There were many fans and draft pundits who thought that the Pittsburgh Steelers might take a defensive lineman in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft. After all, isnt the old adage “the best pass defense is a solid pass rush”?
The loss of defensive tackles Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas left the Steelers with little depth at the position and with no proven nose tackle. Yet the Steelers waited until the 89th pick in the third round to bolster the defensive front line when they drafted Javon Hargrave of South Carolina State University.
This raised two questions. Why wait so long to address such an obvious need and why target a small school prospect?
The most obvious answer to the first question is that Pittsburgh had a greater need in the defensive secondary. Too many years of ignoring the cornerback and safety positions finally caught up with the team as they continually ranked in the bottom of the league in pass defense.
“The best pass defense is a solid pass rush” only works if you have players in the backfield that can cover receivers long enough for the pass rush to apply pressure and unfortunately the Steelers haven’t had that corps of defensive backs in several years.
Simply put, Pittsburgh addressed the secondary before they addressed the defensive line, because they had to.
But why Javon Hargrave?
Part of it is definitely a lack of depth but also that the Steelers are not entirely sure of what they have in Daniel McCullers. The only defensive tackle returning from last years squad, McCullers has incredible size and strength but his height is often a disadvantage as he often has problems staying low and loses the battle of leverage. When he is on, however, he truly is a force to be reckoned with and demands a double team.
Hargrave is a different type of prospect all together. He has more than sufficient game strength, but his forte is in his ability to explode out of his stance and stay low. He maintains good leverage and can stack up linemen if needed but also has the quickness and athleticism to slice through gaps to apply pressure.
Hargrave racked up 45.5 tackles for loss and 29.5 sacks in a two year period. Earning an invitation to the shrine game, he often dominated big school offensive linemen. He was a late riser on draft boards and though most listed him as a third round prospect, some analysts had him going as early as the second round. The Steelers scouted Hargrave and didn’t see a small school prospect, they saw a player.
But why did the Steelers pass on higher ranked defensive tackles from major colleges such as Sheldon Day of Notre Dame, Hassan Ridgeway of Texas, and Andrew Billings of Baylor, who were all still available?
Perhaps by looking at the explosive index, we can get some insight as to what scouts saw in Javon Hargrave outside of his obvious production.
The explosive index is found by taking the vertical jump, standing broad jump and the number of bench press reps and adding them together. If the combined score is over 70 there is a reason to consider the candidate at some point in the draft process. Here are the results of the players I’ve mentioned:
[VERTICAL JUMP + BROAD JUMP + BENCH PRESS REPS = EXPLOSION NUMBER]
Sheldon Day: 30 + 8.5 + 21= 59.5
Hassan Ridgeway: 32 + 9.41+ 24= 65.41
Andrew Billings: 27.5 + 9.41 + 31= 67.91
*Javon Hargrave: 34.5 +9.08 +29= 72.58*
Hargrave not only had a higher explosive index rating than the big school tackles that were rated higher than him…it was significantly higher.
I fully understand that there are no ‘locks’ to confirm an athlete’s prediction of success. Football intelligence, positional skills, health, and off field behavior will factor in on how prolific a career a prospect may have. Hargrave appears to meet or surpass the mark in every way, even against those who were ranked higher than him prior to the draft.
The Steelers drafted because Hargrave he has been a force on every stage in which he has been given a chance.
Be prepared for Javon Hargrave to prove to the NFL that the size of a mans heart and the extent of his motivation is ultimately more important than the size of the university he attended.