The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will the Steelers’ rare foray into the world of small-school players pan out with a big impact?
The Steelers have over the course of the past couple of decades been among the teams most hesitant to dip into the small school talent pool, and with good reason, perhaps, as small-school players are notoriously more difficult to project against a significantly higher level of competition.
A small-school player can still struggle at the NFL level no matter how much he might have dominated a lower level of competition, which was the case for the Steelers’ third-round draft pick, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, the team’s first small-school draft pick since they selected cornerback Cortez Allen out of The Citadel with their selection in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
After some initial success in his playing career, Allen’s trajectory had gone straight down, more or less, for the past several seasons, as he has been repeatedly demoted, benched, and injured, which led to his recent release in spite of the fact that the Steelers lack numbers at cornerback.
The Steelers lacked numbers along the defensive line when they drafted Hargrave in the third round, and in particular they lacked a sure thing that could play nose tackle in their 3-4 alignment following free agency.
And in spite of the fact that Joe Greene himself might have gone to bat for the Steelers to select the small-school product, he certainly remains no guarantee to translated to the next level, particularly with respect to the aspirations that the team holds for his usage in the nickel.
Though he has excellent quickness for a man his size at over 300 pounds, his height and arm length could be an issue for him. Hargrave is the shortest defensive lineman that the team has drafted in a decade, and is tied for having the shortest arms. His quickness could be offset by his need to get stronger.
Hargrave may have one of the higher pedigrees of all the defensive linemen currently rostered, but he is also the least experienced, and the least ideally suited, short of the other nose tackle, for rushing in the nickel from a size perspective. That doesn’t mean that he won’t have success—I’m not betting against it—but there is an argument to be made here, and we won’t know what he can do against this level of competition in a meaningful setting until we see it.