The Steelers are going to have a lot of needs this offseason. With a tight salary cap and potential looming retirements, the Steelers, on paper, are going to be nowhere near as complete of a team in 2021 as they were in 2020. That lends itself to a lot of theories on just who could be the Steelers pick at No. 24 overall in the first round.
While most have a running back or offensive tackle heading to Pittsburgh, a popular pick recently has been Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins.
A mammoth 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker, Collins, who is listed as an inside linebacker by some outlets, is almost more reminiscent of an outside linebacker in the Steelers scheme. That is a large man to be playing off the ball for most of his snaps. That makes Collins a relatively unique prospect in the grand scheme of things. There is no one quite like him in this draft and there have not been many guys like him in the past few drafts.
The uniqueness of Collins all comes down to his traits. He is not a plodder linebacker who is just a big hitter. No, Collins is going to be a versatile, three-down linebacker in the NFL. For his size, that is unique, and his athleticism is striking in a way that allows him to maintain several roles. Just to showcase his athleticism and range, take this play against South Florida on for size.
Collins somehow comes all the way from the opposite hash to chase down the quarterback and make the tackle. It is effortless in how he does. This is not normal for 260-pound linebackers in space. The good news is when working from sideline-to-sideline, it is clear that Collins is fluid in space and can maintain his explosiveness and acceleration. The in-game athleticism is striking from Collins. Expect very good numbers from him at Tulsa’s Pro Day on all fronts.
The thing that makes Collins such a great fit for the Steelers in particular, however, is his pass-rushing chops. No, not just in the vein of Vince Williams where he is a great blitzer from the inside linebacker spot. Collins has a legitimate ability to be an edge rusher and clown tackles. He did it more than one would expect at Tulsa this season.
Collins can stand up in the Steelers 3-4 as an outside linebacker just like he does on this play. He gives the tackle a simple swat of the hand and uses his flexibility to dip around the edge to get this sack. Plays like this make Collins a unique projection because it is clear he has pass-rushing chops. The hand usage, explosive first step, and bend all showcase that Collins could actually be a productive edge rusher in the NFL.
The one last thing to showcase is Collins’s natural instincts from his inside linebacker spot. He has great football intelligence. Just showcasing this screen here, Collins keys on the running back coming across the formation and then the linemen initially starting to move in space. He does a fantastic job to avoid all of that traffic and make the tackle in the backfield for a loss on the play.
These are plays that should showcase just why Collins can fit into the Steelers scheme like a glove. Envisioning a role for Collins is natural. He can play next to Devin Bush on most downs as the Mack linebacker in this scheme. On other downs, Collins can spell Alex Highsmith or T.J. Watt as a rotational outside linebacker. He is built like an edge rusher and has the skills to be one, so the Steelers may as well use them.
The Steelers have a need at coverage linebacker. Just looking back on their last three playoff losses, the lack of a second coverage linebacker is what did them in every time. Pairing Bush and Collins together, coverage linebacker is simply no longer an issue to be worried about. They are both three-down, highly athletic linebackers who can cover just about anyone on the field.
Therein lies why Collins makes sense to be the first-round pick. He fits in smoothly as a 3-4 linebacker on all fronts. The hybrid nature of his frame and play style makes him perfect for a Bud Dupree-esque role when the Steelers decide to pull out their 3-3-5 package as well. For a player comparison, think of Collins in the mold of someone like Kyle Van Noy.
All of this does not mean that Collins will be the pick at No. 24. But it would be foolish to discredit this possibility. The Steelers lack of another coverage linebacker has been an Achilles heel for too long, and Collins can fill in the blank void as outside linebacker depth, too. If this pick happens, the fit makes all the sense in the world.
Kansas RB Pooka Williams’ Biggest Strength is Versatility
In Lawrence, Kansas, the first pro day of the NFL Draft cycle began as the University of Kansas hosted their pro day. Among the participants was a talented and much-hyped up running back in Pooka Williams. A folk hero of sorts in Louisiana, Williams has been in the spotlight since high school. Williams has been in regular contact with some of Louisiana’s best running backs in recent memory.
“I’ve been talking to those guys since I was in high school,” Williams said when asked if he talked to NFL players Leonard Fournette and Tyron Johnson. “They just told me to keep my head on, I will be special.”
Williams’ versatility, however, was the main draw of the day. NFL teams have asked Williams to play and drill at punt returner, running back, and wide receiver.
“I ran a go ball and a post today at receiver,” Williams said.
In his three years at Kansas, Williams racked up 66 catches for 534 yards and 4 touchdowns. With it, the natural comparisons to Nyheim Hines, Tarik Cohen, and other scat backs have come back, but Williams sees someone else in himself.
“I always admired Reggie Bush,” Williams said. “I always look up to him because I think I play like him.”
Williams harped on his receiving skills as well. When asked what part of his skill set would translate to the next level, Williams exuded confidence in his route running, hands, and the attitude he brings towards the game. That same attitude, built on physicality and grit for a 5-foot-10, 170 pound running back, is something he prides himself on.
“This is a physical game,” Williams said. “I love being physical. I’m not just about to get bullied, don’t matter the size.”
Williams carries that physicality over into pass protection as well.
“Every time I’m on the field, that is my mindset,” Williams said.
Williams reportedly ran somewhere in the ballpark of a 4.42-4.45 40-yard dash on Friday.
— NFL Draft Diamonds (@DraftDiamonds) March 5, 2021
The time would be a solid time for Williams, who is being viewed as a multi-faceted weapon of sorts. More so, he is viewed as a three-down scatback with good speed and explosiveness. Williams projects to a mid-day three pick, somewhere in rounds 5-7 and would best fit in a zone-based running scheme.
Could be an option later on for the Steelers?
It is always possible, but Williams did state that he hasn’t met with the Steelers just yet. Williams has met with the Chiefs and the Saints. He has met with “five-plus” teams. Nine teams were present at Kansas Pro Day on Friday.
ESPN’s Todd McShay Mocks Alabama RB Najee Harris to Steelers
Another day, another mock draft projecting Alabama running back Najee Harris to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This time it is ESPN’s Todd McShay, who has the Steelers selecting Harris with the No. 24-overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
“With James Conner heading toward free agency, the run game could use a punch,” McShay wrote. “Harris is that and more, showcasing speed, size, decisiveness and ball security as a rusher, as well as upside as a receiver and pass-protector. Pittsburgh’s offense fell off a good deal in the second half last season, and the top back still on the roster is Benny Snell Jr., who managed just 3.3 yards per carry last year. Harris averaged 6.0 over four seasons at Alabama, and his 26 rushing touchdowns in 2020 led college football.”
Harris was outstanding during his senior campaign in Tuscaloosa, rushing for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also improved as a receiver, catching 43 passes for 425 yards and four more scores in 2020.
Not only did Harris win the National Championships with the Crimson Tide in January, but he was also named a unanimous All-American and awarded the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.
Selecting Harris would provide a significant boost to the Steelers’ run game, which was the worst in football last season. Pittsburgh averaged just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt in 2020.
The 2021 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday, April 29 in Cleveland.
CBS Sports Mock Draft has Steelers Taking DE Carlos Basham Jr.
CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson has released his latest 2021 NFL mock draft, and has the Pittsburgh Steelers selecting a pass rusher in the first round.
With the No. 24-overall pick, Wilson is projecting the Steelers to draft Wake Forest pass rusher Carlos Basham Jr.
“Basham is a physical freak who reinforced the notion during Senior Bowl week,” Wilson writes. “Consistency will be the key to his success, but he has all the physical tools to dominate.”
Standing at 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds, “physical freak” is certainly an apt description of Basham. Basham recorded 19.5 sacks, 35.5 tackles-for-loss and seven forced fumbles over his career with the Demon Deacons.
He especially shined in 2019, when Basham tallied ten sacks, 18 tackles-for-loss and three forced fumbles. He earned First-Team All-ACC honors for his performance. Steelers Now caught up with Basham at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
While Basham was a productive edge rusher at Wake Forest, many draft analysts project him as a 4-3 defensive end. The Steelers run a 3-4, where Basham would figure to slot behind T.J. Watt and would seem to duplicate the role of 2020 third-round draft pick Alex Highsmith.
The 2021 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday, April 29 in Cleveland.