Why the Steelers can target Jackson Powers-Johnson at pick 51, not pick 20

Steelers fans are obsessively projecting a center at pick 20, but there seems to be little reason to justify this outside of it being a need.

Oregon offensive linemen Steven Jones, left, and Jackson Powers-Johnson
Oregon offensive linemen Steven Jones, left, and Jackson Powers-Johnson / Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard / USA

The Steelers continue to add to their roster, but the focus of the fanbase has shifted from free agents to the draft. One of the biggest needs on this team is still center, as it appears that the team will forgo trying to find a suitable free-agent option and will instead draft their future snapper.

With this need being so apparent, there is a large contingent of the fan base that is convinced that we will have to go and draft a center at pick 20. After years of average-at-best play (and for the most part, center being a liability), this has some merit. That said, with this draft having so many deep positions, I can’t help but feel like shoe-horning myself into a center at pick 20 is a mistake.

The obvious name that is floated out is Jackson Powers-Johnson, as the center out of Oregon is widely considered the best pure-center prospect in this class. He certainly has some good tape from school, but looking back at the past few center classes, I can’t help but feel like fans are overvaluing where he will ultimately go in this draft class.

Steelers need to consider the recent trends

I did an in-depth study of where the average center was drafted in the first three rounds over the past ten years. In short, this idea that three centers (Powers-Johnson, Graham Barton, and Zach Frazier) are all going within the first round is ridiculous. Instead, I fully expect this class to fall as the classes in previous seasons have.

That mainly applies to Frazier, as I think he is in a clear second tier of prospect as a player. That isn’t a bad thing, and I expect him to have a good career, he will probably just lack the potential top-end play you could get from one of the two better names. To me, I have him circled at pick 51 as a plug-and-play steady center option.

My question now is could Powers-Johnson be just as viable at pick 51? The recent trends point to this being a distinct possibility. First and foremost, you need to look at Barton as his potential competitor for the top center nod.

Barton played more tackle and guard at Duke but has been working out at center most of this pre-draft process. The general consensus is that he has far more potential than Powers-Johnson even if he will have a learning curve at the NFL. He could also potentially play guard and eventually shift to center for a team.

Recently, we have seen teams covet those types more than pure centers. Last year, the center class seemed to start with John Michael Schmitz. He looked like a plug-and-play franchise option, even if his ceiling wasn’t the best snapper in the league. He garnered a lot of first-round buzz, and most expected him to go in the early second round.

Instead, it was Steve Avila who went off the board first. Many saw him as a guard/center hybrid, so the perceived ceiling was higher. Joe Tippmann, a player with better size and a higher ceiling given his age, also went before Michael Schmitz. He ultimately went at pick 57 overall and had a strong rookie season.

Let's head back to 2021. Creed Humphrey was the talk of the town that year as the best pure center available and was seen by most as a late-day one-pick. Landon Dickerson was ultimately the first center type off the board (although he has gone on to play more guard) and Humprehy was drafted 63rd overall.

In both of these years, you had five center types go off the board before the fourth round. The expectation is for a similar number to be drafted in that range this year. In both of those years, no center prospect went in the first round, and the same could happen this year. Add in the depth at cornerback, quarterback, and tackle and you could see centers get pushed down the board.

What does this mean for the Steelers?

Simply put, the Steelers do not have to draft a center in the first round. I fully expect this class to get pushed down the board, and I wouldn’t be shocked if no center goes in round one. If one does, I think Barton will have the inside track.

Frankly, I think there is a realistic shot that Powers-Johnson falls to pick 51. If Pittsburgh is willing to risk it, I think he could be their plan for that pick with Frazier as their insurance policy. This gives the team flexibility in the first round.

There is also little reason to believe that this team has eyes on Powers-Johnson at pick 20. They didn’t send Omar Khan or Mike Tomlin to his pro-day (a usual need for a first-round pick), and this team rarely indulges in early talent on the West Coast. They could make that exception for him, but it will likely be as a second-round pick.

I’m more curious if Khan or Tomlin wind up at Duke's pro day. To me, that would signify a clear desire to target Barton in the first round. As my top-ranked center prospect and given the recent trends, I think he has the best chance of being a first-round pick.

If the Steelers have keyed in on Powers-Johnson, a trade-back should be the route to try and take him. Moving back a handful of picks and acquiring some more picks on day two would help you justify selecting a player who could fall further in the draft.

Next. Steelers must try and reunite with this former starter ASAP. Steelers must try and reunite with this former starter ASAP. dark

I had fairly convinced myself that this center class was going to drop by the time the draft rolls around, and after revisiting it, I am now almost certain of it. I think when it is all said and done, Powers-Johnson will go closer to pick 51 than pick 20. If I were the Steelers, I would look elsewhere in the first round and maximize the talent this draft class has to offer.