Every week during the 2021 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field for a different NFL team and begin projecting NFL draft prospects at positions of concerning need.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Rounds 5-7) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Is this the year they finally find Ben Roethlisberger's successor in Round 1?
The Steelers appear to have a Big Ben problem. The longtime franchise quarterback returned for 2021, and the feeling was that the team was taking one final stab at making a Super Bowl run.
Perhaps we're unfairly skewed by what Tom Brady is doing at his age, but the 39-year-old Roethlisberger is playing like a man who looks a decade older than his Tampa Bay Buccaneers counterpart (despite being nearly five years younger). Roethlisberger was a mess Sunday, masked only at game's end by inflated stats as a result of throwing the ball 58 times.
The Steelers will apparently ride Roethlisberger for now. But is their reticence to make a change more a belief in him turning it around, or more based in their lack of excitement for backups Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins?
Mike Tomlin asked if subbing out Ben Roethlisberger was considered Sunday, perhaps to see if another QB could offer the #Steelers a spark. He says, “No it was not.”
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 28, 2021
The Steelers now sit at 1-2 and have been undressed two weeks in a row at home following an impressive road victory at the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. It might be recency bias, but the past two games have spoken louder volumes about Pittsburgh's trajectory — and the thorniest part of its schedule appears to lie ahead, starting with the Week 4 trip to face the suddenly hot Green Bay Packers.
Can Ben turn this thing around? Is the defense ready to stiffen again? Can anything be done about the Steelers' anemic blocking up front?
All are big questions with uncertain answers. But there suddenly is a high level of concern for a team that now has gone 2-7 over its past nine games (including the 2020 playoff loss) dating back to last season.
And with Roethlisberger possibly entering the home stretch of his Steelers days, nowhere is that concern more concentrated than at the future of the QB position. Will there be an answer, possibly early in the 2022 NFL draft? We'll explore that possibility, along with other areas of need that have cropped up.
Nevada QB Carson Strong
First, let's do an audit on the Steelers' draft-pick till for 2022.
They currently have their own picks in Rounds 1 through 3 and are expected to land at least two additional compensatory picks — likely in Rounds 3 and 5. The Steelers traded away their picks in Rounds 4 through 6, only getting back an extra seventh-rounder in the Avery Williamson deal. They also have all their 2023 picks.
It's not a motherlode, but it's likely enough ammo to secure a Round 1 QB if that's the route they take. (Especially if Pittsburgh continues struggling, pushing the first-round pick higher.) But is there one that might tempt them in that range? So far, the 2022 quarterback class looks like a mixed bag.
But quarterbacks always rise with need and time, so we suspect there still will be multiple first-rounders — after all, this is the direction the NFL draft seems to be headed.
There might not yet be wholesale support for Carson Strong as a surefire first-rounder now. But by draft season, it might not be a wild idea. Coming into the season, Strong earned mostly second- and third-round summer grades, but there's absolutely a scenario for him cracking the top 32 picks.
Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada (assuming he's retained) seems to want to run some version of a pro-style spread offense, similar to what he used at LSU and Maryland. If that's the case, the Steelers would be using a lot of "11" personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers), attacking vertically with a drop-back pass game (especially with play action) and letting the ground game do the heavy lifting up front.
That type of system could suit Strong's game well. There's some overlap in Nevada's "Air Raid" and the Canada offense, especially with the Wolf Pack's use of TE Cole Turner. Personnel-wise, the Steelers can create similar mismatches to find success.
Strong has consistently found success on play-action throws the past two seasons. He's a talented vertical thrower who can attack almost any vector on the field, and his confidence is tangible in his play demeanor. Strong showed some sideline emotion early in the eventual win over Cal when things weren't going well for the Wolf Pack, and they responded with better execution. Strong can take credit for a lot of that. Like Roethlisberger, Strong doesn't appear afraid of being an alpha leader when needed.
But Strong also isn't very mobile and has a knee that might require further medical scrutiny. The Steelers also could be interested in Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, who also has run some of the same pro-spread concepts we saw the Sooners employ for Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray previously. Rattler would offer more athletic ability than Strong, with similar arm talent and perhaps just a bit more short and intermediate accuracy.
Fresno State OT Dontae Bull
Coming into the season, Bull was earning mostly Day 3 grades from NFL scouts, having spent time in the past at right tackle (and right guard, briefly) before shifting full time to left tackle in the 2020 season.
After some pass-protection struggles in the loss to Oregon, losing a few head-to-head battles to potential top-five pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, Bull seems to have picked up his game the past few outings.
Although penalties (five through five games) have been a bit of an issue, his pass blocking has been sharper in victories over UCLA and UNLV where the Bulldogs had to drop back a combined 115 times to pull off those two comebacks. Bull allowed only four pressures (no sacks or QB hits) in those 115 reps.
At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Bull projects to either OT spot — perhaps best fitting as a right tackle at the next level. He lives up to his name with the power with which he plays and can use his 35-inch arms to lock out against defensive ends and take them for a ride in the run game.
The Steelers always will seek quality pass-protecting tackles, of course. But they also need far better run blocking up front — especially on the edges — to kick start their run game out of its dormant state.
One other interesting note: Bull is regarded as perhaps the top CFL draft prospect for this cycle, having been born in Victoria, B.C. (not too far from where current Steelers WR Chase Claypool grew up, coincidentally). But Bull almost certainly would explore his NFL options before considering heading north.
His stock appears to be on the rise, and we think Bull can challenge for a top-100 draft slot.
Alabama DL Phidarian Mathis
The Steelers might consider their defensive line a strength, but age and health might be worries. Cam Hayward remains phenomenal, but he's turning 33 next offseason. Tyson Alualu turns 35 before next season. Stephon Tuitt's health concerns also complicate matters long term.
It would not be shocking to see them use a later pick to add DL reinforcements, even with a pair of solid run stoppers in Chris Wormley and Isaiah Buggs. Mathis has been on a steady upward trajectory, displaying more pass-rush juice this season and last, although he tends to be overlooked on a talented Crimson Tide defense.
But Mathis fits the Pittsburgh mold to handle duty as a 5-technique. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds with more than an 84-inch wingspan, he can occupy blockers and even shed some to get into the backfield. We especially thought he looked effective in the win over Florida two weeks ago.
Mathis has been a part-time starter for Nick Saban over parts of four seasons and has diversified his game a bit, even while playing limited snaps (typically 25-40 per game). He came into the season earning mostly late-round grades and should be a solid Day 3 option.