With the 2018 NFL Draft now less than a month away most fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers can immediately define the team’s biggest needs now that free agency is seemingly over. Ask any Steeler fan what the team’s first-round draft pick should be this year and most will likely tell you it should be an inside linebacker or a safety, even though one of each were signed via free agency just a few weeks ago.
Nearly every year since his first in Pittsburgh (2000), Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has probably said at one time or another during the offseason that he’s not above taking the best player available to the team in any round of any draft regardless of if the position that player plays isn’t really perceived as a big need, and especially when it comes to first-round selections. Colbert, however, has said in the past that come time to select a player that if more than one have very close grades, the position of need is likely to influence the final decision when it comes to making the selection.
Magically, the Steelers first-round selections that Colbert has made during his time in Pittsburgh have most of the time matched perceived immediate needs the team had at the time and as evidence of this, below is a look back at the last eight first-round selections starting with 2010 and moving forward to 2017.
2010 Maurkice Pouncey – Back in January of 2010, the Steelers had four of five offensive line starters under contract with one of those players being veteran center Justin Hartwig, who was already 31 years of age and with his best years far behind him. Pouncey, while a center, had the potential to play all three interior positions had Hartwig been able to beat him out at center during camp, which he ultimately couldn’t do. Pouncey instantly became the Steelers starting center during his rookie season as Hartwig was released.
2011 – Cameron Heyward – Ahead of the 2011 NFL Draft the Steelers defensive end depth chart consisted of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. Smith, however, missed most of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with injuries and was in his mid-thirties. As for Keisel, he was 33 in 2010. Heyward wound up being a depth player his entire rookie season behind Keisel and Hood after Smith was lost again during the year to another injury. Heyward ultimately became a full-time starter in his third season as Keisel and Hood held him off a while.
2012 – David DeCastro – The Steelers really needed a guard in the 2012 NFL Draft even though they had re-signed Ramon Foster, Trai Essex and Doug Legursky all to one-year contracts ahead of it. Chris Kemoeatu had also been released that March. DeCastro falling to the Steelers was a gift and he would have been the team’s starting right guard instantly had he not suffered a knee injury during the preseason.
2013 – Jarvis Jones – In March of 2013 the Steelers cut outside linebacker James Harrison after he refused to take a pay cut and that effective left the team with LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds and Chris Carter on their outside linebacker depth chart. Woodley, however, was starting to become a yearly injury concern at that time while Worilds was entering the final year of his rookie contract. Carter was merely a special teams player as well. The Steelers really needed another young outside linebacker going into that draft and unfortunately they chose Jones in the first round.
2014 – Ryan Shazier – Ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft the Steelers had looming issues at the inside linebacker position. While Lawrence Timmons was still entrenched and seemingly going strong, the team’s other starter, Larry Foote, was cut that March after missing nearly all of the 2013 season with a biceps injury. On top of that, Sean Spence was coming off of a very serious knee injury and many wondered if he’d ever play again. Vince Williams, a 2013 late-round draft pick, was used as a starter his rookie season thanks to Foote going down injured as was temporary bandaid Kion Wilson. Terence Garvin was still in Pittsburgh at the time but he was mainly a special teamer. In short, the Steelers really needed a Mack linebacker heading into the 2014 draft and they magically got themselves one in Shazier in the first-round.
2015 – Bud Dupree – An unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season, Worilds decided to retire in March of 2015 and that left the Steelers with Jones, Harrison and Arthur Moats all under contract come draft day. Jones, by the way, had missed a lot of the 2014 regular season and couldn’t beat out a then-37-year-old Harrison for the starting job later that year once healthy. Another outside linebacker was obviously very high on the Steelers needs heading into the 2015 NFL Draft and they filled it by selecting Dupree in the first-round.
2016 – Artie Burns – The Steelers 2015 season ended with William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Ross Cockrell all seeing time at cornerback with the first two players being the starters. Blake left via free agency in 2016 while Gay was re-signed to a three-year contract prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. While Cortez Allen was still under contract at the time, he not only missed most of the 2015 season with an injury, he had previously struggled as a starter. Boykin was allowed to ride off into the sunset as well while Senquez Golson, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2015, missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury. The Steelers sorely needed a cornerback heading into the draft that year and they made Burns their first-round selection.
2017 – T.J. Watt – Heading into the 2017 NFL Draft the Steelers had Dupree, Harrison, Moats and Anthony Chickillo all under contract as Jones was allowed to sign elsewhere during free agency. The Steelers once again needed another young outside linebacker as Moats and Chickillo were both only viewed as backups and spot starters. It wasn’t the least surprising to see the Steelers wind up drafting Watt in the first-round and he instantly became a starter opposite Dupree.
Of the last 8 first-round selections the Steelers have made, most of them went on to see considerable playing time at the position they were drafted to play during each’s rookie season. A few, Pouncey, Shazier and Watt, were even Week 1 starters in their rookie seasons and DeCastro likely would have been had he not gotten injured during the preseason. Heyward is probably the biggest outlier when it comes to rookie season playing time but even so, he still managed to play almost 200 defensive snaps during his first year in Pittsburgh.
2018 – ????? – With the 2018 NFL Draft quickly approaching, and judging by the kind of contracts that the Steelers two recent key free agent additions, linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett, both signed, it’s probably not hard to point to inside linebacker as being the team’s biggest need right now as March comes to a close. With that said, the current depth at both the inside linebacker and safety positions can be argued extensively that the latter should become the former, or vice versa. Probably not too far behind both of those positions is outside linebacker and especially if the team has no intentions of picking up the fifth-year option on Dupree. After all, currently behind Dupree and Watt on the Steelers outside linebacker depth chart sits Chickillo and last year’s seventh-round selection, Keion Adams. In short, if Colbert doesn’t draft an inside linebacker, safety, or outside linebacker in the first-round this year it will come as a big surprise as history has shown that his best player available strategy he claims to have more times than not intersects with a prime position of need.