By Jeremy Hritz
The 2022 NFL Draft is in the books, and the Steelers double-dipped at quarterback, wide receiver, while they avoided drafting a single defensive back or offensive lineman. While we are years away from being able to evaluate this class, today I take a look at how this class fits into this current roster and what their possible contribution is for the upcoming season.
Kenny Pickett was the Steelers first selection at #20, and it was no surprise the selection was a quarterback. What was a surprise however is that Pickett was still on the board. Many evaluators and writers, myself included, overvalued this quarterback class, as the rest of the Big 5 fell mightily in this class, with my target at QB, Sam Howell, not being selected until the 5th round by the Washington Commanders.
Pickett is going to be given every opportunity to start in the 2022 season, and he brings a competitive spirit, intuitive feel for the game, and a knack for precise ball placement to the Steelers. Possibly overlooked is what Pickett will do for inspiring Steelers Nation being that he was so beloved in Pittsburgh during the run that Pitt had in the ACC last season. He is already a revered figure in the city, and he has the opportunity to recharge and reignite a fan base that has had average quarterback play the last few seasons. We must keep in mind that it is rare that a rookie QB plays at a high level, and he is not even guaranteed to start. Critics will tell you what you see is what you get with Pickett, and that his ceiling is not very high, yet that is the type of feedback that he will use as fuel to get better.
The need at wide receiver was well documented this offseason, and in many of my mock drafts, I had the Steelers selecting 2 wide receivers, which they actually did. In the second round, the team selected George Pickens, who immediately becomes their number 3 receiver with the ability to vertically stress defenses with speed and make contested catches. Pickens will primarily be an outside receiver and will be expected to come in a contribute in year #1. After an ACL tear in March of 2021, Pickens showed resolve and dedication in rehabbing and getting back on the field for the National Championship game against Alabama. He is still not at full strength, and come training camp, he should be in a more productive, healthier space to contribute. Sometimes he can let his aggressiveness to get the best of him, but better to reign that in than try to develop it at the professional level. You are either the aggressor or not, and that is something you cannot develop.
In the 3rd round, the Steelers addressed defensive line, selecting DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M as a prospect who can be developed to eventually be a contributor/possible starter at one of the defensive end positions. There is still mystery surrounding Stephon Tuitt, and Cameron Heyward is not getting any younger, and having a player like Leal gives them a prospect to develop and grow into a viable option. Leal plays with high-intensity and fire and does not quit on any play, something that jives well with the Steelers defense. Where he must focus his attention is only filling out his frame at only 283 pounds, if he is to be an anchor on the defensive line. I can see some snaps this season, but he won’t be a primary go-to as there is a lot of work to be done with his game. Leal’s selection also makes that defensive line room crowded, and some decisions will have to be made at the back end of the depth chart.
With their 4th round selection, they selected their second wide receiver out of Memphis, Calvin Austin. While Pickens is fast, Austin is insanely fast, running a 4.32 40 at the Combine, and possessing the ability to blow by defensive backs with ease. Austin can also provide value as a return man, making him a versatile option on this team. What he doesn’t have is size at 5’8, 170 pounds, which will create challenges for him against larger defensive backs; however, Matt Canada will gameplan and scheme for ways to capitalize on his strengths. Austin will immediately be a role player in this offense and will be given an opportunity as a return man, and he will have every chance to show his value early.
The brotherly love continued for Pittsburgh in the 6th round as the team selected Connor Heyward out of Michigan State, brother of Cam. This is an interesting selection, as Heyward is not a true running back, full back, or tight end, but rather a versatile, jack-of-all-trades who serve the team as an H-Back. Heyward is not overly talented, or equipped with elite athleticism or speed, but he is a football player in every sense of the word with excellent hands who can be a sneaky playmaker on third downs. Heyward brings into question Derek Watt’s role on this team and whether or not he will return for the upcoming season.
In the first of their 7th rounders, the Steelers selected Mark Robinson out of Ole Miss. Robinson is a former running back converted to ILB who understands adversity as a walk on in college. Is a thumper and a sound tackler, but in effective in terms of coverage responsibilities. Robinson is a project for this team, and if anything could be expected this season, it would be contributions on special teams. Guys selected this late are picked because of a significant/outstanding trait, and it is tackling for Robinson. If the other facets of his game can be developed, he could find some role within this roster.
With their final selection in the draft, the Steelers selected their second QB of the day in Chris Oladokun out of South Dakota State. This selection virtually guarantees Mason Rudolph will be traded or cut, which cut is more likely as there is probably not a market for his services. Has an NFL-arm, above average mobility, and the traits that make you excited if they can be developed. However, Oladokun lacks experience and is extremely raw, making him a prospect who will need a lot of development, which makes him a perfect #3 QB with high-upside.
The Steelers also signed the following undrafted free agents at the conclusion of the draft:
- Jake Dixon, Duquesne – Tackle
- Mataeo Durant, Duke – Running Back
- Donovan Jeter, Michigan – Defensive Lineman
- Tyree Johnson, Texas A&M – Outside Linebacker
- T.D. Moultry, Auburn – Outside Linebacker
- Chris Owens, Alabama – Guard
- Chris Steele, USC – Cornerback
- Jordan Tucker, North Carolina – Tackle
- Jaylen Warren, Oklahoma State – Running Back
- Bryce Watts, UMass – Cornerback
Player profiles for all of the Steelers draft picks and undrafted free agents will be published over the next two weeks. Be sure to check them out!