In the course of the 2017 offseason—really, even while the previous season was underway—the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft class of 2016 was being hailed, particularly by fans, as their best in many years. It had, after all, produced three players within the first three rounds who would, at some point over the course of their rookie season, emerge as starters on defense.
As we head into the 2020 offseason, however, it’s emerging as increasingly likely that all three of those players—first-round cornerback Artie Burns, second-round safety Sean Davis, and third-round defensive tackle Javon Hargrave—will all find themselves on different teams next season, for better or for worse.
Of the three, both Burns and Hargrave have said that they would like to stay in Pittsburgh, but also acknowledged the business realities of the situation. In Davis’ case, the team also brought in somebody to play his position. Burns, on the other hand, has already stated his intention of moving on to another organization because of lost opportunities, though it’s unlikely the team had any interest in retaining him, anyway.
Be that as it may, as a team that historically more than others has built itself through the draft, it’s pretty striking to see where the top of the 2016 class has gone in the span of four short years. Burns emerged as a playmaker as a rookie with three interceptions, but he never developed beyond that, for example, and as they took the training wheels in the system for him off, he was exposed.
As for Davis, he recorded four interceptions in his first two seasons, but he struggled being moved from position to position, and his missed tackles were a consistent issue as well. He is a better player than many choose to give him credit for, but with Minkah Fitzpatrick—a first-team All-Pro—having already been put in place, it’s hard to imagine him not finding an opportunity elsewhere. He spent the final 14 games of the season on the Reserve/Injured List.
Then there is Hargrave, who sadly will probably price himself out of Pittsburgh. Not because they can’t pay him, necessarily, but they can’t pay him for the role he would have in a 3-4 defense. He can find much more regular playing time, and a much bigger paycheck, by signing to a 4-3 team. And he surely will.
As for the rest of the class, injuries hampered Jerald Hawkins’ development, but they were able to trade him in the offseason for minor draft compensation. Travis Feeney and Demarcus Ayers had relatively brief tenures with the team, though Ayers did catch a touchdown.
And then there is Dirty Red. In 2020, though he also is technically going to be an unrestricted free agent, it’s likely that he will be the only player remaining from the 2016 NFL Draft class on the Steelers’ roster. He is a standout player on special teams, with the most special teams tackles in the NFL over the course of the past four seasons, plus two blocked punts and a pass defensed on a fake punt attempt. We’ll still have to see, but he may be the last man standing.