Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers have been eliminated from the playoffs it’s time to quickly turn our attention to the 2017 season and especially the needs of the team when it comes to the draft. Below are my thoughts as it relates to positional need rankings for the Steelers as I sit here in January.
EDGE Rusher – As we sit here today, the Steelers only have two outside linebackers under contract for the 2017 season and they are Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats. Additionally, Anthony Chickillo will undoubtedly return as an exclusive rights free agent. Dupree is obviously a starter while Moats and Chickillo can best be described as depth players. While veteran outside linebacker James Harrison apparently wants to return for another season, re-signing him won’t be enough. The Steelers absolutely need to spend an early-round 2017 draft pick on another edge rusher in addition to double-dipping at the position in the later rounds. Depending on how you view it, an edge-rusher is either the first or second primary need of the Steelers entering the offseason and it’s probably unlikely that they go after a premier free agent player at that position.
Tight End – With the future of tight end Ladarius Green up in the air due to his concussion issues, the Steelers need to look long and hard at the position. Behind Green is Jesse James, but he’s more of a possession tight end that can block and not one that can stretch the field. Behind those two players are Xavier Grimble and David Johnson. The former will be back competing for a roster spot in 2017 as an exclusive rights free agent while the latter is an unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to be re-signed. If the Steelers have any doubts about Green whatsoever moving forward, they should strongly consider drafting one of the top pass-catching tight ends in this year’s draft class.
Inside Linebacker – As we sit here in late January there’s no guarantee that veteran inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons will be re-signed. Even if he is, he doesn’t have many years left and he’s also a weak link in pass coverage. Sure, the Steelers have Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich behind him on the depth chart, but neither player provide an upgrade in the Steelers pass defense. The Steelers need to consider drafting another inside linebacker similar to Ryan Shazier in the first four rounds of the draft.
Cornerback – The Steelers spent their 2016 first-round draft pick on Artie Burns so he’s their future on one side. The starter on the opposite side, Ross Cockrell, will also likely be back in 2017 as a restricted free agent. Veteran cornerback William Gay will return in 2017 as well as he’s still under contract and we can only hope that Senquez Golson can stay healthy long enough to challenge him for a starting spot. Justin Gilbert is also under contract for the 2017 season but there’s no guarantee he will challenge Cockrell for his job. The Steelers probably need to draft another mid-round cornerback and see if they can develop that player much like they were able to do years ago with Gay, Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis.
Quarterback – With Landry Jones likely to be gone via free agency, the Steelers would then be left with Zach Mettenberger as their backup to starter Ben Roethlisberger. We’ve yet to see Mettenberger take a snap in a Steelers uniform so the jury is still out on him. While I’m currently not a fan of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in the first three rounds of the 2017 draft, I can get behind them doing so from round four on.
Running Back – Currently, no Steelers running backs are under contract for the 2017 season. Sure, Le’Veon Bell will likely get the franchise tag if no new deal is consummated before the start of the new league year so that takes care of the starter at the position. Veteran DeAngelo Williams might decide to play one more season and if that’s the case and he’s ultimately re-signed at an affordable salary, the Steelers should be good shape for 2017. While Fitzgerald Toussaint will undoubtedly be issued an exclusive rights tender in the coming months, there’s no guarantee he’ll make the final 53-man roster. In short, the Steelers would be wise to spend a mid to late round draft pick on another running back.
Safety – Sean Davis is the future at one spot and veteran Mike Mitchell has two years left on his current contract. That leaves Robert Golden as the only other safety under contract for the 2017 season as Shamarko Thomas is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Even if Thomas is ultimately re-signed for the minimum, he and Golden are nothing more than special team players. Drafting a safety in the mid to late rounds will give the Steelers a few years to see if that player can be groomed to take over for Mitchell.
Wide Receiver – Hopefully we’ll see Martavis Bryant back on the field in 2017 and even if that happens, the Steelers will always have their doubts about him possibly staying out of trouble with the league. Antonio Brown should have a new deal in place by the start of the regular season and Eli Rogers should easily retain his starting slot position. Behind those three players sits Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers. Coates and Heyward-Bey are both speedsters who have problems catching the football. Additionally, both have special teams value. The jury is still out on Ayers, who is probably best suited to play in the slot. Hamilton, bless his heart, is just a guy. In short, spending a sixth-round draft pick on another wide receiver might be advisable even if that player winds up spending his rookie season on the practice squad. The Steelers seem to have a knack for finding late-round wide receivers.
Defensive Lineman – I might be in the minority, but I really don’t’ see this position as being a huge draft need. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave are all solid starters and all three can play in the Steelers sub package defense. L.T. Walton made some much-needed improvement in 2016 and it looks like the team might like what they see in former undrafted free agent Johnny Maxey as well. Of the Steelers defensive linemen who are currently under contract for the 2017 season, Maxey and Daniel McCullers appear to be the weakest links. In short, I will be surprised if the Steelers draft another defensive lineman in the first four rounds and I won’t be shocked if they bypass the position in the draft completely.
Offensive Lineman – The Steelers really don’t need to address this position as Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Markus Gilbert, Alejandro Villanueva, B.J. Finney, Brian Mihalik and Jerald Hawkins will all be back in 2017. Chris Hubbard, one of the Steelers two restricted free agents in 2017, might also be back on a one-year tender. Oh, and Ryan Harris is currently under contract for the 2017 season as well. Quite honestly, I will be surprised if the Steelers spend one of their draft picks on an offensive lineman as I sit here in January.
Punter, Kicker, Fullback – There is no need to draft any of these position groups as Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry and Roosevelt Nix will all be back in 2017.