With less than three weeks until the 2016 NFL Draft, there’s no question the Steelers are probably leaning towards defense with their first pick (25th, overall).
The general consensus is that Pittsburgh will probably go corner for the first time in nearly two decades. If it’s not corner, defensive lineman appears to be a popular choice among many, especially considering the position is about as deep as it’s been in decades. The third most popular choice (and perhaps the position with the least amount of viable first round prospects available) is safety.
Therefore, with corner being perhaps the most pressing need, defensive linemen being plentiful and safeties not so much, it says here a cornerback will be the Steelers’ top choice.
Judging by most rankings and most mock drafts (and there are plenty of those), five corners appear to be first round worthy: Jalen Ramsey (Florida State), Vernon Hargreaves (Florida), Mackensie Alexander (Clemson), Eli Apple (Ohio State) and William Jackson III (Houston).
Again, based on most rankings and mocks, Ramsey is unquestionably a consensus top-three pick, while Hargreaves is at least in the top-12. After those two, Alexander, Apple and Jackson are all over the place. However, Jackson’s stock is on the rise after posting an impressive week at February’s Combine, in-which, among other things, he recorded a sub-4.4 for his 40-time. In-addition to his speed, Jackson has the size (6’0″ and 190 lbs) and college production (five interceptions and 23 passes defensed as a senior, according to College Football Reference).
And, most importantly for this time of year, Jackson has the draft momentum and the new-found love of many experts–including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke. Had Jackson played in a conference a little tougher than Houston’s American Athletic Conference, it would be easy to see him moving far ahead of the likes of Hargreaves and Alexander. But that’s neither here nor there now, as teams are clearly infatuated with his abilities–college competition be damned.
- So while Jackson III has been a popular choice in recent weeks as a potential top pick for the Steelers, it almost seems impossible at this point that he’ll drop to the 25th spot.
With Ramsey, Hargreaves and Jackson III all likely long-gone by the time Pittsburgh selects, that could leave a choice between Alexander and Apple. If the choice does come down to those two highly-regarded corner prospects, it would almost surely be Eli Apple.
For one thing, Apple has the height advantage over Alexander (6’1″ vs. 5’10”). And at nearly 200 pounds, according to his NFL.com draft profile, he certainly has the overall size you’re looking for in an NFL corner and someone who is big enough to play on the outside (ideal size to play on the outside is something the Steelers are mostly lacking on their cornerback depth chart).
Secondly, Apple comes from a school in Ohio State that has been very popular with the Steelers in recent years. Pittsburgh used its first round pick to draft defensive end Cameron Heyward in 2011 NFL Draft. Three years later, the Steelers surprised a lot of people by selecting inside linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall selection of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Like Heyward and Shazier, Apple was a productive college player at a big-time school in a big-time conference (the Big Ten). Also, just like his Buckeye predecessors, he’s a rather safe choice at 25.
A lot can happen between now and April 28. But if I were a betting man, I’d lay a cookie or two down on the Steelers finally breaking their first round cornerback drought by selecting Eli Apple out of Ohio State.