I am about to say something unpopular:
The Steelers defense is in great shape and there is almost no chance (barring injury) that any rookie will see more than occasional sub package snaps in 2020. The chances are slim for 2021 as well. The quality at the top is just too good across the board, and most of it is still young and improving.
You’d think Steeler Nation would be thrilled at that news, but it just isn’t so. Over the years I have learned that many fans are so obsessed with forecasting rainy days and thorns that they start to feel almost ill when someone points out sunshine and roses. And “obsessed” is the right word. I have – no exaggeration – seen otherwise normal people go on dire, ominous, fear filled rants about what might happen if three or four players at the same position suffered season-ending injuries all at once.
“What happens if Heyward, Tuitt, and Alualu all get hurt? Are you that sure about Wormley’s fit, and Buggs’ ability to mature? We’d have only Dan McCullers on the defense line! Our whole season would be doomed!”
That’s right. It would. Injuries can kill any team, any time. It’s just part of the game. Ask the 1976 Steelers, the best team ever until both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier got hurt at the same time. Or the 2019 Steelers, who lost QB1, QB2, and QB3, ending up with a UDFA rookie who could not make the practice squad. Winning a title is hard, and it requires a certain amount of luck in addition to gobs of talent. Pittsburgh has the talent. The luck we can only hope for. Regardless, any responsible analysis needs to start by recognizing that (a) the Steelers had a tremendous defense in 2019, and (b) injury concerns aside, may well have the best defense in the entire league for 2020 and also 2021.
But that does not mean I advocate for ignoring the defense completely for the 2020 draft. Kevin Colbert’s maneuvers, machinations, and salary cap management have given Pittsburgh the rare opportunity to draft on an almost-pure BPA basis. There may be no actual holes on the starting roster, but there are starters that could be improved, depth that should be addressed, and longer term pipeline issues as we [Colbert’s social media stand-ins] build for the Steelers of 2021-2024. Most of those are on the offensive side of the ball. This article will look at the defense.
Following tradition, I will start from the trenches and then move out.
Defensive Line (2½ starters)
Dick LeBeau’s classic Okie 3-4 is no longer employed in Pittsburgh. You remember; that was the one with a 0-tech NT in the middle (Hampton) to occupy two blockers, flanked by two exceptionally long 5-tech DE’s who absorbed three more between them (Aaron Smith, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Brett Keisel, etc.). That three-man front freed the linebackers to wreak havoc on whatever the opponent tried to do. It was a great system for many years, but has now been largely abandoned due to a combination of rule changes and the matchup theories employed by modern spread offenses.
Nowadays the Steelers run a true hybrid system based on sub packages. One side effect is the elimination of those old distinctions between Defensive Tackles who play “Nose” versus those who play “End.” 60-70% of the time there are only one or two DT’s on the field in any event. The other 30-40% of the time there are three DT’s, but the base formation is the Eagle system rather than the Okie. [I am still proud of that article!]. The difference is this: in the classic Okie, all three DL’s try to control two gaps each – playing to control the OL more than defeat it – while in the Eagle those DL’s try to penetrate into the backfied. It is closer to a classic 4-3 with two standing DE’s than it is to the Okie 3-4, which means the skill sets have merged from a DL point of view. Every Steelers Defensive Tackle now has the ability to play Nose just as well as End; a statement that was not true 10 or 15 years ago.
In any case, the bottom line is that Pittsburgh requires 2 1/2 defensive linemen who can play at an NFL level. [Yes, it is mathematically closer to 2 1/3 but that still means two starters and an extra]. The current roster has either four or six, depending on your level of pessimism. Two of those are all-stars (Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt); two are very competent backups (Tyson Alualu and now Chris Wormley); one is a 2019 rookie who flashed a lot of promise (Isaiah Buggs); and the last is Dan McCullers, who is pretty darned solid for a backup to a backup to a backup.
Pittsburgh’s DL room is utterly and completely full. Even a Round 1 talent could not earn starting snaps until 2022. But that doesn’t mean it should be ignored without a thought. Three years from now Alualu will be long gone (he will turn 33 this year) Cam Heyward will either be gone or tottering (he is about to be 31). A pick would not be silly if a good Day 2 talent fell deep into Day 3. That prospect might well prevent the need to spend a higher pick here in 2022-2023.
Total Want Factor: 1 out of 10. Maybe “2” if the team has secret bad news about Heyward, Tuitt, or Alualu.
Edge Rushers (2 starters)
We’ve discussed this ad nauseum so I won’t spend much time on it. The issues come down to salary cap management and speculation about things that we fans can’t know.
Everyone agrees that Bud Dupree has turned into a fine OLB but not a great one. Everyone knows that even “just-solid” Edge Rushers get vastly overpaid. And devoted fans agree that Dupree is a particularly valuable puzzle piece because he does all the “other” things so well: run stuffing, zone drops into coverage, and harvesting big plays out of the chaos created by his teammates. Bud doesn’t shatter opposing offenses like Watt, Heyward, and Tuitt do, but he is unsurpassed at cleaning up the pieces and keeping the offense honest. And he is still getting better at the shattering part. How much is that worth in the modern NFL market? Will the team be able to agree on the extension that both he and they so openly desire? Or will this be one of those rare times when Kevin Colbert fails to get the deal done? Those are the only question marks when it comes to this half of the starting OLB positions.
The other half, T.J. Watt, produces nothing but smiles in the daylight, but haunts many fans with terror in the secret compartments of the night. How obscene will his demands actually be when the day arrives in 2022 or 2023? How much of the bank will he break? Will anything be left at all for the other ascending defensive talents? We can only guess, and guessing is scary. At least Watt’s big payday will most likely coincide with Big Ben’s salary coming off the books.
That covers the two starters. Pittsburgh also likes to carry two OLB backups and, ideally a third who can also fill in at Buck ILB in the event of disaster. Those backups right now are the 2018 sensation Ola Adeniyi and his 2019 clone, Tuzar Skipper. Both young men were hired as phenomenal, boom-or-bust athletes who fell in the draft because (a) they were sushi-raw, and (b) only had experience in a third-tier college program. Unlikely heroes! Nevertheless, both young men have looked nothing short of Deeboesque against preseason NFL competition. The only thing they haven’t flashed is the one thing they never can: predraft pedigree.
On the down side, neither has gotten real opportunities to play against NFL starters; which once again leaves the fan base guessing. And therefore scared.
“Can you guarantee that Ola and Tuzar will mature into what the early returns seemed to promise? No? Doom is nigh…!“
We have no real basis for doubting it. The signs have all been good, including the indirect indicators like how fiercely the F.O. has tried to protect them. But phantoms don’t whither that easily, and there is that missing OLB #5 spot to fill even if the young talent is rock solid.
I hate to admit it, but this is a situation where outsiders like us are simply out of our depth. The most we can do is dig down to the right questions. Fortunately, the coaches have actual answers, and we can expect the F.O. to act accordingly. We cannot predict what the team will or should do. There is no getting around that. But we can learn from it after the fact. If the team addresses OLB in Round 3 or 4.a, we will have good grounds to assume a potential issue with Adeniyi, Skipper, or both. If the team waits until picks 4.b-7, we can assume that Adeniyi and Skipper have earned the coaches’ confidence, and the pick was made to add OLB5 depth and competition for future years.
Total Want Factor: Anywhere from 2-5 out of 10, depending on the unknowns, and on where you fit in the doom-and-gloom scale.
Inside Linebackers (2 starters)
I have waffled back and forth on whether this should be 2½ starters instead of just two. Why the fraction? Because the Steelers have only one do-it-all starter, and will divide the other position up according to down and distance. Devin Bush’s running mate will be two players, not one: Vince Williams (the run stuffer) and Ulysses Gilbert III (the cover guy). But you know what?
That means there really is a spot on this defense where a high quality player could start in the next year or two!
This is the spot to target if you are one of those fans who insist on straying from the offense-first orthodoxy; the only one where a 2020 pick could realistically hope to crack the lineup in 2021. Not a Tackle to replace the already-replaced Javon Hargrave at the position that no longer exists, and he never played; nor an OLB to replace the not-yet-departed Dupree; but rather a 3-down Buck ILB to replace the tandem with a single player.
Admission time. If you’ve followed my work over the past several years, you are now saying “He’s at it again…” And yes, I have to admit that I am. I have never fully recovered from the Cowboys stealing my – yes MY! – Leighton Vander Esch. And I’m still struggling to forgive the Bills for pirating Tremaine Edmunds like everyone told me they would. No fair! The Steelers are the best organization in football and the other teams ought to just stay out of our way! This time they’ll have to do so for 101 picks instead of the normal 25 or so, but they owe
me [ahem] us that simple courtesy, don’t they? I am calling in the debt.
Is that laughter? Shame on you. I can wait…
I really can…
No, it isn’t the most realistic of dreams, and yes, this is a lousy year for linebackers anyway, at least where Pittsburgh picks. There 3-4 good ones who will go too soon: Isaiah Simmons, a top-5 guy; Kenneth Murray, a Top-25 guy; Patrick Queen, a Round 1 talent who is limited to Mack ILB duties in any event; and Zack Baun, a fringe-1st Edge Rusher so undersized that he might project even better as a Buck ILB with terrifying blitz ability. None of those have any chance of falling to #49, and the last two might not be worth the pick anyway due to fit concerns.
Getting back to reality, the Steelers prefer a total of four bodies to man the two ILB positions, with emergency snaps coming from either an Edge players or a Safety. Devin Bush will man the first. Vince Williams and UG3 will ably cover the next two. And they’ll do it ably. Williams, at 29, has well documented limitations when caught in coverage, but he’s good at what he does. UG3 was a sixth round rookie in 2019 who shattered all expectations into tiny smithereens, which has led to enormous hopes that we’ve got a gem who can be relied on after his Sophomore Leap polishes away the flaws. Yes, they are still unproven hopes but that is what we have.
The depth beyond that point isn’t good, which makes a certain amount of sense given the lamentable, if well justified, loss of both Mark Barron and Tyler Matakevich. Robert Spillane is a favorite of those who study obscure depth charts. Can we pencil him in, however lightly, as ILB #4? Could one of the young Edge Rushers take on extra duty? Maybe a box Safety who can slug above his weight class?
The next tier of ILB talent clusters in the 60’s to 80’s on most boards; i.e., nothing like a bargain at #49, and unlikely to fall close to #102. I will mention them here against the slim chance that one might somehow be there for us, but don’t take that as a sign of hope. The first is Malik Harrison out of Ohio State, who could be fairly described as a more athletic version of Vince Williams. Jordyn Brooks out of Texas Tech would be next, followed by Willie Gay Jr. (no relation) out of Mississippi State. Seeing any of those three at 3:comp would be a draft day wonder; not a DeCastro-esque miracle, but a wonder nevertheless. Even so, they are also developmental projects who’d come with no guarantees. They really do have three-down potential, and there tends to be a good reason when that level of physical talent takes a tumble. If you see one in your next mock, grab him at #102 and then step back to admire the results.
The pickings continue to be slim if the Steelers hope to address the position with one of their picks at 124 or 135. The names to watch would include Troy Dye, who is more of a Mack ILB; Logan Wilson, who’d be a serious target if he wouldn’t be a 24 years old rookie on the youth-loving Steelers; Shaq Quarterman, Evan Weaver, Joe Bachie, and Markus Bailey, all two-down thumpers usually projected in the Round 4-5 range; and two Mack ILB/SS hybrids named Akeem Davis-Gaither and Davion Taylor, who would not be much help as run stuffers.
It should also be noted that ILB’s, like Safeties, typically excel on special teams. That reinforces the benefits to be had from addressing the position in this draft. Alas, but it does not reinforce the quality of the options that might be available.
Total Want Factor: 5 out of 10, with significant greed for an impossible bargain pick.
Safeties (2 starters)
Yet another position where I waffled about whether to add a fraction but decided not to. The Steelers have one of the best young tandems in the NFL as their starters. Minkah Fitzpatrick is just fantastic, and Terrell Edmunds has shown every sign of growing into a fine Strong Safety whose ceiling has yet to be glimpsed.** The issues appear in (a) the major dropoff that’s seen behind that starting pair, (b) the snaps to be had in Big Nickel sub packages, and (c) the additional snaps to be had on special teams. Those three factors combine to make Safety the other obvious target for a defensive pick in the 2020 draft.
** [Sorry haters, but Edmunds was known to be a 2-3 year project when he got drafted; he plays a position with enormously disparate duties that need to be learned; and he hasn’t done badly except when compared to extraordinary success stories like Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and T.J. Watt. Those guys are not the standard for comparison!]
Looking deeper, I also want to emphasize the growing importance of both ILB’s and Safeties to Pittsburgh’s defensive philosophy. Midfield speed and athleticism are the response that Tomlin and Butler have come up with for modern spread offenses. For years there’s been a sort of running joke about how the front office has focused on SPARQ-score superstars like Edmunds, Bush, and now Fitzpatrick for these positions. In 2019 we really saw why. Once Fitzpatrick arrived to close the final hole, this defense clicked into shape and suddenly became a fearsome machine that must have given opposing QB’s nightmares. The sheer sideline-to-sideline range of these guys has cut off all those easy outlet throws, along with the staple catch-and-run sideline passes like Wide Receiver screens. The only success stories who defied the speed-and-more-speed trend were Matakevich and Marcus Allen; both of whom were known for tremendous football IQ’s, and both of whom could not earn defensive snaps anyway. It is a stretch to use the word “success.”
So yes, Pittsburgh has a crust of amazing talent in its two starting Safeties. And no, this is not a “need.” But Safety #3 is definitely a “want” that we should expect the team to address if a likely player becomes available, and it could happen as early as 3:comp for just the right guy.
Antonine Winfield Jr. would be almost impossible to resist at #102, and the small school athletes Jeremy Chinn and Kyle Dugger almost as hard. But those are probably dreams on the level of those potential 3-down ILB’s listed above. Realistic targets for the picks at 102, 124, and 135 include K’Von Wallace, Brandon Jones, Terrell Burgess, and maybe Alohi Gilman. All of those will get serious consideration, though all of them would also be falling to Round 4 for good reason. Julian Blackmon, Antoine Brooks Jr., and the aforementioned ILB/SS hybrids are a notch behind, along with a pretty significant mass of players who typically get Round 5-6 grades. These are all players who deserve more attention from Steeler Nation than they’ve gotten.
For all of that, the downside of a Safety pick should be noted as well. There are only two primary starters; those two will get the lion’s share of the snaps; and those two are already on the team. No rookie will see more than sub package and special teams snaps for at least 2-3 years. High floor, because those snaps are there for the taking, but low ceiling because there aren’t any more to be had.
Total Want Factor: 5 out of 10, with a higher floor and lower ceiling than at ILB.
Cornerbacks (2½ starters)
Back in the days of old there were only two CB starters on a team. Nowadays the CB3 slot-Corner has become a shadow-starter who earns more snaps than the traditional NT now gets. My how the world has changed.
Of course the even bigger change is that weird, alien sense of comfort we feel in Pittsburgh’s existing group of coverage specialists. Last year’s free agent star, Steven Nelson, has earned every penny of his contract and made us happy to pay it. What were the odds? Joe Haden’s fringe-HOF career just continues to motor along. I doubt he’ll get in, but he certainly deserves to be nominated. Mike Hilton a/k/a Scrappy Doo should have lost his snaps countless times over the years but has always managed to reclaim them through his unique combination of toughness, tackling, agility, and ability to blitz. Cameron Sutton would be a starter by now on most teams, and a good one. And last year’s late-3rd pick, Justin Layne, may have been a boom-or-bust project but the early returns are nothing but positive. The team only keeps six Corners to begin with, and five of those slots are filled with starter-quality players/prospects! Two for every role!
Talk about heir-and-a-spare…
That said, things aren’t perfect even in Cornerback land. Haden is on the far side of 30 and Father Time remains undefeated. Hilton will be a UDFA in 2021. Cam Sutton is coming off his rookie contract too, and Layne has showed all sorts of promise but that isn’t the same as actually arriving well enough to earn playing time (let alone starting snaps). Corner is a Day 3, rich man’s problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers but no fan should be ashamed of grabbing just the right guy in Round 6 or 7. There are quite a few promising but undersized Corners in that part of the draft, too. One of those would make at least as much sense as a D-Line pick, and there are people out there who consider any mock that lacks a defensive lineman to be a total failure.
Total Want Factor: 2 out of 10.
I have looked as hard as I can and still see no “want” on the defense that would justify a pick at #49. The structure of the class dictates that even more than any “needs” analysis. 2020 offers a mind numbing wealth of fringe-1st talent at RB, OT, C/G, and WR. It is hard to conceive of any scenario where all of those BPA steals will be gone without offering some weird shot at a mid-1st QB like Jordan Love; and you’d have to get by that too before grabbing an ILB or Safety would begin to make sense. Let alone an OLB, DL, or CB.
That calculus changes for the pick at #102. A potential starter or valuable depth could be there for the taking at ILB, though it isn’t very likely; an athletic Safety #3 could be there too; and I would not write off the chance of an OLB if the team has hitherto-unknown concerns about Adeniyi and Skipper. The odds favor another offensive pick, but not by much. It isn’t a particularly deep class for either Safety or ILB, and that could break a tie versus a player at the deeper positions like IOL and WR.
From #124 on you are well into Day 3 and it becomes almost pure BPA. With the Steelers having no actual needs, it is probably wisest to throw positional concerns out the window for our final three picks. The “Who-they-are” will dominate even more than usual over the Where-they-play.