Pro Football Focus isn’t always the kindest outlet in the world to the Pittsburgh Steelers, though they do have their favorite players, like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and T.J. Watt in recent years to balance out their dissatisfaction with others like Maurkice Pouncey and company.
So I wasn’t going into an article about draft history with high expectations about how they would gauge the Steelers. In fact, from the period between 2006 and 2016, they considered the Steelers’ draft success to be only middling, using their own measurements for success.
To be fair, their metrics restrict viewing the Steelers favorably, because they only look at Wins Above Replacement for a player’s rookie contract, versus the expected WR for that player at this position where he was drafted. And for the time period marked, Pittsburgh didn’t get its young players on the field quickly (they didn’t need to), so most would have low WAR numbers for the bulk of their first four seasons.
Things have changed in recent years, however, as the Steelers get more young players on the field quickly. In 2018 alone, they had a trio of second-year players reach the Pro Bowl, for example. By their estimates, they have been the fourth-most successful team in the draft since 2017, ranked behind only the Saints, the Ravens, and the Titans.
A lot of this stems from the 2017 class, which included T.J. Watt in the first round, who was PFF’s highest-graded edge defender for 2019. The second round yielded JuJu Smith-Schuster, and they got James Conner in the third round.
What about the rest of the players drafted since then? Well, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington from the 2018 class have been starters. Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson also became starters. I’m not sure what they look like in terms of WAR, but they must not be too bad, at least in comparison to the rest of the league, given where the Steelers are ranked.
This year, the Steelers don’t have much draft capital. Their earliest pick is 49th overall after they traded their first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in order to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick—who is already one of their best players, but won’t be reflected in their drafting WAR—and their next pick won’t be until the compensatory portion of the third round.
Given that, frankly, it makes it all the more important that the Steelers hit on the selections that they do have, and chances are they won’t be able to afford to plug too many holes via the unrestricted free agency market.