With the moves the Steelers have made so far in free agency, they have filled every need on the offense, allowing them to put their focus on improving their defense in what General Manager Kevin Colbert is calling “a strong defensive draft.” With seven picks this year, they have an opportunity to build depth in certain areas and possibly find starters in others.
1st Round, 25th overall: William Jackson III, Cornerback, Houston – This could be the year the Steelers finally end their drought and pick a corner in the first round — not because it’s what fans want, but because Jackson fits what the team needs. He out-shined top-rated defensive back Jalen Ramsey in the Peach Bowl against Florida State with 10 tackles and two interceptions. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the Scouting Combine and caught everyone’s attention with the best time for a corner. He’s physical, fast, and a play-maker, just what the Steelers need on the boundary.
2nd Round, 58th overall: Keanu Neal, Safety, Florida – Neal is a top-50 talent and a potential second-round steal. He’s a quick-twitch player with good downhill explosion and he finishes tackles. He’s played near the line of scrimmage and as a single high safety, which is the kind of versatility the Steelers like from their safeties. Has good enough athleticism, instincts and play-making ability to start right away, but if not, he can make an immediate impact on special teams. His personal character has been noted among scouts and his personality showed through in a recent interview on TribLive Radio. With his talent and personality he’s a young man Steelers fans will love from Day One.
3rd Round, 89th overall: Pharoh Cooper, Wide Receiver, South Carolina – The Steelers need a kick returner and some depth at wide receiver with Martavis Bryant’s one-year suspension. Cooper provides both, along with a combination of maturity and discipline from growing up in a military family that wouldn’t be unwelcome. He would also bring the same kind of flash to the running game Bryant did, having earned second-team All-SEC honors as an all-purpose back in 2014. He’s short, but well-built (5-foot-11, 203 lbs.) and has early special teams value with a strong long-term potential as a slot receiver.
4th Round, 124th overall: Deiondre’ Hall, Cornerback, Northern Iowa – He has below average speed (4.68 40-yd dash), but great size (6-foot-2). He has 34 3/8-inch arms, long enough help him on those 50/50 balls in the air and break up passes. He fits the William Gay mold of using his instincts well and using them to make plays on the ball in the air. He had six interceptions in 2015 (most in the Missouri Valley Conference) and returned two of them for touchdowns. He has experience playing both cornerback and safety and he’s not afraid to play bump-and-run on receivers or stick his “face in the fan” in run support.
6th Round, 221st overall: Victor Ochi, Edge Rusher, Stony Brook – He’s slower and smaller than the ideal pass rusher (6-foot-1, 246 lbs.), but he’s strong with a nasty disposition and loves contact. He can make plays in the backfield against the run and the pass, and he has good arm length to get extension and fight off blockers at the point of attack. But he’s a long-term project as he will have to learn to catch up with the speed of the pro game and learn to survive against better talent than at the FCS level, plus he has very poor coverage skills and he’s limited in space. If he can refine his counter moves and snap anticipation, maybe he can carve a niche as a situational pass-rusher.
7th Round, 230th overall: Jonathan Williams, Running Back, Arkansas – His draft position will be a lot lower than it should because he missed the entire 2015 season with a foot injury. He didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the Combine, but he clocked in the high 4.5’s at Arkansas’ Pro Day this week. He’s strong and thick with light feet that help him move well laterally and make the first defender miss. He has excellent patience and instincts through the hole that allow him to gain yards on the same kind of “power” and “counter” plays the Steelers have run so successfully with Le’Veon Bell. He’s competent enough in pass protection and out in the route that he’s a legitimate three-down back who could eventually replace DeAngelo Williams as Bell’s backup or a no. 2 in a time share situation.
7th Round, 247th overall: Joel Heath, Defensive Tackle, Michigan State – He switched from defensive end to defensive tackle midway through his career and started for two seasons on the interior. He has a good motor and doesn’t give up pursuit of the ball carrier. He’s capable of playing in an even or odd front, but he still needs to improve on his technique to give Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt a spell as a backup. He projects as a solid candidate for defensive line coach John Mitchell to mold into a rotational guy with some long-term value.