Projecting out the NFL Draft possibilities beyond the first round is typically a fool’s errand. The unpredictability of the process often makes it an inaccurate endeavor, but examining team needs, scheme fits and the prototypes certain franchises target to build their roster can bring us closer to discovering the organization’s possible intentions come draft weekend.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers, it has perhaps never been easier to predict what direction they’ll go come April 27th. The offensive line is as intact and under contract as the group has ever been, with five strong starters and several solid depth pieces. You never rule out a potential late Day 3 addition if an offensive lineman of value is on the board, but you can dismiss the idea of the Steelers taking one with any of their Day 1 or 2 picks. Not happening.
After the signing of Tyson Alualu, the same can be said for the defensive line. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave round out the starting lineup, while Alualu, L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers should more than suffice as depth. Remember, the team is in nickel with two defensive linemen on the field 70-75 percent of the time, not much need for more than six competent players.
Martavis Bryant’s 2017 role is still a big question mark right now, but if he is reinstated the Steelers will be set at wide receiver. Pittsburgh loves to draft at least one regardless of a full roster, but I’d be surprised if they use either of their top two picks on the position if Bryant is back in the fold.
With the futures of Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell still somewhat uncertain (I expect Bell to sign long term with the team eventually), a potential replacement or strong backup for both of them makes sense. But unless one of the top four quarterbacks falls to them at pick 30, I don’t see another viable long-term starting signal caller in the class, and the Steelers shouldn’t reach for a long shot in the second or third rounds. Running back obviously won’t be the team’s first or second round pick, but I wouldn’t rule out Pittsburgh grabbing a potential backup to Bell with one of their two third-round picks.
However, if we’re realistic, the Steelers are likely to use at least their first two picks in one of the following ways: an outside corner with more man-to-man or press coverage skills than Ross Cockrell, a third-down replacement for Lawrence Timmons and likely in the form of a safety who can play in the box or slot, a move tight end, or an outside linebacker to eventually replace James Harrison.
The most crying need is for a pass rusher, both to give the team much-needed depth at the position, but also to help cut down on Harrison’s snap count. The veteran linebacker can physically handle a full snap count each week, but the reality is that he’s not nearly as effective drive-to-drive as some of his big-moment sacks would make you believe. Harrison’s an ideal third rusher right now, but being able to put him in that role is dependent on two things: Bud Dupree developing and more talent being added to the position group.
Auburn’s Carl Lawson and Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers are both great fits for the Steelers, and I think both will be available at pick 30. The NFL seems more enamored in some of the 4-3 defensive end types like Taco Charlton, Solomon Thomas, Derek Barnett and Charles Harris, opening a path for Lawson and Rivers to fall into Pittsburgh’s lap. Lawson is my third-ranked edge after Myles Garrett and Thomas, so if I’m drafting for Pittsburgh and he’s on the board, that’s the pick.
Let’s move to Round Two, where the team now has three distinct needs to focus on: cornerback, box/slot safety/linebacker hybrid, or tight end. My top three tight ends will likely be off the board at No. 62, and I don’t want to draft an injured player in Michigan’s Jake Butt until I know a little more about his medicals. This is a little early for me to think about North Carolina State safety Josh Jones, but I believe he and Florida’s Marcus Maye will be considered in the second round. I don’t love any of those options at 62, but in a deep cornerback class, a good fit is bound to still be on the board.
If the Steelers are moving to more Cover-2 and looking for press corners, Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley makes a ton of sense. He’s long and technical in press, and has the size and ball skills the Steelers desire on the outside. The Clemson senior is older (will be 24 in November), doesn’t have elite man coverage skills, and leaves something to be desired as a tackler on occasion, but still brings many of the traits Pittsburgh has seemed to value at the position. A few other corners could draw consideration here as well, including Florida’s Quincy Wilson and Tennessee’s Cameron Sutton, but I have Tankersly ranked the highest of cornerbacks I expect to still be on the board at this point.
So with Lawson and Tankersly in hand, the Steelers now have the 94th and 105th picks to address the tight end position, look for a third down dime defender, or even consider a backup to Bell or an outside receiver. Let’s assume Bryant is back in the fold and the team is happy enough with Knile Davis or Fitz Toussaint to wait on the running back spot until Day Three. That limits the board for them considerably.
If he’s still available, I take a chance on Jake Butt here. He can be a very good starter once he’s healthy, and as long as the medicals don’t reveal any long-term concerns, I’m all over him in the third round. If he’s not, and I’m looking for the piece to fill Ladarius Green’s role (even if he’s back in 2017, he’s never been able to stay healthy), a couple names jump out at me.
South Alabama’s Gerald Everett is extremely raw and unrefined, and won’t be much of a blocking help, but he’s a terrific athlete with the size and speed to replicate much of what Green brought to the offense. He may not contribute much Year One unless his routes improve, however, which would give me pause. The window to win a Super Bowl is now, and Pittsburgh should be looking for players to put their offense over the top.
Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges might not be available at this point in the draft, but there doesn't currently seem to be much buzz surrounding his name. At almost 6-7, 257 pounds, Hodges has the speed to stretch the field vertically, and the size and leaping ability to win contested catches in jump ball situations. He needs to become more consistent, develop a full route tree and learn to play in-line (just 12 snaps there in 2016 for the Hokies), but right now the big receiver would help fill a potential void should Green or even Bryant fail to return to the field.
Let’s not rule out them doubling up on outside linebackers either. Like it or not, the end is coming for James Harrison, and Bud Dupree hasn’t made massive strides heading into Year Three, albeit he was injured for much of last season. Even if Dupree and Lawson both pan out, there will be pass rushers that are better options than Anthony Chickillo in Round Three, and the Steelers would be wise to find a future No. 3 pass-rusher or potential starter should Lawson’s health concerns arise or Dupree’s development not go as planned. You can never have enough pass-rushers in this league, and the Steelers have had far too few over the past couple years.
Washington’s Joe Mathis is one of the my favorite mid-round edge rushers in the draft, and could be a perfect fit with the Steelers at No. 105. He’s extremely heavy-handed and powerful at the point of attack, and he’s just beginning to come into his own as a pass-rusher. He’s a terrific value pick that can continue to develop his rush arsenal behind Dupree and Harrison for a year, before eventually stepping into a key role with the team.
Coming away from the draft’s first two days with two impact pass rushers with starting ability, a ball skills cornerback who fits your evolving scheme, and a vertical-threat tight end with tantalizing upside isn’t a bad haul at all. Pittsburgh can easily come back with their fourth round pick and address their need for a dime defender with a niche safety, or take a deep threat wide receiver who can stretch the field. The picks are many and the needs are few for the Steelers this spring, but they’ll need to hit on most of them if they want to fill the few holes standing between them and another Super Bowl title.
(To read SCI publisher Jim Wexell's breakdown of candidates for the Steelers, click here.)