Its Too Early for Results, but Steelers Strategy in 2021 NFL Draft was Sound

After months of speculation, mock drafts, rumors, Pro Day visits and Zoom interviews, the 2021 NFL Draft has finally come and gone.

  • The Steelers newest draft class is complete.

It’s obviously still too early to know how any of these NFL trainees will do, but it’s more than acceptable to talk about the approach the Steelers took in procuring their latest batch of players.

  • So, what grade would I give Pittsburgh’s strategy?

How about an A? Too strong? OK, what about a “Thumbs Up”? Is that too wishy-washy? Should I have gone with “Two Thumps Up”? Too strong, like I’m fully endorsing every pick?

  • Fine, how about a smiley face? Does that work? It does? Good.
Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Like it often does, the Steelers’ latest draft had a theme: Starters. It was no surprise that the organization went into this past weekend’s extravaganza in search of multiple players who could possibly start as early as Week 1 of the 2021 regular season. The only question was, which positions would Pittsburgh prioritize first? Or, maybe it wasn’t the positions so much as specific players. Or, perhaps the team would emphasize both positions and players who could help improve a certain area.

The Steelers told us something with their first three selections: they want to improve the ground game, and they want to find players who can fit into new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada’s scheme.

After the selections of running back Najee Harris in the first round (24th, overall), tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round (55th, overall) and guard/center Kendrick Green in the third round (87th, overall), I must say, mission accomplished.

Harris was the best running back on the board by most accounts; not only was he productive at Alabama — Harris was the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,843 yards — he’s the type of versatile three-down back who can fit well in Canada’s dynamic offense.

As for Freiermuth, he’s the kind of in-line tight end who can take the place of the recently-retired Vance McDonald. While Freiermuth isn’t quite the ferocious, old-school blocker Heath Miller was back in the day, he has potential. But it’s as a pass-catching threat where Freiermuth, who is a great athlete and loves to punish defenders, can truly be valuable. Since Canada’s offense calls for a lot of 12 personnel packages (aka two-tight end sets), the Steelers will need a talented in-line tight end who can contribute right away. Freiermuth has the potential to be that.

Kendrick Green, Steelers 3rd round pick 2021

Kendrick Green has Matt Robinson’s back. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Tribune-Review

Then, of course, there’s Kendrick Green, a mean (in the best sense), nasty and physical lineman who relishes blocking for the run and is quite the athlete (he was clocked at a 4.85 at his Pro Day in March). While Freiermuth was dubbed “Baby Gronk” during his days at Happy Valley, in Green, it looks like Pittsburgh may have found the nephew that the recently-retired Maurkice Pouncey didn’t know he had.

In all seriousness, Green sort of looks like Pouncey; he definitely plays like him. He even wore the No. 53 at Illinois. Green was the third-straight player the Steelers drafted over the weekend who has a golden opportunity to walk into training camp and immediately find himself at the top of the depth chart.

It’s less likely that a team finds even future starters once it gets past the first three rounds of a draft. But in tackle Dan Moore Jr., fourth round, Texas A&M; inside linebacker Buddy Johnson, fourth round, Texas A&M; and outside linebacker Quincy Roche, sixth round, Miami, the Steelers picked up three players who could develop into major contributors — and even starters.

Again, it’s early. The draft is an inexact science, and it’s rare for a team to find more than a couple of major contributors from any particular class. All an organization can do is select quality players at positions of need and trust in their ability to scout, coach and develop.

The Steelers almost always take a sound approach to the annual draft.

2021 was no different.

 

 

 

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Should the Steelers Avoid Drafting Players Who Opted Out?

During his annual pre-draft press conference on Monday that co-starred head coach Mike Tomlin, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert did was he usually does: He said a whole lot of nothing and did so quite well.

 

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

Don’t get me wrong, Colbert enlightened the media and fans with a lot of his answers, but he didn’t necessarily shed more light on any particular topic that folks were interested in.

For example, will the Steelers trade up or back? He said some stuff, mostly about Pittsburgh probably not trading up, but what else was he supposed to say? Why would a general manager tip his or her hand about the team’s desire to trade in any direction in the days leading up to the NFL Draft? The second a gm seems eager to make a trade, that gm loses a ton of leverage. Colbert said a bunch of other stuff, including his thoughts on the draft depth at various positions. For example, inside linebacker is deep, but defensive line is not.

  • I believe even the casual draft fans already knew that.

Colbert also didn’t rule out the possibility of the Steelers drafting a running back in the first round and that the team, despite the popular opinion out there that the position has severely slipped in value over the years, will pick the player that it thinks is the best one at 24 regardless of the position. Ah, yes, the old Colbert pre-draft standby: “We recognize the serious need at (insert position here), but we’re going to pick the best player on our board (Best Player Available).”

However, there was a particular nugget from Monday’s presser that I found extremely interesting, and that had to do with Colbert’s thoughts on players who opted out for the 2020 college football season due to concerns about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Below is a quote from Colbert, courtesy of NFL.com:

As I stated in the summer, if a player chooses to opt-out for whatever reason, that’s their decision and we will respect it. However, if a player played in 2020 and those players are of equal value, the one that didn’t play and the one that played, we’ll take the one that played because we don’t know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football.

“We believe it’s hard to sit this game out,” Colbert continued. “Sometimes it happens because of injury, but this time it was pandemic-related for the most part. But we will take the players, again if they’re close. It’s not to say we’re not gonna draft somebody that opted out. I couldn’t say that. But if I have a choice and we have a choice, we’ll take the one that played if their value is close.”

If true, that’s pretty revealing. I realize the game of football is complex, even at the collegiate level, and if a player isn’t constantly honing his skills and developing as a prospect, it will make it that much harder to evolve and master the game at the professional level.

However, even Colbert indicated that players miss entire collegiate seasons all the time due to injury. Don’t a lot of those players not only get drafted but go on to have decent-to-great careers?

  • That was a rhetorical question, because they do.

This is just my opinion, but I’d be much more concerned about a serious injury than I would an opt-out due to a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. I know a lot of old-school football people are just–old-school–including Colbert, but I don’t think I’d evaluate a player who opted out of 2020 any differently than one who played.

If a team likes a prospect who opted out even slightly more than one who played, I think that team should go with its gut and pick the player it wants more.

  • Take Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, for example.

He opted out of the 2020 season but is still considered one of the top defensive prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons is likely going to go in the top 10 but could slide based on team needs and, of course, the always interesting quarterback class and which passers go where.

It’s doubtful Parsons, who turned in one heck of a performance at Penn State’s Pro Day, slides to the Steelers at 24, but what if he does? Would Pittsburgh have a seriously hard time picking him if he and, say, Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins were both there? I realize Colbert said the opt-out situation would only come into consideration if two players were close in terms of draft grades, but who’s to say what the Steelers are thinking? What if they assumed Parsons was never going to slide to 24 and spent so much time evaluating Collins, it has now given them a false sense of who he is as a prospect?

Obviously, the annual draft is a crapshoot, but maybe that’s why over-thinking things is often the biggest mistake teams make.

There are plenty of reasons to be cautious about a draft prospect. A healthy and productive player who opted out of his final collegiate season shouldn’t be one of them.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Safety – Depth Unsafe beyond Minkah, Edmunds

The Steelers spent countless years trying to shore up their secondary. So many years, in fact, it seemed like it would never happen.

  • That all changed in 2019 when the Steelers added the final piece to their complicated puzzle.

Unfortunately, after two seasons of some of the best secondary play the team had seen in a long time, there are now questions at cornerback, following the free-agent departure of Mike Hilton and the seemingly sudden release of Steven Nelson. But what about the safety position? Are there some questions that need to be answered in the form of a premium draft choice or two? We shall find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

 

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

While he was certainly a surprise first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (28th, overall), that hasn’t kept Terrell Edmunds out of the starting lineup. In-fact, Edmunds has started a total of 43 games at strong safety since his rookie season. While his production and progress haven’t always impressed, he’s been reliable, and it appears that he has steadily improved each and every season.

  • 2020 may have been Edmunds’ finest campaign, as he tallied two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Maybe Edmunds’ progress can be attributed to the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety. It’s no stretch to say that Fitzpatrick, a former first-round pick who was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins early in the 2019 season, is the Steelers’ most dynamic defensive back since Troy Polamalu. That’s certainly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence in the secondary forces opposing offenses to account for him on every play–just like they once did with Polamalu. Fitzpatrick has back-to-back First-Team All-Pro honors under his belt and is heading into his fourth season with the look of a man who will earn a huge payday sooner rather than later.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

Veteran Sean Davis recently signed with the Colts, while 2020 special teams captain, Jordan Dangerfield, remains unsigned. Pittsburgh inked a deal with Miles Killebrew, who spent his first five seasons with the Lions. Much like Dangerfield, Killebrew was more special teams contributor than he was safety in Detroit and registered zero defensive snaps in two of his past three seasons — including none a year ago. The Steelers also list Kilebrew as a linebacker.

Antoine Brooks  a sixth-round pick out of Maryland a season ago, only appeared in four games in 2020 and didn’t make much of an impression.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThis one is a bit tricky. Obviously, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are locked in as starters for 2021. However, both have reached the points of their rookie deals where the Steelers must decide if they will pick up their fifth-year options. It seems likely that Pittsburgh will pick up both — that is almost a certainty with Fitzpatrick — but as of this writing, no announcement has been made about either player. 

  • Again, Fitzpatrick is destined for a huge, multi-year deal, and the Steelers will have a lot of work to do to get one done.

As for Edmunds, he isn’t going to cost them as much, but he’s not going to be cheap, either. I don’t think it’s a done deal that either or both will be Steelers through their second contracts. With Killebrew and Brooks mostly unknowns, and with former Penn State safety Marcus Allen playing more inside linebacker, these days, there could be room on the roster for another young safety. Draft need: Moderate

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Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Needs @ Outside Linebackers, Thin Depth Behind Watt & Highsmith

The Steelers boasted one of the best outside-linebacker duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, as both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 49 quarterback sacks. With But Dupree departing for the Titans as a much-sought-after free agent, where do the Steelers stand at the position in terms of starters and depth heading into the 2021 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in and find out.

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, heads into his fifth season as not only the Steelers best linebacker; he’s their best player and most valuable asset. Furthermore, he’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, despite coming up short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons.

With 49.5 career sacks to his name, Watt is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ all-time mark of 84.5 set by the legendary James Harrison. But Watt’s pass-rush prowess can’t just be measured in sacks; the pressure he puts on opposing linemen and quarterbacks is non-stop game-in and game-out. In fact, some credited Watt’s presence with the sudden career uptick experienced by Bud Dupree starting in 2019. Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, struggled with injuries and consistency through four seasons before coming on strong to close out his Steelers’ career.

With that in mind, maybe Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte a year ago and the presumed replacement for Dupree as the weak-side starting outside linebacker can also benefit from playing alongside Watt. Alex Highsmith started five games in 2020 and recorded 48 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. Highsmith also notched a game-changing interception in an important road win vs. the Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium.

Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Backups

To say the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker is sparse would be an understatement. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi left as a free agent, leaving the newly acquired Cassius Marsh, a 28-year old journeyman originally drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks back in 2014, as the top backup.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart is Christian Kuntz, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of nearby Duquesne University.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftI believe there is optimism that Highsmith can continue to improve and make a huge enough leap from his first to his second year that Pittsburgh should have itself a fine replacement for Dupree in 2021.

  • But, again, the lack of depth has to be a major concern heading into the draft.

While it didn’t draw much discussion, in a normal year, the Steelers likely would have found a way to keep Ola Adeniyi, who if nothing else would have secured a proven special teams contributor who was familiar with the Steelers defense. 

As the Steelers depth chart at outside linebackers stands now, one has to wonder if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin won’t be tempted to hold Invincible like open tryouts just to fill out the roster.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Pittsburgh does need to improve depth and perhaps do it with someone who can develop into a future starter so the priority of outside linebacker for the Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be: Moderate

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers in Tight Spot @ Tight End Heading into 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonald this offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters

A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.

At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups

Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader, Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftAgain, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)

With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.

After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.

No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

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Steelers Need Depth at ILB. Does Free Agent Avery Williamson Fit the Bill?

In season trades once were like unicorn sightings for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They just didn’t happen. Then came Levi Brown in 2013. Well sort of, because Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. This was followed by Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nick Vannett.

  • Both of whom arrived, and suited up as starters.

The trend continued in 2020, when injuries cost the Steelers the services of Devin Bush, prompting Kevin Colbert to send a 5th round pick to the New York Jets to acquired the services of Avery Williamson. Colbert was taking out an insurance policy, an insurance policy he would cash by December as injuries forced Williamson into the lineup. Did Williamson do enough to punch his return ticket to Pittsburgh? Let’s find out.

"Avery

Capsule Profile of Avery Williamson’s Career with the Steelers

Avery Williamson was a fifth-round pick by the Titans in the 2014 NFL Draft and became a starter at inside linebacker almost immediately. After recording 376 tackles in four seasons, Williamson hit the free-agent market in 2018 and signed with the Jets. Williamson remained with the struggling franchise for two-plus seasons before Pittsburgh came calling last year. Thanks in part to a season-ending ACL tear suffered by Devin Bush, the Steelers traded a fifth-round pick to New York last November in exchange for Williamson’s services. Williamson started four games for the Steelers near the end of the season while filling in for both Bush and Robert Spillane.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Avery Williamson in 2021

He’s a veteran presence and a good leader and locker room guy. He’s also been a consistent starter for the vast majority of his career, and there’s something to be said for that kind of durability in the NFL.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Avery Williamson in 2021

There’s really nothing that wows you about Williamson’s game, which may be okay depending on his salary demands. Having been in the league for quite a bit, Williamson, 28, is an unrestricted free agent. The last contract he signed with New York totaled $22.5 million for three years.

He’s obviously not going to get that kind of money at this stage of his career, but it’s doubtful the cap-strapped Steelers — a team that may have to move on from several of its own homegrown players — will want to pay a veteran like Williamson even a fraction of that.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Avery Williamson in 2021

With Robert Spillane, a relative unknown well into the 2020 season, stepping up and performing rather well in Bush’s absence, it looks like he’s created an opportunity for himself in 2021. If Bush is back at 100 percent, the Steelers will need a thumper like Vince Williams to play alongside him.

  • Will that be Williams?

With the Steelers’ financial situation so uncertain, that doesn’t seem likely, meaning Williams could be a cap casualty. If Williams, a long-time fixture in Pittsburgh, winds up a cap casualty with one year to go on his contract, there’s no chance that Williamson will return.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Jayrone Elliott Provide Depth at OLB in 2021? Don’t Count on It

There’s no question that outside linebacker is a source of concern for the Steelers as they approach free agency. With Bud Dupree almost surely out the door the second the NFL’s new calendar year begins, Alex Highsmith, last year’s third-round pick, will get the first crack at filling the void as the starter opposite T.J. Watt.

  • After that, where’s the depth going to come from?

Can it come from a player like Jayrone Elliott, the proverbial journeyman who hasn’t really made much noise along his NFL journey with various teams? We’re about to find out.

Jayrone Elliot, Steelers vs Bengals

Jayrone Elliot makes a tackle. Photo Credit: SteelersNow.com

Capsule Profile of Jayrone Elliott’s Career with the Steelers

Jayrone Elliott was an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2014 and spent his first three years with the Packers. After a season with the Cowboys in 2017, Elliott pinballed around the NFL for a bit before winding up with the Steelers in 2019. Since then, Elliott has bounced between the Steelers practice squad and their active roster and is now a free agent. In 52 games over a six-year career, Elliott has zero starts and has recorded only five sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jayrone Elliott in 2021

Elliott has obviously been in the NFL for a while. He won’t be expensive to resign, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a veteran around to provide depth at the outside linebacker spot.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jayrone Elliott in 2021

You can take some of the positives I just used to describe Elliott and spin them into negatives. Elliott has spent six years in the NFL and has barely even made a mark. Besides, he’s 29 years old, and if he hasn’t progressed at this stage of his career, he’s likely never going to.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jayrone Elliott in 2021

There are plenty of young and eager outside linebackers out there, either still in college or currently floating around the NFL, who would love to come to the Steelers and develop and hone their skills at the outside linebacker position.

I think Pittsburgh would be better off encouraging Jayrone Elliott to get on with his life’s work.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

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