Rookie Report Card: Revisiting the Steelers’ 2017 Draft Class, Part One

With the Pittsburgh Steelers headed into post-season play, Steel City Underground will be looking back at the 2017 Draft Class and how the picks Pittsburgh made had an effect on their season and future with our Rookie Report Card series.

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A Quick Look Back

It was May. Spring was in full bloom and Steelers Nation was anxiously waiting to see who the Pittsburgh Steelers would select with their draft picks. The mock draft boards were filled with potential new roster members as analysts bantered about who they’d like to see in the black and gold versus who the Steelers really needed and at what position. With the way the weather has been of late, it’s almost hard to imagine things warming up for an all-new draft class and another winning NFL season.

Seven-plus months later, and we thought it’d be a good time to hand out our grades for the Steelers’ 2017 Draft Class. Before we do that, though, it’s worth going back to see Steel City Underground chief Joe Kuzma’s early analysis of who the Steelers selected.

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T.J. Watt

(OLB, Wisconsin – Round 1, Pick 30 – No. 30 overall)

Entering the draft, it wasn’t a secret that the Steelers needed to address their ability to set the edge and intensify their pass rush. 2015 pick, Bud Dupree, looked to be improving but outside of that, the Steelers had Jarvis Jones (a bust), James Harrison (who proved disappointing in many ways this season), Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. While both Moats and Chickillo have played throughout the season, off-and-on, both are only signed through the 2017 season. That meant that if Pittsburgh wanted to start building a younger, quicker future, they’d need to grab a guy they felt could step up early and get off to a hot start.

The pre-season conclusion?

Watt moved from tight end to linebacker due to the injuries, nearly missing three entire years before getting on the field in 2015. Hopefully he has a clean health check by the team physicians, and remains injury-free in the future. He has a ton of upside and appeared to be the best pass rusher left on the board who could be a day one contributor.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster

(WR, USC – Round 2, Pick 30 – No. 62 overall)

Steelers fans were a mixed bag when they heard the team select the young receiver from the University of Southern California in the second round. Wide Receiver was the deepest position the Steelers had on their roster at the time, with Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, Justin Hunter (via free agency) and Martavis Bryant (via reinstatement). Why in the world would the Steelers need another receiver?

As camp rolled around, we discovered that the team had heard the concerns over Brown being completely blanketed during the AFC Championship game, without much support from other receivers, and were about to make some big moves. First, with Coates still having finger issues, he went to the Cleveland Browns (where he recorded just six receptions for 70 yards). Ayers would end up with the Chicago Bears (and not play in 2017). Hamilton joined the Houston Texans and played in a single game (Dec. 31). In other words, as the final 53-man roster was shaking out, including decisions about undrafted free agent Marcus Tucker, the picture became clearer. The Steelers weren’t quite as deep at receiver as many imagined.

The preseason assessment on the selection of Smith-Schuster?

With the exception of Brown and Rogers, I’d argue the remaining names are all unreliable for one reason or another. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting the same result… Smith-Schuster represents a weapon the Steelers don’t already have: a possession receiver who makes combats catches, and an aggressive run blocker in the vein of Hines Ward.

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Cameron (Cam) Sutton

(CB, Tennessee – Round 3, Pick 30 – No. 94 overall)

The 2016 Steelers defensive secondary was a porous mess that had enough difficulties that Pittsburgh was forced to start (then rookies) Artie Burns and Sean Davis. It was a move that was nearly unheard of for the Steelers. Sutton competed in training camp and both Ross Cockrell and Senquez Golson moved on. With his willingness to play safety and cornerback during the Senior Bowl, his draft stock went up and the Steelers were waiting to grab a young defensive back to learn the system with veteran William Gay, free agent addition Coty Sensabaugh and Burns.

Pre-season conclusion?

Sutton fits the smaller prototype cornerback the Steelers seek. He should find a role by midseason in the subpackages requiring an extra defensive back, granted he doesn’t enter games early due to injuries to other players, or wins the starting job outright in camp.

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James Conner

(RB, Pittsburgh – Round 3, Pick 41 – No. 105 overall)

The native-son, Conner was immediately a hit when the Steelers announced he was joining them in 2017 after one of the most heartwarming comeback stories in college football (and life as he battled and beat cancer). Conner was selected to help compliment Le’Veon Bell and compete with Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint after DeAngelo Williams wasn’t re-signed during the offseason. Quickly, the NFL shop could not sell enough James Conner jerseys.

Conner would earn the backup spot and exit camp with a share of number two running back with Toussaint.

Pre-season analysis of Conner?

Enter Conner, who fought back from a gruesome knee injury and a bout with cancer to enter the NFL. His running style is more thunder to Bell’s lightning but gives the Steelers offense yet another dynamic it has not had in years…like Watt, this may have been a sympathy pick. Conner’s story is a great one, and since he played at Pitt, oftentimes those players would intermingle with the Steelers. They were familiar with one another, but just how familiar? Hopefully, it’s the better kind. But I believe that even though Conner had a tough past, that is now behind him. He has a chance to carve out his own niche at the next level.

Side Notes

I won’t say that Joe didn’t have some really good insights before the season even started because he did (click here to see his entire review). That Watt, Smith-Schuster, Sutton, and Conner had the 2017 seasons that they have had shows that there is a lot of truth to the pre-season analysis immediately after the draft. That some of the picks outperformed expectations just makes things that much more exciting.

In part two, we’ll look at the remainder of the Steelers’ 2017 draft selections and what the early thoughts were before they solidified a spot on the roster this season.

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