Have the Steelers already found their 2024 first-round pick?

Steelers, NFL Draft
Steelers, NFL Draft / Andy Lyons/GettyImages

This time every year, NFL media is riddled with headlines surrounding the Combine and draft projections, and if yinzers aren’t already taking part in it this time around, they better be soon, and why? Because their Steelers may have just found their first-round pick—and no, it’s not an offensive tackle.

The OT position has been a popular choice for Pittsburgh’s top pick in the eyes of some draft experts, with by far the most common face seen being that of Georgia’s Amarius Mims, and I’ll admit, that would be far from a surprise.

Mims played with fellow Bulldogs OT Broderick Jones, and pre-established chemistry is something the Steelers have prioritized on multiple occasions in the past. However, just because the move makes sense doesn’t mean it’ll happen, and I feel that is the case here for two reasons.

One is that something Pittsburgh doesn't do often is spend consecutive first-round picks on one position (it’s only done so twice in the Super Bowl era), and two is that, while there is room for improvement on the Steelers offensive line, the offense’s biggest problem falls more on execution than the roster (e.g. questionable play-calling, who’s on/off the field, how often certain players are being utilized, etc.).

Those factors drive me towards another prominent position experts have had in mind for the Steelers, and that’s cornerback. Similarly to its O-line, Pittsburgh’s secondary has been cited time and time again as needing some work. There is one difference though, and it comes through predicting which one will ultimately win the franchise’s heart.

While Mims has been the clear consensus amongst the tackle-pickers, the corner-pickers have thrown a variety of names into the hat, including Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell (Edholm 1.0), Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry (Filice 1.0), and Clemson’s Nate Wiggins (Kiper 2.0).

To give credit where it’s due, said pickers hold the title of “draft expert” for a reason, with two of those players now sitting at the top of the Combine’s CB leaderboards (McKinstry didn’t participate due to injury).

As a result of such validation, I not only believe we know the two finalists for Pittsburgh’s top selection, but also which of them is the rightful front-runner—Quinyon Mitchell.

Quinyon Mitchell, while a stud, raises some questions—and understandably so

When held next to Wiggins, Mitchell is certainly a debatable choice at face value, whether it be due to him being both shorter and slower than Wiggins officially (Mitchell is 6’0” and ran a 40 time of 4.33s while Wiggins is 6’2” and ran one of 4.28s), or him playing at a smaller school/facing smaller competition, raising all the bigger of a question mark in regards to his physical NFL readiness.

However, I like to approach stunning college stars from all angles, and that includes each one the Combine provides and then some. This begins with the fact that Combine statistics don’t forever define one’s athletic ceiling. In other words, Wiggins recording a faster 40 time doesn’t mean he will always be faster than Mitchell—and even if it did, .05 seconds wouldn’t exactly differentiate a HOF-er from a bust, even at a speed-reliant position like cornerback.

Secondly, if we were to insist on defining a player’s cumulative worth by Combine performance, it would be Wiggins ultimately sitting behind Mitchell in their hunt for the CB crown, as while the former had the aforementioned speed advantage and a superior broad jump, the latter had edges in the 10-yard split, vertical jump and bench press (the final category being one he led all participating corners in).

Now it’s important to note that Wiggins missed the bench competition due to a hip flexor he suffered while recording his outstanding 40 time, so giving Mitchell the nod may come off a bit bush-league. However, with Mitchell leading the whole pack in benching, I feel it is fair to assume that Wiggins would have likely failed to hit the 20-rep threshold just like everyone else did.

Speaking of painful mishaps and the fairness in mentioning particular things, I think now is an appropriate time to bring up another matter that I—and any NFL scout—will look out for whenever a potential draftee comes around: Susceptibility to injury.

On top of this run-in at the Combine, Wiggins also missed a couple of games last season thanks to injury. It doesn’t mean he’s made of glass, but it does mean his chances of damage have at least been greater than those of Mitchell. And to make matters even worse, Wiggins didn’t just miss game time for recuperation purposes—he also missed some as punishment.

Well into his tenure at Clemson, Wiggins frustrated coaches and teammates alike with his tendency to neglect his academics and show up late to practices. That kind of behavior is terribly underrated in the realm of turning scouts off to you, and it’s yet another cause for concern that you won’t have lingering over your head when looking Mitchell’s way.

Then we’ve got the school, but even that isn’t as glaring as some might believe

From there, I see just one more red flag in Mitchell’s corner, and it’s the fact he played at a much smaller university, sticking him with weaker competition and logically leaving him much less battle-tested. It’s not all bad though, as this coin can always be approached from both sides.

While the issues I just mentioned are valid, it’s crucial to remember that attending a smaller school can actually be a green flag if you shine bright enough despite it—and luckily for Mitchell, his collegiate stats are undoubtedly proof of that.

In his time at Toledo, Mitchell racked up stats as elite as a team could ask of a lockdown corner, with the 2022 and 2023 seasons being the best of his four. In 2022, he gave the Rockets 42 total tackles, 19 defended passes, and five interceptions, two of which he took to the house.

While 2023 was not as impressive (how could somebody adequately follow up a campaign like 2022’s anyway?), it still saw Mitchell rake in 41 more tackles—32 of which were solo, his single-season best—18 defended passes and another pick.

Though Wiggins’ 2023 run saw two forced fumbles and an extra interception (taken home), his numbers in the tackle and defended pass departments didn’t even come within striking distance of Mitchell’s.

Especially when even worse can be said upon comparing both their 2022 seasons and their college careers in their entirety, Mitchell blows Wiggins out of the water with his on-field performance, and that outweighs changeable stats obtained in a controlled environment every time.

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A better Combine performance, less fears engulfing health and maturity, and a college career that made a greater impact? Quinyon Mitchell checks all those boxes when held next to Nate Wiggins, speaking volumes on just how spectacular of a talent he is. If you ask me, hearing his name called during Pittsburgh’s 20th pick would feel like nothing short of a blessing.