Saunders: What We Learned about Steelers Offseason at Senior Bowl
MOBILE, Ala. — The three days of practice sessions for the 2023 Senior Bowl wrapped up on Thursday, largely ending the draft prep extravaganza portion of the events here in Mobile for the Pittsburgh Steelers and 31 other NFL teams.
The Senior Bowl itself will take place on Saturday, but the college football All-Star game is generally more something for the players and the fans than it is an evaluation tool for NFL teams.
So while the scouts and the general managers pack things up and head back to their respectibe cities, it’s a good time to recap some of what we learned this week here in Mobile.
EXPECT THE STEELERS TO DRAFT DEFENSE HEAVY
The Steelers sent four coaches to Mobile this week: defensive-minded head coach Mike Tomlin, senior defensive assistant Brian Flores, secondary coach Grady Brown and assistant outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin.
I can assure you they were not there to evaluate running backs.
Running back is probably the position the Steelers are the least likely to address in the 2023 NFL Draft, and while Tomlin definitely took an extended look at the offensive lineman available, Grady Brown said it best when he said “the Rooneys didn’t send me here for me.” They sent defensive coaches to evaluate defense.
In 2020, the Steelers used three of their first four picks on offense. In 2021, they used all of their first four picks on offense. In 2022, it was four of the first five. Only Alex Highsmith (third round, 2020) and DeMarvin Leal (third round, 2022) have been taken before the third day of the draft this decade.
The Steelers’ defense was notoriously the most expensive in the NFL in 2022. Now, much of that defense is in flux. Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds, Damontae Kazee, Larry Ogunjobi, Malik Reed, Robert Spillane, Cam Sutton and Chris Wormley are all set to become free agents on March 15. That’s nearly 5,000 snaps of defense from the 2022 team.
I don’t expect most of those players to be back. The team will likely try to keep Edmunds and Sutton, and will probably sign at least one inside linebacker and defensive tackle, whether it’s one of theirs or externally. If those players are all full-time starters, that might approach 3,000 of those 5,000 missing snaps.
The rest of those snaps are going to come from expanded roles for young players already on the roster like Leal, Mark Robinson and Tre Norwood, or they’re going to come from the 2023 draft class.
THE STEELERS FIRST-ROUND PICK IS PROBABLY NOT HERE
While everything above is true about the rest of the Steelers’ 2023 NFL Draft class, it doesn’t necessarily apply to pick No. 17. That’s because I’m more convinced than ever that the player they’ll eventually take in that slot is not here.
I profiled Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence earlier in the week, and if there’s a first-round pick here for the Steelers, it’s probably him. Notre Dame edge rusher Isaiah Foskey feels like a first-rounder to me, but I doubt that’s the direction the Steelers go with that pick. At either rate, 17 feels too high for both of those players.
The big players at offensive tackle are all underclassmen, the cornerbacks and defensive tackles aren’t here for one reason or another, and there’s only really one linebacker. Right now, I’ve got a pool of about 20 players in my head that are realistic possibilities for No. 17, and Torrence is the only one on that list that I saw this week.
The Steelers have drafted a player from the Senior Bowl with their first-round pick one each of the last two years, and they like in-person evaluations of players more than most teams. That means that we should pay special attention to what the Steelers do in the pro day portion of the pre-draft process, because that will be the only opportunity to see a number of those options.
PEOPLE WERE VERY WRONG ABOUT THE 2023 QB CLASS
The refrain I heard from many after the Steelers drafted Kenny Pickett with the No. 20 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft is that the Steelers should have waited until 2023, with a much better and deeper quarterback class in the offering.
Better remains to be soon, though there will be at least two and probably three players drafted ahead of where Pickett was a year ago, specifically Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Kentucky’s Will Levis.
But deeper? Gosh, no. The quarterback play at the Senior Bowl this week was atrocious and reports out of the Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas were no better. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson and Stanford’s Tanner McKee are coming out as underclassmen, and will probably be drafted well ahead of this group, as will Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, who was in Mobile but did not participate after suffering an ACL injury in the middle of his season.
But the idea that the Steelers would have gotten a much better quarterback than Pickett if they’d have waited until this season just isn’t true. The players at the top of the class failed to elevate themselves from relatively strong 2021 seasons and no one from the second group really took the mantle, either, especially after Hooker’s injury.
Drafting at No. 17, the Steelers would likely be looking at taking the No. 5 quarterback off the board this year — Hooker or McKee. Both of those players are currently projected as Day Two picks. Both have significant question marks about their ability to be starters in the NFL.
Pickett did not have a great rookie season, but he certainly showed enough to make it easy for me to say that waiting until 2023 would not have been a better move for the Steelers.
MAYBE DON’T STAY FOCUSED ON STEELERS PICKING AT NO. 17
A lot has been made about the ways that the hire of Andy Weidl from the Philadelphia Eagles could impact the way the Steelers do business going forward, particularly in his ability to potentially replicate the trenches-out approach of the Eagles’ recent rebuild.
Weidl, who I saw here for the first time on Thursday, was with the group with the best of the linemen, including Torrence, Syracuse tackle Matthew Bergeron and Tennessee tackle Darnell Wright.
But another part of the Eagles’ rebuild that I haven’t seen talked about is that team’s willingness to move around in the draft.
Take a look at the Eagles’ 2022 draft, where they had their hands on 20 different draft picks at one point in time before ending up with five selections.
The Steelers had already been showing an increased willingness to wheel and deal toward the end of Kevin Colbert’s tenure as general manager, with the team trading a first-round pick for the first time in over 50 years in acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick and trading way up in the first round to get Devin Bush in 2019.
The Steelers also made the uncommon move of trading away a starter in Chase Claypool in the middle of the 2022 season, in exchange for what became the No. 33 overall pick in the second round.
There will certainly be many options besides just staying at 17 and making their pick.
DEPTH OVER STAR POWER
While I don’t think the No. 17 pick is here this week, or very many first-round picks in general, this group really did stand out to me in terms of the quality depth available at multiple positions.
In pervious years, there would be some eye-catchers that became first-round picks, but there was also a lot of filler to those rosters. This group seemed to be much more well-rounded, with many players standing out and making a case for themselves.
It feels like a draft that is going to be very difficult to project beyond the first round, because I think there are a ton of players that probably deserve to be Day Two picks and only 64 of them or so to go around.
My biggest winners from the week that I think fit the Steelers’ needs, starting with pick No. 33 and moving forward:
Ohio State OT Dawand Jones
Syracuse OT Matthew Bergeron
Tennessee OT Darnell Wright
North Dakota State OL Cody Mauch
Michigan C Olusegun Oluwatimi
Wisconsin DT Keeanu Benton
Bowling Green DT Karl Brooks
Stanford CB Kyu Blu Kelly
Iowa CB Riley Moss
Kentucky CB Keidron Smith
Kansas State CB Julius Brents
Texas LB DeMarvion Overshown
Cincinnati LB Ivan Pace
Indiana LB Cam Jones
BYU WR Puka Nacua
Stanford WR Michael Wilson
Charlotte WR Grant Dubose
Michigan State WR Jayden Reed
SMU WR Rashee Rice
Notre Dame EDGE Isaiah Foskey
Iowa State EDGE Will McDonald IV
Georgia Tech EDGE Keion White
Keep those names in mind while you fill out your endless mock draft simulations between now and the end of April.
THE REST OF THE NFL REVERES MIKE TOMLIN
I’ll close with something that doesn’t really have anything to do with this Steelers offseason but that I couldn’t help but notice this week.
It’s somewhat jarring to step out of the Pittsburgh media bubble, where it’s common to hear people — even allegedly intelligent people — call for the dismissal of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and then to come to a small town that’s basically full of the NFL executives, coaches, players, former players, agents and media types.
The amount of love, respect and admiration Tomlin gets in a setting like this is incredible. Tomlin spent most of the first two days of Senior Bowl practices on the field, practically participating in the drills alongside the players.
Tomlin is not part of the Senior Bowl staff. He’s probably not supposed to be on the field at all. Is anyone going to say anything? Hell no, he’s Mike Tomlin. And it doesn’t seem like that is based more on reputation than his current stature.
I asked around on background for some impressions of the job Tomlin has done recently, with the Steelers missing the playoffs this season after losing in the Wild Card round in each of the last two.
The word I got is that many were surprised and impressed with the job he did in 2022, in many ways, including navigating the transition from Mitch Trubisky to Kenny Pickett and keeping the team engaged and together after a 2-6 start to the season.
There’s also a vast level of admiration for the work that Tomlin puts into his craft. There weren’t many head coaches in Mobile this week, and most of the ones that were had a very specific reason to be there.
Tomlin just loves football, his job and wants to do it to the best of ability, and so if he gets a chance to go stand in line during edge rusher drills, or even spend 15 minutes watching a punter as he did on Tuesday, he’s going to do it.
That’s one of the reasons he’s one of the most respected in the league.