The NFL draft is a time of the year when anything is possible. Fans dream of their favorite team grabbing the next superstar player to help them win a Super Bowl.
Some teams are closer to that goal than others. While the Steelers enter 2018 reeling from a disappointing playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the core of their team remains a strong roster with very little holes to fill. The quality of their returning players is reflected in the fact that most experts rate them as second or third favorites to win Super Bowl LIII, and fans who like to bet on the NFL at Stakers.com will find Pittsburgh available at short odds for most of their matchups next season.
How much work do they need to do when the NFL Draft kicks off on April 26th?
In my opinion, not much is different from last season. Once again we're waiting to find out what happens with Le'Veon Bell, as his return (or departure) from Pittsburgh appears to have the most impact on the team's plans going forward. His return would be one less spot to replace via free agency or the draft. But his departure would create at least one hole to address, yet free up money to pursue other key additions.
One thing that is a change from last season is Ben Roethlisberger’s long-term plans. The Steelers franchise quarterback has publicly stated that he's not only returning for 2018 but has his eyes set on several more years of football. That could help the team better prepare, not only at his position but solidifying the team by putting quality components around their leader.
Big Ben and Bell represent a side of the football which doesn't appear to need many adjustments. However, the defensive situation remains the same too: talented playmakers apply here.
The Steelers defense showed signs of improvement in 2017 but still have some weaknesses. The biggest of those is at inside linebacker, where the horrific injury sustained by Ryan Shazier means that the team will be looking for a linebacker, or possibly even two, this offseason.
Critics are also quick to pan Pittsburgh's secondary. Joe Haden added a consistent shutdown corner to one side of the field, but some point out that his absence (during a midseason injury) exposed second-year cornerback Artie Burns. Those who feel Burns is just fine may point fingers in another direction: the safeties. With talented backups such as Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton behind Haden and Burns, the safety position is an unsteady situation. Veteran Mike Mitchell stands to make over eight million dollars in 2018, and soon-to-be third-year safety Sean Davis had a sophomore slump following his team Rookie of the Year award win.
Behind those two? Your guess is as good as mine.
As I peruse various mock drafts and start to become familiar with names the experts predict to wear a Steelers jersey this season, I came up with this list of players that fans should keep an eye on as a fit for the franchise.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
I have said under no certain terms should the Steelers consider a quarterback with their first-round pick. That hasn't stopped several draft "experts" from mocking one to them, with Rudolph topping the list of most-drafted by those analysts.
Their rationale? At some point, the Steelers have to give serious consideration to Roethlisberger's replacement, and it might as well be this season while there is still time for Big Ben to pass on his wisdom.
If the Steelers are looking seriously at Ben’s replacement, then Rudolph could very well be the answer. Though he has lacked a little consistency on ordinary plays, he has caught the eye with his confidence and willingness to go for the big passes.
A fearless match-winning pocket passer with a big arm and plenty of NFL potential, he would be the ideal young gun to benefit from learning from Roethlisberger over the next season or two.
Jeff Holland, OLB, Auburn
I haven't seen Holland's name attached to the Steelers a lot, but he is worth mentioning. Holland comes off as more of a pass rusher than a run-stopper... which may no longer be an issue with Pittsburgh's outside linebackers dropping into coverage more often last season.
With a decision on Bud Dupree looming, the team could ensure against the future by adding another mid-round linebacker.
Marcus Davenport, OLB, UTSA
Davenport is another edge rushing possibility and could be a valuable addition to the Steelers’ roster.
A solid pursuit player with a good attitude and an approach to the position, Davenport would need some work and is a player Pittsburgh could stash with an eye on development for the future.
Marcus Allen, S, Penn State
With the possibility that salary cap issues may lead to Mike Mitchell and J.J. Wilcox being released, the Steelers will need to focus even more on the safety position.
Allen is one of the best options in this year’s draft. A local favorite, he would be a popular pick and is a well-balanced player who would bring size and speed, good running and covering ability, and solid tackling to the team. (All of those traits are much needed!)
Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
Another name being thrown around a lot early on, Harrison would be a fine addition for the Steelers.
Aggressive and smart, he has the hard-hitting, reliable Alabama style of defense and would offer the Steelers an instant playmaking advantage.
Rashaan Evans, ILB, Alabama
Alabama is a defensive playmaker factory, so naturally, with the Steelers loss of Ryan Shazier, Evans' name has been dropped as a potential fit for the team.
Rangy and fast, Evans possesses similar traits to those that were lost when Pittsburgh couldn't field a suitable replacement for Shazier during the latter part of the 2017 season. Evans can play sideline-to-sideline and with speed. The only question is whether or not he'll be there when the Steelers go to the podium in the first round.
Leighton Vander Esch, ILB, Boise State
The last of those players I have seen mentioned in the same breath as "draft" and "Steelers" is Boise State product, Leighton Vander Esch. The inside linebacker represents a need for Pittsburgh and appears to have natural instincts to sniff out plays just like Shazier did.
He's yet another prospect who can run sideline-to-sideline and excels in pass coverage. Vander Esch is also a capable blitzer, which may make defensive coordinator Keith Butler salivate, as he sends anyone after the quarterback at any given moment in a game.
The draft is always an exciting time of year and signals the beginning of the build-up to the next NFL season. For Pittsburgh fans, there is every reason to look forward to this year’s draft.
If they get their strategy right, the Steelers could end up with a roster capable of taking them deeper into the playoffs, and perhaps all the way to their seventh Super Bowl victory.