So, the Steelers tried to land a big fish with free agent linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Some read that as the team’s perceived need to upgrade the inside linebacker spot with Timmons’ departure in free agency.
I don’t. I see it purely as the team having tried to seize an opportunity to land what they consider to be an elite player at an affordable price.
Regardless of whether I think Hightower would have been effective in coverage (stats/draft bios say no), I don’t think they considered ILB a "need position" with Vince Williams waiting in the wings. I just think they saw an opportunity to try and leverage; Williams is otherwise perfectly adequate there.
In truth, the Steelers have five real needs
Edge – their heir apparent to James Harrison/rotation, the outside linebacker position needs to be addressed; and this is a terrific draft to do so, as a top pass rusher will be there at the Steelers first pick.
Outside Cornerback – Ross Cockrell, the Steelers current starting corner, is serviceable. But they really need a press corner to add versatility to their defense, and to help stop the short passing game. They tried addressing this in free agency, but lost out on signing Dre Kirkpatrick and Davon House.
Slot Cornerback – William Gay has lost a step, as was made clear in the AFC Championship game versus New England. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert made it equally as clear that former second round pick, CB Senquez Golson, can’t be relied on, after two years out of the league.
Wide Receiver – Colbert has also made it clear he can’t rely on WR Martavis Bryant – even if reinstated. They need a player who can stretch the field and catch the ball consistently. (Sammie Coates hasn’t been consistent thus far.)
Running Back – The Steelers need a backup running back to replace DeAngelo Williams; even if they were to re-sign him, Williams turns 34-years-old in April.
Any other needs?
Tight End – I don’t see this as a need – I think from all we’ve heard from Colbert that they feel Ladarius Green will be 100% for next season.
With this in mind, some draft scenarios
Regardless of any scenario that plays out in free agency, this is your first round pick. The draft is ideal for an edge rusher, and one of these four top guys will likely be there at pick number 30:
- Takkarist McKinley – Maybe the best of the guys that may drop – he will have shoulder surgery that will sideline him for six months. This may cause teams to shy away from him, even though he’s otherwise a mid-first round guy. (Heath Miller anyone?)
- Carl Lawson – Unlikely to fall, but some have him doing so – likely the best of the four here. He has an injury history that will turn some off, but was healthy for all of the 2016 season.
- Derek Rivers – A talented pass rusher, but from a very small school. While he’s shown the ability to contend against top competition, it’s still a concern for some.
- T.J. Watt – The least likely of the four guys – great effort guy, but less of an athlete than the others named here.
My guess as to whom the Steelers draft? McKinley... Heath Miller redux.
With the free agent market dried up, and a refusal to overpay for an adequate replacement for Ross Cockrell, Pittsburgh finds their player in round two. Guys like Quincy Wilson, Gareon Conley, Cordrea Tankersley, and Desmond King all could be options here.
If the Steelers take a boundary corner, it's likely they’d apprentice under Cockrell for most of the season.
If they don’t sign a slot cornerback like Nickell Robey-Coleman, then I think the Steelers will take someone in round three, like Kevin King or Cameron Sutton, who can step in quickly at the slot position.
This will likely be Pittsburgh's other third round pick: a bigger receiver (not in the mold of Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, or Demarcus Ayers) is needed. This would be the time to find that guy. Damore'ea Stringfellow, Josh Reynolds, and Chris Godwin could be candidates here.
The Steelers like physical backs as backups to Le'Veon Bell. Looking at round four, players like Kareem Hunt, Samaje Perine, and Pitt’s James Connor, would all be solid prospects at the point in the draft.
The 2017 draft is perfectly tailored to the Steelers needs. This is in part why you’re not seeing the team reach in free agency: there’s little need.
By the end of the draft they willl have improved their press man coverage, slot coverage, pass rush, and added depth at RB and WR. Also, don’t forget, they get four elite players back in Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant (likely reinstated), Cameron Heyward, and Ladarius Green. There's also the potential that, once healthy, Senquez Golson becomes the player they hoped he’d be.