The Pittsburgh Steelers begin a new chapter in 2022. Not only are they moving on from franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, but the 2022 NFL Draft was also the final one for general manager Kevin Colbert. As one of the best general managers in the NFL for the last two decades, it seems only fitting that Colbert received the honor of shepherding Pittsburgh into a new era. Therefore, let’s dive into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 draft grades.
Round 1, #20: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh
Many expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to use their first selection on a quarterback. The question was which ones would be available at #20 overall. However, an unpredicted situation occurred when the Steelers came on the clock. No quarterbacks had been taken, and Pittsburgh could take whichever one they pleased. Keeping with the theme of surprises, they selected Kenny Pickett.
At face value, Pickett seems like a natural fit for the Steelers. He is obviously very familiar with the city and the team. Many regarded Pickett as one of the more pro-ready quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. However, his biggest drawback was his perceived lack of upside. In an ideal world, Pickett ends up somewhere in the Kirk Cousins/Ryan Tannehill range.
This begs the following question: is that player worth a first-round pick? Furthermore, when the next quarterback was not selected for more than 50 picks, could the Steelers have gotten their quarterback, or a quarterback, in the second or third rounds?
Nevertheless, I will be rooting for Pickett. Regardless of what you think of the value of the pick or his standing in the quarterback class, it is exceptionally cool that Pickett will be staying in Pittsburgh. As Mike Tomlin said, the Steelers scoured the country looking at quarterback prospects; but at the end of the day, they went with the guy from next door. They made significant efforts to surround him with an improved offensive line and a diverse arsenal of weapons.
If Pickett beats out Mitch Trubisky for the starting gig, he should be able to pilot this offense more effectively than the reanimated corpse of Ben Roethlisberger that was under center the last two years.
Round 2, #52: George Pickens, WR, Georgia
From an on-field talent and team fit perspective, this might be the best pick in the entire 2022 NFL Draft. George Pickens was on a trajectory toward being an early first-round pick after a stellar true freshman season in 2019. But injuries and poor quarterback play robbed him of his 2020 and 2021 seasons.
When he was healthy and on the field for the Dawgs, Pickens was an absolute monster. His best ability was getting vertical and making spectacular catches downfield and in the air. He only had two drops on 139 career targets and improved as a contested-catch receiver.
The Steelers have spent multiple second-round picks on wide receivers they wanted to use as vertical threats. But James Washington struggled to develop chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and find a role in the offense. Chase Claypool started off hot but cooled off significantly in 2021; the offense sputtered around him, but Claypool also struggled to win in contested-catch situations. Pittsburgh has not had a true vertical receiving threat since Martavis Bryant, someone who Pickens compares relatively favorably to in terms of skill set and play style.
Obviously, the Steelers are famous for their ability to identify talented wide receivers on the second and third days of the NFL Draft. Claypool, Washington, and Bryant are among their more recent finds. But Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, and Markus Wheaton are also among their more recent finds.
While not all of these players became superstars — some of them even failing to complete their second contracts — they were at least competent NFL receivers, something the Steelers desperately needed. Furthermore, a receiver that makes contested catches outside his frame is something that can help a young quarterback who lacks great arm strength.
Round 3, #84: DeMarvin Leal, DE, Texas A&M
When healthy, the Steelers have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Of course, the issue during the 2021 season was staying healthy. Stephon Tuitt missed the entire season after rehabbing his knee injury was delayed by his brother’s untimely demise. Tyson Alualu missed almost the entire season with a broken ankle. This forced the Steelers to turn to free agents off the street and practice squad players on the defensive line.
Even with Alualu and Tuitt returning to the lineup this season, some predicted that the Steelers would use an early pick on a new nose tackle. Therefore, selecting a hybrid defensive end / outside linebacker in the third round came as a surprise.
DeMarvin Leal came into the 2021 season with a massive amount of hype, considered a first-round lock, and arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the class. But his play took a significant drop relative to his 2020 performance. He struggled to consistently defend the run and couldn’t settle into a positional role. Leal also tested quite poorly at Texas A&M’s pro day, although so did every other player at the pro day, so there may have been a confounding factor at play.
Nevertheless, getting Leal in the mid-late third round is excellent value. Leal still needs to develop as a player and round out his skill set. On the Steelers’ defensive line, he can be brought along slowly as an apprentice to Cam Heyward.
If everyone on the roster is healthy and available, Leal would be the fourth or fifth option, which indicates excellent depth. He can be used as a dynamic matchup nightmare in specific situations. By the end of his rookie deal, Leal should be able to receive the torch from Cam Heyward as a leader along the defensive line.
Round 4, #138: Calvin Austin III, WR, Memphis
Typically, the Steelers like to double-dip at one position in any given draft. Last year, they selected offensive linemen in consecutive rounds. In 2019, they picked an inside linebacker in the first and sixth rounds.
Going into the 2022 draft, many expected the Steelers to take a wide receiver, but not many predicted they would double-dip at the position. But the board fell tremendously for the Steelers at their compensatory selection in the fourth round, landing them Memphis wide receiver and return specialist, Calvin Austin III.
Calvin Austin III exploded onto the scene with his performance at the Senior Bowl, consistently getting open during practices and making spectacular catches downfield. He then followed it up with an outstanding Scouting Combine performance, with elite testing numbers across the board.
But Austin is more than just a practice phenom or workout warrior. He put up over 1000 receiving yards each of the last two seasons for Memphis, helping him finish in the top-five across most career receiving categories for the Tigers.
Furthermore, the stories emerging post-draft concerning Austin have validated the Steelers’ selection. Firstly, according to Peter King, Pittsburgh stole Austin from their division rival, the Baltimore Ravens, who would have taken Austin had the Steelers not. Secondly, the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Sauce Gardner, name-dropped Austin as one of his most difficult match-ups in an interview with Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk.
These two stories indicate how valuable this selection was. While Austin will most likely not be an immediate starter, he can make an immediate impact on special teams and carve out a niche role on offense.
Round 6, #208: Connor Heyward, FB/TE, Michigan State
This pick was more of a meme than anything. I’m sure thousands of Steelers fans thought they were geniuses for mocking Connor Heyward to the team with one of these final three picks. Call Kevin Colbert Dom Toretto because for the Steelers, family is everything.
This gives Pittsburgh four sets of brothers on their roster. Interestingly, only one of those pairs are on the same side of the ball (Carlos and Khalil Davis are both defensive tackles). Connor Heyward is a fun pick, as he a former running back that switched to fullback and eventually tight end. He was also an All-Big Ten kick returner earlier in his career before bulking up.
Even though most picks after 200 don’t matter very much, I don’t love this selection. Even though Heyward will be listed as a tight end, at 5’11” and 233 pounds, he is essentially a fullback. The Steelers already have a fullback who is the brother of a star defensive player in Derek Watt. Watt is entering a contract year and will turn 30 by next season. But I have to imagine the Steelers will be one of the few, if not the only, teams to keep two fullbacks on the active roster.
Even though Heyward is very versatile, I just don’t see the point of drafting and rostering a second fullback. I’m sure he will make the team and will have some fun plays; I just don’t love the process behind it.
Round 7, #225: Mark Robinson, ILB, Mississippi
The Pittsburgh Steelers love drafting linebackers. They have drafted at least one linebacker every year since 2009. Granted, this covers off-ball linebackers and edge defenders, but they still value spending draft capital on inside linebackers.
Mark Robinson was a late visit for Pittsburgh, and these kinds of visits should set off alarm bells for fans. Robinson is essentially Vince Williams’ brain/spirit in Devin Bush’s body. He’s a converted running back who walked on at Ole Miss and earned a starting role quickly, despite switching positions.
With all that being said, this pick comes off as redundant and unnecessary. The Steelers currently have seven inside linebackers on their roster, several of whom have very similar skill-sets to Johnson. At least three of those players are already significant contributors on special teams, along with safety-linebacker hybrid Miles Killebrew.
It seems unlikely that Robinson will even make the roster, leading to the question: why use a draft pick on a practice squad player? They could have used more depth at cornerback, running back, tight end, or outside linebacker. Again, seventh-round picks are almost equivalent to throwaways, so it’s not an awful pick, but it could have been better.
Round 7, #241: Chris Oladokun, QB, South Dakota State
Like Robinson, Chris Oladokun visited the Steelers in the pre-draft process and stuck out like a relatively sore thumb. As with most of their late-round picks, Pittsburgh reached on a guy they had a personal connection with. This was also telegraphed by Kevin Colbert’s and Mike Tomlin’s comments in the pre-draft process, indicating that they carry four quarterbacks into training camp.
As for the player, Chris Oladokun is a productive, yet undersized, FCS quarterback with a strong arm and good athleticism. He will be their practice squad or scout team version of divisional rivals Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson.
Regardless, I can’t look positively on this pick because it wastes scarce resources. Granted, seventh-round picks, especially late ones, generally do not matter. But using one on a fourth quarterback whose entire role will be a scout team replica on a practice squad is ridiculous in my opinion.
This is only made worse by the fact that the quarterback finished his career at his second FCS school and third overall. There were still plenty of valuable players on the board who would be able to help this team in a much more meaningful way than a fourth quarterback who will only get a helmet on game day if two of the other quarterbacks are injured.
Even if the Steelers felt that Oladokun would not be available or acquirable as an undrafted free agent, his skill set is not special enough to warrant using a draft pick on him, no matter how late.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Grades: Overall
The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2022 NFL Draft seeking a franchise quarterback, offensive weapons to surround him with, and depth pieces on defense. From a bird’s eye view, they accomplished these goals. They added two dynamic receivers to the offense, found some developmental players on defense, and added a quarterback with their first-round pick.
However, they left a significant amount of value on the board. One could write an entirely separate article on whether Kenny Pickett was the right quarterback to take in the first round; another perhaps on whether they should have taken one in the first round at all. Finally, they squandered their late-round picks on redundant or unnecessary positions.
However, at the end of the day, they solved their primary needs. Even though Pickett may be relatively uninspiring, he has a high floor and should make the offense competent. Furthermore, the picks where they reached were not especially valuable. Therefore, Kevin Colbert’s final draft grades out as good, but not great.
Overall Grade: B