The first round was the quarterback, the glamorous pick. And even though draft analysts labeled Kenny Pickett the most NFL ready of all the quarterback prospects, and Coach Mike Tomlin followed the selection by saying Pickett would be allowed to compete this summer for the starting job in 2022, quarterback picks generally are more about tomorrow than today.
After using their first-round choice on a potential replacement for Ben Roethlisberger and the promise of tomorrow, the Steelers turned their focus to the present on Friday with their picks in the second and third rounds.
Looking back in Steelers history, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Dermontti Dawson, Carnell Lake, Chad Brown, and LaMarr Woodley were second-round picks; Mel Blount, Jon Kolb, Mike Merriweather, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, and Jason Gildon were third-round picks. And at the time they were drafted, not a famous name in the bunch.
This time, the Steelers addressed a couple of areas of need when they selected Georgia receiver George Pickens in the second round and Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal in the third round.
Pickens will be expected to fortify a corps of Steelers receivers that had been thinned during the free agency period by the departures of JuJu Smith-Schuster to Kansas City, Ray-Ray McCloud to San Francisco, and James Washington to Dallas. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Pickens complemented his size with a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine to establish himself as the owner of the size-speed combination NFL teams now covet in prospects at the position.
In his first 20 college games at Georgia, Pickens caught 85 passes for 1,240 yards (14.6 average) and 14 touchdowns. Then during spring practice before his junior season, Pickens tore an ACL and seemed to be ticketed for a totally lost year. But instead of opting for the cautious approach, Pickens aggressively rehabbed the injury and got himself back onto the field for the stretch run of a season that would end with Georgia winning a National Championship. Pickens finished 2021 with five catches for 107 yards (21.4 average) in four games.
"Coming out of (the 2020 season), getting early draft prep, we thought he was the best wideout coming out," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada, "but he had a tough injury through the spring but battled to come back and play late in the year for (Georgia). We were able to go to his Pro Day, and (Pickens) was impressive beyond belief. He showed no signs of any injury or anything that way, so we're really excited to be able to get him at any point in the draft. We were fired up about that."
Canada said it's to be determined how Pickens will be deployed within the offensive framework, but he was confident that his addition to the lineup would pose some problems for opposing defenses.
"I think Diontae (Johnson) and Chase (Claypool) have spoken for themselves," said Canada. "Chase had a great rookie year, maybe not what he wanted last year but was really close. Diontae came back and had a really good year this past year. I think when you have two guys like them, one more explosive receiver doesn't allow anybody to double team. They have to pick who they want to double. Obviously, we feel good about Pat (Freiermuth), so I think it allows us to have great versatility in our offense and allow opponents to decide who they want to double, because you can't double them all. I don't know exactly how that's going to work. I'm not going to get into that yet, but I do think it's a really good asset for us."
Leal (6-4, 283) was a three-year starter for the Aggies, who improved in each of his seasons in College Station. In 2021, Leal finished with 58 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 8.5 sacks. He was voted first-team Associated Press All-American and was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Trophy that's awarded annually to the best defensive end in college football.
"Really versatile, plays multiple positions across the line," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "We think he has an opportunity to be a good player for us when he gets in here. He's got the frame to get a little bit bigger, but he does some things in the run game that we really like, and we value here."
The Steelers finished last in the NFL in run defense in 2021, and at least part of the problem had to do with an unsettled situation along the defensive line. Tyson Alualu sustained an ankle injury in the second regular season game that caused him to miss the rest of the year and left the Steelers without the player who was the closest thing to a classic nose tackle.
Stephon Tuitt didn't practice or play at all in 2021 as he spent the year first on the physically unable to perform list and then injured reserve following surgery on his knee. That left Cam Heyward as the only one among the preseason presumptive starters on the field consistently, and it created a situation where the Steelers and their opponents constantly were playing a football version of hide-and-seek, with the Steelers moving Heyward around to keep him in the thick of things while opponents often ran plays anywhere Heyward wasn't.
Chris Wormley had his role increased and turned in a nice season, rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk developed quicker than expected, and Montravius Adams was a nice find on an opposing practice squad, but the 2021 Steelers defensive line never was what it was expected to be, what it could have been had its injured front-line players been available.
When coupled with the advancing ages of Heyward (33 in May), Alualu (35 in May), and Tuitt (29 in May), it was clear the Steelers needed to add to the top of their defensive line depth chart. Enter Leal.
"He has the ability to do all the things we'll ask him to do," said Austin. "You'll see him make plays at the line of scrimmage. You see him pass-rush. He'll play on the nose. He's played out in space. He's played out on the edge, so he'll be able to do what we want. I don't think that's ever going to be an issue with this young man. It was important to add some youth on the defensive line, and some of those guys aren't getting any younger. It's important to continue to add because when you add young depth, young legs, you have an opportunity to develop those guys."
At a news conference on the Monday before the draft, General Manager Kevin Colbert said, "We have always talked about that our top three picks have to become starters in the business model that we follow."
With the 2022 NFL Draft now headed into its final day with Rounds 4-7, the Steelers' top three picks are quarterback Kenny Pickett, wide receiver George Pickens, and defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal.
Pickett already has presented himself as a poised, mature individual who made the decision to return for an extra college season to improve himself and to help his team win a championship. Pickens fought through an eight-and-a-half-month rehab to get himself back onto the field to help his team win a National Championship. And Leal improved during each of his three college seasons and presents himself as a developing and versatile player at an area of need.
"The one intangible that you can give (Pickens) a lot of credit for is coming back and playing (in 2021)," said Canada. "He didn't have a huge role, but he came back and played late in the season, made some significant plays, and fought to get back out there and play. To me, that's a great show of his character right there. He could have easily said, 'Hey, I'm going to get healthy and wait.' We've all seen those things happen. Georgia had a great team, they had an exceptional season, but I think that shows a lot about him right there. On the field, you've seen it, or you will see it if you study him on tape. He can go down the field. He makes plays. He goes up for the football. We're impressed with his hands. He wanted to be a part of that team, he wanted to be a part of that championship, and he fought to come back."
For his part, Leal is not a finished product, but in Pittsburgh he will find a valuable and willing mentor in Heyward to put him on a proper path and set an example for what will have to be done to become a successful professional and live up to the mandate Colbert had spoken about in the days leading up to the draft.
"(Defensive line coach) Karl Dunbar was at his Pro Day, and he liked the kid," said Austin. "He liked his demeanor. He liked the way he worked. That always goes into the evaluation of the player, and so we felt really comfortable with him."