Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix + a 1st Round Prediction

Well, well well, the big day is here! Per the clock on Steelers.com in just 10:27: 34 the 2017 NFL Draft will finally kick off (and lucky you, by the time you read this, it will even be closer)!

Since the final gun of Super Bowl LI, Steelers Nation has enjoyed?/experienced?/endured? Hundreds of hours of Mike Maycock and Mel Kipper Jr. clips, read dozens of mock drafts and perhaps even debated “grades” some scribes give to the Steelers performance in so-and-so’s latest mock.

  • Now all that’s left is, well, to pick the players and then bring them to St. Vincents to separate the Sidney Thornton’s from the Sean Davis‘s.
2017 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin Kevin Colbert Pre-draft press conference

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert hold their pre-Draft press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

OK, with that bit of cynicism about the excess hype that envelops the NFL Draft out of the way, let’s acknowledge that championships are built and lost on draft day.

  • And for those of you who’re dying to know this sites prediction for the Steelers first round draft pick, staff writer Tony Defeo is predicting it will be Kevin King, the 6’3″ cornerback out of Washington.

And, as we noted when the Steelers 2016 draft class was complete, Pittsburgh is now at a point where the success or failure on draft day will determine whether Ben Roethlisberger can bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

With the urgent of the 2017 NFL Draft in mind, Steel Curtain Rising has taken stock of the needs presented by each area of the Steelers Depth Chart.

Using our “exclusive Steelers Draft needs scale” we’ve determined that the Steelers needs at Quarterback, Defensive Line, and Tight End can be termed as Low-Moderate. The Steelers needs at Offensive line and Safety should be considered Moderate-Low. Inside linebacker clocks in at Moderate. Wide Receiver and Running back come in in at Moderate High. While Outside Linebacker and Cornerback are High Moderate needs for the Steelers in 2017.

Similar to past years, the Steelers draft needs are very tired, with some fairly high urgency needs to fill up top, very little in the middle, and a lot down at the bottom.

How to distinguish between them? Well, that’s where our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix comes into play.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

The purpose of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is to give a baseline between the Steelers areas of need should two players with the same grade become available at the same time.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

How did we arrive at this ranking? Fair question. To be honest, the Steelers needs for an outside linebacker or an “Edge Rusher” should he come in the form of a defensive end and a cornerback are both very high.

Even with James Harrison clocking in at age 39, the duo of Harrison and Bud Dupree arguably give the Steelers more on the field impact than does that of Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell.

  • But both Burns and Cockrell can be expected to start 16 games; James Harrison can’t.

However, anyone who would insist that Cornerback should take priority over Outside Linebacker or “Edge Rusher” wouldn’t get much of an argument for me, the Steelers need to boost their secondary as the AFC Championship so painfully illustrated.

And if Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have the feeling that the next Dan Marino has dropped to them at 30, then by all means they should take him. But the reality is that isn’t going to happen, and the Steelers aren’t going to find the next Tom Brady in some later round. Given that, its best to focus on giving Ben the players he needs to win Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

Up until a few days ago, Steel Curtain Rising would have rated wide receiver as a higher need than running back, but Martavis Bryant‘s reinstatement changes that calculation ever so slightly. The Steelers would still be wise to add another reciever to help take heat off of Antonio Brown, but it would be wiser to invest a pick in ensuring they don’t start another playoff game with Fitzgerald Toussaint as Le’Veon Bell‘s top backup.

  • As always, let’s close comments about our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix with a caveat.

This chart is in no way meant to suggest the Steelers should draft for need. Quite the contrary. When you draft for need Troy Edwards (and perhaps Jarvis Jones) happen.

The Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Class provides the perfect example. Heading into the draft, the Steelers 2014 Draft Needs Matrix had rated Inside Linebacker as Moderate-Low given the quality and depth the Steelers had at the position.

Clearly, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert knew what they were doing.

Let’s hope that three years from now we can say the same thing about the decision the Steelers brain trust makes tonight. Until then let’s celebrate evening that will allow a select few young men to enjoy the movement they’ve dreamed of since they were old enough to hold a nerf football.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Safety: Moderate-Low

Safety is yet another area on the Steelers depth chart where Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have put extended efforts towards renewing. For eight years, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark held down the Steelers two starting safety roles giving Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s best tandems.

The Steelers thought they had added an important piece of the puzzle when they traded up to draft Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he did not work out as planned.

However, the puzzle unquestionably began coming together for the Steelers in 2016 and the only question at this point is whether the Steelers will seek to add more pieces in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Tyler Boyd, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell team to throttle Tyler Boyd in Sept 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Steelers Depth Chart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

To give you an idea of how much turnover this unit has seen, Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is one of the old hands, and he only arrived in 2014. The Steelers of course made a rare, day one “splash” free agency signing when they signed Mitchell on the first day of free agency in 2014.

A groin injury, and a lack of familiarity with Polamalu’s free-wheeling style, limited Mike Mitchell’s effectiveness in 2014, but he came back with a vengeance in 2015, coming down with 3 clutch 4th quarter interceptions while laying in the wood with welcome regularity.

Starting opposite Mike Mitchell is 2016’s 2nd round pick Sean Davis, who came to Pittsburgh from the University of Maryland. On September 12th, playing just a few miles from Byrd Stadium, Sean Davis became the first rookie defensive back to start a season opener since fellow Terrapin Chad Scott had done so in the 1997 opening day thumping the suffered at Three Rivers Stadium by the Steelers at the hands of the Cowboys.

  • By mid-season Sean Davis was making the kind of plays that made you wonder why he wasn’t a 1st round pick.

He helped stuff out a Giants comeback with his first NFL interception, showed off his versatility by sacking Tyrod Taylor in the win over the Bills, Tyrod Taylor, played a key role in the goal line stand against the Colts on Thanksgiving, and broke up two passes against the Ravens on Christmas night. And, in the AFC Divisional playoff game, Sean Davis broke up Kansas City’s 2 point conversion attempt.

Not a bad resume, for a rookie.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

On paper, Robert Golden would appear to be the “Next man up” on the Steelers depth chart at safety, as he has the most experience and split time with Sean Davis early in 2016. But by the end of the season, Jordan Dangerfield and found his way into various sub-packages and is even listed by the Steelers as having started 2 games.

Depending on how things play out, a third name could find himself on the Steelers depth chart at safety. William Gay is losing a step at cornerback, but rumor has it the team may consider a move to safety, which would suit his ball hawking abilities.

The Steelers also have Jacob Hagen under contract at safety.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Safety

It took time, it took a little trial and error, and it took a little bit of patience, but the Steelers have renewed their depth chart at safety almost completely Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu played their final game together in 2013.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

The plan to turn things over to Shamarko Thomas never came to fruition and the Steelers certainly relied longer than they had planned to, but that page is now turned.

Like any NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers need as many good safeties as they can find, but right now the Steelers have two quality starters and two serviceable backups. If William Gay does move to safety, he’ll provide an immediate talent boost to the lower part of the depth chart.

But taking all of the variables into account, the Steelers 2017 draft need at safety must be considered Moderate-Low.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Tight End Low-Moderate

A Steelers tight end group led by Ladarius Green, last year’s huge free-agent pick-up from the Chargers, and complemented by Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson looks really great on paper.

The only problem for Pittsburgh is that the guy who should be leading the way has mostly been a spectator over the first 19 games of his Steelers career. Now was that a one-year occurance, or is Ladarius Green “Damaged goods?” How the Steelers address that question will impact their plans regarding tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jesse James, Steelers 2017 Draft need tight end

Steelers tight end Jesse James @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starter

As soon as Ladarius Green was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal last March, it was understood that he’d need a good chunk of the offseason  to heal from ankle surgery he had done in January.

So, how long would Ladarius Green need to rehab? Would he be ready by the start of OTAs or mini-camp? Surely he would be 100 percent and ready to go either at or during training camp, right?

Turns out, Ladarius Green was ready by none of the above and eventually placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to start the 2016 regular season.

Seems like a lengthy recovery time for ankle surgery?

  • Maybe that’s because Green’s issues were more serious.

NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala published an article on August 11 that speculated Green’s absence from offseason and training camp activities may have been a consequence of recurring headaches due to sustaining multiple concussions during his time with the Chargers.

There were conflicting statements from the Steelers, Green and his agent regarding this rumor, but the reality was that Green didn’t make his Pittsburgh debut until a November 13 game against the Cowboys at Heinz Field.

A little over a month later, just when he seemed to be starting to develop a field flipping rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, Ladarius Green suffered yet another concussion, when he took a shot to the head in the Steelers win against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

  • Ladarius Green didn’t play another snap the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the postseason.

Despite optimism and excitement for what Ladarius Green could add to the Steelers offense in 2017, fact is, after multiple documented concussions so far in his career, his return seems like a 50/50 proposition.

Is Ladarius Green someone the Steelers want to count on over the next three seasons?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–Backups 

Behind Ladarius Green is Jesse James, the third-year man out of Penn State, who actually acquitted himself quite well a season ago, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

  • And in three postseason games, Jesse James proved to be a nice cog in the passing game, catching 12 passes for 159 yards.11

As for Xavier Grimble, 24, after bouncing around the league for a few years, he finally found a home in Pittsburgh a year ago, making the final roster and catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Rounding out the position is David Johnson, the veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Steelers, before spending 2014 and 2015 with San Diego.

During his initial stint in Pittsburgh, Johnson was primarily used as a blocker, and nothing has changed during his second stint, as Johnson caught just seven passes for 80 yards in 2016.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Tight End 

As it pertains to the Steelers current draft needs at the the tight end position, the questions are: should they gamble on Ladarius Green coming back? Should they give the starting keys to James James if Green isn’t able to continue his NFL career?Steelers 2017 Draft Needs tight end

  • Or should they draft a tight end in the first few rounds?

Provided Martavis Bryant is able to return to football in 2017 after missing all of 2016 due to a drug suspension, the Steelers offense figures to be one of the most productive in the NFL next season–and this is even without Ladarius Green’s services.

But if the Steelers do want to add insurance to the tight end spot just in case Green is unable to fulfill his obligations, they can probably forget about O.J. Howard out of Alabama and David Njoku out of Miami, as both figure to be gone by the 30th pick.

  • What about other names such as Gerald Everett from South Alabama and Evan Engram of Ole Miss who could be possibilities in rounds two or three?

With Jesse James showing improvement in his second season, I don’t think tight end is a crucial need for the Steelers in this draft. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that the draft needs status of tight end for the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft should be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Moderate High

My quickly things change. A year ago, even when taking Maratvis Bryant’s latest suspension into account, the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart looked to be flush at wide receiver.

As fate would have it, Ben Roethlisberger spent the majority of the season having his number 5 and number 6 wide receivers playing for his number 2 and number 3 receivers. While the Steelers have made some free agent moves to shore up their wide receiving corps those having done much to impact the priority status of wide receiver in the impending 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2017 draft needs wide receiver, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant high five in 2015. Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP Photo via New Pittsburgh Courier

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

The subheading you see is no misprint, because as it stands the Steelers only have one proven starter at wide receiver and his name is Antonio Brown.

  • Next time someone tries to tell you a six round pick is a wasted pick, remind them of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers of course took Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft and haven’t looked back. Brown was proverbial one of two dogs fighting for the same bone as a rookie, but he came down with the biggest catch in the Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens and again a week later in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

  • Since then Antonio Brown has established himself as nothing less than the best wide receiver in the NFL.

You can look up all sorts of numbers to justify this claim, but Antonio Brown’s game winner against Baltimore on Christmas Day reveals his greatness in ways numbers could never do justice to.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

The problem is that the Steelers entered the 2016 playoffs without a viable number 2 wide receiver alongside Brown. Sammie Coates was supposed to occupy that role and looked he might, but then he got hurt. So did Markus Wheaton, who is now in Chicago. Darrius Heyward-Bey got promoted to starter at midseason, and then he got hurt.

All three men played well at critical stretches during the regular season, and they also had their moments in the post season, but ultimately they weren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the AFC Championship matchup against New England.

  • During the off season the Steelers signed Justin Hunter a journeyman wide receiver who has had a solid career, but has never lived up to his status as a 34 overall pick.

The Steelers also have the lingering question about Martavis Bryant. Bryant has served his suspension and applied for reinstatement, but the NFL has not yet cleared him to play for 2017.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Wide Receiver

If the Steelers knew that Martavis Bryant would be back AND would keep himself clean and if they Steelers were comfortable that Sammie Coates struggles were solely due to injury, then the priority status of wide receiver for 2017 would probably fall into the category of a luxury pick.Steelers 2016 Draft Needs wide receiver

  • But the Steelers can’t be sure of either of those two things.

And while Eli Rogers made impressive strides, he is still considered more of a slot receiver. The Darrius Heyward-Bey career revival story is a heartening one, but he has yet to produce consistently as a first-line wide receiver.

It is true that Steelers wide receivers, outside of Louis Lipps, Santonio Holmes and Troy Edwards, don’t typically produce much as rookies, but the Steelers need to think beyond the short term and therefore the Steelers 2017 draft need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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