NFL teams don’t draft in a vacuum. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1989 and Chuck Noll’s Steelers in 1969 serve as exceptions, but only expansion teams get a blank slate.
The choices those men make tell us a lot about how they see their respective teams. The Steelers 2017 Draft Class certainly qualifies.
Let’s look at the context in which Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin assembled the Steelers 2017 Draft class.
After going 8-8 and out of the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers made the playoffs in 2014, only to get booted by the Ravens at Heinz Field. A year later the Steelers discipline lifted them over the Bengals on the road, and then saw a short-handed team fall just shy of beating Denver on the road. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games, only to get shredded by New England in the AFC Championship.
Diagnosing what ailed the Steelers in New England is quite simple:
- The Steelers couldn’t pressure Tom Brady
- Tom Brady used the time Pittsburgh gave to him to decimate the Steelers secondary
- Pittsburgh lacked a receiving target capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown
- When Le’Veon Bell went down, the Steelers struggled to run the ball effectively
With those bitter memories in mind, let’s review the Steelers 2017 Draft Class in the order they were picked:
1. TJ Watt, Outside Linebacker, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Wide Receiver, USC
3 a. Cam Sutton, Cornerback, Tennessee
3 b. James Conner, Running Back, Pitt
4. Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback, Tennesse
5. Brian Allen, Cornerback, Utah
6. Colin Holba, Long Snapper, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker, Western Michigan
In the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers immediately applied their premium picks towards addressing each of those pain points the Patriots so gleefully exploited. The Steelers thinking is clear:
- James Harrison isn’t going to outrace father time forever, so they draft in TJ Watt
- Neither Martavis Bryant nor Sammie Coates have proven their reliability, so they draft JuJu Smith-Schuster
- The Steelers need a 3rd corner and DBs capable of manning up, hence Cam Sutton
- Pittsburgh’s chronic inability to keep two starter-capable running backs healthy easily explains the Jimmy Conners pick.
After that, things got fuzzy fast.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Gerry Dulac, never a journalist wont to hyperbole offered this on Twitter:
This is the worst second-half of draft since 2004 when T Bo Lacy, TE Matt Kranchick, C/LS Drew Caylor, DE Eric Taylor were last four picks.
— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) April 29, 2017
Dulac could have added 5th round pick Nathaniel Adibi whom Bill Cowher allegedly insisted on drafting over Marcus Turner. Of the fivesome, only two played in the NFL, and only Matt Kranchick played a down for the Steelers (1 catch for 6 yards, but it was a heck of a catch….)
In rapid fire, the Steelers drafted quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Brian Allen, long snapper (yes, you’d hopped the “LS” on you saw on ESPN’s draft crawl as a typo, didn’t you?)
Colin Holba and finally Keion Adams.
On the surface it appears, the Steelers devoted the top half of the draft addressing their most urgent needs, and then Colbert and Tomlin spent the rest on luxury picks. With the benefit of a few days of perspective, let’s see if that’s the case.
Does Steelers 2017 Draft Class Indicate Colbert’s Confidence, or Cockiness?
The Joshua Dobbs pick was the first one that Steel Curtain Rising took issue with.
Dobbs, by all accounts is a solid pickup in the 4th round, but at the time the Steelers still had more pressing needs at inside linebacker and perhaps tight end. However, their subsequent decision to release Zach Mettenberger explains a lot.
The Steelers had 20 weeks to workout Mettenberger work, and they clearly they saw enough. If they don’t think he’ll be ready to challenge Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger in 2017, its best to invest salary cap dollars in someone who will do it in 2018.
- Looking at the other picks, however, it is hard not to recall Art Rooney Jr.’s reflections on the late 1970’s.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were of course a drafting juggernaut during the first half of the 70’s, only to see the quality of their drafts drop off a cliff as the decade closed. It’s easy to chalk that decline up to lousy draft position, but the 49er’s of the 80’s and the Patriots of his century have shown winning championships and quality drafting can go hand-in-hand.
- Tension between Rooney Jr. and Noll, and moving the draft into spring hurt the Steelers.
But the Steelers also hurt themselves. With their roster laden with Super Bowl veterans, they got away from taking the best player on the board, an instead tried to identify and then draft players who fell for one reason or another. Looking at the latter picks of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class, it’s tempting to wonder if Colbert and Tomlin aren’t succumbing to the same temptation.
Cornerback Brian Allen, Carnell Lake assured us, would have been drafted higher had he played defense for more than two seasons in college. Colin Holba was one of the few “draftable long snappers” in this draft, so the Steelers took him. And those who roll their eyes at the concept of a “draftable long snapper” Bill Belichick drafted a long snapper with a fifth round pick in 2014 and won a Super Bowl. Keion Adams is a guy who has “really developed over the last few years.”
- Fair enough. But these Steelers lack the pedigree of their 70’s predecessors and their Patriots contemporaries.
No one can argue that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t address the Steelers most pressing needs with their first four picks of the 2017 NFL Draft. Colbert and Tomlin draft choices also represent a tacit endorsement of Vince Williams, Ladarius Green and Jesse James.
In a word, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the confidence that indicates that the Pittsburgh Steelers really are only a couple of three players away from winning the Super Bowl. So be it.
- Regular readers know that Steel Curtain Rising doesn’t do post-day draft grades.
The Steelers 2017 Draft Class will be graded by the same criteria used to grade their 2016 draft class – whether this group of players helps Ben Roethlisberger bring home Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”
If that happens, then Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will get an “A” for this draft, regardless of whether any of their Day 3 picks ever play a down in the NFL.