Steelers (Again) Prioritize Character with Terrell Edmunds & Other 2018 Draft Picks

The Pittsburgh Steelers may not draft in their fears, as pointed out in a recent article, but as it pertains to their recent draft classes, they sure do seem to be steering clear of those prospects with character/off-the-field issues (those proverbial “red flags”).

Two years ago, it was Artie Burns, the responsible new father and a surrogate dad to his little brother, following his mom’s untimely death; Sean Davis, the bilingual safety out of Maryland; and Javon Hargrave, the big nose tackle known as The Gravedigger who likes to give back by hosting youth football camps. 

Last season, it was T.J. Watt, the outside linebacker out of Wisconsin with a penchant for learning fast and a motor that never stops, the little brother of J.J. Watt, the Texans’ legendary defensive end who raised $37 million last season for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the absolute breath of fresh air of a receiver whose biggest off-the-field issues in 2017 had to do with someone stealing his bicycle and Alejandro Villanueva teaching him how to drive because JuJu came to the NFL without a drivers’ license; James Conner, the University of Pittsburgh running back who battled both a major knee injury and cancer during his college career; and Cam Sutton, the Tennessee cornerback who was known for his intelligence and his ability to be a locker room leader.

Entering the 2018 NFL Draft, one wondered if Pittsburgh would stray from its recent trend of high-character guys by perhaps selecting someone with a more checkered past.

Terrell Edmunds, Ryan Shazier, Roger Goodell, 2018 NFL Draft Steelers

Terrell Edmunds with Ryan Shazier and Roger Goodell. Photo Credit: Tom Pennington, Getty Images via Full Press Coverage

Nope.

While other, higher-value prospects were still on the board at 28–including LSU running back Derrius Guice who was said to have had some maturity issues and unsubstantiated off-field problems in college–the Steelers selected Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds.

A player labeled as a major reach by the vast-majority of  experts and fans, Edmunds comes from a close-knit family and has two brothers who are also in the NFL–older brother, Trey, who plays for the Saints; and younger brother, Tremaine, who the Bills selected 12 spots ahead of Terrell in the most-recent draft.

  • Furthermore, Ferrell Edmunds, their father, played seven seasons as a tight end for both the Dolphins and Seahawks.

You may have scratched your head with the selection of Terrell Edmunds, but as soon as you saw him on stage on draft night, and then touring the Pittsburgh community last week, you just wanted to root for him.

In the second  round, the Steelers selected Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, whose biggest off-field problem at college seemed to be trying to find a peaceful spot to fish. 

There were certainly no reported off-field issues with Washington’s college teammate, quarterback Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh’s first of two third-round selections.

As for that second third-round pick, Chukwuma Okorafor, the big left tackle from Western Michigan, his worst college attribute seemed to be that he was “too nice.”

  • Perhaps the best part of the Steelers recent draft philosophy is that they’ve managed to not only find players of high-character, but ones who are actually very good football players.

Smith-Schuster and Washington don’t have the blazing speed of a Martavis Bryant, the team’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but judging by their histories and overall character, it’s highly-unlikely either will face long-term suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

And if Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was any indication–58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns–he could be in-line to be the Steelers next great receiver.

Okorafor may not have quite as much potential as Mike Adams, the team’s 2012 second-round pick out of Ohio State, but he obviously didn’t fail a drug test at the NFL Combine, and he’ll get a chance to develop his skills under  the best offensive line coach around, Mike Munchak.

Perhaps Hargrave wouldn’t be the Steelers starting nose tackle right now (or a Steeler at all) if Alameda Ta’amu, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick out of Washington in the 2012 NFL Draft, hadn’t been charged with a felony DUI during his rookie season, after striking several cars with his vehicle while fleeing from police. 

James Conner may not have the explosiveness of Chris Rainey, a running back Pittsburgh selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s currently a Steeler with a chance to make an NFL career for himself, while Rainey, who was released in January of 2013 after he was arrested for battery following a cellphone dispute with a woman, is currently playing in the CFL (come to think of it, 2012 was a bad draft for character guys).

  • The organization was slowly gaining a reputation that strayed from its regal, if mythical, moniker of “The Steeler Way.”

But if they keep focusing on talented football players who are also really great young men, the Steelers reputation could soon become one based in reality.

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Steelers Draft Penn State Safety Marcus Allen in 5th round of 2018 NFL Draft

Along with inside linebacker, it was said that safety was one of the primary needs for the Steelers, as the 2018 NFL Draft approached.

And after making Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds their first-round pick, Thursday night, the Steelers continued to address the position with the selection of Penn State safety Marcus Allen in the fifth round on Saturday.

Marcus Allen, Steelers 2018 5th round pick

Steelers 5th round pick Marcus Allen, safety from Penn State

While his name may make many long-time fans wonder if he’s related to a certain Raiders/Chiefs Hall of Fame running back, as his NFL.com draft profile points out, Allen is actually the godson of fellow Hall of Fame running back–and Pittsburgh native–Curtis Martin.

Speaking of his draft profile, it goes on to describe Allen as “a punishing, downhill banger with good size and the attitude of a linebacker in run support.” His highlights profile video certainly supports that:

In four seasons at Happy Valley, Allen collected 320 tackles (only the sixth Nittany Lion to record over 300 tackles in his career), leading the team in that category with 110 in 2016. He also had three sacks but just one interception and 10 passes defensed.

Speaking of 2016, as per his Wikipedia page, it was during that season that Allen cemented his name in Penn State football lore by blocking a field goal that was returned for a touchdown in an upset win over Ohio State.

Allen was thrilled about being drafted by the Steelers, because, as reported by Pennlive.com on Saturday, despite growing up in Maryland, he considers Pittsburgh his hometown.

“I’m coming home. I’m coming home,” said an emotional Allen shortly after learning he would be a Steeler. “That’s why I’m happy.”

“It’s all tears of joy right now….It’s a perfect situation. This is my home. It’s my hometown. My grandmother is from there, my whole family,” said Allen, whose dad is also a Pittsburgh native.

It’s a heart-warming story, for sure, but getting back to the football side of things, there certainly seems to be a common theme for the two safeties the Steelers drafted.

Edmunds was described as a safety capable of playing anywhere in the secondary, even nickel and dime linebacker, and, referring again to his NFL.com draft profile, the Steelers may have similar plans for Allen:

  • “I think he’s a great fit as a nickel or dime linebacker in sub,” said an anonymous AFC team regional scout.

Despite their palpable need to upgrade at the inside linebacker spot heading into the weekend, the Steelers didn’t draft a single player from that position.

But with football becoming more and more specialized, the Steelers seem to have a different plan for inside linebacker (at least in sub packages), and their two newest safeties–including Penn State’s Marcus Allen–may get first crack at executing that plan.

 

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Steelers Pick Offensive Tackle Chukwuma Okorafor In 3rd Round of 2018 NFL Draft

The overhaul of the Steelers once maligned offensive line might seem like it took place just yesterday, what with the unit currently regarded as one of the best in the NFL, complete with three Pro Bowlers in 2017.

But, believe it or not, the drafting of right guard David DeCastro in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft–the third of four first or second round picks spent on offensive linemen between 2010-2012–was over a half-decade ago.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers 2018 3rd round pick

Steelers 2018 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle from Western Michigan. Photo Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

Therefore, it made perfect sense that finding quality depth along the offensive line, a player who could perhaps be groomed to assume a starter’s role in the not so distant future, was high on the Steelers draft wish list heading into the third round, Friday night.

  • Sure enough, with their second of two third round picks (92nd, overall), the Steelers selected offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan.
  • At 6-6 and 320 pounds, Chukwuma Okorafor certainly has  the size NFL teams want in their offensive tackles.

As for his resume, according to his NFL.com draft profile, Okorafor’s family immigrated to the United States from Botswana in 2010. What that means is football was a totally foreign sport to the youngster.

But apparently Okorafor was a quick-study from the start, as he was a highly sought-after high school recruit who ultimately signed with Western Michigan.

  • Okorafor was a starting right tackle in his sophomore year of 2015 before making the switch to left tackle in his junior season.

Despite his late introduction to American football, Chukwuma Okorafor comes to the NFL as a highly-decorated college player, earning First Team All-Mac honors in both his junior and senior seasons.

  • Rated as a top-5 to 10 prospect by most publications, Okorafor obviously is a decent value pick late in the third round.

His highlight clip would seem to support that notion.

While the Steelers may have drafted Chukwuma Okorafor with an eye towards the future, as alluded to earlier, they are certainly in need of some immediate quality depth after the departure of super-utility lineman Chris Hubbard, who started 10 games in-place of injured/suspended right tackle Marcus Gilbert a year ago, and performed so well, he earned a lucrative free agent deal with the Browns.

Under the tutelage of highly-acclaimed offensive line coach Mike Munchak, Okorafor will have the best in the business teaching him the finer points of his position.

The average age of the Steelers highly-accomplished offensive line will be just under 30 years by the start of the 2018 campaign, and in the world of professional football, it doesn’t take long for a unit to go from a strength to a weakness, with age being one of the biggest culprits.

Therefore, the selection of Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 NFLDraft could prove to be very timely in the long run.

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Steelers Trade Martavis Bryant To Raiders For 3rd Round Pick

Despite the many denials from general manager Kevin Colbert this spring, it was announced during the broadcast of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft that the Steelers have traded wide receiver Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick in this year’s draft (the 79, overall).

Bryant, a fourth round pick out of Clemson in the 2014 NFL Draft, was a  big play threat right out of the gate after being activated midway through his rookie year.

Unfortunately for Bryant, the off-the-field issues that dropped Bryant all the way to the fourth round re-surfaced in 2015, when he was suspended for the first month of the season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Bryant’s brush with the NFL’s drug protocol didn’t deter him, as he continued to fail drug tests and missed the entire 2016 due to substance abuse issues.

There was plenty of excitement for Bryant’s return in 2017, but the big plays that were a huge part of his first two seasons were virtually non existent a year ago, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s second-round pick out of USC, was extremely productive right out of the gate and ultimately worked his way into the starting lineup by mid-season.

Due to his lack of targets, Bryant took to social media early last season to air his grievances, behavior that ultimately got him deactivated for the Lions game.

At the end of the day, I guess you can say the handwriting was on the wall, as it pertained to Bryant’s future with the Steelers, but the fact  that they were able to land a third-round pick for him is kind of amazing.

Finally, Martavis Bryant had all the potential in the world coming out of college, but due to his own personal demons, that potential was never realized as a Pittsburgh Steeler.

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Former Steelers Tight End Bennie Cunningham Dies At 63

Former Steelers tight end Bennie Cunningham passed away from cancer on Monday.

Cunningham was Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of Clemson in the 1976 NFL Draft, and during a career that spanned 10 seasons, he caught 202 passes for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Cunningham was a member of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XIII and XIV teams, and if you’ve ever seen the NFL Films highlight show of that second game–a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, California–he is the guy walking off the field with his index finger raised high in the air (the universal symbol for “We’re No. 1!”).

Cunningham perhaps never had the career befitting a first round choice, but then again, in head coach Chuck Noll‘s conservative offense, averaging 20 receptions a season as a tight end was no small feat.

However, after catching just 10 passes combined during his final two seasons (a time when tight ends were rarely featured in Pittsburgh’s offense), Cunningham may have seen the handwriting on the wall and finally decided to call it a career following the ’85 campaign.

In a “Where Are They Now?” article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002, it stated Cunningham spent a decade as a counselor/consultant at West-Oak High School in Westminster, South Carolina, and that he was about to coach the school’s golf team that year.

Speaking of golf, Cunningham was one of the few close friends of enigmatic quarterback Terry Bradshaw during his time with the Steelers, and he said the Blond Bomber would often try to get the big tight end to play a  few rounds after a hot day of practice at training camp in Latrobe, Pa.:

“We’d work out in the morning, and Terry and a couple of guys would take off to play golf before we had to go out again later that afternoon,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t understand how those guys could do that. I don’t know where they got the energy.”

Cunningham may never be known as one of the Steelers all-time greats (or even the greatest tight end in team history), but he was named to the Steelers 75th Anniversary Team in 2007.

Bennie Cunningham was 63 years old.

 

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Surprise (Not) Inside Linebacker Tops Steelers 2018 Draft Needs Poll

Sometimes it pay to go against the conventional wisdom. After all, the rise of blogging and social media has raised Monday Morning Quarterbacking and Arm Chair General Managing to something of an art form. While easiest examples that come to mind are ones where social media becomes the mother of all bandwagons (think of how Steelers Nation regarded Todd Haley), the real fun is when you take a position that’s contrary to popular opinion and you turn out to be right.

  • But then there are other times when it pays to follow the crowd.

It appears that the Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll is one of them.

Steelers vs Ravens

The Steelers need to find someone who can “replace” number 50 in he 2018 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The results of the Steelers 2018 Draft Needs poll are in, and Steelers Nation clearly rates inside linebacker among the Steelers top need heading into the draft.

  • Following his devastating spinal injury against the Bengals last December 4 that left him (hopefully) temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, it’s obviously no surprise Steelers fans desperately want the team to find Ryan Shazier’s replacement, as the defense was most certainly designed around the exceptional talents of the athletically gifted inside linebacker–Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of Ohio State in the 2014 NFL Draft. True, the team did sign veteran Jon Bostic to a two-year deal in March, but is he more a temporary solution than a permanent one? Judging by the votes for inside linebacker, 68 total, it’s easy to see where the fans stand in their opinion of Bostic in particular and the team’s inside linebacker strength in general.
  • Moving on to second place, it’s also no shocker that fans would like to see an upgrade at safety, this despite the celebrated signing of Packers veteran  Morgan Burnett. With Sean Davis set to move over to free safety, and Burnett assuming the role of strong safety–the position he manned at Green Bay–one wouldn’t  think safety would be high on the Steelers draft wish list. However, with 51 votes, the black and gold faithful think otherwise.

 

  • Rounding out Steel Curtain Rising’s poll results, we see that, with the third most votes at 33, fans aren’t exactly thrilled with the all-world talents of running back Le’Veon Bell–or at least his contract demands after he and the franchise failed to come to a long-term agreement for the second spring in a row.

 

  • Following running back is, believe it or not, quarterback, with 24 votes. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger seems more content and eager to play next season and beyond, what with offensive coordinator Todd Haley now employed with the Browns, but many readers of SCR seem to think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find his successor sooner rather than later.

 

  • Speaking of 24 votes, that’s also how many outside linebacker received. Despite spending multiple first round picks on the position over the past half-decade, it appears fans aren’t yet satisfied with the production–their disenchantment with 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree may have something to do with that.

With just two days to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, if the readers of Steel Curtain Rising are any indication, the Steelers’ number one priority is finding the next Ryan Shazier–or at least someone capable of filling his role at a high enough degree to make the position of inside linebacker a strength again and not a weakness.

Stay tuned to Steel Curtain Rising in the coming days for more draft coverage, including an in-depth look at each of the team’s picks, starting with the first round choice Thursday evening.

 

 

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Steelers Pick Up Fifth-Year Option On Bud Dupree

Looks like Steelers fans will have Bud Dupree to kick around for another two years–unless he wins them over instead.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

As reported by several outlets on Monday, the Steelers have exercised the fifth-year option on Dupree, the team’s first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, keeping the young outside linebacker in the fold through the 2019 season.

After recording four sacks as a rookie, Dupree spent the first nine games of the 2016 season on Injured Reserve, following offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. Upon his activation late in the season, Dupree displayed great explosiveness down-the-stretch, posting 4.5 sacks over the final seven games.

There was great excitement for Dupree heading into 2017, and even though he had a career-high six sacks, he managed to fall out of favor with fans, many of whom quickly labeled him a bust.

  • Fortunately for Dupree, his bosses don’t agree with that assessment.

“We’re excited about where Bud can be in these next two years,” said team general manager Kevin Colbert on Monday, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We had no hesitation in making that move when we did it.”

Head coach Mike Tomlin doubled down on Colbert’s sentiments:

“We’re comfortable he’s going to meet the challenge.”

  • The main reason for the criticism levied against Dupree a year ago had to do with his failure to generate a consistent pass rush.

However, these aren’t your dad’s (Coach Dad’s) Steelers outside linebackers anymore, as they’re now required to drop back into pass coverage more than ever.

In-fact, despite the fans’ disenchantment with Dupree, the Steelers defense managed to set a franchise record for sacks a season ago with 56.

Many wondered if Pittsburgh would look to upgrade at outside linebacker and find Dupree’s replacement with a premium pick in this Thursday’s NFL Draft.

But while you can’t rule anything out with the Steelers picking so late in the first round (28th to be exact), it certainly seems less likely now that Bud Dupree will be with the team for at least two more seasons.

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What I Did The Day The Steelers Drafted Ben Roethlisberger

Just like Chad Pennington a few years earlier, I started hearing quarterback Ben Roethlisbergers name linked to the the Steelers as a potential first-round pick, long before the 2004 NFL Draft.

In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the fall of 2003 and hearing some random national sports talk show host discussing the prospects of Roethlisberger being Pittsburgh’s first first-round quarterback since Mark Malone in the spring of 1980.

Ben Roethlisberger

The day the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger was a momentous one for the franchise. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Of course, at that time, with the Steelers still in the throes of their ’03 campaign, the last thing I cared about was who they’d draft about six months down the road.

  • But if you remember that 2003 season, it was one you may want to forget.

Instead of remaining in the ring of Super Bowl contenders, a ring they occupied  the previous two seasons, the Steelers started the year 2-6, before finishing with a 6-10 record.

The downside was the 6-10 record. The upside was a rare flirtation with a top-10 selection, as Pittsburgh would pick 11th in that spring’s annual NFL Draft.

Despite Roethlisberger’s name being linked to the Steelers for quite some time, the Miami of Ohio superstar quarterback took a backseat to NC State’s Philip Rivers, who was climbing up the draft boards fast and, thanks in-part to playing his college ball at the same school as head coach Bill Cowher, seemed the likely choice, if he were available, and the team was serious about finding its next great franchise passer.

But by the eve of the draft, River’s stock had risen so high, if he wasn’t selected first overall by the Chargers, he would be taken fourth by the Giants.

Rivers ultimately became a Charger, after initially being drafted by New York, who then made a rather bizarre draft-day trade with San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning, the most coveted quarterback prospect in the draft.

That left Roethlisberger as the only quarterback remaining of the “Big Three” prospects believed to have that truly elite talent, talent that could quickly change the fortunes of a franchise.

But there were still six teams drafting before the Steelers and, besides, other players who represented perhaps more urgent needs such as South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson and Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews were also linked to Pittsburgh by many in the know.

  • The first round was held on Saturday back then, and like most Saturdays, I had to work.

I listened to pick after pick on the radio, and I was kind of giddy when I heard that Robinson was drafted by the Texans just one pick before Pittsburgh.

  • Who would the Steelers select with the 11th pick?

Would it be Roethlisberger or would the often conservative Bill Cowher go with a safer bet, such as an Andrews?

Before I could hear Pittsburgh’s decision, I was called away for something (the life of a retail manager is one where you’re lucky to enjoy one song on the radio without someone bothering you, let alone an entire draft).

When I returned moments later, I round out Roethlisberger was indeed the pick, and this excitement came over me that I don’t think I had ever experienced following a Steelers draft choice.

  • Even at the time, I didn’t know why I was so giddy.

After all, Tommy Maddox had established himself as the team’s starting quarterback not even two seasons earlier, and even after the drafting of Roethlisberger, it was mostly understood that Maddox would remain in that role for at least the ’04 campaign (and be backed up by veteran Charlie Batch), while the rookie watched and learned from the sideline.

In fact, in subsequent days, there were stories of Maddox being very upset about the Roethlisberger pick (“I thought  they were going to get me a tackle,” is a quote from Maddox I remember reading during that time).

Anyway, it was a surreal feeling, this joy over a first-round quarterback who, as far as anyone knew at the time, could have turned out to be a major bust (that is if he could even unseat the very determined Maddox).

I had no idea why I was so happy, and for reasons that had to do with my limited VHS options (this was a full year or so before I owned my first DVD player), I popped in Tough Guys, an NFL Films production released in 1989 and hosted by legendary head coach Mike Ditka.

This feature chronicled the careers of some of the toughest guys in NFL history–including Jack Lambert, Jim Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Conrad Dobler and Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.

That’s right, Fouts was actually included in this group–his story was the last one, in fact–and that was the main reason for popping this tape into my VCR.

  • I was just so happy the Steelers drafted a quarterback, I needed to watch highlights of quarterbacks.

In case you don’t know much about Fouts, in addition  to being one of the most prolific passers of his day, he was also one of the toughest, as he stood in the pocket and took hit after hit, while delivering pass after pass.

Fouts played with many injuries during his career–including a broken nose suffered right in the middle of a game.

It was ironic that Fouts was my main inspiration for watching this  tape that day, because Roethlisberger would go on to build a Hall of Fame career of his own complete with a reputation for physical toughness perhaps unmatched by any quarterback throughout NFL history.

You obviously know the story of Ben Roethlisberger–one that will hopefully continue for a few more seasons (that’s not what this article is about)–and why I was so excited about the drafting of a quarterback by a team that seemingly already had a starting quarterback in place.

There’s just no substitute for that truly elite, franchise quarterback.

As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter where you rank the truly great quarterbacks of the present, because if your team is lucky enough to have one of them, your team is so far ahead of the game in terms of contending for Super Bowls.

  • The Steelers have accomplished so much since the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger 14 years ago.

The 2004 NFL Draft is one that will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the genesis of so many great memories yet to come.

 

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Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Bail on Bud Dupree?

Coming off one of the best seasons any Steelers rookie has had in quite some time, T.J. Watt, the first round choice in 2017, appears to have finally satisfied the organization’s long search for the next prolific outside linebacker, a position synonymous with greatness in the Steel City.

Or has he?

With less than three weeks to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, just how high on the list of priorities is outside linebacker for the Steelers? The answer hinges not on Watt’s development, but on the development of his couterpart whom the Steelers drafted two seasons before him. Let’s take a look.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

As mentioned, T.J. Watt had a whale of a rookie season, tallying 52 total tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble (the only player in the NFL at his position–rookie or otherwise–to post such an impressive stat line in 2017.)

Being the younger brother of the legendary J.J. Watt, it’s perhaps no surprise Watt picked things up so quickly and was so productive in his very first season. As I alluded to earlier, unless he’s felled by an injury, Watt seems destined to be the Steelers next great outside linebacker.

  • But Watt can only man one position at a time–the right side.

What about left outside linebacker, a position that has previously been occupied by the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon?

Coming off of his third year in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree appears to have all the potential in the world, and unlike disappointing 2013 first round pick, Jarvis Jones, Dupree has often shown flashes of that potential during his first three years with the Steelers.

After coming back from offseason groin surgery late in the 2016 campaign and recording 4.5 sacks over the final seven games, there was great excitement about Dupree heading into 2017.

  • However, despite starting 15 games, Dupree seemed to fall out of favor, at least with a fan base that wondered why he could only muster six sacks.

But as DK Sports’ Chris Carter pointed out late last year, Dupree was asked to drop back into pass coverage 75 percent of the time, something that seems to be more of a job requirement for Steelers linebackers in general, these days, as the pass rushing duties have been dispersed more evenly among all defenders under Keith Butler‘s watch (the defense set a franchise record with 56 sacks a year ago).

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

As of this writing, there are only two backup outside linebackers on the Steelers’ depth chart–2015 sixth round pick, Anthony Chickillo; and 2017 seventh round pick, Keion Adams.

  • 2017 was a bit of a break out year for Chickillo, as the converted defensive end out of the University of Miami recorded three sacks, including two while starting in place of Dupree in Week 1.

At 25 years old, Anthony Chickillo is still young enough to offer legitimate “upside,” and he’ll surely continue to get that chance, as he’s been a regular part of the team’s rotation at the outside linebacker spot since 2016.

As for Keion Adams, it’s really hard to say what he brings to the table, considering he spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. As suggested here last spring, given the Steelers pedigree at the position, being drafted in the 7th round as an outside linebacker might seem hopeless, but Carlos Emmons faced a similar fate in 1996, and had a pretty good career.

Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

With veteran Arthur Moats currently a free agent after spending the last four years with the Steelers, there is obviously room for another body or two at the outside linebacker spot.

However, with more pressing needs heading into the draft, such as inside linebacker, safety, and even running back, the outside linebacker spot may not be a position the Steelers feel anxious about addressing during the first few rounds–and this would especially be the case if the versatile Moats is still in the team’s plans.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • The real question in defining the Steelers 2018 outside lienbacker draft needs comes down to how you assess Bud Dupree.

When they drafted him the Steelers knew Bud Dupree was a “project” who offered tremendous athleticism but lacked polish. In his time in Pittsburgh, both traits have been on display, although Dupree’s contributions to the Steelers 2016 turn around are often overlooked.

Still, with three years under his belt, Dupree has yet to dispel the doubters. One prominent Steelers writer contacted by this site for an opinion about Dupree asserted that he will never be anything more than a “marginal starter.”

Yet, when asked about him recently, Kevin Colbert argued: “I think Bud is just scratching the surface to what he can be. He’s shown us enough signs that that can happen and will happen.” That’s an unambiguous statement from a General Manger who holds his cards close to the vest.

With that said, tt is true that Dupree’s fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, but that’s still not enough to make the Steelers need at the position anything but Low-Moderate. 

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