Realistic expectations for the Steelers 2023 draft class
The 2023 NFL Draft is now in the books and what was once speculation a little over a week ago – as to which players would be selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers – has now turned into a rash of draft grades and expectations.
Expectations is the name of the game, right now, as we cannot realistically grade any player or draft class until several years down the road. (When we actually see how well, or poor, they played throughout their career.) Yet, one thing we can do is set a reasonable amount of expectations based on the team’s needs, current roster, and draft pedigree of those players picked by the Steelers.
Let’s have a look at some year one expectations and beyond for the Steelers 2023 draft class.
Expectation: Week 1 starter, Franchise left tackle
Let’s be frank: the Steelers didn’t move up three spots in the draft to take a left tackle, only to have that player sit.
The expectation for nearly all first round picks should be as a full-time starter, and the hope is, they can provide that shot in the arm for a team in year one.
Jones, the second true left tackle taken in this year’s draft, presents a sizeable upgrade over former fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr., the latter of whom has struggled at times with an inconsistent Steelers offensive line.
Last season the Steelers added Mason Cole and James Daniels to the line. This year they rectified the revolving door at left guard by signing the top guard in free agency, Isaac Seumalo. The final piece of the puzzle was drafting Jones, as left tackles are expensive and not usually available in free agency. (Though the Steelers were reportedly in the mix for Orlando Brown.)
The expectation for Jone should be as a Week 1, full-time starter. He will be given every opportunity to win the position and anything less than playing as a rookie could be considered a disappointment. In fact, being the first, first round left tackle pick by the Steelers since 1992 probably ups the ante for Jones to become a franchise great, though I’m remiss to hang such pressure on rookies.
Joey Porter Jr.
Expectation: Eventual starter, Franchise lockdown cornerback
Let’s face it, the expectation for Porter Jr. is to live up to his father’s name. Joey Porter Sr. is one of the all-time Steelers greats on defense, so naturally his son comes to Pittsburgh with a lot of weight on his shoulders. They hype for the team to draft Porter was so great that many, myself included, thought he was going to be their first round pick.
Porter enters a motley crew secondary in the Steel City, where future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson was signed in the offseason, but is 33 years old when this season begins. Incumbents, Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, are both in the final year of their respective contracts. Beyond those three, the competition is nigh with undrafted free agent James Pierre signing a one-year deal, but being mostly relegated to special teams play.
Arthur Maulet is considered strictly a nickel cornerback, covering players in the slot, so I anticipate Porter will see the field, but whether or not he’s a week one starter really depends on Peterson’s ability as the senior of this group, and whether Witherspoon or Wallace are in the competitive mix for playing time once the dust settles from training camp.
Should Porter be eased into the defensive schemes, it won’t take long before he shuts down one side of the field much like Joe Haden did for several years. His rookie status is about the only thing that may have the coaching staff hold him back.
Otherwise, Porter is expected to be yet another franchise player for the Steelers.
Expectation: Potential starting nose tackle, Defensive end depth
I have different expectations for Benton than what fans might, and I’m not sure mine are as realistic: I believe he has a chance to become the player Javon Hargrave now is.
Similar in stature and able to line up in multiple spots along the defensive line, I believe Benton can become a Week 1 starter in much the same way Hargrave did.
His competition, Montravius Adams and Breiden Fehoko may not possess the same skillset, but let’s not forget Hargrave was the first rookie defensive line starter for the Steelers in thirty years when that occurred back in 2016. Yet, I think Benton will be the next to do so because he’s that much of an upgrade and because nose tackles – in the Steelers base 3-4 defense – typically see fewer snaps (20-30%) than other players might. (In Porter’s case, all four starting defensive backs usually play 100% of the game, for example.)
If Benton can provide a spart to stop the run and also penetrate the opposing line, he could manage to find more playing time spelling Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi. This could be especially true if the team view DeMarvin Leal as an outside linebacker rather than a 3-4 defensive end too.
Despite being the third pick in the Steelers draft class, Benton is still a higher pick on the board (49th overall) and should be one to watch as the offseason unfolds.
Expectation: Blocking tight end, will contribute
Washington also has a lot of hype and I’m particularly excited about his development. However, we should pump the brakes on his participation in the early going based on how other Steelers tight ends were eased into the offense, and since they have a full-time starter in Pat Freiermuth already too.
However, it’s Freiermuth’s concussion history, along with Zach Gentry’s development – and one year deal signed this offseason – that may see Washington behind both to begin the season, but eventually put into subpackages which use his physical gifts to punish opponents in the run game, and make them pay by squeezing out to catch passes as well.
I’m very bullish on Washington beyond year one, but within it, I think he’s slowly brought along – especially if the concerns about his knee (the reason he fell to Pittsburgh in the third round) are legitimate. He may simply need time to heel and Pittsburgh, for now, can afford to be patient with his development and/or recovery.
Expectation: Big TBD!!
Is he an outside linebacker or an inside linebacker?
That’s the big question, but I do know that Herbig will get a shot on the edge based on coaches’ comments. What he does with those reps will determine his fate.
What we can assume is that he won’t be a full-timer in 2023, and should be best suited to subpackage football where his win-rate in getting to the quarterback could give T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith a breather. In addition, he should also be a special teams demon this season, so I at least expect Herbig to receive a helmet on game days.
Expectation: Not likely to see playing time in 2023
A physically gifted corner, Trice is considered a bit raw and may have an uphill climb to make the 53-man roster based on the notes I have for Porter Jr.
I don’t see Trice seeing the field in 2023, or even being active on game days if he does. A lot of that will depend on how he comes along and if he makes anyone else mentioned in the cornerbacks room expendable.
He could be a seventh round steal, but for now, let’s consider that 31 other teams didn’t value Trice so highly either. We’ve seen this situation play out before where those organizations get it wrong, but it’s not often. At best, Trice steals Pierre’s roster spot as I believe he has to be at least better than former Steeler Justin Layne, who stuck to the roster for years as a third round pick but struggled to see any meaningful defensive snaps.
Expectation: Practice Squad
A lot has to change for Anderson to have a shot at making the 53-man roster.
Right now, the Steelers have their five starters: Cole, Daniels, Seumalo, Jones and Chukwuma Okorafor. Jones replaced Dan Moore Jr., who should be the team’s swing tackle, and Seumalo replaces Kevin Dotson, who battled with Kendrick Green for the starting left guard spot last training camp.
Dotson and Green are still on the roster, but are hardly locks. Also consider that the Steelers brought in Nate Herbig from the Eagles, yet another guard, and that’s at least three experienced backup guards in the room
If Anderson can provide flexibility as a center, he could have a clearer path towards making the team. However, the Steelers are also bringing Iowa State center Trevor Downing to camp, crowding the offensive line group some more.
Several others will compete in camp too, and with Pittsburgh retaining no more than eight offensive linemen, or in an extreme case, nine, Anderson’s rookie season likely projects as a practice squad player who will be available to call up in the event of any injuries.