Man, the NFL Draft is only six weeks away. Hard to believe. As we go through the first wave of free agency, we can get a clearer look at who the Pittsburgh Steelers might take 25th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Of course, the draft can – and does – always surprise, so by no means in this list concrete. I left off some players who could fall, outside linebacker Shaq Lawson most notably. Just in the way I left off Bud Dupree last year, despite him being my #1 guy, I won’t assume he will be there, but if they are, they will absolutely be in the conversation.
Here are six players I’ve been able to whittle the last down to. These are in no particular order though if you remember my last mock, I had the team taking Andrew Billings.
Andrew Billings/DT Baylor: So let’s start with him. Steve McLendon is now living his big city dreams in New York. The nose tackle market is barren, a weird time to try to find one in an age of pass rushers that are still rare to find, especially a week into the new year, making the actual position a need.
But Billings is much more than a run stuffer. He’s a rare athlete for his frame who showed the ability to get after the quarterback last year, racking up 5.5 sacks despite a bum ankle. He’ll give you that pass rush while helping to stuff the run in sub-package. His frame in itself is interesting. Though he isn’t the 6’4 type, he has 33 inch arms on a not-even 6’1 frame.
The Steelers like drafting underclassmen, defensive lineman in the first round (Hampton, Hood, Heyward) from Power 5 schools. Billings checks every single one of those boxes.
Vernon Butler/DT Louisiana Tech: Like Billings, but a smaller school, and more length/height. Butler is 6’3/5 with 35 inch arms and a more appealing option to play defensive end in a base front, though like McLendon, that idea may be better in theory than practice. But Butler is another one of those remarkable athletes who can play the one or the three while giving the prospect of a starting nose tackle.
He’s a senior from a non Power-5 school, and the last one of those – at any position – was Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. And the last non-QB before that was Troy Edwards in 1999, before Kevin Colbert arrived. But if you’re into your horiscope and the stars aligning, Edwards also went to La Tech.
The bottom line: from a historical perspective, Butler doesn’t add up, but if you go into the evaluation blind and just watch him in a vacuum, he makes sense.
Mackensie Alexander/CB Clemson: Yes, I am putting a cornerback on this list, despite my silent protest and “no CB since 1997” stat I’ve been graffiti spraying since I’ve been writing here. I have watched enough of Alexander to know he’s a talented corner with the frame, speed, and fluidity to succeed in the NFL. Mike Tomlin and Colbert camped out at Clemson’s Pro Day and you can bet Alexander was one of several players on their shopping list.
I’m not blind to the possibility of upgrading the cornerback position, but it’s not as bad as popular perception. And until the team brings in another corner, the numbers are thin.
Noah Spence/OLB Eastern Kentucky: I know Spence feels like a lock as a top-15 pick, but I still have the feeling he’s going to go later than people think. And if he’s there at 25, he has to be in the conversation. Sure, there are some serious off the field concerns, and after dealing with Martavis Bryant, it isn’t fun to think about Spence landing in the same situation, but they are two different people, with different stories, and to blame Spence for Bryant’s problems is plain unfair.
Given the upside he has a pass rusher, and the clear long-term need at the position, he shouldn’t be discounted.
Reggie Ragland/ILB Alabama: Now we start to round things off with some slightly off-the-path ideas. I’ve hinted at Ragland for awhile. Though Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are starting at inside linebacker, and it might be the lost group on defense you’d point to as an issue, we’re all aware of Timmons’ mileage and Shazier’s injury history.
Ragland isn’t just an inside linebacker and that makes him much more appealing. He’ll never be a true outside linebacker but can play on the edge or with his hand down in some fun sub-packages. That could allow him a better path onto the field.
He might not time fantastically but I think he’s a strong athlete when you look at his background and even watch him on tape in some instances. He seems like a great individual that is easy to gravitate towards in interviews and someone the team should really be high on, at the least, on a personal level.
Taylor Decker/OT Ohio State: And a new name to the group. One I’ve never mentioned before, though I wrote this before Ryan Harris put on his Steelers’ attire, concluding their Miss America Pageant of tackles to catwalk through Pittsburgh.
But if they’re smitten for Decker, Harris’ presence isn’t going to discourage them enough of taking him. The possibility of adding a tackle is certainly one I have to be willing to adapt to, even though I’m still high on Alejandro Villanueva.