Can the Steelers go all-offense with their top 3 draft picks?
Heading into Thursday’s NFL Draft, almost anyone who has paid attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 season, and 2021 offseason, has seen a sense of urgency that the team is utilizing to shore up their offense.
The Steelers have thus far promoted a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, plus signed several offensive linemen and a running back in free agency.
Yet, we all are aware that’s not going to be enough.
With the NFL Draft at our doorstep, the conversation has shifted from free agency and coaching hires to which incoming rookies might be wearing the Black and Gold. However, those conversations (and mock drafts) have rarely talked about adding defensive players.
For the first time in forever, the Steelers appear to be all-in on offense: but could they use all of their picks in the first three rounds exclusively on that side of the ball?
The last time Pittsburgh went heavy on defense was in 2016 when they used their top three selections on CB Artie Burns, S Sean Davis, and DT Javon Hargrave. That draft also saw half of the other picks go-to defense, for 75% (6 of 8) defensive selections. Those three players all started during their rookie seasons as well, which is where the Steelers could be headed with a flip of the coin for offense this time.
At the beginning of the last decade, the team used high selections on the offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and his future career. Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and David DeCastro anchored the offensive line for years. Other picks were made but didn’t work or moved on as well, including Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum.
Yet, since DeCastro’s high profile pick in 2012, the Steelers drafts have been heavily focused on the defense: Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Senquez Golson, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, and Devin Bush (plus the 2016 class mentioned above) are among those picks in the top three rounds.
Even with the tilt toward defense, the Steelers still found ways to add Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool over those years as well.
That begs the question of how much offense is too much offense to draft in 2021?
The defensive side of the ball still has some holes – Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton left via free agency and Steven Nelson was released. Those three players all represent starters, with at least Cameron Sutton and Alex Highsmith in place to potentially fill in for them.
Behind them, there’s no depth, however, making an outside linebacker or cornerback crucially important for depth reasons.
Because the defense has been the strong part of the team for the last 2-3 seasons, most are focusing their drafts on the offense – and rightfully so. The Steelers running game, which brings back memories of Hall of Fame backs like Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, was nonexistent last season, finishing last in the league.
That makes running back a priority, but it’s far from the only one.
Most football-savvy folks recognize the need for a quality offensive line. Three of last year’s starters, Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Feiler are no longer with the team. Add Marcus Gilbert’s departure and Ramon Foster’s retirement over the last few years, and the frontline no longer represents what it once did: one of the most dominant forces in the NFL.
While the Steelers have some names penciled in on their (way too) early depth chart, we should expect the organization to once again dip into the draft to shore up the line as they started doing ten years ago.
It will likely be a 2–3-year process, but it will begin in 2021.
Personally, I believe the Steelers will take at least two tackles and a center in this year’s draft – three new linemen into the mix. But when will those picks begin being made? Can they take a running back and two linemen with the top three picks?
Another possibility is a tight end position with no proven players behind Eric Ebron, who himself is in a contract year. A prime tight end prospect falling into the right spot could see the Steelers go all-offense with those top three picks in any order of RB/OL/TE too.
The monkey wrench, for me, is the aforementioned cornerback position.
Cameron Sutton is being considered as a starting outside cornerback, opposite Joe Haden – who is 32 years old and in a contract season as well.
Behind those two are Justin Layne, a third-round pick in 2019 who is still being developed, and an undrafted prospect who rose to the active roster last year, James Pierre. Neither strikes me with the confidence I’d prefer having if Sutton or Haden were to get hurt in-season.
The collective still leaves questions as to what Pittsburgh could do to replace Hilton too, a key cog in their four-year run leading the league in total sacks.
Preferably, I see the Steelers going after at least one defensive player in those top three picks – it’s not a given, and will depend on how draft boards fall in their favor.
Yet, there’s still a high probability that their offensive needs take precedence and we could see three new Steelers on the offensive side of the ball when day two of the NFL Draft concludes late Friday night.