Steelers 2016 NFL Draft Watch List: Offense

With training camp right around the corner, most Pittsburgh Steelers fans are eagerly anticipating seeing their team back in action on the fields of Saint Vincent College very soon. While we wait expectantly, I thought it might behoove the Pittsburgh fanbase to highlight some of the key names in college football to keep an eye on this season. After all, few franchises have adhered to the “build through the draft” mantra quite like the Steelers, a mindset the front office will undoubtedly stick to heading into next offseason.

While our focus will obviously be on Pittsburgh’s 2015 campaign, hopefully this list can serve as a helpful reference when your fall sports addiction has to be appeased by Saturday college football. I’ve identified many of the top draft eligible players at each offensive position group, but more names will surely be added to each list as the season progresses. The players are not listed in any specific order, although I’ll identify those I think are premier prospects in my comments preceding the positional list.

Quarterbacks

In what appears to be one of the more exciting classes since the Luck-Wilson-Griffin bonanza in 2012, the 2016 class or quarterbacks doesn’t offer any clear-cut elite talents, but there are several prospects that could play their way into contention to be a top 10 pick.

Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg may be the most recognizable names, but both have plenty to work on before they ascend to the NFL. Cook’s deep ball and arm strength are attractive to scouts, but his struggles with accuracy and ball placement are concerning. How Cook handles pocket pressure and improves his release point this season will go a long way toward determining his draft stock in the spring.

Hackenberg’s biggest battle may be playing in James Franklin’s system, which many believe is hindering his ability to develop into an NFL quarterback. There is a host of alluring tools in Hackenberg’s repertoire, but cutting down on mistakes and improving his accuracy will be the focus for 2015.

There are several other enticing names on the list, including Jared Goff, Cardale Jones, Gunner Kiel, Cody Kessler, Trevone Boykin, and a personal favorite, Carson Wentz. You may not hear a lot about Wentz as he stars at quarterback for perennial FCS champion North Dakota State, but the well-built signal caller has a live arm and tremendous poise in the pocket. Depending on his 2015 season, he could be in the conversation for the #1 quarterback spot on my board next spring.

Could 2016 be the year Pittsburgh searches for Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement? If the juniors declare, it could be a deep and intriguing class with plenty of promise even in the middle rounds.

1. Connor Cook, RS Senior, Michigan State
2. Carson Wentz, RS Senior, North Dakota State
3. Cody Kessler, RS Senior, USC
4. Trevone Boykin, RS Senior, TCU
5. Everett Golson, RS Senior, Florida State
6. Jacoby Brissett, RS Senior, N.C. State
7. Dak Prescott, RS Senior, Mississippi State
8. Cardale Jones, RS Junior, Ohio State
9. Gunner Kiel, RS Junior, Cincinnati
10. Jared Goff, Junior, California
11. Christian Hackenberg, Junior, Penn State
12. J.T. Barrett, RS Sophomore, Ohio State

Running Backs

The attractiveness of the 2016 running back class is going to depend largely on how many underclassmen declare. Devontae Booker is the only senior who I’ve found to be a possible top-tier prospect, but he’ll be a 24 year-old rookie next season.

Amongst the juniors, Ezekiel Elliot is a bonafide first round talent, while Derrick Henry and James Conner should receive some mid-round attention. I’m not as high on the plodding Henry as many, but Conner’s power game could translate well to the NFL.

The rest of the group will have their work cut out for them to prove they can be more than just role players in the NFL. A change-of-pace back could be a possible late round target for the Steelers next season, but much of that will depend on the progress of Dri Archer and possibly Josh Harris this year.

1. Devontae Booker, RS Senior, Utah
2. Jonathan Williams, Senior, Arkansas
3. Kenneth Dixon, Senior, LSU
4. Aaron Green, RS Senior, TCU
5. Storm Woods, RS Senior, Oregon State
6. Byron Marshall, Senior, Oregon
7. Ezekiel Elliot, Junior, Ohio State
8. Derrick Henry, Junior, Alabama
9. James Conner, Junior, Pittsburgh
10. Aaron Jones, Junior, UTEP
11. Shock Linwood, Junior, Baylor
12. Corey Clement, Junior, Wisconsin

Wide Receivers

The senior group isn’t particularly deep, but the underclassmen boast a bevy of promising young stars, led by Laquon Treadwell and Tyler Boyd. Treadwell is attempting to bounce back from a broken leg last year, but many are already saying he could be the #1 receiver in the country. Given his well-muscled frame and exceptional athleticism, it is easy to see why.

Boyd will have to overcome some recent off the field issues, but he’s a dynamic route runner with the quickness to separate at all levels of the field. Sure-handed and tough, Boyd may need to pack on some additional muscle before he’s ready for the rigors of the NFL.

Duke Williams and Josh Doctson highlight the senior group, and both pass catchers have plenty of talent. Doctson has a lanky frame, but some serious ball skills to highpoint passes despite tight coverage. Williams has to improve his hands, but the size, speed, and strength are there to be a future NFL #1 receiver.

There are a plethora of other names that will pique interest as well, such as underclassmen Mike Williams and Pharoh Cooper, as well as seniors Leonte Carroo and Tajae Sharpe. Following in the trend of the past several years, there will be no shortage of options at receiver in next year’s draft. The Steelers are fairly loaded at the position, but few teams stockpile and develop receivers through the draft better than Pittsburgh.

1. D’haquille “Duke’ Williams, Senior, Auburn
2. Josh Doctson, RS Senior, TCU
3. Leonte Carroo, Senior, Rutgers
4. Tajae Sharpe, Senior, UMASS
5. Sterling Shepard, Senior, Oklahoma
6. D.J. Foster, Senior, Arizona State
7. Laquon Treadwell, Junior, Mississippi
8. Tyler Boyd, Junior, Pittsburgh
9. Mike Williams, Junior, Clemson
10. Michael Thomas, RS Junior, Ohio State
11. Pharoh Cooper, Junior, South Carolina
12. Marquez North, Junior, Tennessee

Tight Ends

We could be headed for another rough tight end class in 2016, as no senior has stepped up as a clear #1 option going into the 2015 season. Jake Duzey, Nick Vannett, and Steven Scheu have all shown flashes, but none of the trio look like anything more than a solid mid-round option at this point.

The junior class once again could carry the weight here, as Evan Engram and Hunter Henry highlight an interesting list of underclassmen. Engram is light for the position at just under 230 pounds, so it remains to be seen if he could handle an in-line role in the NFL. Henry is more of a traditional tight end at 6’5, 250, but is well-rounded in his ability to handle blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage or be flexed wide to create mismatches.

Expect scouts to be on the lookout for impact tight ends during the 2015 season, as the NFL has been struggling to find playmakers at the position throughout the past few drafts. The Steelers acquisition of Jesse James could eliminate their tight end interest next year, but that may very well depend on Heath Miller’s status after the season.

1. Jake Duzey, RS Senior, Iowa
2. Nick Vannett, RS Senior, Ohio State
3. Steven Scheu, RS Senior, Vanderbilt
4. Kyle Carter, RS Senior, Penn State
5. O.J. Howard, Junior, Alabama
6. Evan Engram, Junior, Mississippi
7. Hunter Henry, Junior, Arkansas
8. Austin Hooper, Junior, Stanford
9. Jonnu Smith, Junior, Florida International
10. Bucky Hodges, RS Sophomore, Virginia Tech

Offensive Line

There is some premium talent amongst this group if the underclassmen declare, as junior offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley are both probable top ten picks. I don’t say this lightly, but Tunsil may be the most talented offensive tackle I’ve ever scouted, and Stanley isn’t far behind. Balance, length, power, and a strong base are common themes among both linemen, but Tunsil’s feet possess rare quickness to reject rushers off the edge. Several other talented juniors could receive early round consideration as well in Germain Ifedi, Jack Conklin, and Zach Banner.

The seniors have some very interesting project pieces, as Taylor Decker and Le’Raven Clark both possess the length and size to be starting left tackles. Technique and tenacity are question marks for Decker, who needs to work harder to seal off the edge and generate more power in his punch. Clark’s footwork can be messy at times, and he may be best suited for the right side in the NFL. Tyler Johnstone might also be a right tackle in the NFL, but he has the quickness and athleticism to be a great zone-blocking scheme fit if he can add some muscle.

The interior offensive linemen are a deep group, especially if Cody Whitehair, Spencer Drango, Vadal Alexander, Tyler Marz, and Brandon Shell all play guard at the next level as expected. Nick Martin and junior Greg Pyke are two other names to watch, while Max Tuerk appears to be the cream of a shallow center crop.

Many believe (myself included) that offensive tackle will be where Pittsburgh looks to make a mark on the first or second day of the draft next year. Obviously it is early and the depth of the class is not yet set in stone, but the Steelers would be wise to consider an early-round investment at the position next spring.

Offensive Tackles

1. Taylor Decker, Senior, Ohio State
2. Tyler Johnstone, RS Senior, Oregon
3. Le’Raven Clark, RS Senior, Texas Tech
4. Joe Haeg, RS Senior, North Dakota State
5. Kyle Murphy, Senior, Stanford
6. Jason Spriggs, Senior, Indiana
7. Laremy Tunsil, Junior, Mississippi
8. Ronnie Stanley, RS Junior, Notre Dame
9. Germain Ifedi, RS Junior, Texas A&M
10. Jack Conklin, RS Junior, Michigan State
11. Zach Banner, RS Junior, USC
12. Dan Skipper, Junior, Arkansas

Interior Offensive Line

1. Cody Whitehair, RS Senior, Kansas State
2. Vadal Alexander, Senior, LSU
3. Spencer Drango, RS Senior, Baylor
4. Nick Martin, RS Senior, Notre Dame
5. Max Tuerk, Senior, USC
6. Joshua Garnett, Senior, Stanford
7. Brandon Shell, RS Senior, South Carolina
8. Tyler Marz, RS Senior, Wisconsin
9. Christian Westerman, RS Senior, Arizona State
10. Jordan Rigsbee, RS Senior, California
11. Greg Pyke, RS Junior, Georgia
12. Pat Elflein, RS Junior, Ohio State

  • NinjaMountie

    I still think it’s way too early to draft a QB before the 5th round. Ben, excluding injury, is going to be around for the next 5 year and probably longer.
    Judging by how the team stands now (of course the season could change things), we need to keep an eye on CBs, OLB, OL and safety in that order. I can see OL and CBs swapping places depending on how the season goes and our draft picks progress and if Cortez can bounce back.
    I truly believe that OLB is still going to be a huge need next year. Personally, I think this year will show that JJ isn’t the answer. Harrison can’t play forever and Dupree is unknown. This and CB are still the positions I worry most about.

  • Ask Questions Later

    I understand that Laremy Tunsil may be great, but I wonder how he stacks up against Gregg Robinson.

    Either way, great write up! When can we expect the Defensive side of the draft to be written up? Furthermore, should Jarvis not exceed expectations, would that force Pittsburghs hand yet again to draft a linebacker in the first three rounds?

  • Rene Gonzalez

    If all goes well safety and OG will be the top 2 needs next year.

  • Josh Gustad

    I would love Cardale Jones.

  • dano

    if we need safety not everything has gone well, means either shamarko or mitchell or both falter! OG is right though, and perhaps tight end since it’s impossible to put all eggs on a 5th rounder’s basket!

  • Jon Ledyard

    Defensive list should be up tomorrow! I’ll finish it tomorrow, but if I don’t get it done til late, it might go up Monday morning. Thanks!

    And yes, another Jarvis failure could mean OLB again becomes a priority, especially if Harrison retires and none of the Zumwalt/Chickillo/Jones/Lemon group work out. Lot of football to go though.

  • AndyR34

    Wait…wait! I thought Holliman was the solution to all of the problems(!)…sort of the second coming!

  • falconsaftey43

    I dont know if they’d be forced to go OLB high again since they have Moats and Dupree.

  • NinjaMountie

    Just curious, but why? What do we really know about him? Not only have many, many NC QBs busted in the NFL, but most of them have done it with a proven collegiate track record. This guy is a virtual unknown regardless the NC.

  • John Cooper

    I’d like to see Caputo from Wisconsin, Kwiatkowski from WVU, and if they go for a TE, I’d like to see Vannett from Ohio State.

  • Rene Gonzalez

    Maybe a safety as insurance in case they can’t keep Thomas because of his good play in the season. After all they need to extend more players from that draf class like Bell, Wheaton and Williams.

  • Ask Questions Later

    Well, we don’t know how well Jarvis can do. Should Jarvis fail, we would have to consider going OLB yet again. However, I predict that if such a situation does happen, expect to draft one in the 2nd round.

  • Moneypenny76

    As things stand now, I think either CB or tight end will be our top needs next year. Of course, if the rookie CBs turn out to be good and Cortez bounces back, then we will be okay there. But we definitely will need a TE sooner rather than later. James hasn’t proven anything yet. I hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t have a good feeling that he will be a long term answer. Heath and Matt both probably only have another year or two of effectiveness, and we have nothing proven behind them.

    As long as we sign Beachum, OL can wait until a later round. LB…I really do believe we are set there. I have a good feeling about Jarvis Jones. I think this will be his big year when he stays healthy and shows what he can do. And if none of those LBs step up…well, quite frankly that will mean we have lost all ability to judge first round LB talent and I have little confidence anything will be gained by taking a 4th LB in the first round.

  • LucasY59

    If all goes well, OL will be one of the only needs, IF Mitchell and Thomas play well there is much less of a need for a S (if either Struggles then I agree S will be a top priority, a playmaker at S is necessary since the D is used to great play from the S position, there is some good talent at S for next years draft so It might be a BPA and S or OL would most likely be BPA) Foster will need a replacement regardless of how well he does, his contract expires, so if he plays well he will want a longer term higher $ contract, if he plays poorly then he is gone, if he stays average then they could still use an upgrade, but might keep him around as Vet depth.

  • LucasY59

    I think if Thomas plays well the priority would be Bell, Thomas, and Williams, Wheaton would be low priority (unless Bryant or Coates have a career ending injury)

  • LucasY59

    I really like the OL talent for next year, and it will be a need as well.

    RB should be good also (if Harris isnt the future #2) there could be a need for a draft pick

    TE if there is a big drop off from Spaeth or Heath and the TE available is BPA, but I am really hoping James turns out to be a steal and they aren’t forced to pick another TE (but they might if they are planning ahead for when Miller and Spaeth retire)

    a backup QB would be ok if its a good talent available/BPA and mid to late rd (not another Landry Jones) but I am thinking that a 3rd QB is wasting a roster spot (and if they are comfortable with Gradkowski after this year they could wait a few more years before they need to draft a QB)

    WR is set so unless its a Kick returning talent that would replace Archer (and Archer continues to struggle, or maybe a late rd pick if they let Wheaton go) I dont think there will even be a WR taken (even tho it seems that one is picked every draft)

  • Ryan

    Yeah. Hopefully James or Clear prove to be a steal at TE. I am a bit pessimistic about next year’s class. I’m not sure if any of them are better than Maxx Williams from this year’s class.
    As far as running back goes, if there’s a guy who has a reputation for being excellent at getting a difficult yard or two when everyone is expecting a run, then that is someone I’d be interested in. Otherwise, RB is more of a luxury unless there’s incredible value in a prospect left on the board.

    OT/G is definitely worth a look. It would be nice to have someone who can play every position on the line and excel at one or two.

    WR is a position that we are pretty well stacked at. If CJ Goodwin proves to be a playmaker, then we are even more so. I’ve heard encouraging reports about him so far, but I also heard great things about Justin Brown when he played for us. I’ll temper my expectations until I see him play. I don’t see us going WR unless the value is insane.

    The bottom line is that defense is a lot more probable, as we probably will be looking at another CB or OLB. Safety is a possibility, but I am going to keep faith in Holliman and Thomas for now. It would be nice if great value would fall to us at the CB position for once…