The Pittsburgh Steelers could possibly lose four defensive starters in free agency this offseason. So it’s of no surprise that in his latest mock draft, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has the Steelers targeting players who could replace those potentially departing starters.
At No. 17 overall, Brugler projected the Steelers to draft Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon. Then at No. 32, Brugler predicted the Steelers to select Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson.
At least early in the draft process, Witherspoon’s draft skinny is comparable to the draft profile of Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton, who is set to be a free agent.
Like Witherspoon, Simpson could be a possible candidate to replace insider linebacker Devin Bush in Pittsburgh. Bush is also going to be a free agent and has already indicated on Twitter he’s considering signing elsewhere.
How Witherspoon Could Fit With the Steelers
Even if the Steelers bring back Sutton and safety Terrell Edmunds, who is going to be a free agent as well, the team could use upgrades in the secondary.
The Steelers finished 20th in passing yards allowed, but that only tells part of the story. Pittsburgh’s secondary gave up a lot of big plays downfield, contributing to a 7.5 yards per attempt average allowed, which was 29th in the NFL. The Steelers also gave 29 passing touchdowns; only the Kansas City Chiefs yielded more.
Witherspoon doesn’t come without his risk, but he’s a guy who could set a new tone for the Pittsburgh secondary.
“Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is going to love Devon Witherspoon,” Brugler wrote. “No, Witherspoon doesn’t have ideal size (under 6-0 and 185 pounds), but the Pensacola, Fla., native plays with the fiery demeanor and physicality of a much bigger player.
“His mentality plus his controlled movements and coverage anticipation will make him an NFL starter from day one.”
The concern about Witherspoon’s lack of size isn’t all that different from Sutton’s draft profile from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who wrote in 2017 that Sutton “could be forced inside due to a lack of size.”
Sutton initially did play mostly in the slot. But the last two seasons, he grew into a starter at outside cornerback in Pittsburgh.
There’s no guarantee that Witherspoon follows the same path as Sutton, but he appears to have the tools to be a versatile corner like Sutton has been the last few years.
How Simpson Potentially Fits With the Steelers
Four years ago, the Steelers traded up to No. 10 to draft Bush, who was also consider undersized but appeared to have the speed and coverage skills to make up for it.
That pick didn’t work, and Bush is set to depart in free agency this offseason. But Brugler predicted the Steelers will waste virtually no time in finding a new inside linebacker to replace Bush.
“Giving up Chase Claypool for an ultra-athletic linebacker like Trenton Simpson? I think the Steelers would be happy with that outcome,” wrote Brugler.
Simpson may not have the raw traits Bush did as a draft prospect, but Simpson is arguably more versatile. Because of his ability to make big plays as both an insider linebacker and edge rusher, USA Today’s Curt Popejoy compared him to 2022 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons.
The Steelers will have the opportunity to draft a second player with a first-round grade thanks to trading wide receiver Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears for a second-round choice. That pick will be No. 32 overall because the Miami Dolphins will forfeit their first-rounder this year.
With two picks in the Top 32, the Steelers have an opportunity to add two impact players to their roster. The most important areas to address may be based on what the team loses in free agency.