be my favorite semi-realistic Round 1 target for Pittsburgh. The talents include excellent mobility, very good hands, and a blue-collar type of play that will appeal to both the city and its team, and the best position flexibility in the draft. Dermontii Dawson played Guard in college. If there is a player in this draft who could shift position to become the next Dawson, it is Rashawn Slater. But my favorite part? Slater may never be the biggest or longest dog in the fight, but he’s going to be the scrappiest, fightingest dog anywhere close to the neighborhood. That matters. He has also handled top talent successfully, including a fantastic 2019 game against no less than Chase Young. He isn’t likely to be available when the Steelers pick in Round 1, but I will be doing my draft day DeCastro Dance if he falls far enough for the team to pull that trigger.

LIKELY ROUND 1 TARGETS

  • OT Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 305 lbs. Very good at everything, with tremendous experience at a good program, Eichenberg has flashed everything but pure physical genius. He has it all – balance, punch, power, pulling, etc. – but always at a level that seems to be just short of the “special” needed to secure him a Round 1 berth. A high floor pick who’s easy to project as a long term starter, and maybe an occasional Pro Bowler, but hard to see as an actual star.
  • OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama. (Senior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. Smooth, quick footed, and strong enough to handle the job, Leatherwood has a number of fixable technique issues that will drop his stock toward late-1st area where Pittsburgh is going to pick. He will be ideal if free agency leaves the team able to let its Round 1 pick have a redshirt year of professional training to iron out the kinks. None of the technical problems are very severe, it’s just that they are there and professional opponents will find a way to take advantage. The high floor is a big part of his appeal as a prospect.
  • T/G Jalen Mayfield, Michigan. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 319 lbs. Will still be 19 on draft day. Go back to school young man, and in 2022 you’ll be an easy 1st rounder, and maybe even pushing toward the Top 10. If you come out in 2021 there will be question marks because of balance issues and similar technique quibbles. A tremendous athlete, but one who requires a bit of projection because he is still growing into his adult size, strength, and skills.
  • G/T Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 300 lbs. Built like a Guard but moves like a Tackle. Either way he looks darned promising. As a Guard in 2019, Vera-Tucker looked – if you’ll pardon the pun – Vera-good in pretty much every part of his game. Vera-good strength, technique, and understanding of the position; Vera-good foot speed, experience; etc. The tape he put up as a Tackle in the Covid-shortened 2020 season has been Vera-much better than merely “good”. Mock drafts in December had him pushing into Top-10 consideration! That kind of multi-position ability, with high level upside, makes for an extremely appealing prospect. He would grade higher if his odds at Tackle were better, or Pittsburgh did not have its starters in place at Guard.

LIKELY ROUND 2 TARGETS

  • G/T Jackson Carman, Clemson. (Junior). 6’5”, 345 lbs. Carman would be ranked even higher if he hadn’t been consistently vulnerable to elite and bendy pass rushers (Chase Young stole his breakfast in 2019). There are a lot more of those in the NFL than he’s seen in college, and draftniks worry that he may not have that extra gear to deal with them. Great size and very good feet, but it’s a real concern that most pundits believe will push him inside to Guard. The situation “smells” like the sort of prospect who disappoints for 3-4 years as his technique slowly improves, and then suddenly ‘arrives’ as a star when things finally gel just in time for his second contract.
  • OT Daniel Faale, Minnesota. (Junior). 6’8”, 400 lbs. If you’re the sort of reader who ignores the numbers, go back and look again. O.M.G. He really is that big. And he can move! The young man is a freak even by NFL standards. The issue is that he’s a converted rugby player and raw as hell. Really. He is. But… O.M.G. Boom or bust, with a finger on the positive side of the scale. The need for remedial work means that he could easily fall to Round 3, but the cosmic upside works against that.
  • T/G Teven Jenkins, Okla. St. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. A big, strong, nasty tough guy with some decent movement skills, but it will take both good coaching and hard work to get rid of some technical flaws that NFL professionals could use to chew him alive. Probably more of a Tackle than a Guard but he appears to be very position flexible.
  • OT Walker Little, Stanford. (Senior). 6’7”, 309 lbs. Turns 22 just before the draft. The best comp may actually be Al Villanueva himself. Walker Little is an NFL caliber athlete who plays with sound but improvable technique and Stanford-level smarts. Earns a minor discount on this board because his stock is more speculative than you’d like. He lost 2019 to a knee injury in the opening game, and opted out of 2020 due to Covid-19, so there isn’t much in the way of recent tape to go on. Other boards apply a bigger discount, resulting in a wide range of grades.
  • OT Thayer Munford, Ohio St. (Senior). 6’6”, 310 lbs. An astonishing athlete with astonishingly inconsistent technique. It can be maddening to watch. He improved in 2020 but is still not up to the standard expected of someone who’s started so many games on such a superior team. Unlimited ceiling, backup floor. Munford is the sort of player who will be easy for teams to grade and hard for outsiders, because what you need to know will show up after one good workout with a professional coach, but is going to be very hard for anyone other than that coach to figure out. Another grade that many will argue belongs in Round 3 or even later, but is kept here because of pure potential.
  • OT Dillon Radunz, N. Dak. St. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 301 lbs. A blindside protector from that small school superpower that keeps on producing NFL talent. Radunz profiles as an all-grit, long term starter who could make Pro Bowls, but lacks the athletic genius to leave HOF stars in a draftnik’s eyes. His technique is already up to low NFL standards. Classic high floor, low ceiling.
  • OT Rasheed Walker, Penn St. (Junior). 6’6”, 320 lbs. Will turn 21 just before draft day. If you want to bet on upside, here you go. There just aren’t many human beings on the planet with a better athletic profile to play Tackle in the NFL. Length, size, fluid footwork, mobility… he’s got it all. That said, he is very young and very raw with a whole array of coachable problems that he will need to fit. Getting low enough on run downs, fixing his punch, keeping his hands where they belong, working on his balance, etc. Unlikely to help in Year 2, and almost certainly not in Year 1, but from Year 3 on he could start being a fixture. Or not. Another boom or bust prospect that could easily fall to the Round 3-4 range but is kept here because we grade on “highest” value.

LIKELY ROUND 3 AND 4 TARGETS

  • OT Spencer Brown, N. Iowa. (RS Senior). 6’9”, 321 lbs. A looong, capable pass protector on the edge who needs to build strength and technique if he wants to have the same success against NFL pass rushers as he enjoyed in college. Decent enough as a get-in-the-way run blocker, but that really isn’t his forte.
  • OT Obinna Eze, Memphis. (RS Junior). 6’8”, 315 lbs. You could lift the draft profile of Chuks Okorafor and plug it in here almost word for word. On the plus side he is very long, very athletic, smooth mover, with good hand speed and a very nice punch. The assets are there to succeed as an NFL tackle, including the security blankets of an extensive basketball background to show off the internal wiring, and an immigrant background to reassure us about his work ethic while explaining a lot of the rawness. On the downside, he really is that raw, will take at least a year or two of coaching before he arrives, and he doesn’t project as a potential Guard if things don’t go right at Tackle.
  • OT Brady Christensen, BYU. (RS Junior). 6’6”, 300 lbs. A frustrating evaluation because he has a lot of talents that are best suited to the spread offense that he played in college, leaving questions about the rest of his game. How do you project someone who’s never played in a 3-point stance to the NFL, especially as a potential Tackle? Excels at positional (a/k/a “get in the way”) blocking, with the lateral mobility to handle speed and enough anchor to avoid the roller skates problem, but one has to wonder if that is enough to be more than a swing Tackle in the NFL.
  • OT Josh Ball, Marshall by way of Fla. St. (Senior). 6’8”, 350 lbs. A fringe-1st talent held back by significant off-field smoke that reeks of, “there is more to this story than we know, and those details will make all the difference.” Ball was producing at a star level for FSU when a school panel suspended him on a domestic violence complaint. There were no criminal charges filed, but it effectively forced him to leave the school. Then he transferred to Marshall and looked every bit as dominant. So the talent is there, and worthy of a Round 1-2 grade. But. Teams need to decide if he is a talent who got ground up in the gears of a PC kangaroo court, or a domestic violence disaster waiting to implode when the professional money and fame arrive.
  • OT Myron Cunningham, Arkansas. (Senior). 6’6”, 300 lbs. An overachiever who worked his way up to SEC success after coming out of the junior college system, Cunningham wins with great length, a good understanding of position, and the obvious mental toughness required to keep on pushing through. Lots of upside at Tackle because he will benefit a lot from both professional strength training, and professional coaching to fix several relatively minor flaws in his technique. Not a great projection from the position flexibility perspective.
  • OT Adrian Ealy, Oklahoma. (RS Junior). 6’6”, 325 lbs. He’s very big, exceptionally long, and plenty strong, but he isn’t that great an athlete. The sort of player who presents a very tough puzzle for opponents to figure out, but who’s beatable once they do. NFL edge rushers will figure out anyone, so the question becomes whether NFL coaching can build enough technique to hide the flaws and let the assets continue. Has no experience at Guard, but does show power as a run blocker so that’s hard to rule out.
  • G/T Alaric Jackson, Iowa. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 320 lbs. A college Tackle who may need to move inside as a pro. His big assets are burst off the line and speed in the open field, but they are more of the straight line variety than the easy lateral movement you look for on the edge. He could also use a year of professional strength training to supplement all the standard improvements to be expected from top level coaching.
  • OT Abraham Lucas, Wash. St. (RS Junior). 6’7”, 324 lbs. Monstrously huge, moderately mobile, and able to play to his assets… but he just isn’t as sharp as you want. The sort of player who looks the part and has had success, but has displayed flaws that NFL athletes will feast on, and that may be very hard to fix. Sort of like a heavyweight boxer with a thunderously heavy punch that destroys the palookas, but gets delivered slowly enough for contenders to avoid. The assets provide enough room to imagine real ‘boom’ in this pick, but the debits give equal odds that he might end up as a bust.
  • T/G Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 312 lbs. Played LT in college, but projects better as a RT with excellent power and the ability to move inside. A player in the Matt Feiler mold, Van Lanen’s main assets seem to be country strength, solid technique as both a run and pass blocker, and a really nasty attitude toward those who get in his way. Serious position flexibility, long experience, and proven production. What he lacks is the weird combination of exceptional feet, length, and wingspan required to be an NFL-level blindside protector. It makes for a pretty hard ceiling.
  • T/G Tyler Vrabel, Boston Coll. (RS Sophomore). 6’5”, 310 lbs. The son of Mike Vrabel, Tyler plays offensive line a lot like his Dad used to play linebacker: tough, smart, efficient, and technically sound with a sneaky athleticism that isn’t likely to result in a SPARQ score as good as the player. Likely to go back to school.

CONCLUSION

That makes a total of eight (8) players with solid grades that make them good to great value in Round 1, and another seven (7) for Round 2. That’s fifteen (15) out of the tope 64 prospects, or almost 25%! Yes, these are Steeler-oriented grades and the “highest value” approach tends to inflate things, but it’s still a remarkable number. Then it continues! I have counted another ten (10) targets the team would likely want, and have a chance, to target in the next two rounds if irresistible temptations appear at other positions earlier on. There’s so much depth that it’s hard to lose, and I have little doubt that we’ll see a few more players rise up to claim a mid-round grade on the 2021 Steelers Big Board.

I judge Offensive Tackle to be the most likely target for Pittsburgh’s pick at #24 overall, but it is far from a lock. There are very good talents at other positions, and the sheer depth of this class suggests that the team could afford to wait with no real threat of getting stiffed. It’s supply and demand. The demand will be as high as ever, but the supply for 2021 is stunning.

When you factor in Pittsburgh’s historic preference for building the OL from the center out… It’s time to keep an open mind.

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