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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs: Defense Overview

With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 season now firmly behind us, we can now take a good look at the teams 2016 draft needs. In this post, we will look at every defensive position group from a needs standpoint as the team enters the offseason.

Defensive End – (Moderate Need) – The Steelers already have Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt entrenched as their two starters for the next several years but the depth on their roster past those two players is very suspect. The team drafted L.T. Walton last year and the jury is still out on whether or not he can become a reliable rotation player on the defensive line. The same goes for Caushaud Lyons, who spent most of the season of the team’s practice squad after being claimed off waivers just prior to the start of the regular season. The Steelers could decide to sign a low-level depth defensive lineman prior to the draft to replace Cam Thomas, who has more than likely played his last snap in Pittsburgh. While I doubt the team will spend an early draft pick on another young defensive end, there is a possibility that one will be selected in the later rounds.

Nose Tackle – (Moderate To Low Need) – The Steelers need for a young nose tackle in the 2016 NFL Draft will revolve primality around whether or not veteran starter Steve McLendon is re-signed during the offseason as he’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. While Daniel McCullers is under contract for 2016, he only played just a little more than 100 defensive snaps in 2015. By the looks of things, the Steelers might not see him as a future starter in their base defense moving forward. Spending an early draft pick on a player who at best will play 33% of the defensive snaps seems foolish and because of that, if one is drafted during the 2016 NFL Draft, I would expect such a selection to come in the middle to late rounds.

Outside Linebacker – (High Need) – At some point during the coming months the Steelers will need to decide whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option on Jarvis Jones for his 2017 season. Regardless of whether or not that happens, Jones will be back in 2016. Veteran James Harrison also needs to decide if he wants to continue playing and if he does, the Steelers need to decide if they want him back. Bud Dupree should be the left side starter next season and in addition to that, veteran Arthur Moats is currently under contract for the 2016 season and thus will likely be a backup. Even though he saw some limited playing time during his rookie season, the jury is still out on Anthony Chickillo. Regardless of everything I just wrote, I fully expect the Steelers to draft another edge-rusher during the early rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft because of the future cupboard being so bare. That player might very well be the team’s starter in 2017 depending on what ultimately happens with Jones, who hasn’t been dominant during his first three years in the league.

Inside Linebacker – (Moderate Need) – The Steelers will likely extend veteran Lawrence Timmons in the coming weeks or months so that he can end his career right where it started. Behind him and fellow starter Ryan Shazier sits Vince Williams, who will likely be the next man up in 2016. Williams, however, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. While there’s a chance Sean Spence will be re-signed for the minimum in the coming weeks, you certainly can’t consider him a lock to make the final 53-man roster as we sit here in January. Additionally, while Terence Garvin might return in 2016 on a one-year restricted tender, he’s a special teams demon at best. As you can see, the Steelers could use some depth at the inside linebacker position so don’t be shocked if they spend a draft pick on one.

Cornerback – (High To Moderate Need) – Depending on how free agency shakes out, the Steelers could very well end up with the nearly the same group of cornerbacks they ended the 2015 season with. The team needs to re-sign William Gay and while it will anger many of you, don’t be surprised if Antwon Blake is re-signed to a one-year deal for the minimum as well. 2015 draft picks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant will be back in 2016 but the latter might be moved to safety during the offseason. Ross Cockrell will also be back as an exclusive rights free agent and don’t be surprised if Cortez Allen is kept around to compete for a starting job in training camp. Regardless of what transpires between now and the 2016 NFL Draft, I fully expect the Steelers to select yet another cornerback with one of their picks. With that said, I will be surprised if they draft one in the first two rounds.

Safety – (High Need) – Of the five safeties that ended the 2015 season on the Steelers 53-man roster, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone are currently the only ones under contract for the 2016 season as Will Allen and Robert Golden are both set to become unrestricted free agents. Thomas and Ventrone are special teams contributors and thus in no way should either be considered locks to make the 2016 roster. While I think the Steelers will ultimately re-sign Golden in the coming weeks, they need to cut the cord once and for all with Allen. Even though the aforementioned Grant might transition from cornerback to safety during the offseason, he’s bound to have some growing pains. While the organization could very well wind up addressing their need at the safety position during free agency, they would be wise to draft one in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft as a potential future starter and particularly one who can play inside the box.

Conclusion – If you had to rank the Steelers draft needs on the defensive side of the football, they would probably be outside linebacker, safety, cornerback, defensive end, inside linebacker and nose tackle with the first two positions probably being 1A and 1B. Assuming they enter the 2016 NFL Draft with 7 total selections, I fully expect at least four of them to be used on defensive players with a possibility of five.

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