Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs – There’s No “Safety in Numbers” Pittsburgh Needs Talent Instead

The 2018 off season has already seen the Pittsburgh Steelers make numerous changes to their roster, and no area has seen more renovations than safety.

Interestingly enough, the two additions have come via free agency, which has been the preferred method of filling this critical spot on the depth chart of Kevin Colbert, the sterling example of Troy Polamalu notwithstanding. Has the free agent market has restocked Steelers sufficiently or should the Steelers target safety in the 2018 NFL Draft?

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The concept of “starter” at safety has perhaps never been more nebulous in Steelers history. Sean Davis of course will return, but his role may be changing as a shift from strong safety to free safety is being openly discussed.

The Steelers of course drafted Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Davis became an immediate starter and performed so well that Davis earned Joe Green Great Performance Award aka rookie of the year honors.

  • 2017 did not go as well for Davis, as he struggled at times and failed to make that vaunted 2nd year leap.

If Gerry Dulac’s reporting is any guide, the Steelers view some of the criticism leveled at Sean Davis to be unfair, particularly for the rough outing he suffered at the hands of Tom Brady and Ron Gronkowski in the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Take that for what you will, the Steelers went at great pains to try to defect critism from Jarvis Jones and perhaps are doing the same thing with Bud Dupree.

  • But if nothing else, it shows the Steelers still have confidence in Sean Davis.

The Steelers of course signed Morgan Burnett to replace Mike Mitchell, although his role has yet to be defined. Some have suggested he’ll play more of a dime linebacker role, similar to what William Gay played last season.

However, the Steelers are paying Morgan Burnett over 4 million dollars a year which is not the type of contract you give to a situational player. Burnett figures to start in the Steelers secondary, and brings a strong pedigree to the team, including a reputation for being an excellent tackler and strong communicator.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Behind Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett, the Steelers have J.J. Wilcox, Jordan Dangerfield and Nat Berhe.

The Steelers acquired Wilcox via a trade prior to the season, and he saw immediate playing time in the team’s first three games, only to see his participation essentially disappear after that – all but 10 of Wilcox’s 134 defensive snaps came in the first three games of the season.

  • Wilcox was reputed to be a cap casualty, but he’s with the team now, perhaps because new secondary coach Tom Bradley saw something he liked.

The Steelers likely traded for Wilcox because Jordan Dangerfield got injured during preseason. Dangerfield spent the 2014 and 2015 season on the Steelers practice squad before landing a spot on the regular season roster in 2016 where he saw action in 14 regular season games and two post-season games.

The Steelers also recently signed Nat Berhe. Berhe is seen as more of a replacement of Robert Golden, who’d led the Steelers special teams for several seasons, but struggled when called into action in the secondary.

Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs

As mentioned at the top, Kevin Colbert has historically relied on free agency fill needs at safety more frequently than he has for probably any other position. One of his first moves was to bring in Brett Alexander in the 2000 off season. A year later it was Mike Logan. Further on down the road he looked to Ryan Clark and then Mike Mitchell.

  • Of course, Kevin Colbert hit a grand slam home run when he traded up to draft Troy Polamalu in the 1st round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

And, his sophomore struggles notwithstanding, Sean Davis the early returns on Sean Davis are positive. Yet Kevin Colbert also used premium picks on Anthony Smith and Shamarko Thomas, two players who can only be described as busts.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Any look at the Steelers depth chart at safety reveals an inconvenient truth: The Steelers have quantity of unknown quality.

There are some positions on a football team where you can “get by,” to a certain extent, but substituting a little quantity for lack of quality. Safety is not one of those. There’s no way to wall paper over things when your safety gets beaten deep, fails to provide a double coverage or takes a wrong angle after a running back has breached the second level.

By signing Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe the Steelers have wisely insulated themselves from the need of having to reach to fill this position, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 draft needs at safety must be considered High-Moderate.

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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 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered 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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Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Is Line Deep Enough for a Super Bowl Run?

“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.

  • Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.

Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:

Yeah, believe it or not  all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….

However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.

Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.

  • Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.

Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.

  • During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.

Cam Thomas simply wasn’t good enough and while Ricardo Mathews represented a bit of an upgrade, the Steelers played the 2nd half of 2016 without Cam Heyward.

Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers  now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.

Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.

  • Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.

Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs -Time to Seek Le’Veon Bell’s Replacement?

You wouldn’t think running back would be a top priority for the Steelers heading into the 2018 draft, what with star and all-world/dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell on the roster, he of the 2,000 yards from scrimmage capabilities and multiple All-Pro/Pro Bowl decorations.

  • But for the second year in a row, Bell and the Steelers are at an impasse regarding his salary requirements.

Sure, Bell can only play in Pittsburgh in 2018, thanks to being franchise tagged for a second straight year (after earning $12 million in 2017, Bell is scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2018), but his reported demands for a deal that averages $17 million per season means the odds of him being around in 2019 seem remote at best.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

Like previous years when he wasn’t out of the lineup due to health issues or because of a suspension, Bell was the workhorse of the Steelers backfield in 2017, starting 15 of a possible 16 games and accounting for nearly 75 percent of the team’s 437 rushing attempts. Le’Veon Bell also tallied another 655 yards out of the backfield on a career-high 85 receptions.

  • With 1,946 yards from scrimmage, it was Bell’s most productive season since 2014, when he had 2,215 total yards.

But in terms of effectiveness, some would say Bell’s 2017 campaign left a lot to be desired, as his 1,291 rushing yards were just 23 more than he had the previous year when he tallied 1,268 on 60 less carries. Bell also averaged 4.0 yards per attempt (his lowest since 2013), and his longest run from scrimmage was just 27 yards.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

With Bell leading the way, the Steelers depth at running back doesn’t look half bad.

  • James Conner was everyone’s favorite heart warming story last season when the Steelers drafted him in the third round out of the University of Pittsburgh.

On the heels of his very public battle with cancer that was discovered in late-2015 while rehabbing from a torn MCL that wiped out all but one game of his junior season, you wanted to see James Conner do well. And in the limited exposure he did see on offense, James Conner showed great promise, totally 144 yards on 32 carries. Unfortunately, Conner’s rookie season came to an end in Week 15 when he suffered yet another MCL injury.

  • To make up for the absence of Conner, Pittsburgh signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who was riding the couch in late-December after not being able to catch on with anyone.

In limited action down-the-stretch in relief of a resting Bell, Stevan Ridley looked decent enough, tallying 108 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It looks like Ridley, 29, will be providing veteran depth again next season, as he and the Steelers agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

Speaking of one-year deals, the Steelers will also have Fitzgerald Toussaint back again in 2018, after he and the team reached an agreement on a one-year contract that will pay him $790,000. With just 125 yards on 38 carries as a Steeler, Toussaint is perhaps best known for being thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 postseason, one that came to a crashing halt shortly after Toussaint fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Broncos in the divisional round.

Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs 

The Steelers depth at running back may not look so bad with Le’Veon Bell leading the way, but is there a future starter in the mix?

Yes, James Conner does possess great potential, but he also has two surgically repaired MCLs on his resume, and I don’t have to tell you how important healthy knees are for a running back–or how quickly damaged ones can end a career.

Ridley and Toussaint may be competent backups, but that’s just about it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, Stevan Ridley had a great season in 2012, when he rushed for over 1,200 yards as a member of the Patriots, but in running back years, 2012 was a lifetime ago, and 29 is when “Life’s Work” starts beckoning most backs.

  • As for Fitzgerald Toussaint, if he possessed any potential to be anything other than a number 3 running back, , he would have showed it by now.

This brings us back to Le’Veon Bell.

While I’m inclined to blame the less-effective 2017 season on the Bell’s off season groin surgery as well as his decision to hold out all of training camp, I’m not so inclined to say Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers will be able to reach an agreement on a lucrative deal both sides will be happy with.

This isn’t to say it’s paramount the Steelers target and draft a running back with their first or even second pick. However, if general manager Kevin Colbert decides to play his “Best Player Available” card and–much like 2008, when Rashard Mendenhall slipped all the way to the 23rd pick of the first round–a running back with a first round grade is sitting there at 28, he may be too tempting to pass up.

No, it’s not critical that Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the first round, but all things considered, the need must be rated Moderate-High.

 

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Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs – Is Corner Finally a Low Priority for Pittsburgh?

As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.

  • Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.

While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.

Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.

After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.

Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City Insider Craig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”

People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)

  • The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.

Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.

Joe Haden’s return helped stabilize a defense reeling for the loss of Ryan Shazier, and he figures to assume a true leadership role in 2018.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.

  • Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.

After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.

Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.

Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs

Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)

The Steelers have used late round picks on players who barely became blips on the radar screen (Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne and Terrance Fredrick.)steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).

With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.

  • That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.

Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.

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Steelers 2018 Quarterback Draft Needs – Still Too Early to Draft Roethlisberger’s Replacement?

A year ago Ben Roethlisberger’s utterance of the “R” word left Steelers Nation on pins and needles. Although Roethlisberger confirmed he’d return for 2017, he’d unmasked the elephant in the room.

  • Even so, the conclusion here was that it was too early to draft Roethlisberger’s replacement.

The wiser option was to draft players who could help Ben bring home Lombardi Number 7. Fast forward to January 2018: Following another playoff disappointment, Ben Roethlisberger changes his tune and says he wants to play 2-3 more years.

So the calculus on drafting Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement in the 2018 NFL Draft shouldn’t change…. Right? Well, let’s see.

Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger plans 2018

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey. Photo Credit: Phil Sears, USA Today, via SCI

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

At age 36 and after 14 NFL seasons, Ben Roethlisberger finally commands respect as one of the NFL’s premier signal callers.

The days when critics derided Ben as a “game manager” who depended on a strong defense and robust rushing attack to win are over. Neither is Roethlisberger written off as a school yard improviser.

No, with 200 games, 198 starts and 135 wins and rings from Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII, people finally, if grudgingly respect Ben Roethlisberger as one of the best.

Ironically, this belated recognition arrives despite Ben Roethlisberger’s agonizingly slow start in 2017. Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell also took their time to find their rhythm, but Antonio Brown pulled down some wild throws to make Roethlisberger look better than he had any right to look early on.

  • Did Ben Roethlisberger take half a season to get his arm into shape as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell suggests?
  • Did Randy Fichtner’s move from the booth to the sidelines give Ben the boost he needed?

We’ll never know. But what we do know is that Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating for the first eight games of 2017 was 82.7, just shy of his career worst 75.1 mark of 2006, but during the final 8 games of 2017 Ben Roethlisberger posted a 105.3 passer rating, the very best of his career.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

While a certain segment of Steelers Nation will never accept it, Landry Jones has developed into a quality NFL backup quarterback. Landry Jones may have been as lost as he looked in 2013 and 2014,but something clicked for the Oklahoma signal caller in the 2015 preseason when the Steelers gave 3 separate players shots at unseating Jones from the 3rd quarterback slot.

  • As fate would have it, an injury to Mike Vick turned out to be a lucky break for the Steelers, as Landry Jones closed two wins against the Cardinals and the Raiders.

Since then Jones has started in a losing effort against the Patriots in 2016 and in season finales against Cleveland in 2016 and 2017. Landry Jones won both contests, including a come from behind win in 2016 and an 85% completed passing effort in 2017.

Behind Landry Jones the Steelers have Joshua Dobbs, whom they took in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. A rocket scientist, Joshua Dobbs looked about as good as can be expected in preseason and apparently takes his preparation seriously.

Steelers 2018 Quarterback Draft Needs

Some mass psychology professor should study how Steelers fans react to Ben Roethlisberger news.

Last year, many if not most fans remained convinced that 2017 would be Ben Roethlisberger’s last season. Now, suddenly, after Roethlisberger says he plans to play for 2-3 more seasons, most conclude that he’ll do just that and perhaps even a few more.

They also conveniently forget Roethlisberger’s early 2017 struggles and assume that he’ll l continue to play championship caliber football as long as he desires. Let’s hope he does, but Ben Roethlisberger is 36 and all 36 years old NFL players are taking it year-by-year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • A year ago the smartest thing the Steelers could do was to draft talent to help Ben Roethlisberger win in 2017. T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster fit that bill.

And that remains a wise option today. But dynamics differ a bit in 2018. Unlike last year, the 2018 NFL Draft is said offer a good crop of quarterbacks. And Ben Roethlisberger IS a year older. Steelers fans know too well that in 1983 Terry Bradshaw planned to play for 5 more years and Pittsburgh passed on Dan Marino and drafted Gabe Rivera.

By all means, the Steelers focus in the 2018 NFL Draft should on positions other than quarterback.

  • But if your quarterback is 36 years old and if a franchise quarterback falls to you, you draft the quarterback.

Therefore the Steelers 2018 quarterback draft need must be considered Moderate.

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Watch Tower: NFL Scouting Combine, Draft Stories Coming Too Early for One Steelers Scribe

The NFL’s free agency signing period is less than a week away and to be sure Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers franchising Le’Veon Bell is universally the top story in Steelers Nation. But scan major Steelers sites and you’ll find that, almost without exception, all of the coverage is on the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Forgive me, but this is one Steelers fan who finds this intense focus on the NFL Combine and the draft as coming a little too early.

And to be clear, I’m speaking with voice as a Steelers fan, not as a Steelers blogger. As readers know, I don’t pretend to know enough about college football to wade into the pre-Draft analysis and I won’t do you the disservice trying to fake it.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown scouting combine,

Steelers Antonio Brown at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The NFL Combine is an important event, and in many ways is the unofficial beginning of the NFL off season. We hear a lot about how the NFL’s popularity is in decline, and over exposure is part of that equation. But the appetite for 24/7/365 football news is real, and you can’t blame the NFL for milking the combine for what its worth.

  • Still, if Mike Tomlin is correct in writing off OTA’s as “Football in shorts,” then what does that make the NFL Combine?

Kevin Colbert seemed to acknowledge that as much when he clarified that the Steelers value one-on-ones and medical information than data points that come out of the track meet.

  • Let’s also be clear about something, the Watch Tower isn’t criticizing the pros or our fellow bloggers for Combine stories.

Revenue generating sites come with page-view quotas, and that requires copy. And stories about prospects the Steelers meet with at the NFL Scouting Combine are much more relevant than Throw-Back-Thursday types strolls down memory lane.

There’s also the fact that Steelers.com is pushing the combine heavily. While the Watch Tower has yet to take an in-depth look, the fact is that the Steelers website at least indirectly dictates the story lines that so many other sites must follow.

  • How does this work, you ask?

The dynamic is pretty simple. If Steelers.com writes an article on Antonio Brown or Ryan Shazier’s NFL Combine workout, then Google searches for “Antonio Brown NFL Combine” and “Ryan Shazier NFL Combine” are sure to follow.

That’s fine. And the truth is that there are a lot of good stories being written on the NFL Scouting Combine with the benefit of a lot of first-hand journalism. Jim Wexell and Jon Ledyard work over at Steel City Insider provide to excellent examples. Steel City Blitz has also published a lot of quality draft-combine related stories over the last week. Kudos for them, and apologies to the dozens of other writers doing good work not mentioned.

  • But it’s simply too early for this Steelers fan to focus on the draft.

Can’t get my head around the fact that the Steelers draft decisions, as will every NFL team’s, will be driven by the fallout from free agency.

Seeing the words “NFL Combine” can’t help but remind me of my first memory of the event, which involved hear WMAL’s Ken Beatrice describe the Indianapolis Colts sending the Atlanta Falcons the store because they were blow away by Jeff George’s workout at the Combine (gee, that worked out well, didn’t it?) Also can’t help but remember that an early mock drafts had the Steelers picking Gerod Holiman in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

  • Beyond that it seems like the sheer volume of NFL Combine and draft stories is much heavier here in early March than in year’s past.

As most sites lack chronological archives it is hard to be sure. But either way all of this coverage on the 2018 NFL Draft is coming just a little too soon for this Steelers fan.

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