PFW is excited to welcome Jon Ledyard to our draft coverage team. Check out his first piece, which originally appeared exclusively in our free daily draft newsletter, on the Steelers' updated draft needs with free agency slowing down.
According to many NFL analysts, the first draft for a rebuilding team is the most critical, as prioritizing which position groups to address on a roster full of holes can be a difficult task. But I’d argue the draft for an organization just a couple of pieces away from the ultimate goal, the Super Bowl, is the one that either thrusts it through the window to win or snaps it shut in its face.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently at such a crossroads, still smarting from a disappointing finish to an incredibly promising 13-3 season that ended in heartbreak during one of their worst performances of the year in a shootout loss to Jacksonville in the divisional playoffs.
Despite the agony of another missed opportunity for Pittsburgh, the outlook for the franchise is still very bright. The only starters lost from a year ago are Ryan Shazier due to injury and free safety Mike Mitchell, whose skill set was declining after some great years in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger still looked like an elite quarterback throughout the second half of the season, Le’Veon Bell is back on the tag for at least another year and the team still boasts one of the most dangerous pass-catching corps in the league in Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and Vance McDonald.
Defensively, holes still exist, but the unit flashed the potential to be very good with a few additions last offseason. Joe Haden was a strong presence at left cornerback, while nickel Mike Hilton was arguably the team’s best defensive back last season. The defensive line is four-deep with quality talent in Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu, and T.J. Watt made a pleasantly rapid impact as a rookie last season.
Despite all the talent in place, there are still enough concerns for Pittsburgh that must be addressed early in the draft in order to compete with New England, Jacksonville and the rest of the AFC for a shot at a Super Bowl title. Vince Williams and Jon Bostic are capable starters but not preferable ones, and although the former will probably man one of the inside linebacker spots to start the season, the Steelers should still be looking to upgrade the position early in the draft.
With Morgan Burnett on board, the Steelers' need at safety is a little less dire, but more than anything, Burnett simply gives them a reliable veteran and a strong third safety to match up in the slot against tight ends and play the run in the box in dime packages. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has tried a plethora of players in that dime linebacker/safety hybrid role over the past couple seasons, including Robert Golden, Jordan Dangerfield, William Gay, J.J. Wilcox and others, but now the Steelers have finally acquired a player with the skill set and experience for the spot in Burnett.
Still, a big need exists at free safety, where Sean Davis will probably get a temporary shot, but a draft pick must be added to ensure the position has a future if the third-year safety can’t make the transition. Davis has been inconsistent at strong safety, and there will be questions if his mental processing and tackling can thrive as the last line of defense in a single-high role.
In addition to those two big needs, more pass rush help is needed as Bud Dupree hasn’t panned out, and T.J. Watt is still developing. A fourth wide receiver to bring along after Eli Rogers was allowed to become a free agent is a necessity, and perhaps a running back to eventually help shoulder the load if Le’Veon Bell moves on next offseason could be in play as well.
Let’s step into Kevin Colbert’s shoes and evaluate who might be on the board for the Steelers with their first three picks, especially given their current slate of needs.
Round 1, Pick 28
I’ll be pretty surprised if draft night rolls around and the Steelers don’t take a safety or a linebacker with this pick. I’ve narrowed their options down to four players that I believe are at the top of their current board, all of which carry some level of excitement.
Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans is my top linebacker with a chance to be available at 28, and the Steelers had a full entourage at his pro day, typically a big indicator that the team has strong interest. Evans is explosive, physical and versatile, bringing pass rush experience off the edge and much-improved mental processing as a linebacker. He’s a little untested in coverage, but the athletic traits and ascending overall level of play are promising.
He’ll have to fend off Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch for the Steelers’ affections, however, as the one-year starter is bigger, longer and perhaps a better athlete than even the highly mobile Evans. What Vander Esch doesn’t have is a really refined game from the neck up just yet, but considering his relative inexperience and tenacious work ethic, there is a lot of reason for optimism that his game will become more complete in time.
If the Steelers opt to go safety, Justin Reid from Stanford will likely be the top player on their board. If you examine the Steelers' recent draft tendencies under Colbert, especially in the first round, the team tends to target elite athletes with size, Power 5 pedigree, production, smarts and a clean slate off the field — all things that Reid brings to the table. He played mostly in the slot at Stanford, so single-high is a little projection, but I ultimately think he can be even better in that role at the next level.
Pittsburgh also showed a lot of interest in Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates at his pro day, taking him out to dinner and sending a large entourage to attend his workout. Bates is also a versatile safety who is aggressive against the run and makes a lot of instinctive plays in deep coverage. If Reid is off the board before Pittsburgh makes a selection, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pull the trigger on Bates.
Round 2, Pick 60
The Steelers will begin keeping best player available in mind more and more as the draft progresses, but I still think safety or linebacker will be the priority here, depending on which position they addressed in the first round obviously.
Two linebackers I think they’ll consider in the second round (if they didn’t draft one in the first) are Fred Warner from BYU and Malik Jefferson from Texas. I actually have Warner ranked higher than Vander Esch and think he’s an elite cover linebacker who fits the Steelers from a size/athleticism/production standpoint. He’s also a mentally sharp, high character prospect, but will come with some projection given that BYU often used him as a big slot/overhang defender.
Jefferson is a player that scares me a good bit, as his effort and strong play seemed to come and go too often at Texas, but he also fits the size/athleticism/production tendency for Pittsburgh, as well as hailing from an established Power 5 school. He misses a ton of tackles, though, and is very inconsistent as a mental processor on the second level.
Another Texas product, safety DeShon Elliott, could be on the board for Pittsburgh in this range or in the third round, and there is also a chance Bates could still be available at 60. Don’t rule out a surprise like Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst or even a wide receiver like Notre Dame’s E.Q. St. Brown in the second round.
Round 3, Pick 92
Things get wide open here for the Steelers, especially if they’ve already addressed the two big problem areas on their roster. An edge pass rusher could make some sense, but there won’t be many available in the third round that fit the Steelers' athletic profile if the board falls as expected. I don’t think they’ll focus on need as much as best player available in round three, so here are a few names that should intrigue the Steelers, depending on who they’ve already drafted.
South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard is a player the Steelers should know well given that they drafted his former teammate in Hargrave two years ago. Leonard is a big, rangy linebacker who needs some development, but he has flashed potential and coverage ability that would be welcomed in Ryan Shazier’s old role.
At tight end, Hurst’s balanced skill set will be attractive to Pittsburgh if he’s still on the board, and Indiana tight end Ian Thomas has been rumored to be a prospect that many teams believe has untapped athletic upside at the position.
Like it or not, Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage will undoubtedly be a player on the Steelers’ radar in the middle rounds despite his inconsistencies as a ball carrier. He's a big back with a versatile skill set and the ability to be a weapon in the passing game that could help ease the eventual loss of Bell down the road.
Of course, the draft can unfold in a myriad of different ways once things get rolling on April 26, and it’ll be Colbert’s task to adjust his process and snag a few players that can help the Steelers win right away. His defensive track record in the draft has brought back some mixed results, and if he can’t nail a couple picks in the first three rounds, the Steelers' window will start sliding shut quite rapidly due to their current weaknesses.