Steelers can enter 2020 Draft without alarm after free agency, restructuring
Recently, the Steel City Underground podcast discussion surrounded what the fallout during free agency looked like for the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers. After a few key signings and restructured deals, the Pittsburgh Steelers – who were cash-strapped and looked unlikely to make much noise in the free-agent markets – can enter the 2020 NFL Draft without a sense of alarm or emergency, confident in how they lay out their big board based on positions that need attention and depth.
This isn’t a mock of how the Steelers will draft this year. And, even if we were inside the head of Kevin Colbert and those who make the big decisions for the Steelers organization, we’d likely write something one second only to find out they’d seen something and move on from that idea. So, instead of telling you who we think the Steelers will target, let’s look at the positions that have been addressed, to some extent, through free agent signings and then areas that should be a focus during the draft due to a lack of depth on the current roster.
Offensive line not as big of a priority at this point
While it came as a bit of a surprise to me, personally, that long-time guard Ramon Foster announced his retirement, the Steelers also saw the Seattle Seahawks pick up center/guard B.J. Finney. That left starters Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Alejandro Villanueva with a handful of backups who’ve received some snaps here and there, including Matt Feiler (who had a second-round restricted free agent tender placed on him on 18 March), and Zach Banner (who received a new one-year contract).
Between March 19-20, Pittsburgh signed former veteran offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski from the Kansas City Chiefs. Wisniewski can start at both center and guard and is, at least, a short-term solution to depth concerns along the offensive line.
With J.C. Hassenauer (C), Chukwuma Okorafor (OL), Christian DiLauro (OL), and Derwin Gray (OT) also on the current roster, the Steelers look decently shored-up. The Steelers also signed OT Jarron Jones from the XFL.
The biggest question is who might back up DeCastro as a true guard. It wouldn’t be outlandish for the Steelers to look at another versatile offensive lineman during the draft. They met with LSU center Lloyd Cushenherry and West Virginia lineman Colton McKivitz during the NFL Scouting Combine. It’s almost a guarantee, however, that the Steelers will not utilize their first two picks during the draft in this positional group unless they’ve seen something in person or on tape that screams future Hall of Famer.
Tight ends and fullbacks look solid
The tight end position has been one that a lot of fans were expressing concern over after a 2019-20 season that saw diminished production. Vance McDonald spent time on the sidelines due to injury and Nick Vannett showed he could be counted on to block. Vannett, however, reached a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos. That left an opportunity open for the Steelers to reach out during free agency (which wasn’t necessarily a move that Joe, Brian, or Zach M. were excited about initially due to the potential cost of available prospects during their the podcast). Surprisingly, the Steelers reached out and signed veteran Eric Ebron.
With McDonald and Ebron with the team for two years, max, the position looks to be secure – for now. With hints that the tight end prospects in this year’s draft are underwhelming, it appears the Steelers are likely to roll with what they have. The team did meet with Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam during the combine but, as always, meetings don’t necessarily signal that the team will call that player’s name come draft day.
At fullback, the Steelers signed Derek Watt from the Los Angeles Chargers and released Roosevelt Nix who spent most of the 2019-20 season on injured/reserved. The union of the Watt brothers (minus J.J.) still has Steelers Nation buzzing. Will Watt be asked to play some tight end, too? That remains to be seen. It’s been done before (see David Johnson).
Receivers and rushers depth could be minorly addressed
In a recent article, Joe outlined his opinions on whether the offense was still a draft priority for the Steelers. His section on the running back and receiver situation in Pittsburgh was spot-on, in my opinion.
A glaring omission as to why most of the running attack wasn’t “good” in 2019, was also addressed in free agency with the signing of fullback Derek Watt, who would appear to be an upgrade on Roosevelt Nix (who missed practically the entire 2019 season on IR). – Joe Kuzma
I would add that the most glaring reason (for a limited rushing attack last season) was due to the fact that the offensive line was required to adjust to a different signal-caller (whether Devlin Hodges or Mason Rudolph) after Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined after Week 1. There are more nuances to how the offensive line operates than the casual fan would imagine. Add to that; several injuries to key players made grabbing yards on the ground and through the air a real challenge.
James Conner has been labeled by many as a player that just can’t stay healthy but he has proven that when he is – he’s an every-down threat. The Steelers don’t look to be moving away from Benny Snell or Jaylen Samuels in the offensive backfield and the trio could just hit their stride at the same time this season. This is a position, however, where the Steelers could find a player via the draft to give them some reassurance.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is ready for a bounce-back year in 2020, which will only elevate the play of Diontae Johnson and James Washington. This is one area where I think the Steelers will take a hard look at an inside or slot receiver – and do it during the draft. They don’t have to reach to find a player that can give them another situational target. Saying that, the Steelers do have Deon Cain on the roster that could step up into a bigger role if there isn’t a prospect they feel fits their system.
Defensive line, linebackers could benefit most from draft
The Steelers have addressed several positions ahead of the draft on the defensive side of the ball. They lost Javon Hargrave (Philadelphia Eagles) but have Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs and added Chris Wormley (from the Baltimore Ravens). Pittsburgh also picked up DL Cavon Walker and DE DeWayne Hendrix from the XFL; Walker was the sack leader before the league was forced to shut down. With Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Dan McCullers also on the defensive line, the Steelers have an opportunity to reach out in the draft for a player they can develop and not necessarily require to be a day-one starter.
Finding a player that can fill Hargrave’s spot is something that will be a priority.
Tyler Matakevich and Mark Barron are on to other pastures, so to speak, leaving the inside linebacker position a little thin behind Vince Williams and Devin Bush. Ulysees Gilbert III, Robert Spillane, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper have all spent time with the team in the past and understand the system should they continue with the Steelers moving forward. Whether Pittsburgh feels comfortable asking Skipper or Adeniyi play inside is a question, however. The Steelers have little to worry about at outside linebacker, for now.
Defensive backfield could use shoring-up
With Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds, and Steven Nelson, the Steelers solidified their starters in the defensive backfield in 2019. For depth, Pittsburgh has Jordan Dangerfield, Marcus Allen, Justin Layne, and Cameron Sutton. That leaves them a little thin in depth but not talent. The Steelers did add former XFL safety Tyree Kinnel recently as well. Whether they find a prospect in the draft or wait and find an undrafted rookie free agent to shore up the depth remains to be seen but doesn’t necessarily scream “absolute need” this year as it has in the past.