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A tumultuous Pittsburgh Steelers season that included the Ryan Shazier injury and the “no catch” by Jesse James came to a disappointing end, with the team giving up 45 points at home to a much-improved Jacksonville Jaguars team in the Divisional Round. But there were highlights from the 2017 rookie class. First-round pick T.J Watt started 15 games and had 7 sacks. Second round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster had 58 receptions and seven touchdowns. And third round pick Cameron Sutton came on late in the season at corner and the coaching staff seems to have high expectations for him in 2018. Can the 2018 draft class make similar contributions? Here is a look at how they may be able to contribute to a team that won 13 games, their eighth double-digit-winning season in eleven years under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Round 2, Pick 60: James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State
Washington was a Senior Bowl participant and highly productive receiver who put up monster numbers, including over 4,000 career receiving yards, double digit touchdowns each of the last three years, and a nearly 21 yards-per-catch average as a senior. He played in a vertical passing system at Oklahoma State where he was a smart route runner who tracks the ball well and can make the contested catch.
While wide receiver was somewhat of a need coming into the draft, it became a necessity after accepting the Raiders’ offer of a third-round pick for Martavis Bryant. The Steelers were thin after Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster so the addition of Washington will help in three-receiver base sets. He should jump into the spot vacated by Bryant. Expect Washington to be used on slants, screens and comeback routes as well as the deeper vertical routes that he excelled on in college.
Immediate Role Player
Round 1, Pick 28: Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech
Safety was a need coming into the draft and many though the Steelers would take one early. Edmunds was a bit of surprise to most, as there weren’t many people pre-draft who had him in the first round. He will add to the back end of the defense that includes Sean Davis and free agent signee from Green Bay, Morgan Burnett.
He started 31 games in three years, made the calls on defense, and played with an injured shoulder most of last year. Athletic and raw with 4.47 speed and a 41.5-inch vertical, Edmunds was used in a variety of ways in college, including free safety, in the box, lined up in the slot, and to cover tight ends. That versatility adds to his value. He racked up 196 tackles, six interceptions, and 14 pass breakups. He won’t have to come in and start right away, so he’ll probably be used in a variety of ways early on including sub packages at linebacker. The Steelers rebuilt their safety corps and we should see a lot of usage from the top three.
Round 3, Pick 76: Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
A three-year starter in Oklahoma State’s spread offense, Rudolph was able to improve his year-over-year numbers in nearly every category, amassing over 13,000 passing yards with 92 touchdowns to only 26 interceptions, while chipping in 17 rushing touchdowns as well. The Steelers had a high grade on him and moved up three picks to get him, jumping ahead of Cincinnati. Rudolph will add to the quarterback room to compete for a backup job with Landry Jones and fourth-round pick from 2017, Joshua Dobbs.
Per resident Inside the Pylon quarterback guru, Mark Schofield, Rudolph “shows average to above-average ability manipulating the pocket, and is athletic enough to extend plays with his legs while keeping his eyes downfield to make throws.” Kind of reminds me of someone else on this team. He should start the season as the #3 behind Landry Jones, the only backup with game experience. But he’ll have a chance to take the #2 spot before the end of the season.
Round 3, Pick 92: Chukwuma Okorafor, OT, Western Michigan
“Chuks” was someone who caught the eye of the Steelers brass while scouting other Western Michigan players for the 2017 draft. He has great size at 6’6” and 330lbs. He didn’t move to offensive line until his junior year in high school, but he was still able to become a three-year starter in a primarily inside Zone blocking scheme in college.
This was a pure value pick. General Manager Kevin Colbert believes he has “unique upside” and “left tackle abilities.” Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is 30 and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva will be in September. The expectation is either 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins or 2015 signee Matt Feiler will be the swing tackle. The key to Okorafor’s development will be offensive line coach Mike Munchak (who almost left to become the Arizona head coach). He has been able to develop undrafted free agent Villanueva into a Pro Bowl tackle, and Chris Hubbard into a player who signed a big deal with Cleveland this year. So I like the chances of him becoming a starter in a couple years, but he’ll be low on the depth chart this season.
Round 5, Pick 148: Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
This pick, like Rudolph, was a case of taking the highest-rated player on their board. He has very good size and uses it well. Allen logged over 300 tackles in college and is a physical tackler. Missed tackles was an area that needed improvement for the Steelers defense and the two safeties they added should help. Allen does have limitations; his ball skills were less than ideal, only getting one interception in college.
Allen will be a main contributor on special teams, especially covering kicks, and another candidate to play as a linebacker in sub packages. He supports the run well and can make plays in the short area passing game. The depth he adds to the safety group is crucial without Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden on the roster anymore.
Round 5, Pick 165: Jaylen Samuels, RB/WR, North Carolina State
Samuels is a unique player with over 200 receptions, 180 rushes, nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage, and 47 total touchdowns in college. While he lined up in many positions on offense, that doesn’t mean he can “play” that position. He’s doesn’t have the size to play tight end and isn’t the physical blocker that a fullback would need to be.
He’ll have his work cut out for him to make the game day roster, but the versatility he provides can only help. New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner will have a chance to be creative with him in the preseason to see what he can provide. Special teams will be a must and he has some experience returning kicks. He’s a good inside runner with a nose for the end zone and will need to beat out Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint to be the #3 back. And since Le’Veon Bell doesn’t come off the field, Samuels’ receiving skills may his best opportunity to make an impact. He has very good hands, was used often in the slot, and excels versus Zone defenses.
Round 7, Pick 246: Joshua Frazier, DT, Alabama
Frazier was a rotational defensive tackle for Alabama, who had so much talent they had 12 players drafted this year. A wide-bodied player with 34 ¼ inch arms, he fits the mold of the typical 0-tech defender. He has solid hands and arm extension, can anchor versus a double team block, and has the ability to stack and shed in a two gap defense. He doesn’t get a lot of push in his pass rush but shows good awareness to get his hands up in the passing lanes.
Frazier is familiar with new Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who coached him at Alabama. Frazier was brought in to compete with Dan McCullers to back up Javon Hargrave for a handful of plays a game. If it’s close when cut down day comes around, youth may get the edge, but the practice squad would be an option for Frazier as well.
Free Agent Rookie Signings
The Steelers added 13 free agent signings to get the roster to 90. Here are a few notes on them.
Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, LB, Toledo – 20 tackles for a loss(TFL) and 8.5 sacks in 2017
Parker Cothren, DT, Penn State – 2 TFL, 1.5 sacks in 2017
Jarvion Franklin, RB, Western Michigan – 5,537 yards from scrimmage and 56 TD’s
Greg Gilmore, DT, LSU – 10 TFL, 7.5 sacks in 2017
Quadree Henderson, WR, Pittsburgh – 7 career return TD’s
Trey Johnson, CB, Villanova – 4.38 speed
Pharoah McKever, TE, North Carolina State – 27 receptions and 3 TD in 2017
Patrick Morris, C, TCU – 37 Bench Press reps
Ikenna Nwokeji, OL, Elon – 4 year starter
Chris Schleuger, G, UAB – 2 year starter
Jamar Summers, CB, UConn – 8 interception in 2015
Matthew Thomas, LB, Florida State – 85 tackles in 2017
Kendal Vickers, DE, Tennessee – 51 tackles, 6 TFL in 2017