By Jeremy Hritz
It’d be nice if the Steelers had a surplus of picks and could snag a gem at every position of even the slightest need in the NFL draft. However, the reality is their number of picks are finite, and short of trading back or out of the first round, they are heading into April 29th with 8 total draft picks.
Although the most production comes from the picks in earlier rounds, with savvy scouting and preparation, teams can position themselves for later round steals that can develop into role players, and sometimes, if a draft jackpot is hit, game-changing starters. This is the exception and not the standard, which is all the more reason the Steelers must be clear in their priority positions in the draft.
As the draft draws closer, here are the 5 positions the Steelers must prioritize, in rank order, in this year’s version of the draft.
5. Inside Linebacker
The Steelers are set with Devin Bush but not so much with Robert Spillane not Vince Williams. While Spillane is still young and has room for development, his athleticism does not match Bush, and the depth, while adequate, could use a boost. Should there be an injury to Bush, the effectiveness of the defense will take a hit, both in the running and passing game. While not critical in the early rounds, depth at the position starting around round 3 or later would suffice, and there has been speculation that JOK could be taken with pick 24.
Recently, Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot has questioned his fit in the Steelers defense and whether or not Tomlin and Butler can bend the defense to adapt to his singular skill set.
4. Edge Rusher/Outside Linebacker
There is absolutely no depth at the OLB position beyond Cassius Marsh, despite the signing of some futures contracts. You can take it to the bank the Steelers will add at least one edge, possibly even 2, in the draft, as early as round 3. These players will not be expected to play right away, but rather develop and make small contributions in year number one. I highly doubt a 1st or 2nd round pick would be spent here, as Watt and the optimism/potential surrounding Alex Highsmith is palpable.
Can see corner being the first round selection of the Steelers, as the age of Joe Haden and departure of Steven Nelson necessitates it; however, the history of the Steelers and drafting cornerbacks is dismal, though the relationship is not causal. Should there be a standout corner available at pick 24, their name could be called, and an RB and OL can be pursued in the 2nd or 3rd rounds. While I would not be surprised by a corner, I just don’t see it happening.
2. Running Back
Chicken or the egg story here. Is it the back that makes the offensive line, or the offensive line that makes the back? Would a Harris, Etienne, or Williams improve the running game, or would they be stifled by an average offensive line. Regardless, none of the Steelers current runners have evidenced they are capable of being a productive bell cow, and Bennie Snell and Anthony MacFarland are more complementary pieces than they are featured ball carriers. Jaylen Samuels has shown his pedestrian capabilities, and newly added Kalen Ballage is not even ensured to make the roster. Synthesize it all, and the Steelers are selecting a running back in either the first or second round. The catch here is that I don’t see the big three lasting until the second round, and if the Steelers want one, they are going to have to pull the trigger at 24, unless they are OK with Trey Sermon in the second, or third, though I doubt he will last that long. That said, while I believe offensive line is the greater priority, I see the Steelers selecting a running back in the first, and addressing the line rounds 2-7.
1. Offensive Line
Greatest need, but but not going to be addressed in the first round unless Trey Sermon is their guy (or another dark horse runner) in a later round. The Steelers have drafted OL in the first round before (Pouncey, DeCastro), so it would not be surprising, but with the emphasis on the running game, selecting a back will be their symbolic commitment to the running game. The Steelers have also demonstrated a knack for developing linemen drafted in later rounds, or even I drafted free agents, so I can see this route being traveled. I would not be surprised if as many as 3 offensive linemen are selected, as there are needs across the line.
I left tight end off of the list, but had I included it, I’d put it at number 6. While it is a need, they can get by with what they have, and the addition of a free agent, a la Jesse James. With the aforementioned positions being the priorities, tight end, while not a luxury, can wait until the later rounds.
So there you have it: OL, RB, CB, OLB, ILB
I’d bet a healthy sum you will see one prospect at every one of these positions addressed, and you can sprinkle in a tight end, too, if it makes sense with what’s available. Once the draft is complete, be on the lookout for detailed profiles by Andrew and I on each player and their potential contributions to the team in year one and beyond.