Steelers Draft Preview: Edge/Outside Linebacker

With limited depth, the Steelers are almost a sure-fire bet to have their eyes on an edge rusher for the 2020 NFL Draft.
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Steelers Draft Preview is a series of articles that previews each position group and breaks down potential draft targets for the Steelers. For previews of quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, click on the respective links! 

When it comes to immediate needs, the Pittsburgh Steelers have fewer than most teams heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. With a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, a settled Minkah Fitzpatrick and newly signed Eric Ebron, the team's focus with their six selections in the upcoming draft wont need to be position-driven. 

2019 showed potential for Pittsburgh's duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree to develop into the best edge duo in the league. 2020 and beyond shows potential for big pay days for both players. While Watt's (hopeful) extension is due at a later date, all eyes are on Dupree and his status with the Steelers. The front office insists they wish for Dupree to retire a member of the organization, yet the negotiation table can prove that a difficult task. 

Dupree's set to play in Pittsburgh for at least one more season. Whether his play and price tag allows for any further years is yet to be seen, making it a bit more difficult to gauge precisely where edge should be at on the priority list for Pittsburgh. 

Yet aside from Dupree and Watt, the depth at outside linebacker remains an issue as Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper have failed to solidify themselves as contributors in that role. With that being said, many believe the Steelers will address the position at some point in the draft. 

Whether it's at pick 49 or pick 232, the range of linebackers at Pittsburgh's disposal is undoubtedly large. The talent? Top-heavy, to say the least.

Uche rushing edge

Early-Round Targets

Chase Young (Ohio State) is considered one of the best edge prospects to come out in a long time, and barring a trade that would be talked about until the end of time, the Steelers will miss out on his services. This can also be said for guys such as K'Lavon Chaisson (LSU), Yetur Gross-Matos, and A.J. Epenesa (Iowa), all of which are expected to be out of reach when the Steelers are close to being on the clock. 

Wisconsin's Zack Baun finds himself around late-first/early-second in a lot of mock drafts, yet there's a chance Pittsburgh may be in the market for him if he slides. Baun is coveted for his football IQ and ability to provide a presence in all three downs in either rush or pass, yet his size and length (6'3", 240 lbs) has some wondering if he'll be able to hold his own on the edge. Sounds familiar hearing that from an outside linebacker out of Wisconsin, doesn't it? 

Should the Steelers be in the market to select an edge rusher with their first selection, many believe the likes of Michigan's Josh Uche may be the perfect fit. Uche can best be described as a versatile player that possesses athleticism to play in multiple schemes and positions, akin to Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr when he was heading into the draft. Uche is one of few outside linebackers to have confirmed meetings with the team this off-season, along with Alex Highsmith (Charlotte) and Boise State's Curtis Weaver. 

Alabama's Terrell Lewis is another strong pick to be off the board by the end of the second round. Lewis' injury history (elbow and ACL) prevented him from being productive during his time with the Crimson Tide, and serves as the biggest roadblock between him and where his talent should be drafted. Lewis traditionally stood up during play, a much preferred stance when drafting outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense. He's been classified as high-risk, high-reward, and if the Steelers are feeling lucky, they may roll the dice on him. 

If all the above options fail, Pittsburgh could go with Notre Dame's Julian Okwara, who is considered to be one of the draft's most underrated players at his position. After popping some of his plays on screen, it's easy to see why. 

Other potential day-two picks include two Florida edge players, Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. Zuniga finished the NFL Combine as one of the top-testers at his position, while Greenard produced 33 pressures in 2019, ranking him near the top in 2020's draft class. 

However, Utah's Bradlee Anea garners most attention around this time. Although some consider him to be a defensive end, his ability to generate pressure should be utilized wherever he goes, as Anea sacked the quarterback 29.5 times and generated more than 40 quarterback pressures in three straight seasons, per Pro Football Focus

Anfernee Jennings

Mid-Round Targets

As with most positions, mid-rounds (4-5) are where players begin to absorb each other in facets such as value, production, etc. The edge class in 2020 is no different. 

The next slew of players all remain consistent in their evaluations: All best as defensive ends in 4-3 defenses, with a handful of hiccups in their overall game. Players such as: Kenny Willekes (Michigan State), Alton Robinson (Syracuse), Jonathan Garvin (Miami) and Nick Coe (Auburn).

Alabama's Anfernee Jennings will likely be the most coveted player at his position entering day three, should he last that long. Jennings primarily played as a 4-3 DE under Nick Saban, but he showed versatility by playing outside linebacker when asked of. Jennings proved he was able to get to the quarterback in multiple ways, while also batting down passes and providing backside run support as well. The production at Alabama wasn't eye-popping, but he proved his worth as a high-ceiling player on the third day of the dr

While not quite playing NFL-caliber players on a weekly basis like Jennings, North Dakota State's Derrek Tuszka has slowly seen his name climb up draft boards, and may very well find himself in play around the 5th round. Tuszka's pure ability to rush the passer on either side of the ball (along with his mix of speed and power) will bode well for any team that takes a flyer on him, should his game translate. 

Speaking of small-school prospects, Alex Highsmith has garnered a lot of steam during the draft process. Highsmith is phenomenally quick off the ball and played well when Charlotte took on Clemson.

"He’s physical and fast,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney on Highsmith. “He’s causing sacks and tips. They had a pick-six against UMAss that he caused and created. But (he's) a really really good football player. But he could play for anyone in the country."

Darrell Taylor's (Tennessee) versatility to play either defensive end or outside linebacker could be intriguing for the Steelers, who often play nickel defense with four down "linemen". Taylor mainly relies on his strength to find the football, but his burst when rushing off the edge is notable as well. 

Other potential mid-round picks: Trevis Gipson (Tulsa) and D.J. Wonnum (South Carolina). 

Kendall Coleman

Late-Round Targets

Out of the many late-round prospects, Minnesota's Carter Coughlin offers more of the needed qualities out of a pass-rusher being selected here. Coughlin possesses the capability to stand or play with his hand in the dirt, can rush on both sides of the ball and would make for a solid special-teamer as well. 

Another interesting late-round player could be Utah State's Tipa Galea'i. Galea'i was productive during his time playing at Utah State, however his off the field issues raise red flags that may prevent him from being drafted. Galea'i was not permitted to work out at the NFL Combine due to assault charges in 2017, as he was only available for interviews and medicals. 

Aside from Coughlin, the depth in the final two rounds is murky at best. Players such as Kendall Coleman (Syracuse) and Malcolm Roach (Texas) should also hear their names called in the later parts of the draft as well. 

After the aforementioned players, there's a handful of players who fail to produce a mixture of size, skill or production to hear their names called during the draft. Potential UDFA's include Christian Rector (USC), Qaadir Sheppard (Ole Miss) and Mike Danna (Michigan).

Final Thoughts

If the Steelers are serious about adding quality insurance behind Watt/Dupree in rushing the passer, it clearly needs to be done before day three. Edge classes aren't historically deep, yet if the dominoes fall their way, Pittsburgh could find a quality player within the first four rounds of the draft. 

At this moment in time, there are other needs to be addressed before looking at outside linebacker/edge help. It wouldn't be shocking if the Steelers went edge/OLB with their first pick (depending on their assumptions about Dupree's future), yet the odds are considerably lower than positions such as running back, wide receiver, etc. 

If they do intend on adding legitimate help, it will likely be done with either their third or one of two fourth-round selections. The pool of players following the second day of the draft isn't very welcoming despite a few guys who may slip. With a draft that projects to be heavy on the offensive side of the ball, it's go early (to mid) or go home for Pittsburgh in the edge department. 

Best case scenario- Anfernee Jennings lasts until day three, Steelers trade up and snag him.

Worst case scenario- The team waits and snags a bubble player on the third day of the draft.

Most likely scenario- Pittsburgh uses one of their fourth-round picks on an edge/OLB.

Early name to watch- Josh Uche

Late name to watch- Carter Coughlin

Dark horse pick- Curtis Weaver

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