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2023 NFL Draft

Steelers Draft Profile: Lightning-Fast Auburn LB Owen Pappoe Ready to Turn Potential into Production in NFL



Steelers Draft Auburn LB Owen Pappoe

INDIANAPOLIS — The football education of Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe hasn’t been anywhere near the smoothest experience. He didn’t grow up with the game, only picking up the sport in seventh grade when Gwinnett County youth coach Kenyatta Watson discovered him playing basketball and discussed giving football a try.

His physical tools have always jumped off the page. At the 2023 NFL Combine on Thursday, Pappoe ran the fastest 40-yard dash time among linebackers. His laser-timed 4.39-second 40-yard dash was only .03 slower than former Steelers speed-demon linebacker Ryan Shazier’s hand-timed 4.36 from his Ohio State Pro Day. Shazier did not run at the combine his draft year. The only linebacker in combine history to top Pappoe’s was Shaq Griffin, who ran a 4.38 in 2018.

But Pappoe remains something of a projection to the NFL. He didn’t experience consistent coaching on his way to Auburn, playing for three different head coaches at Grayson High School in Georgia. Once he got to the Plains of Jordan-Hare Stadium, it was more inconsistency, as the Tigers bounced from Gus Malzahn to Bryan Harsin to Cadillac Williams.

Through it all, one thing remained consistent: Pappoe showed the physical gifts needed to succeed on the field. Now, he’s ready to turn what he learned from those leadership inconsistencies into an asset as he displays his versatility.

“What’s good about that is that I also played for three different defensive coordinators in college, so that’s going to be able to show teams that I can adapt quickly,” Pappoe said. “In the league, it’s a revolving door all the time. Even throughout this, I’ve learned that all defenses are very similar, it’s just the language that’s different.

“In my freshman year, we had our mike and will traveling to different sides, and last year, we had our safety doing all the movement. It definitely (helps), because if there’s a change that happens in the league, I should be ready for it.”

Pappoe might be used to change by now, but a stable coaching situation might be exactly what he needs to unlock his true potential as a football player. Even as the league’s assistant coaches remain a revolving door, it’s hard to find a more stable coaching situation than the Steelers. Only New England coach Bill Belichick has held his job longer than Mike Tomlin, seemingly making Pittsburgh an ideal landing spot for Pappoe to develop his abilities.

Less clear is whether the Steelers would have an interest in landing the Auburn product. Pappoe said Tuesday that so far, only the New York Jets have conducted a formal interview with him, and the Steelers haven’t yet had informal conversations with him.

If the Steelers do look his way, Pappoe is confident about what he can provide.

“They’re looking at a guy who’s very serious about his craft,” he said. “I’m going to be putting in the extra work to make sure I’m going to be the best I can for the team and earn the respect of everyone in the organization and knowing I can be a guy to help lead that defense.”

So far, he’s shown that he can do exactly that. While at Auburn, Pappoe became just the fourth player in school history to be named a captain in consecutive seasons, and former coach Harsin said that he “exemplified” leadership prior to the season.

When the Tigers faced Penn State in 2021, Pappoe showed his ability to quickly grasp the mental side of the game. Pappoe finished with five solo tackles and could have had more if not for an ankle injury in the second half. While on the field, Pappoe regularly called out plays and served as the vocal leader for the Tigers’ defense.

“I feel like teams can trust me to make the calls out there and put the green dot on my helmet,” Pappoe said. “It’s just leadership on the field and being an effective communicator.”

Wherever he ends up, Pappoe will be relaying information from his seventh coach in eight years, which might make him one of the most prepared prospects for the upcoming transition to the NFL.

“It’s almost the same as it was from going from high school to college,” Pappoe said. “I’m going to approach it the same way, put my head down and work. I’m going to earn the trust of the defense around me so they know that when I’m on the field, I’m not a liability. The sky’s the limit from there.”


Measured at the combine: 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, 33 3/4 inch arms, 9 7/8 inch hands, 79 inch wingspan

Combine drill results: 4.39-second 40-yard dash (fastest linebacker), 1.52-second 10-yard split, 35.5-inch vertical jump, 10-foot-6 broad jump, 29 bench press reps


The technical aspects of Pappoe’s game might need some work, but that’s understandable on some level because he didn’t start playing football until seventh grade. Although he was born in Georgia, his family came to the United States from Liberia and he did not grow up with the game, giving him a lot of room to develop his understanding of the game with the right coach. Pappoe also has not played in a consistent coaching system, playing for six different head coaches in high school and college.

He’s undersized in terms of weight, but Pappoe offers solid acceleration and an excellent wingspan. Much will depend on whether he gets the instruction he needs to build on his physical gifts and adds some weight and strength to his frame.


Pappoe is a high-upside player who will take some work to develop because of his lack of time with the game. He has shown a tendency to bite too often on play-action, which likely stems from a lack of growing up with the game.

That, however, can be coached, while his physical attributes cannot. Pappoe has a reputation as a hard hitter who regularly made plays in the SEC, as well as a solid presence in the locker room. Pappoe said every team he’s spoken with views him as either a will or mike linebacker at the next level.


As a project with impressive physical attributes but a lack of size, Pappoe’s draft position is difficult to predict. NFL teams regularly take a chance early on developing players like Pappoe when they have the size and the attributes but need the coaching, but Pappoe doesn’t quite have the size to warrant a team falling in love with him in the early rounds.

Because of his physical tangibles, he seems to fit well as a late third or early fourth-round choice.

Owen Pappoe

2023 NFL Combine

Click for more from Steelers Now’s coverage of the 2023 NFL Combine.


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