What are the Steelers going to do in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft?
When you’re a Steelers reporter, and it’s the spring, that’s all everyone wants to know. I think I’ve been asked that question 1,000 times since the end of the 2022 season.
Most seasons, I have a pretty good idea. The Steelers aren’t exactly shy about their draft plans. They generally make it pretty well known what positions they’re deeply scouting and which players they like and don’t like by their actions in the pre-draft process.
Two years ago, Najee Harris was the player almost everyone knew they take — even if some us thought it was a bad idea. Last year, the surprise was that Kenny Pickett was available to them at No. 20, not that the Steelers were interested in the Pitt quarterback, and frankly, all the quarterbacks in the draft class.
This year, there’s not one position to focus on. The Steelers and Omar Khan have done such a good job of filling all the team’s most immediately pressing needs that there are a half-dozen positions that the team could reasonably select in the first round — and they’ve heavily scouted most of them.
They brought in potential first-round tackles (Broderick Jones, Darnell Wright), cornerbacks (Deonte Banks, Christian Gonzalez, Joey Porter Jr.), defensive linemen (Bryan Bresee) and a guard (O’Cyrus Torrence) in for top 30 visits to UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan also went to the pro days of top edge rushers Myles Murphy and Nolan Smith, safety Brian Branch and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Basically, other than quarterback and running back, it seems that everything has been on the table.
That is still true, but as the greater draft picture becomes more clear with just a few days left until Thursday night’s first round, I have three scenarios that I think are most likely for the Steelers.
TRADE UP TO GET A LEFT TACKLE
The Steelers got OK play out of Chuks Okorafor at right tackle in 2022. It wasn’t great, and it probably wasn’t commensurate with his 2023 salary, but it was good enough to keep things moving in that direction for at least one more year.
The same can’t be said at left tackle, where the issue of the play of Dan Moore Jr. is compounded by protecting last year’s investment in Pickett. The Steelers spent a lot of draft capital on Pickett, and him not panning out as the team’s starting quarterback going forward would set the club back years as a result.
Statistically, Pickett’s rookie year was a dud, but he did show enough in the team’s late-season run to give almost everyone an optimistic viewpoint moving forward. But that should be tempered somewhat by the fact that Pickett played in only 13 games and was concussed twice. That rate, if continued, will leave him without a career in short order.
The Steelers must protect Pickett better than he was in 2022, and the place where they can make the biggest impact is at left tackle.
Trading up in the draft is risky. The pain of missing on a pick that cost that much more hurts even worse than a typical draft whiff. (See Bush, Devin). But in this case, the greater risk is probably to let Pickett continue to be barraged by a subpar offensive line.
The Steelers made significant strides in upgrading the interior of their line in adding Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig in free agency. If they want to upgrade right tackle, there are players that will be available later in the process, available perhaps at No. 17 or certainly on day two that could be a fit. If the club wants a center or more interior linemen, they too will be available later.
But if the Steelers want to make a concerted effort at protecting Pickett, that means upgrading his blind side tackle spot, and there are only about three players that figure to be able to do that in this draft class. None are projected to be available for them at pick No. 17.
So if they’re serious about the spot, they’ll ned to trade up to get one.
STAY AT 17 AND TAKE A CORNERBACK
This cornerback class might be the deepest in the history of the draft, and there will certainly be a player that falls to the Steelers at No. 17 that is both deserving of that draft slot and would represent an upgrade to what they have in starters Patrick Peterson, Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, as well as a long-term solution at the position.
The most likely candidates to be there for the Steelers are Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and Maryland’s Deonte Banks. Both are players the Steelers are very well familiar with. Porter has been hanging out at the Steelers’ practice facility since basically birth. Banks played with Mike Tomlin’s son Dino at Maryland.
Porter is physical and big. Banks is one of the best athletes to ever be tested at the position. They’re vastly different players, but either would provide the Steelers solid value for their selection.
If the Steelers don’t trade up, and none of the cornerback options are available at No. 17, trading down makes a lot of sense. The Steelers could add a day two pick and might be able to get a similar board at their top positions than if they’d stayed put.
The Steelers already have seven overall selections and three picks in the top 50. We’ve already talked about their lack of acute needs. So they shouldn’t feel a need to move back. But Omar Khan is not likely to take a player at No. 17 that could be available at No. 25, either. If the team thinks they can make that move, they will.