Mock drafts are an inexact science, with even experts rarely predicting picks correctly over one round – let alone seven. Given the unpredictable nature of drafts and the depth at each position, here instead are general guidelines for what the Pittsburgh Steelers should and should not do on NFL Draft weekend.
Focus on defense in the first three rounds
On the surface, a defense that statistically was the 12th best in the league shouldn’t be considered the weak point of the team. However, the numbers can be misleading – the team was 16th in the league against the pass, allowing 243 yards per game while allowing only 100 yards per game on the ground. Put mildly, the Steelers’ pass defense is what needs the most attention. The Steelers struggles in the air on defense were highlighted in their AFC Championship title game loss to the New England Patriots. The team played a zone defense against Tom Brady and the Patriots, a respectable approach but one that showed the team was not confident in their corners to cover the speedy Patriot receivers one-on-one. A zone defense is also a fine strategy if you put pressure on the quarterback – the Steelers didn’t. It’s tough to say if the pass defense struggles are rooted in a sub-par pass rush or suspect cover corners. There are several ways the Steelers can attack this: draft edge rushers who have the ability to put pressure on the quarterback or draft cornerbacks and safeties who the team can put in man-to-man situations with more comfort. Either of these approaches are not mutually exclusive in the draft and should both be addressed in the early rounds. Whether the Steelers choose to draft a cornerback with their number one pick like they did a year ago or select an edge rusher, the Steelers should put an emphasis on defense in the first three rounds.
Furthermore, the Steelers should not limit their activity in the secondary to one pick. No matter how you look at it, despite the departure of Lawrence Timmons, the secondary is still the Steelers’ weakest link defensively. The Steelers retained the services of restricted free agent Ross Cockrell, but their cornerback unit is not one that rivals the elite defenses of the league. The Steelers lack a lockdown corner, which is often why they rely on their pass rush to prevent their secondary from having to cover for long periods of time. The secondary is made up of Cockrell, 2016 first round pick Artie Burns, veteran William Gay and Senquez Golson. Golson was in the news recently and narrowly avoided arrest after being stopped at an Alabama airport with a handgun and bullets in his luggage. Golson has yet to play a snap for the Steelers after being drafted in the second round in 2015 after shoulder and lisfranc injuries. Run-ins with the law are not typically incidents the Steelers tolerate and while Golson was not arrested, the clock is ticking for him to make an impact. The Steelers would be well placed to draft a cornerback and safety in the first three rounds – with the expectation that players will be ahead of them on the depth chart but the belief that these players could provide impact and figure heavily into the defensive rotation as the season wears on.
Draft a quarterback– but not in the first three picks
While the Steelers survived a scare with Ben Roethlisberger’s flirtation with retirement, the saga should have been a wake-up call to the franchise. While the Steelers have other draft needs, as outlined above, a solid backup quarterback to groom as Roethlisberger’s replacement is something the Steelers should address sooner rather than later. Landry Jones’ output as a starter in Roethlisberger’s absence have been mixed, and while the Steelers handed Jones a two-year extension, his play has not instilled confidence as a player to lead the franchise after Roethlisberger’s retirement. Roethlisberger also is prone to many rest days during the season, which would potentially allow a rookie quarterback to take first team reps during the pre-season and regular season.
Look for a potential Le’Veon Bell backup late in the draft
This is not of the highest priority, but the durability of Le’Veon Bell is question mark given the heavy workload he endures during the regular season. Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams, is more than serviceable, but his age raises a question mark about his effectiveness should Bell miss time again in 2017. Finding a back to complement Bell’s strengths, possibly a speed back that will counter Bell’s patient style, will go a long way to ensuring the Steelers’ attack is more dangerous. Bell should be the team’s primary back for years to come, but having the option to give him a blow would be beneficial for the team.
Use the first round pick on an inside linebacker
Linebacker is a position that needs attention in this draft from the Steelers, however the inside linebacker position is one that does not need first round attention. The departure of Lawrence Timmons is huge and his void in production leaves the Steelers with a lot of questions marks at the position, but, as outlined above, the secondary and pass rushers represent a higher priority for the team. The team certainly should use one of its first four picks to address the inside linebacker situation and give the team another option at the position, but drafting a top quality pass rushing and cover corner talent are more important areas that should be addressed.
Cave into Ben Roethlisberger’s tight end demand in the first four rounds
While Roethlisberger is the franchise QB and should have his input valued, the team should address more glaring needs in its early picks and should only look for tight ends beginning in the fifth round. Jesse James, the team’s current number one, was drafted in the fifth round of 2015 and is still developing as a player. The Steelers are not likely to find another Heath Miller-type player in the remaining years of Roethlisberger’s career and the Steelers already have four tight ends on the roster. The Steelers offense as it is structured will never have a tight end with production similar to Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots or Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs– the team simply has other weapons. Drafting a tight end would also likely signal that the Steelers will get rid of one of the four tight ends on the roster.