Mocking the Draft: A First Glance at the Steelers’ First Round Prospects, Part 1



It’s time. The draft is creeping up upon us, and difficult as it is for me, I have to devote myself to studying this season’s crop of potential NFLers. Although we all know the Steelers take the Best Available Player, many of you know I am shopping for the Best Looking Available player. Or at least the Most Interesting Player.

I have to confess that despite having the tiniest bit of scientific verification for my theory that the best-looking players will also be the best ones in general, my past Momma’s Mock Drafts haven’t had a terribly high success rate. Of the few players the Steelers actually picked up (Dri Archer in the draft, Myron Rolle off waivers) neither are a Steelers success story.

But thankfully I am undeterred. And to my great excitement, the Steelers appear to be addressing the Big Eaters category in free agency (offensive tackles) or not at all (nose tackles). Or at least it seems certain they aren’t going to spend a high pick on a nose tackle.

But the first round pick most Steelers fans are longing for is a defensive back. And I’m more than happy to comb through the class of defensive backs.

This isn’t yet a mock draft, as you can perhaps tell from the title. Instead, I’m just going to have a look at some of the guys who have been suggested for the Steelers and give my own thoughts on each player. My thoughts are probably not ones which will trouble the brains of Kevin Colbert and his Band of Merry Scouts, but after all, it’s the off-season….

Here are the candidates:

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)

This is all pretty interesting. I don’t recall ever seeing so much consensus on what sort of player the Steelers will pick combined with so much doubt as to which one. But as you can see in my entirely unscientific research (I googled “Mock Drafts” and started clicking) the Big Two seem to be Eli Apple and MacKensie Alexander. I’m going to have a quick look at all of these gentlemen and present you with what I think is the crucial information about my choices.

After a cursory glance, I’m astonished at the level of human interest stories in this crop of guys. And because the first two in the list are so very interesting on many levels, I’m going to focus on them in this post. The remainder of these picks, plus a few I might ferret out for myself, will appear in the next post.

Eli AppleEli Apple

He’s a Buckeye, and the Steelers have dipped pretty deeply into that well in recent years. He has lovely, exotic eyes, although you can’t see this from this photo. And he has a really compelling personal story.

Those of you who know me, or at least my writing, know that I’m a sucker for a compelling personal story. I think that honestly a great many of us are.

Some people are football fans, full stop. They couldn’t care less who is out there on the field, as long as those guys are producing. The fact that those uniforms are inhabited by a living, breathing person with thoughts, cares, feelings, and passions of their own isn’t of the slightest interest to them. They would be just as happy if the league would approve the use of androids, assuming said could be good enough.

But for what I think is a majority of fans there is at least some level of interest in the players as people. Oh, this may be overshadowed by poor play, but one would like to think the people we are cheering on are decent, or at least interesting, human beings.

So what is so interesting about young Mr. Apple, other than his bulging biceps, his height (6’1 for a Steelers corner is pretty tall, these days), his solid run support and superior pass coverage?

His history, as this article in Buckeye Sports details. Start with his name:

[E]ach part of his name [Eli Kweku-Mensah Apple] signal[s] a unique part of his background.

Annie [his mother] gave him the name Eli because he was so small at birth his mother didn’t want him to have a name the size of which he couldn’t live up to.

Kweku is a Ghanaian term for a boy born on Wednesday, while Mensah is the name traditionally given to a third born child.

And Apple is the name he famously took on during his senior year of high school, shedding his biological name Woodard to honor his stepfather, Tim, who has served as the father figure in his life since the age of 2.

His family history is confusing, to say the least. His mother was born in Ghana but also lived in Nigeria, Liberia, England, and Scotland. Eli was born in the US, but lived in Ghana for a few years with his aunt while his mother finished her two college degrees. His mother first came to the US when she was ten, and says:

I absolutely love this country. I love it because America gives you the two things you need to be successful and to achieve anything in life – the freedom to serve God and the freedom of education. What else do you need to do anything in life?

I believe in the inherent goodness of this country.

How this all came about is the stuff of novels.

“Long story short, God called my mom to be a missionary,” Annie said of her mother, Beatrice Cassell. “I was her seventh child, and we all went on the road with her. She would preach and the seven of us would sing. We were like the African Partridge Family. Seriously, that was our life. We went from city to city, village to village, and that’s what we did for a long time.”

That led to a globe-trotting existence. Sometimes, Cassell would leave the kids behind when she went somewhere too dangerous. At other times, when God called, the entire family followed. At first, that meant moving from West Africa to Great Britain. Eventually, when Annie was 10, it meant moving to Newark, N.J.

She married young, had three boys (Eli was the youngest of the three), and then her marriage broke up. She was forced to send Eli to live with his aunt for a few years, and says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do:

You’re a mom and that’s your little baby, but I had to sacrifice to go to college. I had to build a life for them. It was a short time, but it felt like an eternity. But you do the best you can, and God is faithful, and Eli is an amazing kid. He’s his own person. I think that upbringing, having that balance, really helped him stay true to who he is. It worked out. I went to college, finished in four years with two degrees, worked my butt off. I worked full time as a concierge at a five-star hotel, I went to school full time. My kids grew up seeing the possibilities. I never want them to see life can beat you down to the point that you just give up. That’s the immigrant spirit.

Eli, who ended up standing next to President Obama when the Buckeye team visited the White House, in some ways personifies the immigrant dream. As he said:

They came from nothing, and now look at us. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t know all the stuff that my mom has gone through, the stuff that my mom’s parents have gone through, but that’s hard work and perseverance. My mom is not the type of person to take no for an answer, and it’s taken her a long way.

I suppose you want to know some footbally stuff too. He’s considered raw but very promising, one of the highly-ranked corners in what seems to be shaping up as one of the best defensive drafts in a while. WalterFootball ranks him fourth in the class:

Apple looks like he has No. 1-corner potential for the next level. He has upside for the NFL with size, agility and speed. Apple clocked an excellent 40-yard dash time at the combine to illustrate how fast he is. However, he is raw and needs development. Sources say that Apple grabs too much on receivers down field and he will need to change that or he will get flagged a lot in the NFL.

In 2015, Apple made one interception, eight passes broken up and 33 tackles. He had some coverage lapses early in the season, but played better to close out the year. The redshirt sophomore has a good skill set and upside to develop.

I say, throw him on the field and tell him to defend Antonio Brown. Once he can do that, he’ll be fine.

Mackensie Alexander

Steve Guyot/ESPN

MacKensie Alexander

Apparently this draft is all about stories, because Alexander is a Haitian immigrant who grew up in Immokalee, Florida, a place which has become famous to those interested in issues of human trafficking. About the time Alexander was born, the migrant workers in Immokalee banded together to protest the appalling conditions under which they worked.

Alexander and his twin brother Mackenro were out in the fields by the age of 10, picking tomatoes and watermelons, climbing into the trees for oranges, and packing produce boxes. As he told ESPN’s David Hale:

“Nobody’s really got much. You do your job, you work, you clock in and clock out.”

While Immokalee is hardly a place you would choose to stay and put down roots, for the residents there is little choice. But the high school algebra teacher, who was married to the football coach, was determined these boys would have a chance:

“They were my kids,” Jori [Mason] said of the Alexander brothers. “They just kind of melted my heart. I knew their family background; I’d seen all the obstacles they had to overcome and how hard-working they were. I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Mason saw to it that the boys got to doctor’s appointments. She bought them cleats. She kept tabs on their grades from their other teachers. She was the first person they called when they got their ACT scores. And his parents’ work ethic clearly rubbed off on MacKensie:

From Immokalee to Clemson, Alexander’s work ethic is legendary.

After he signed his letter of intent to play for the Tigers, defensive coordinator Brent Venables would send Alexander a few pages of the playbook or a few clips of film each day. Alexander returned the favor by calling and texting his new coach endlessly to ask for more.

“Midnight, I’d be lying in bed sleeping, and my phone would ding,” Venables remembered. “My wife would say, ‘Who’s texting you at midnight?’ but she got used to it. It was just my nightly text from Mackensie.” Before the team’s bowl matchup with Oklahoma in Orlando, Florida, last year, the Tigers took a trip to Disney World. Alexander stayed behind to watch film.

As Hale wrote:

For Alexander, football is a sanctuary, miles from the fields where his father still earns a living pulling tomatoes from the vine. The hours are long and the work is intense, but the job is easy.

Maybe the Steelers will draft a corner who will give Antonio Brown a run for his money in the tireless work ethic department.

And here’s the footbally stuff. WalterFootball has him as their seventh-ranked corner, and in general appears to like him less than the guys at CBS Sports, three out of five of whom mocked him to the Steelers. Here is their rationale:

Rob Rang: “Alexander lacks elite size but his agility and awareness make him arguably this year’s top cover corner.”

Dane Brugler: “All 32 teams need cornerback help, but maybe none more than the Steelers. A smaller version of Carolina’s Josh Norman, Alexander needs to improve his discipline and technique, but his swagger and cover skills translate very well to the NFL.” grades him out almost exactly the same as Eli Apple (6.0 for Apple, 5.98 for Alexander), and he is their fourth-ranked CB. I found their bottom line”  to be interesting:

Alexander is a difficult evaluation because there are times on tape that he looks vulnerable to quickness off the line of scrimmage and he doesn’’t have the prototypical size of a top­-end NFL cornerback. However, he was consistently sticky in man coverage and played with the instincts and confidence needed from a true cover corner. Alexander’s confidence may border on cockiness at times, but that also seems to feed his competitive fire. Alexander might struggle early on, but should settle in to become a quality starter by his second year.

to be continued





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