Don’t be surprised if the Steelers select defense in the first round

I can see the collective eyerolling already. I get it. Some Steelers fans want the team to take certain positions in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.

There are those who demand a running back be the top selection.

Others recognize that an offensive lineman, particularly a tackle, could solve the Steelers running game problems from last season.

Still more believe the organization should start looking to the future with a quarterback pick.

All three of those lines of thought are on one side of the ball: the offense. While I can’t disagree with (and actually prefer) taking an offensive tackle with the 24th pick overall, and I feel Pittsburgh could wait until day two of the draft for a running back, we should consider the possibility of the Steelers picking a defensive player.

The smart money should be on the offense. The Steelers lost two starters on their offensive line in Alejandro Villanueva and Maurkice Pouncey. Those spots appear to be must needs, however, the crop of centers eligible in the draft don’t scream first round pick.

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On offense, running back is a need but have been increasingly falling out of the first round over the last decade. Taking a quarterback would bump one of the current three off of the roster, and at tight end, Florida’s Kyle Pitts is a slam dunk top-ten pick who the Steelers won’t be able to sniff. We can all agree wide receiver would be an unnecessary move leaving only one thing left: a defensive playmaker.

The Steelers haven’t taken an offensive player with their first-round pick since David DeCastro was selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. Since, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, and Devin Bush round out the first-round selections since DeCastro was chosen.

There’s plenty of arguments to go elsewhere, but they involve counting on some of last year’s spot starters to replace the full timers on defense. That includes Robert Spillane taking over for Vince Williams, Alex Highsmith for Bud Dupree, and Cameron Sutton for Steven Nelson and/or Mike Hilton.

The Steelers moved on from Williams in the same way they did Lawrence Timmons years earlier, seeking a better option to defend against the pass, as each linebacker was a run-thumping tackler. Adding another player who could move around, such as Bush, would make the Steelers defense more versatile.

I’m not advocating for another edge rusher to come in and replace Highsmith, who flashed strong potential as a rookie. But if one of the draft’s top prospects slide to 24, can the Steelers say no?

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Cornerback appears to be a strong need which will be addressed in the draft at some point as well. Sutton will be given the opportunity to take over for Nelson, who requested a trade and was then released upon news that Sutton would get a shot at his spot. Opposite them, Joe Haden turns 32 next week with little in the cupboards behind him on the depth chart. (I’m going to write off other defensive positions based on the strong presences on the defensive line and at safety.)

However, we should consider the possibility of a linebacker or cornerback, especially if too many tackles are off of the board already or the Steelers feel they can wait until rounds two or three to get a running back.

That has opened my mind to defense being the pick again in 2021. A lockdown corner or a stud linebacker would solidify the Steelers on that side of the ball, which can only help the offense too. With a deep draft at tackle, and a propensity for running backs to slide to into rounds two and three, Pittsburgh may be well positioned to still address all of their draft needs while also surprising everyone with yet another defensive first round pick.

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