“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
What do those words, uttered by Lt. James Gordon in The Dark Knight about Batman’s complex identity in the eyes of the people of Gotham, have to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2017 draft class?
Maybe everything. This might have been the draft class Steelers legacy deserved, but not the one the franchise needed right now.
Retirement is milling around in the mind of Ben Roethlisberger, as much as Pittsburgh wishes it were not so. That means 2017 could easily be the final year for the Steelers' franchise quarterback, even if the team fails to come up with a Super Bowl ring after another extended playoff run.
With this reality in mind, I implored the team in several pre-draft articles to find early impact players in this class, even if that required aggressive maneuvering to land essential targets. I’d rather come away from a class like this one with two high-impact prospects, preferably a pass rusher and a cornerback, than four developmental role players. The ability to get home more consistently with four rushers is essential to a defense built like Pittsburgh’s, as is the ability to mix and match coverages more readily due to greater talent in the secondary.
But Kevin Colbert and Co. had other ideas, and really it isn’t hard to see why. They’re continuing to build the roster for the long term, as any GM would be wont to do. Colbert’s last three first-round picks have been about as raw as you’ll find, as the GM has drafted for size, athleticism and upside with his most premium resources. Sure, Artie Burns played as a rookie, but pop on some All-22 and see how many vertical routes he let behind him in Cover 3, and how much Pittsburgh simplified their defensive approach to accommodate him. For all his athleticism, Bud Dupree has struggled to get his hips around and corner effectively, although flashes of hope could be seen down the stretch last season.
In a vacuum, anyone can understand these picks. But the Steelers aren’t in a vacuum right now, they’re a win away from being back in the Super Bowl if they can manage to navigate by New England. Do you think that having competent man-coverage corners that would have allowed Pittsburgh to pattern-match the Patriots receivers might have made life a little tougher for Tom Brady in last year’s AFC Championship Game? Do you think being able to impact the pocket with four rushers and drop seven into coverage could have changed the outcome? If you don’t, think about what Houston, masters of successfully rushing four and matching up man-to-man, would have done against New England with Pittsburgh’s offense.
Will T.J. Watt be a good player in Pittsburgh? That remains to be seen, but on paper there really is no reason to doubt him. He tested like an elite athlete at the combine, and while he may not play to that tier consistently, he has a lot of tools to develop. Watt’s size, quickness, length, work ethic and football IQ make him a tough candidate to bet against long term, but he’s not a refined pass rusher with a ready-to-implement plan of attack or great understanding of how to efficiently win 1v1.
The same can be said for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has the tools and traits to be a fine receiver someday, but inconsistent technique and routes show up far too often on tape. He’ll also be firmly behind the Steelers' top three receivers on the depth chart heading into camp, putting his Year One impact on the back burner unless something happens with Martavis Bryant again.
Both have a good shot to eventually be staples of Pittsburgh’s roster, but it’s tough to ignore the other pieces that were drifting down the board toward the franchise, ready to step into a more pivotal role right away. Cleveland jumped over Pittsburgh to grab Miami tight end David Njoku in the first round, a player that would have put the Steelers’ dynamic offense over the top. The price to jump up was just the Browns' fourth-round pick (#108), a deal the Steelers could have bettered by offering their third-round comp selection.
In the second round, it was Chidobe Awuzie and Obi Melifonwu, two vastly talented defensive backs slipping down the board toward Pittsburgh, but the team again failed to make a move. Melifonwu was nabbed by the Raiders six spots ahead of the Steelers, and Awuzie just two spots ahead, as the team sat on its hands and waited for their No. 4 wide receiver. At that point in the draft you’re typically talking about giving up Day 3 picks to move up and get your guy, so the Steelers likely could have hopped up a couple spots and still kept their third-round pick. Or stay at No. 62 and selected Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers or Auburn’s Carl Lawson in the third round, both early-impact pass rushers with polished skill sets who could contribute right away on the money downs. I’m throwing out a few specific scenarios here, but the bottom line is that the draft could have been handled differently if looking to acquire early impact players.
Cameron Sutton and James Conner will play nice roles for the team in 2017, but every single Day 3 pick is a long-term developmental project at best, and Pittsburgh would have been wise to use those selections as trade bait to go grab the players that would have helped make their team deadly this season. Look at how aggressive New Orleans was to get Drew Brees the pieces he needs for another championship run before his arm falls off. They even traded a second-round pick in next year’s draft to get the playmaking, dynamic threat out of the backfield in Alvin Kamara that Sean Payton has always used so successfully.
But that wasn’t the priority in this draft. The priority was to give the franchise the draft it should have, building the team for long-term success the way Pittsburgh always has.
“That just isn’t their style!” is a phrase you’ll often hear when you suggest the Steelers be more aggressive in the draft, but maybe it should have been more their style this year. Maybe 2-3 additional pieces of some of the premier players in the class could have helped put the current roster over the top.
Not their style though. Stay at home, let the board fall to you. High character. Low risk. Safe. The draft those who herald the franchise as stable and low maintenance would praise.
This draft class wasn’t bad. It was simply the class that the tradition of Pittsburgh deserved, not the one it needed to fuel a Super Bowl run.
If the team stays healthy, the AFC is weaker than the NFC and Pittsburgh certainly has the talent to make a run regardless, but now other players need to make significant jumps and weaknesses will have to continue to be covered defensively. The goal hasn’t changed, and the ability to get there wasn’t weakened by any means, it simply wasn’t made much easier by this class.
In three years, the team will undoubtedly be pleased with the results of the 2017 haul, but if there isn’t another Lombardi in the trophy case, the feeling may not carry quite as much weight as it could have.