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 Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Third Times Charm for Pittsburgh @ Cornerback. Steelers Sign Coty Sensabaugh to 2 Year Contract

Word was the Steelers were planning to open free agency making a play on a starting cornerback. Whether the Steelers did have the Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick in their sights or not, the deal never materialized.

Then the Steelers wined and dined Davon House who became the NFL equivalent of a date who ignores you and instead dances with all of the other guys at the party – he signed with the Green Bay Packers while he was visiting with the Steelers.

  • The third time was the charm for Pittsburgh in their quest to add a cornerback in free agency as the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh.
Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers slot cornerbacks, Steelers free agency 2017

Coty Sensabaugh has 194 career tackles 2 picks in 72 career games. Photo Credit: Samuel Stringer, Icon Sportswire

The Tennessee Titans picks Coty Sensabaugh in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he played in Nashville for four years, making 27 starts and recording 2 interceptions, including a pick six on Jameis Winston‘s first career pass.

A year ago Coty Sensabaugh was inking a three-year, $15 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams only to see the Rams cut him in October. However, Sensabaugh didn’t stay unemployed for long, and was signed by the New York Giants where he remained for the rest of the season.

Coty Sensabaugh’s Impact on the Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback

The Steelers are projecting Coty Sensabaugh as a nickel/slot back. William Gay occupied that role for much of 2016, but the veteran is showing signs of slowing and the Steelers would like to replace him. Artie Burns is set to return as the Steelers starter at cornerback, and opposite him the Steelers had restricted free agent Ross Cockrell in 2016, who could still return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will also bring Al-Hajj Shabazz to training camp as well as 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson whose NFL career consists of 2 and a half training camp practices. The Steelers are also expected to draft a cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Sensabaugh declared “I came here to help these guys get two games better,” while affirming that the Keith Butler’s defensive system is similar to that of Dick LeBeau’s whom he played with down in Tennessee.

Like Justin Hunter, the free agent wide receiver the Steelers signed last week, Coty Sensabaugh also has a relationship with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchack.

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Steelers Sign Justin Hunter, Whose Roster Spot is in His Sights?

Pittsburgh’s first successful free agent foray outside the confines of the South Side saw the Steelers sign Justin Hunter, a wide receiver drafted by Mike Munchak with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Justin Hunter played three years for the Tennessee Titans before getting cut at the end of training camp in 2016. From there Hunter spent time with the Miami Dolphins but got cut before the end of September, before landing with the Buffalo Bills.

Justin Hunter, James Harrison, Steelers vs. Titans, Steelers sign Justin Hill

James Harrison looks on as Justin Hunter catches one of 2 pass in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: McPeak, USA Today, via SCI

Finding/establishing a viable number two wide receiver to play alongside Antonio Brown has been a priority for the Steelers during 2017 off season that took on greater urgency after Markusy Wheaton walked.

  • However, even though Justin Hunter was drafted a round and a half ahead of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers clearly don’t see him as a replacement.

For comparison’s sake, despite seeing both his rookie and “senior” seasons marred by injuries, Markus Wheaton left Pittsburgh with 107 catches and 8 touchdowns, whereas Justin Hunter only has 78 grabs, although 12 of those were for touchdowns.

Whose Roster Spots Does Justin Hunter Have in His Sights?

Assuming he gets reinstated by the NFL and assuming he avoids further suspensions, Martavis Bryant looks to compete with Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger’s attention down the field. Eli Rogers impressed during his rookie season and the coaches see him as a natural slot receiver, although Darrius Heyward-Bey has also shown he’s a competent number 3 wide out.

The Steelers had hoped that Sammie Coates would blossom into a viable number 2 wide receiver but Coates arguably dropped more passes than he caught in 2016.

  • Injuries played a factor, but there have also been rumblings about his worth ethic and practice habits.

At the bottom of the roster the Steelers have Cobi Hamilton, who performed extremely well for a training camp injury replacement 6th string wide receiver, and Demarcus Ayers who also delivered when pressed into action late in the season.

On paper, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are the two players that Justin Hunter will likely place his bulls eye on, although neither Darriuss Heyward-Bey nor Sammie Coates should get too comfortable.

With that said, while terms haven’t been released yet, the Justin Hill’s one year contract with the Steelers suggests that this is at or near a veteran minimum signing which, if correct, would not even ensure his roster spot.

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