Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Keeanu Benton, DT, Wisconsin – Round 2
The 2023 NFL Draft was known to not be a strong year for defensive tackle talent, but Benton was one of the few interior linemen who rose through process. Benton had a quality senior year for the Badgers and then excelled in the months to come, performing well at the Senior Bowl practices and in pre-draft workouts. NFL team sources told WalterFootball.com that a few teams had Benton as a top second-round candidate, and Pittsburgh was the one that was able to land him.

In the pass rush, Benton flashes the ability to contribute in putting pressure on the quarterback. He is quick off the snap, and he plays with good pad level to gain leverage on offensive linemen. With active hands, Benton has developed good technique and is smart about how he attacks guards. Benton displays a steady motor in both phases, and he doesn’t quit on plays, driving hard through the whistle. While he is not overwhelmingly fast or powerful, Benton is a well-balanced defender who can contribute with interior pass rush. Benton collected 4.5 sacks as a senior and rushed the quarterback well at the Senior Bowl. Some team sources said that Benton reminded them of former Panthers defender Kawann Short, an effective interior pass rusher for Carolina over many seasons.

As a run defender, Benton is tough and plays hard at the point of attack. He could use some development for the ground game, but in the passing-driven NFL, his ability to pressure the quarterback from the inside is a valuable commodity.

Benton may not be an immediate starter with veterans like Larry Ogunjobi, Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal competing for playing time. However, I think Benton will turn into a quality three-down starter for the Steelers in the years to come.

2022: Kenny Pickett, QB
2021: Dan Moore, OT
2020: Alex Highsmith, OLB
2019: Diontae Johnson, WR
2018: James Washington, WR
2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
2016: Artie Burns, CB
2015: Sammie Coates, WR
2014: Stephon Tuitt, DE
2013: Markus Wheaton, WR

Most Likely To Bust

Broderick Jones, OT, Georgia – Round 1
The Steelers were desperate for a left tackle to protect Kenny Pickett, and they did not take any chances, moving up in the first round to select Jones. Jones has a lot of upside, but he has limited experience and will need development. It would not surprise me if Jones is forced onto the field too early and struggles to adapt to the NFL.

During the months leading up to the draft, I spoke with sources at multiple teams, and none of them had a first-round grade on Jones based on his 2022 tape. They all shared they felt Jones was very talented with an excellent skill set, but was very raw and needed development for the NFL. That isn’t surprising considering Jones was only 20 years old in 2022. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder has excellent speed and athleticism with a natural build. However, his technique needs work because defenders get on his edges, and that will be a problem against pro pass rushers.

Jones could be thrown into the fire immediately, and that has been detrimental for other underdeveloped players in previous years. With his excellent skill set, Jones is a candidate to be a boom pick as well, so he definitely could be a boom-or-bust pick for Pittsburgh.

2021: Pat Freiermuth, TE
2020: Anthony McFarland, RB
2019: Justin Layne, CB
2018: Mason Rudolph, QB
2017: James Conner, RB
2016: Sean Davis, CB/S
2015: Senquez Golson, CB
2014: Dri Archer, RB/WR
2013: Le’Veon Bell, RB

Potential Boom Pick

Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State – Round 2
Even prior to losing Cam Sutton in free agency, cornerback was a big need for Pittsburgh. While the Steelers signed veteran Patrick Peterson, he is not a long-term starter, and adding corner talent was a necessity for the team. Joey Porter Jr. was a consensus first-round pick for a lot of the draft process, but he was a late-slider around the NFL. Sources from multiple teams told WalterFootball.com that Porter slid because of scheme limitations. Teams felt Porter was a press-man corner only, and they did not like his fit for playing zone or off-man coverage. That hurt the number of teams that he fit, and sources also did not like the lack of big plays he created during his college career. However, Porter landed with a team that will know how to use him, and he should be developed well by Mike Tomlin and his staff.

Porter is a prototypical press-man corner in pass coverage. He is tall and has crazy arm length that is even longer than other big cornerbacks. His arms give him a massive amount of reach, wingspan, and coverage area that makes it very hard to get passes by him. Porter’s length is a rare commodity and gives him a natural advantage. Porter’s excellent height and length allow him to cover big receivers to prevent a size mismatch. Porter also is surprisingly fast and can really run for a big cornerback. He has the speed to hustle downfield and does not let receivers get over the top on him.

It would not be surprising to this analyst if the Steelers develop Porter into a solid starter. He could have boom-pick potential for them.

2022: George Pickens, WR
2021: Najee Harris, RB
2020: Chase Claypool, WR
2019: Devin Bush, LB
2018: Terrell Edmunds, S
2017: T.J. Watt, LB
2016: Javon Hargrave, DT
2015: Bud Dupree, LB
2014: Ryan Shazier, LB
2013: Jarvis Jones, LB

Future Depth Player

Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia – Round 3
Washington ended up being a late third-round pick despite some analysts projecting him to go in the first round. The Steelers already have a receiving tight end who is a three-down starter in Pat Freiermuth, but Washington will be a blocking tight end for them. The massive Washington will be a valuable blocker for Najee Harris and help protect Kenny Pickett in the play-action game. While Washington may not turn into a three-down starter, he should be a safe pick to be a solid No. 2 and blocking tight end.

2022: Calvin Austin, WR
2021: Quincy Roche, OLB
2020: Kevin Dotson, G
2019: Benny Snell, RB
2018: Jaylen Samuels, RB
2017: Cam Sutton, CB
2016: Tyler Matakevich, LB
2015: Doran Grant, CB
2014: Wesley Johnson, OT
2013: Shamarko Thomas, S

Walt’s 2023 NFL Draft Grades:

17. Broderick Jones, OT/G – B Grade
Mike Tomlin wanted to upgrade his secondary. The front office wanted to solidify the offensive line. The front office wins. Maybe. Broderick Jones has huge upside, but he has a much lower floor than the other three offensive linemen selected so far. This is a risky move, especially given the trade up, but I don’t blame the Steelers for making the pick because Kenny Pickett needed better protection to take the next step.

32. Joey Porter Jr., CB, Penn State – A+ Grade
An A+ grade to kick off Round 2. This is amazing value. Joey Porter Jr. was under consideration for the Steelers’ No. 17 overall pick had one of the top four offensive linemen not been on the board. Porter fills a huge need, and he should continue his father’s great legacy in Pittsburgh.

49. Keeanu Benton, DT, Wisconsin – B+ Grade
The Steelers have had issues stopping the run ever since Ryan Shazier suffered a brutal injury. This is not a linebacker pick, but Keeanu Benton will certainly help the team’s efforts to stop the rush. Benton is a nose tackle with upside, so I like this pick for Pittsburgh.

93. Darnell Washington, TE, Georgia – B+ Grade
If you’re wondering why Darnell Washington fell, some teams removed him from their draft boards because of serious injury concerns. However, at some point, he’s definitely worth a shot, and the Steelers deemed that to be at the end of the third frame. This pick obviously doesn’t fill a need, but it doesn’t hurt to give Kenny Pickett another talented weapon. We’ll just have to see if Washington can stay healthy.

132. Nick Herbig, DE/OLB, Wisconsin – B+ Grade
The Steelers were 8-2 with T.J. Watt last year, but really struggled without him. Edge-rushing depth was needed, and Nick Herbig is a very talented player who can get good pressure on the quarterback. The problem is that he’s small, so he’ll have to be a situational pass rusher to start, but I like this value at the end of the fourth round.

241. Cory Trice, CB, Purdue – B+ Grade
Cory Trice is a tall, lengthy cornerback with upside. However, he has a dubious injury history, which is why he fell to the seventh round. The floor is low, but there is definite upside.

251. Spencer Anderson, C, Maryland – C+ Grade
I didn’t have Spencer Anderson anywhere near my mocks. He’s a high-effort lineman, but lacks upside and struggles with technique. I don’t see him making the final roster.

2023 NFL Draft Team Grade: A. Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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