The Pittsburgh Steelers made no bones about the fact that when it came to targeting defensive backs in the draft class, they were more than a little bit interested in finding the ones who had the ball skills to bring down interceptions in bulk. Through the three-day process, they came away with three defensive backs who totaled 29 interceptions, a point that they emphasized after the draft.
With this background in mind—that the Steelers selected these players with the belief that they could grow into performers who produce takeaways—it stands to reason that, through the offseason process, particularly during the preseason, but also in training camp, they can earn themselves some playing time simply by doing what they were drafted to do.
This is a fundamentally obvious, perhaps borderline mundane, observation, which applies to every class of players. Producing interceptions in the preseason gets you noticed. It earned Devin Smith the privilege of bouncing on and off the practice squad all year during the 2013 season, for example.
But the fact that it has been such a strong point of emphasis, not only during the draft process, but throughout this offseason, that the Steelers are looking to prioritize improvement in the takeaway category, indicates to me that there may be an even clearer than normal path to reward for performance with this group of players.
The coaching staff and scouts have already seen that they can take the ball away at the collegiate level, and confirmation of the ability to translate that to the pro game—albeit in practice and against reserves in the preseason—will only produce confidence.
The Steelers value Senquez Golson, for instance, having targeted him in the second round and landing him. He recorded 10 interceptions last season in college. He is a player that they would like to be able to get on the field. Validating their scouting report on him would give them the excuse necessary to plug him in, even if only in certain spots to start the season.
Seventh-round pick Gerod Holliman has an even more precarious position, however, as he is far from guaranteed to make the 53-man roster. Contrary to what may seem most logical, I believe his best path toward that goal is not shoring up his weakness on the scouting report—tackling—but rather verifying his strength—taking the ball away.
It sets up a confirmation bias that there is indeed something worth developing there, and that the Steelers had better be the ones to do it before another team decides to give him an opportunity.
Plain and simple, this offseason has had a somewhat different feel to it in comparison to past years, with a great deal of suggested change on the defensive side of the ball as they look to regain their past form.
But they may be after the same end through different means, and part of that was targeting potential ballhawks. These are players that they invested in for a specific reason, so an immediate return on investment should improve the chances of immediate reward.