NFL Draft

Cornerback And Edge Rusher Low Priorities For Steelers This Draft Season

The 2020 draft offers good depth at two positions Pittsburgh has focused on for the past several years: edge rushers and corners. A quick look at The Draft Network’s “predictive” board shows no fewer than twenty (20) edge rushers and seventeen (17) CB’s in the top 150 players; i.e., predicted to go in Rounds 1-4. The Edge Rushers are all in the top 125!

Adding in the twenty-two (22) wide receivers and sixteen (16) offensive tackles gives a total of 75 players. In other words, this good, centrist board suggests that fully half of the selections in rounds 1-4 will go to one of those four positions.

Compare that to the number of running backs (9), tight ends (8), and interior offensive linemen (guards and centers together achieving only 13). The conclusion is easy to see. It is a great year to be looking for talent in the Steelers’ now-traditional areas of need. Alas.

This article explains why almost none of that Edge and CB wealth appears on our Steelers Big Board, except to show why players at other positions might fall.

The Steelers Lack of Need at Edge Rusher

By now it is all but a lock that Bud Dupree will be back on the team for 2020. He has said he wants to be back; T.J. Watt wants him back; and everyone from Art Rooney through Mike Tomlin has agreed that the team wants him back. Dupree does not have a blank check, but he is the Steelers’ #1 offseason priority. Cap obsessed fans and stat obsessed outsiders may question that priority, but no one who knows the team is going to doubt that all those men are telling the truth. Bud Dupree will be the starting 2020 OLB across from Watt. That is the reality, like it or not.

The Steelers only carry four (4) OLB’s on the roster. After Watt and Dupree the team currently has three competent dogs competing for the proverbial two bones at OLB3 and OLB4: Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper. One of those will have to go.

The team tried to keep all five last year, by slipping the preseason rookie sensation (Skipper) onto it’s practice squad. Too much value. The New York Giants promptly snatched him away to the sound of wailing and lamentation from Steeler Nation. Our team returned the favor later in the season when the Giants tried to do the same thing, and Pittsburgh ended the year with a wasted roster spot just in order to protect this promising young talent. That won’t happen again. Chickillo – a good but expensive backup – projects as one of the most obvious cuts in order to find cap room for Dupree’s new contract. That leaves the roster 100% full going into 2020:

  1. T.J. Watt, the proven starter and blossoming superstar;
  2. Bud Dupree, the proven starter and Robin to T.J.’s Batman;
  3. Ola Adeniyi, the 2018 rookie sensation from nowhere;
  4. Tuzar Skipper, the 2019 rookie sensation from nowhere; and
  5. Anthony Chickillo, the odd man on his way out.

There simply isn’t room for another player, let alone a relatively early draft pick.

What would happen if the team does it anyway? If the rookie succeeds, either Adeniyi or Skipper would be pushed to the practice squad, where they’d promptly get poached as we saw last year. The benefit would be “value of rookie sensation” minus “lost value of recent rookie sensation.” Marginal. If the rookie fails it would be a wasted pick in a year where they are few and far between. And what would happen if the rookie shows the sort of explosive promise we saw in each of the last two years, but isn’t ready for prime time in his initial season? The team would have to slide him onto the practice squad, and again we’d see history repeated. Players with pass rushing talent are simply too rare and too valuable. They will get noticed, and they will get poached.

Thus Edge Rushers have been left off our Steelers Big Board for the sake of brevity. The only alternative would be some sickening injustice like giving Round 2 talents a Round 6 grade because that is the point when their value would be worth a Pittsburgh pick. Better to save the room.

The Steelers Lack of Need at Corner

Same story. Pittsburgh carries five (5) CB’s on the roster in any given year. Here is the current slate:

  1. Steven Nelson, playing like a star;
  2. Joe Haden, aging but still playing like a star;
  3. Mike Hilton, looking great as a slot Corner;
  4. Cam Sutton, looking like a starter in waiting at both slot and outside Corner;
  5. Justin Layne, the promising rookie from 2019; and
  6. Artie Burns, the odd man on his way out.

Where is the roster for this hypothetical rookie, and who should be removed to give him a spot on the team? Yes, in this case we could reasonably project a boom-or-bust developmental pick late on Day 3. That would make sense, because the player would not be poached as quickly off a practice squad. But a draft pick before Round 6? No. It ain’t gonna happen until age or contract negotiations remove one of the current group.

Don’t Forget the Juju Smith-Schuster Exception

I wrote almost the exact same thing about the WR position a few years ago. “There’s no room on the roster with AB at WR1, Martavis Bryant at WR2, and Sammie Coates at WR3. Late round pick at best.” Then the team turned around and used it’s precious Round 2 pick on none other than JJSS. Was I wrong? Obviously. But it was an error based on ignorance of key facts that only the Steelers front office possessed; specifically Bryant’s upcoming suspension and ongoing mental health issues, plus Coates’ shattered fingers.

Could the same thing be true this year for Edge and Corner? Maybe. But someone could get struck by lightning too. We have to judge based on what we understand to be the facts. Besides, any defensive position is extra unlikely at 2:17 or 3:comp of this year because Kevin Colbert emphatically prefers to divide his picks among offensive and defensive talent. He has already used both the Round 1 and Round 3 picks on a pair of defensive stars (Fitzpatrick and Bush). Thus it only makes sense to expect a focus on offensive talent for the Round 2 and 3:comp picks. That would be true even if the needs were equal… which they do not appear to be.

Why Are OT and WR Still on the Board?

Aside from being offensive positions? Both spots are viewed as “subsidiary wants” compared to TE and IOL. That earns the prospects an appropriate discount, but does not move them off to the Ain’t Gonna Happen List. The current roster isn’t actively weak in either area, but there is room for a promising rookie to claim a spot on the ladder. Here are the details.

The team likes to carry four Offensive Tackles, and the current roster includes:

  1. Al Villanueva, an able but not brilliant blindside protector on the plus side of 30;
  2. Matt Feiler, an able but not brilliant RT who is projected to move inside to Guard and will be a UDFA in 2021;
  3. Chuks Okorafor, a promising young player who has almost arrived but still needs to make that final step;
  4. Zach Banner, a promising but not-quite-as-young player who has almost arrived but still needs to make the final step; and
  5. Developmental talents we have no facts on.

I have written many times that I believe another offseason, combined with the preseason competition, is likely to turn either Chucks or Banner into a starting-quality Tackle, with the option of moving Feiler back outside as the #3 alternative. That is a much better situation than most of the NFL faces! But it could be improved nevertheless. We might prefer a Guard, but a really promising Tackle would be good insurance against the future, and is less likely to be poached from the practice squad than an Edge Rusher or Corner because OL’s tend to require more work. Plus, a rookie good enough to be poached would most likely be better than the loser of Chuks v. Banner, meaning it would amount to a normal upgrade rather than trading one young prospect for another of equivalent value.

Picking a promising Tackle therefore seems unlikely, but not outrageous. They stay on the Board. Discounted a bit, but there.

Wide Receivers fall in the same category. The team typically carries five players, with even the WR5 seeing occasional snaps:

  1. Juju Smith-Schuster, a very young but nevertheless proven WR2 who could be a WR1 if his skills keep progressing and his health holds up;
  2. Diontae Johnson, ditto;
  3. James Washington, ditto;
  4. Deon Cain, a tall, fast, very young, and promising outside receiver who is still unproven in actual games;
  5. Ryan Switzer, a proven, shifty slot receiver who has also shown a limited ceiling;
  6. Several young talents with longshot chances.

The Steelers’ base package is 11 personnel, which translates to having three WR’s on the field at the same time. That works best when there is a true #1 WR who absorbs predictable double coverages, and thereby frees up the others to thrive as really superior #2’s. That is the role that the still-sane Antonio Brown served in 2018, and which resulted in such incredible production from JJSS. One hopes that JJSS, Johnson, or Washington will be able to step up into that role; but even if none of them do, three viable WR2’s make for a very good unit, Switzer is a solid WR4/5 type despite the flack he gets from the fan base, and Cain has at least earned a shot at growing into his powers.

Thus team is in very good shape at WR, but the roster isn’t as chock full as it is at OLB and Corner; there haven’t been two top picks already dedicated to that side of the ball; the WR room could use particular talents such as a true speedster and a jump ball titan; and this class offers an astonishing amount of high level talents who might fall in the draft toward a Steelers pick. Pittsburgh’s three young proto-stars still have “proto” in that job title. It would not hurt at all to add a fourth one, especially if he has the best chance of all to become a true WR1.

Thus WR also falls into the category of “unlikely but not outrageous”.

Do you disagree? Please let me know in the Comments. Just take note that this article focuses on why some positions are effectively off the table (in my view) while others stay under consideration even if the level of need is fairly low. The other positions are not being examined. For the record I would name TE as an actual need; Guard as a significant want unless OL Derwin Gray secretly impressed the coaches during his year on the practice squad; RB as a situation comparable to WR and OT (a star would be great, anything else can be ignored); and both Safety, DL, and possibly Center as positions in need of depth, but only of depth.

I suppose you could add in Punter… [Sigh. The man is hopeless].

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