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Analysis

Trade Up, Trade Down: Steelers First Round Pick Edition

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The Pittsburgh Steelers currently sit with the 20th overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. After accumulating ten picks for the entirety of the draft, the Steelers will most certainly be able to wheel and deal to find a player they’re in love with.

During the draft process, fans will begin to link names with their favorite teams. The Arizona Cardinals are the biggest propeller of the rumor mill, as heavy rumors surround Arizona taking Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray with the number one overall pick. The Denver Broncos have been linked with Missouri QB Drew Lock, and Florida State EDGE rusher Brian Burns has been linked with the Washington Redskins.

For the Steelers, two obvious names have emerged as dream targets, both playing the inside linebacker position: Michigan’s Devin Bush, and LSU’s Devin White. The two “Devin’s” fit the new modern style inside linebacker, providing a two-dimensional athletic play style to provide help in both run and pass scenarios.

Corner help would also be a welcome sight for Steelers fans, even with the signing of Steven Nelson in free agency. The consensus top two cornerbacks in this draft include LSU’s Greedy Williams, and Washington’s Byron Murphy.

Finding a permanent replacement for Antonio Brown will also be another goal for the Steelers. Donte Moncrief was brought in to temporarily fill the void, yet the team will ultimately look for another playmaker. The first receiver off the board will likely be Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf, yet Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry and Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown are among a long list of notable names to watch as well.

With such a long list of potential targets, the Steelers will have plenty of options to weigh come draft day. Not everybody will be there at pick no. 20, and if the Steelers fall in love with a player, they have the draft capital to make a move.

So who will the Steelers need to trade up for? If nobody of their liking is there, who can they trade back for? Using Big Boards (an overall ranking of each player entering the draft) from Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and Sports Illustrated to go along with what NFL writers/insiders are saying, we’ll be able to get a better look at where potential players will end up.

Examining a wealth of players the Steelers have been linked to, and deciding if they need to trade up or down to land them in the first round:

Devin White, LB, LSU 

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: 4
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 5

What they’re saying: “White/Tampa is about the worst kept secret in this draft.”- Ben Allbright, NFL Insider.

Devin White is the prized possession in the upcoming draft in terms of linebackers, and rightfully so. White will undoubtedly be the first linebacker off the board thanks to his sideline to sideline speed, and overall play-making ability. The accelerated play of White along with his testing at the combine has supposedly all but secured his spot as not only a first round pick, but will go in the single digits on draft night. Tampa Bay is the perfect match for White, as the team recently waved goodbye to LB Kwon Alexander.

The Steelers will need to trade: Up, and move up significantly to secure White’s talents. If White somehow falls out of the top five, he will surely be taken shortly after. If Pittsburgh truly wants him, they will have to make a Godfather-like offer to move up more than 10 spots at the minimum. White to the Steelers was a nice dream before the combine, but it’s extremely unrealistic at this point.

Devin Bush, LB, Michigan 

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: 11
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 20

What they’re saying: “Michigan LB Devin Bush is visiting the Bengals today (4/1/19), per source. Bush then is visiting the Bucs after Cincinnati – two teams linked to both him and LSU LB Devin White.”- ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

If Devin White is 1A, Devin Bush is 1B. Bush entered draft talk as a late first round pick, but has shot up draft boards due to his coverage skills and overall command of the defense from the middle linebacker position. With White being projected as a top five pick, Bush has seen himself linked with the Cincinnati Bengals more often than not, and it makes perfect sense as the team recently released LB Vontaze Burfict. If Bush is not chosen at #11 where the Bengals currently sit, Pittsburgh may have to hold their breath and hope he falls to #20.

The Steelers will need to trade: Up to land Bush, as information around the league currently stands. It’s highly probable Bush is selected soon after White, and his probable landing destination is thought to be at Cincinnati at #11. Pittsburgh may not have to give as much to bargain with a team, especially if Bush slips into the mid-teens, but it’s commonly accepted now the Steelers cannot simply wait for Bush to land in their lap.

Greedy Williams, CB, LSU

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: 19
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 13

What they’re saying: “I’ve read a few takes from scouts who are concerned with his ability to cover short and intermediate routes. He has the size and the athletic skills. He’s big and he’s fast. He would be enticing”- Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

Greedy Williams was once a consensus top ten pick by many in the draft community thanks to his speed and man coverage skills. Yet his stock has taken a hit as of late, as Williams has been shown to shy away from tackling and sometimes will take himself out of the play if it’s on the other side of the field. Williams’ stock may be the most intriguing out of the group of potential first-rounders, as he could easily still go top ten as much as he may fall into the 20’s.

The Steelers will need to trade: Up, but only a handful of picks if they didn’t trust any of the teams ahead of them. As previously stated, Williams is now being projected to fall into the later rounds of the draft. This would be a dream scenario for the Steelers, who oh-so desperately need a young, lock-down cornerback on their defense. Yet if the Steelers are set on Williams, exchanging a few of their ten draft choices to ensure Williams lands in Pittsburgh would be the best move.

Byron Murphy, CB, Washington

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: 26
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 24

What they’re saying: “Along with the Panthers, the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Saints, Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have all expressed significant interest in Murphy, I was told.”- Rob Rang, who attended Washington’s Pro Day. Quote from his article per Football Maven.

Football is a world of yin/yang. For all good, there is bad, and vice-versa. For the supposed plummet of Greedy Williams, a Byron Murphy rises. Murphy has been getting a lot of hype for his physicality on and off the ball, and zone coverage abilities. Murphy almost appears to be the opposite of Williams in some ways, including where NFL teams may value him. Once thought to be available later in the first round, Murphy now finds himself in talks of potentially taking Williams’ spot of being the first cornerback taken off the board.

The Steelers will need to trade: Up, more than likely. This situation closely mirrors that of LB Devin Bush, a player who may go earlier than once thought. The Steelers would happily take either Williams/Murphy on their roster and mark the first round as a success, yet acquiring Murphy may take more ammunition than was once considered months ago. With teams such as Cardinals, Raiders, Buccaneers and Panthers all picking before the Steelers, Kevin Colbert may want to pick up the phone now to move up into a handful of picks.

Chase Winovich, EDGE/LB, Michigan

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: Outside Top 32 (Not specified)
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 71

What they’re saying: “The Steelers would like to add depth at outside linebacker behind starters T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Winovich, who carried a second or third-round grade heading into the combine, could fit the bill.”- Joe Rutter, TribLive.com.

Playing besides Devin Bush may cause some teams to overlook you, and perhaps that was the case for Chase Winovich. Winovich plays with an extremely high motor, and is featured as one of the more underrated pass-rushers in this class. With Bud Dupree entering the final year of his deal, the Steelers may be enticed to drink the Winovich kool-aid. Yet where will they feel comfortable taking him?

The Steelers will need to trade: Down. Winovich appears to be a match made in heaven for Pittsburgh fans, yet the bill is not fit for the 20th overall selection. If the Steelers are enamored with Winovich, they should easily be able to trade down a handful of spots, if not to the top of the second round to fit Chase’s draft projections. Steelers fans weren’t pleased with the team reaching for Edmunds, 2019 shouldn’t repeat that feeling.

Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Temple 

Matt Miller’s Big Board Ranking: 29
Sports Illustrated’s Big Board Ranking: 40

What they’re saying: “He has great athletic ability. He’s got the real good feet. He has smooth hits. He almost had a 40 [inch] vertical. He’ll support the run. He gets the interceptions. Rock Ya-Sin, to me, would be a perfect Oakland Raider for [Raiders’ coach Jon] Gruden.”- Mel Kiper, ESPN

Rock Ya-Sin has quietly (or maybe not, since I’m writing about him) climbed his way up draft boards after an impressive Senior Bowl outing. The big-framed cornerback is able to hang with the best of receivers, as Mel Kiper alluded to above. While not a big name cornerback, Ya-Sin continues to see his name mentioned in first round consideration. With the price tag on Ya-Sin lower than Murphy/Williams, would the Steelers opt to settle for the Temple product?

The Steelers will need to trade: Down, ideally only to around 25-28 range if possible. Taking Ya-Sin at the end of round one will address a need while hitting the mark on appropriate player value. Taking Ya-Sin at pick no. 20 may be considered a stretch, so it’d be ideal for the Steelers to gather more draft capital and move down if sights are set on Rock Ya-Sin.

Other Notable Players 

D.K. Mecalf of Ole Miss is presumably the only receiver that will be taken in the top 10/15. Receivers in the likes of A.J. Brown (Ole Miss), N’Keal Harry (Arizona State) and Hakeem Butler (Iowa State) are favored to potentially land in the first round. Other guys such as Marquise Brown (Oklahoma), Kelvin Harmon (NC State) and Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) are in play for day two consideration.

Tight ends may also be in play for the Steelers. The top two TE’s in the draft hail from the same college, as T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant (Iowa) will likely be the first two tight ends off the board. Hockenson is favored to go in the middle of the first round, as he is considered to be one of the best all around player at the position, while Fant is more tailored as a pass catcher. Alabama TE Irv Smith has also received some first round hype towards the latter stages.

On the defensive side of the ball, CB’s DeAndre Baker (Georgia) and Trayvon Mullen (Clemson) may find themselves taken past pick #20 should the demand for corners become high in the first. Safety Taylor Rapp (Washington) is the favored to be the first at his position off the board, while Deionte Thompson (Alabama) and Nasir Adderley (Delaware) are more likely to be taken with the final picks in the first round at the earliest.

After the two Devin’s, the top linebacker prospects will feature Alabama’s Mack Wilson as the next probable linebacker off the board. If Wilson isn’t selected in the first round, he will surely hear his name called on day two. Later LB options will include David Long (West Virginia), Khalil Hodge (Buffalo), and Te’Von Coney (Notre Dame) as potential day two picks.

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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