The Steelers mission entering the 2016 NFL Draft, was to invest in the defensive side of the ball. Over the course of three days and seven selections, it is mission accomplished for Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, who added two defensive backs, two linebackers, and a defensive tackle. They gave defensive coordinator Keith Butler, five new fast and athletic weapons to mold and develop. The first three picks all have a legitimate opportunity to start, or at the very least, earn a significant amount of playing time. While they may not have been the biggest names to come out of the college ranks, they were all very productive, and have the potential to fill a need on defense for the Steelers.
First round pick, Artie Burns, gives the Steelers the size, speed and superb ball skills on the outside, that they have been missing since Ike Taylor retired. Like Taylor, Artie Burns likes to get up on the line to bump and jam receivers off the snap. He had seven career interceptions while at Miami, with six of them coming last season, a season that saw him lose his mother, Dana, with him having to take over raising his two younger brothers. Burns has tremendous upside, and with him now having the opportunity to focus solely on football, and with the coaching he will receive from Carnell Lake, to clean up his technique, it shouldn’t be too long before we see him close the gap between his ability and his potential.
Sean Davis was selected by the Steelers in the second round of the draft and brings versatility to the secondary. At Maryland, he played both cornerback and safety, where he made most of the defensive calls and helped set up the defense. Intelligence is definitely not a question with Davis, as he speaks three languages, English, French, and Mandarin Chinese. Picking up the defense shouldn’t be much of an issue for him. With his size and coverage skills, he should be able to line up and the cover the tight ends who have been victimizing the defense over the last few years. With the Steelers he will be viewed soley as a safety and given every opportunity to earn the open safety spot alongside Mike Mitchell. Carnell Lake has said, however, that Sean Davis is versatile enough to be utilized as a cornerback in some of the subpackages.
Third round draft pick, Javon Hargrave, comes to the Steelers from the small school, South Carolina State, and chances are, if he had gone to a division one school, he would have been snatched up by another team much earlier. Not only did Hargrave dominate his lower level of competition, he did the same at the East-West Shrine game and at the Senior Bowl. His pass rushing ability makes him one of the few three down defensive tackles that came out in the draft, and his ability to move around will allow him to kick out to defensive end, in order to help keep Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt fresh throughout the year. Javon Hargrave just might be the steal of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Jerald Hawkins came to the Steelers in the fourth round, and gives the Steelers an option that can play both tackle spots. He’s pretty light on his feet, and moves rather smoothly for a guy his size. He’ll definitely need time to develop into his all-pro potential, but if there is a guy who can get the best out of Hawkins, a starter at LSU as a redshirt-freshman, it’s Mike Munchak. His pass blocking is where he needs the most work, but his run blocking seems to be NFL ready in the videos that I have seen. He will more than likely need at least a year to develop into a guy who could slip into the rotation.
With their pick in the sixth round, the Steelers got quite an athlete in Travis Feeney, an outside linebacker from the Washington Huskies. Feeney’s numbers at the combine ranked in the top 5 for all linebackers who participated. His biggest issue may be durability, due to his lean build. He’s already had shoulder issues from the way he throws his body around, but at 6-4, he has the room to add an additional 15 pounds of muscle, and to build up his lower body to add more power behind his speed. Until he is ready to become the edge rusher that Joey Porter believes he can be, Feeney could become a nice addition to the special teams. He definitely could end up being a great bargain for a sixth round pick.
With their first pick in the seventh round, the Steelers grabbed 5-9 wide receiver, DeMarcus Ayers, out of Houston. Out of all the draft picks, Ayers figures to have the toughest battle ahead of him to make the 53 man roster. His best chance to make it, would appear to be as a punt returner, which the Steelers had him rated as one of the best coming out. Chances are though, Ayers will never be more than a back end of the depth chart receiver. However, with that being said, who knows what he could pick up from his exposure to Antonio Brown. If he can successfully take over and own the punt return duties, to help preserve Antonio Brown from unnecessary contact, he will have earned his money.
The Pittsburgh Steelers took Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich with their final pick in the draft. They didn’t get the biggest, strongest or the fastest of linebackers, but what they got was, the 2015 Bronko Negurski award winner and a guy who is always around the ball. Matakevich was one of only a few players, last season, who led their team in tackles every single game. In his sophomore season, he led the nation with 8.8 solo tackles per game. With his nose for the ball, over 450 tackles during his collegiate career, the only thing keeping him from being drafted much earlier was about 2 inches and 10 pounds. When it comes to Tyler Matakevich, it’s hard to not be reminded of former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. His chances of making the final 53 man roster may not be greatest, but based on his track record of production, I wouldn’t bet against him.
It is way too early to put any kind of grade on the Steelers draft. It is, on paper at least, one that has the real potential of taking the defense up a couple of notches this season. There are at least three, maybe four members of this draft class who have the potential to contribute to, and help improve the defense this season. The same holds true for special teams as well. If the Steelers can get noticeable improvement out of those two units, and Ben, Antonio Brown and Bell can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for the Steelers for the next few years.