Mocking the Draft: A First Glance at the Steelers’ First Round Prospects, Part 2

Brian Spurlock photo/USA Today Sports

As noted in the first post in the series, this isn’t yet a mock draft. Instead, I’m just going to have a look at some of the guys who have been suggested for the Steelers and provide some information on each.

In my rather unscientific way I Googled 2016 mock drafts and came up with the following roster, if you will, of suggested first-round picks for the Steelers, along with the names of those who suggested them:

CB Eli Apple (McShay, Reuter, Davis, Brooks, Draftsite)

CB MacKensie Alexander (Jeremiah, NFL DraftGeek, Rang, Brugler, Brinson, Dubin)

S Keanu Neal (WalterFootball/Campbell)

CB William Jackson (WalterFootball, Zierlein, Johannes, Prisco, Kiper)

OLB Shilique Calhoun (NFLDraftGeek)

DT Andrew Billings (Washington Post)

The two main contenders seemed to be Eli Apple and MacKensie Alexander, and I covered them in the post linked above. But William Jackson (I suppose I should add “III”, but one gets tired of typing it) is showing up more frequently of late, so he comes next.

William JacksonWilliam Jackson

This is a prospect who made a lot of headway at the Combine. He had been flying under the radar before then, but a measure of how much he raised his stock was that 31 of 32 teams had representatives at his Pro Day.

They were almost certainly there primarily for Jackson, as the few other prospects from the University of Houston (a couple of safeties, a running back, and an offensive guard) are all almost certain to go in the third day of the draft, if they are drafted at all.

The Steelers had a full presence there, including Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and DBs coach Carnell Lake. As Dane Brugler of CBS Sports tweeted:

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They must have been pretty calf-eyed, because the Steelers are usually pretty buttoned-up about their feelings about players. It’s part of the game, after all—you don’t want get gamed out of a prospect on draft day because another team knows you want him and pulls a fast one.

The Ravens were said to do so to the Steelers last year when they jumped one spot ahead of them to take TE Maxx Williams. The Steelers claimed they were never interested in Williams, and in fact it’s hard for me to imagine them taking Williams over Stephon Tuitt, even if he was available, given that Tuitt was someone at least some people thought they might even take in the first round. It’s all very middle-school, somehow, with everyone looking for secret signals and private trysts.

In this case, though, there was a very-definitely-not-private tryst—the full panoply of coaching and administrative splendor took Jackson to dinner. This certainly caught the attention of Houston Chronicle writer Aaron Wilson, who spent about half of his article about Jackson’s Pro day talking about it:

William Jackson III broke bread with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top brass during a dinner with coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and secondary coach Carnell Lake the night before his Pro Day workout on Thursday.

That dinner could prove to be just an appetizer in the growing relationship between the University of Houston cornerback and projected first-round draft pick and the AFC North franchise. The Steelers’ heavy presence on campus and the amount of attention they paid to Jackson was noted by several NFL scouts in town as 31 NFL teams auditioned the Cougars’ draft prospects.

Jackson has one thing going for him right off the bat—he majored in sociology. Although Mike Tomlin’s major at William & Mary was biology, he was greatly interested in sociology and spent extra time with the professor there. Curiously, his hobby is not one you see very often listed for potential NFL players—he lists “riding horses” as his favorite activity.

There doesn’t seem to be much out there on Jackson’s off-field character. Generally this is good news, as it means they don’t have a bunch of flagrant offenses. There was a cloud no larger than a man’s hand, though, also in the Houston Chronicle article:

A junior college transfer from Trinity Valley, Jackson overcame academic and truancy issues in high school through the guidance of his father, William Jackson Jr.

“I came a very long way,” Jackson said. “It’s truly a blessing.”

Assuming he has come all of the way, something like this can be a very good thing for a player. It’s good for them to realize while it’s still fixable that it can be taken away by stupid actions and a lack of discipline. And Jackson is at least talking the talk:

Jackson has several upcoming official visits to NFL facilities. Between now and the draft in late April, he wants to continue to work on his flexibility and plans to take up yoga.

“I want to show them I’m a guy who can get along with teammates and will come in and work hard and earn a spot,” Jackson said. “I don’t want nothing given to me.”

He also apparently had the sense to ignore the temptation to declare a year early (which was incorrectly announced early in 2015). He had the loyalty to want to stay with the program and his senior teammates another year and the humility to realize he still had aspects of his game to work on. It looks like it is paying off.

Footbally stuff: WalterFootball has him ranked right behind Eli Apple:

3/19/16: At the combine, Jackson was a star. He ran extremely fast in the 40 and looked excellent in the field drills. Jackson really lit a fire under his draft stock with his combine performance.

In 2015, Jackson played really well for Houston and displayed some ball skills. He had 43 tackles, five interceptions and 23 passes broken up on the year, but missed some games late in the regular season with an injury. Jackson came back with an impressive performance against Florida State in Houston’s bowl win, but the injuries robbed him of playing in the Senior Bowl.

keanu nealKeanu Neal

As I read the scouting reports on Neal, I was struck by how much he sounds like Troy Polamalu, both in the good and bad aspects. You’ll see what I see when I get to the footbally stuff.

As to what he’s like as a person, that’s a bit trickier. As is typical with a player who didn’t either do extraordinarily good or bad stuff off the field, there isn’t a lot to be found.

The WalterFootball’s scouting profile noted:

Off the field, sources say Neal is a high-character individual. He is a nice guy, comes from a good family, and is very devoted to football.

Apparently he is comfortable enough with police officers to dance with one on the sidelines. That has to be a good thing, right? Besides, perhaps we are looking at a future Dancing With the Stars candidate:

 

His University of Florida defensive backs coach said this of Neal last fall:

Kirk Callahan is never concerned about Neal’s commitment to improve or to the team.

“He’s very serious in that he takes everything that he does seriously, whether that’s practice, technique, film study and obviously that’s another thing that you want those young guys to continue to see,” Callahan said. “That’s guy that does things the right way. You reap what you sow. The things he puts in off the field is going to show up on Saturdays when he’s out there.”

I did discover that Neal has a much older brother who played in the NFL more than a decade ago. It’s a fascinating and unlikely story, as Clint Hart (same parents, but Hart took his mother’s last name) played baseball rather than football at Central Community College in Ocala, and even turned down the Angels, who proposed to draft him in 2000. Instead he decided he to play in the NFL, and worked his way up through the Arena league, then NFL Europe, and finally got picked up by the Eagles in 2003. He played at least parts of seven seasons in the NFL.

He provided a good deal of mentorship to his younger brother, especially in telling him what mistakes to avoid:

“Keanu didn’t see a lot of what I saw. It was very bad when I was coming up,” Hart said. “There were drugs everywhere [in Webster, FL, where the boys grew up]. It’s calmed down a lot. I’m glad he didn’t get exposed to any of that. A lot of kids got caught up in that my age and they were never able to get out of it.”

This quote from his brother reminds me strongly of Troy:

“Keanu has a very mean side to him,” Hart said. “A lot of people don’t see it, and that’s good, because that’s what it takes to be a great football player. You have to a good person out in the community, but when you touch the football field, you have to change and transform into something different.”

The following video clip is a bit Troy-like as well:

But on to the scouting reports. The NFL.com report notes:

Athletic frame with NFL size. Quick-­twitch player cranks it up to top speed in a hurry. Explodes downhill in run support with blood in his eyes. Vicious hitter looking to bruise bones and set tones. Rangy run stopper. Drives all the way through his contact with aggressive finishes.

The negatives mainly have to do with decision-making—once again reminding me of Troy. Instincts are great, until they lead you astray. They give him a grade of 5.88, just below Eli Apple, MacKensie Alexander, and Jackson (who they graded at 5.93.)

WalterFootball ranked him second in their list of safeties, noting:

The junior is a big, strong and instinctive safety, who has impressed NFL sources and has the talent to be an early round pick. Teams know that he can serve as an in-the-box run safety.

Well, that’s today’s crop. I’ll finish off the first round with a couple of outside prospects and perhaps a surprise pick.

 

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