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Analysis

Dissecting Kevin Colbert’s Draft History, What to Expect in 2019

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The 2019 NFL Draft continues to draw closer, now in the single digits for days counting down to draft day.

The Pittsburgh Steelers currently hold ten selections in the draft, a first for Pittsburgh since the 2010 NFL Draft, which included Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Draft day trades are somewhat unusual for GM Kevin Colbert, yet we’ve seen him pull the trigger more than once. One year ago, the Steelers moved up in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft to select quarterback Mason Rudolph. The pick (#79 overall) used to wheel and deal with the Seattle Seahawks? Acquired from the Oakland Raiders in a trade that sent Martavis Bryant packing to wear silver and black.

The Steelers currently hold the 20th overall pick in the first round. Colbert has two notable first round moves to climb up the board and select a player, as the Steelers moved up to get Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft and Santonio Holmes in the 2006 NFL Draft.

First Round Consistency

Since 2010, the Steelers have spent eight of nine first round picks on the defensive side of the ball (the lone exception being David DeCastro in 2012). The trend is expected to continue in 2019. Pittsburgh still has needs at both the inside linebacker/cornerback positions. One prospect that has been linked with Pittsburgh is Michigan’s Devin Bush, a speedy. three down inside linebacker who would perfectly fill a need for the Steelers at number 20. The problem? He may not even be there, as Bush’s draft stock has soared in the last few months thanks to impressive combine+pro day performances.

Would the Steelers move up to take Bush?

“Trading up or trading back, that is always going to be a possibility. We won’t know that until probably draft day, but you always have those different scenarios” said Colbert to Steelers.com. “Understanding when you have 10 you have more ammunition to either take 10 players or use ammunition to trade up.”

Judging by Colbert’s comments on having the ammunition to move up, and earlier comments about failing to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier, it’s not out of the question if Colbert decides pick up the phone to make a move.

Should Bush be out of sight, two popular choices for the Steelers reside in cornerbacks Washington’s Byron Murphy and LSU’s Greedy Williams. The status for either defender remains unknown, yet it’s believed to be a good possibility that either of the two are on the board when Pittsburgh is on the clock. The addition of a new cornerback would be a welcome sight for Steelers fans, as first round pick Artie Burns has regressed since his impressive rookie year.

If nobody is there for the Steelers liking? Trading down is another option for Colbert, as he did in 2001 with Casey Hampton. The Steelers free agency spending (Steve Nelson, Mark Barron) has afforded Colbert of avoiding a panic scenario similar to the events that unfolded in the 2016 NFL Draft, where Pittsburgh’s highly-coveted pick William Jackson III was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals right before the Steelers went on the clock. Colbert has been under fire for the performances of recent first round selections, as T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier are the outliers of solid contributors among the likes of Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Artie Burns (The jury is still out on Terrell Edmunds, as his first season was just completed).

The NFL Draft is one of the more entertaining events of the season due to its chaos and uncertainty with each pick, yet it’s a fairly safe bet the Steelers will be looking to upgrade the defensive side of the ball in the first round.

Day Two: Hit or Miss

Day two (2nd and 3rd rounds) currently holds three picks for the Steelers, one second round selection (52nd overall) and two third round picks (66th, 83rd overall). If the Steelers choose to keep both third round selections, 2019 will mark the third consecutive year Pittsburgh held multiple picks in the third round. Of the 20 picks selected in the second+third round since 2010, 12 have been on the offensive side of the ball. Those selections include the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Marcus Gilbert and Emmanuel Sanders. On the defensive side of the ball, players such as Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt have seen their name called on the second day of the draft.

The Steelers have a few options available to them, all of which are dependent on what happens in the first round. Michigan’s Chase Winovich has seen his name linked with the Steelers in the second round if Pittsburgh addresses one of their top needs. Winovich is arguably the most underrated pass rusher in this class, yet his lack of coverage skills may be enough to scare away the Steelers if they plan on finding a potential replacement for OLB Bud Dupree.

As for the cornerback position, Pittsburgh has struggled to see production from any of their day two picks (Cameron Sutton, Senquez Golson, Sean Davis). If the Steelers are unable to grab either Murphy or Williams, options such as DeAndre Baker (Georgia), Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) and Trayvon Mullen (Clemson) are potential second round picks for the Steelers to grab.

Another avenue the Steelers could explore is adding depth to their receiving corps with the departure of Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster and newly signed free agent Donte Moncrief will top the  Steelers depth chart, yet the team could potentially look to add another receiver to the long line of receivers drafted and developed outside of the first round. Names such as South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler are popular names expected to go at some point in the second round. The Steelers have drafted a receiver in either the second or third round the last 5/6 years (We’re counting Dri Archer as a WR coming out of school).

For as much praise as Colbert seems to receive for hitting on mid-round picks, he’s also seen his fair share of flops. Picks such as Senquez Golson, Dri Archer and Mike Adams immediately come to mind. Granted not every player will turn out to be a Pro-Bowl player, the Steelers have indeed seen missteps after the first round. With the last four selections on day two have been on the offensive side of the ball, will Pittsburgh go defensive heavy? With needs in multiple places, it’s a possible scenario.

Late Round Finds

The majority of Pittsburgh’s ten selections rest within rounds 4-7 with the Steelers currently touting six selections towards the later parts of the draft. Trades during this time period tend to fly more frequently, and this can be displayed upon discovering 4 of the 6 selections are from various trades Pittsburgh have completed over the past couple years. Obviously a team would love to find the next Tom Brady or Antonio Brown in the later parts of the draft, but a good chunk of this time is spent finding depth when needed and acquiring draft capital for the future. In some instances, players selected in this range may not even last long as a member of their original team.

In example, since the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted 16 players in the fourth round or later. Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, half of those players (8) are not on the Steelers roster.

It’s the nature of the business. With the average NFL career lasting only three seasons, players will undoubtedly find themselves not meeting the mark to make a NFL roster.

While the Steelers haven’t found the next big thing in those draft slots, Colbert has still been able to successfully add solid contributors. Linebackers Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo have carved roles out for themselves through special teams play, tight end Jesse James proved to be a valuable addition, and the likes of Josh Dobbs, Marcus Allen and Jaylen Samuels are all young players expected to contribute at some point in the future.

In some scenarios, teams will address the often-forgotten special teams aspect of the game by drafting kickers, punters and long-snappers. Since 2010, the Steelers have not drafted a kicker or punter, and have one long snapper (Colin Holba, who was cut before playing a game in Pittsburgh) to their name.

The Steelers, at some point in the draft, are expected to add to the depth of the running back position to go along with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers hosted a handful of running backs during their pre-draft visits: Jordan Scarlett (Florida), Mike Weber (Ohio State), Travis Homer (Miami FL), Miles Sanders (Penn State) and Damien Harris (Alabama) all have visited the Steelers facility and met with the team.

Other names of interest to the Steelers in the later rounds of the draft: LB Germaine Pratt (NC State), WR David Sills V and LB David Long Jr. (West Virginia), TE Foster Moreau (LSU).

2019’s Draft Class Will Need to Impress

I’ve written about the importance of this year’s draft class, and I will continue to echo that sentiment. 2019 is one of the most important drafts in recent memory for the Steelers for a variety of reasons. With Mike Tomlin and friends failing to reach a Super Bowl in nearly a decade, Roethlisberger’s days beginning to dwindle and the departure of two superstars, Pittsburgh will need to reload rather than rebuild. A strong 2019 draft class will not only assist in helping Pittsburgh reach their goals of a championship in Roethlisberger’s window of time left to play, but would also set the Steelers up to maintain future success when viewing the core of young play-makers on the roster.

Luckily for Pittsburgh, a team that will certainly be looking to beef up the defensive side of the ball, the 2019 draft features a wide array of defensive talent. Will Colbert follow the trends outlined in the paragraphs above? Only time will be able to tell, yet one thing is for certain: The draft can make or break the direction of a franchise.

Analysis

Film Study: Kevin Dotson Has Starting Upside

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The Steelers were going to address the offensive line at some point in the 2020 NFL Draft. Whether that be in the early portion of the draft or the mid-rounds, they were going to do it at some point. Thus, they did in the fourth round as they selected combine snub and lifelong Steelers fan Kevin Dotson.

As one of the best offensive lineman in the Sun Belt, lots of draftniks were hot on Dotson’s trail and were fans of him. It was a pick that makes a lot of sense with the Steelers’ offensive lineman types, especially on the interior at guard. Dotson is a mauler. He is nasty and brutal to his opponents. There is no denying what he does upfront on the offense. The question is how well does he do it? Can he start?

IMPRESSIVE TAPE

What stands out about Dotson’s tape immediately is that this is a guy who is strong and moves people of their spot with his strength. His upper body strength in particular is great.

A play that showcases that strength is this play against Appalachian State. The net gain of this play is not in Dotson’s favor, but his individual effort on this play is really strong. He moves the end right off his spot with well-placed hands and a ton of power in his upper body. As he engages the end, he comes in low and wins the leverage battle, which gives him the hand placement and the ability to drive through the defender’s chest. That is how he got this movement and opened up the edge.

It all comes from the aggressive mentality that was instilled with Dotson. This is a twist and Dotson was having absolutely none of it. Dotson’s hands are heavy and with those strong punches, it allows him to stun pass rushers on twists and even head up. Plays like this are just one representation of that mentality that he carries around. With smooth footwork to mirror the twist, Dotson allows the quick pass to be executed and shows a little nastiness in the process.

One of the main concerns for Dotson coming out was his athleticism and this his ability to climb to the second level. Listen, he might not be the most flexible guy or even the greatest athlete out there, but this is a pretty smooth rep from Dotson. His feet are quick and efficient with no false steps and he does a great job of framing his blocks and engaging with second-level defenders. That means he can work in a zone running scheme just as well as he can in a gap running scheme. With the Steelers moving to a more hybrid running scheme approach, that versatility is really nice to have. A caveat with Dotson is that there are some grip strength issues. He can get his hands inside and then lose his assignment a little too early, but all in all this is a nice rep.

As a guy who needs to execute a pull or a wham block, expect Dotson to be up to the task. This is a great rep. From the release off the line with that smooth footwork to how he engages this block and makes a really strong block on a good linebacker in Dylan Moses, Dotson shows out on this play. He engages this block with a low pad level and puts his hands right inside the chest plate of Moses. That seals off the middle and allows this run to break free for a good gain. This is an NFL level rep here.

The other key in pass protection for Dotoson is if he is asked to take a guy on one-on-one without help, can he be trusted? The answer is absolutely. It comes back to his strong hands, leverage, and smooth footwork to mirror pass rushers who try to break free. With a strong anchor and good balance as well, Dotson can handle strong bull rushers that come his way and stay on his feet and divert them. On this rep above he does a great job of getting his hands inside and as the pass rusher tries to knock his hands off, he resets them and keeps the defensive tackle locked up. Really good rep to defend against potential counters as well.

DOTSON’S OUTLOOK

There really is not a lot of opportunities this year for Dotson unless he just wows that coaching staff. The shortened offseason program in addition to the addition of Stefen Wisniewski, who is no slouch in his own right, is going to make Dotson a guy who will have a hard time starting this year.

Instead, he is going to get a year to be a strong depth guy at guard. His brother is teaching him center as well, so that can add to his versatility and value on the offensive line. However, after 2020, all bets are off on this guy. Dotson has all the tools to be an NFL starter and it would not shock me if he is the starter at left guard in 2021 when everything is all said and done. He has that potential.

 

 

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Analysis

Film Study: Anthony McFarland is Big-Play Threat Steelers Needed

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It was expected that the Steelers would leave the 2020 NFL Draft with a running back to bolster their backfield, so it was no surprise when they selected Anthony McFarland in the 4th round of the draft. They did so after passing on JK Dobbins and Cam Akers with the 49th pick. While they certainly did not necessarily need a running back, there were depth questions, especially with James Conner missing far too many games over the past two seasons.

So, with McFarland now on the team what will the team be getting out of the former Maryland rusher?

The Steelers will be getting an electric runner who busts angles and adds something that the Steelers did not have in the backfield prior to the draft — a home-run hitter that can take any carry to the house whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

McFarland’s Film

The immediate reaction to the pick is that this is not a normal Steelers pick. Rarely do they actually go out and get pure speed backs. Usually, they get bigger, slower backs like Benny Snell, James Conner, and others in the past that have followed that mold. In the past when they did touch speed backs, it was smaller, leaner guys like Dri Archer and Chris Rainey. However, McFarland is a complete outlier. He is not like those other speed backs, in fact, he runs pretty tough when it comes down to it.

This is a guy that is going to grind out yards. At 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, McFarland is a stocky build that is just about perfect for a running back his size. Here he is against Temple absolutely grinding out yards due to his stocky build and leg strength. That compact lower body allows him to fight for extra yards and often times, fall forward to get as many yards as possible. It also allows him to add top-notch contact balance to his arsenal. One of the key reasons why McFarland has that home run hitting ability is because he slips tackles with ease.

Really, this is a dude that does not mess around in the open field. He can use his agility to get past people (more on that later), but can absolutely run right through defenders as well. Here against Michigan, McFarland delivers a straight-up stiff-arm to the Michigan defender to shed the attempted tackle. It is another move in his arsenal of open-field moves, and it is an effective one at that.

This right here is a great read on the fly by McFarland. Maryland runs power here and ideally, the end and alley are sealed off so McFarland can sprint right through and use his speed to take this one all the way. However, the overhang safety makes a nice run fit and forces McFarland back inside. What makes this a good display of Vision by McFarland is that he reads the leverage the linebacker has to the outside of his lineman and once he sees the outside leverage of the linebacker, he makes a smooth cut back inside. He then accelerates and gets extra yardage. That is him creating yards with his eyes and reading the flow of the second-level.

That lateral agility is a legitimate part of McFarland’s game. This is counter and all the reads are entirely on the front side of the play, but with a blitz to backside, McFarland feels it and slides away from the would-be tackler. This is all about vision and footwork. With the footwork McFarland possesses, he is able to almost glide on the football field and make smooth, sharp cuts to create yards. In addition, his stop-start burst allows him to hit holes quickly and fast to maximize yards, just as he does here.

This would not be an article about Anthony McFarland if there was not a long touchdown run in this article. It also would not be a proper analysis article without mentioning his 2018 game where he terrorized Ohio State on the ground. This is one of those big plays he struck against a talented Buckeyes defenses. On this play, there are a few things that McFarland shows off. The first, and most obvious, is the long speed. This guy legitimately has 4.4 speed. It is one of the main reasons the Steelers drafted him anyways. In addition, he shows off that contact balance again by shedding a wimpy tackler. His feet never stop moving as he engages that tackler. Even more impressive is how quickly he hits top speed after breaking that tackle. However, another key point to this play is that this is a completely different type of running scheme. This is an outside zone play. It shows that McFarland is not a one-scheme back, but a versatile back in that mindset.

McFarland’s Outlook

In reality, McFarland may not get a ton of touches in his first-year. The shortened offseason in addition to the Steelers’ mentality of having a lead back type is one of the reasons he may only touch the ball around 75 times. Still, as a complement to the powerful James Conner, McFarland fits that role perfectly. The only other guy with anything remotely close to McFarland’s skillset is Kerrith Whyte, but even he did not get enough touches last year to prove he will stick on the roster.

McFarland, thus, becomes the primary speed back and big-play element out of the backfield that the Steelers have not had since Willie Parker. It really has been that long. McFarland’s tape is good and he should be able to live up to the hype. His big question marks are the receiving game and pass protection, however, and in order to get a bigger role in the offense he will have to prove himself competent in those areas.

*You can also learn about McFarland by watching Mike Asti’s talk with Adam Zielonka of the Washington Times.*

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2020 NFL Draft

Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush

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The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.

All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.

Highsmith’s Tape

The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.

One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.

Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.

Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.

This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.

Highsmith’s Overview

The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.

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