Quite a few media personalities, both national and local, have been insistent upon the idea that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top draft pick must be an offensive skill position player—if it’s not a quarterback. though tight end became far less likely after signing Eric Ebron in free agency, the team hasn’t done anything of significance to address deficiencies among the wide receiver and running back positions, and there should be value at both spots at the 49th pick.
There’s no doubt that the Steelers would love to add players at these spots, something that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin addressed at various points when talking about those specific positions during their Monday pre-draft ‘press conference’. But they won’t be penned into a box, either, and for one reason perhaps above others: the Ben Roethlisberger factor.
When asked about the pressure to add to the skill positions, Colbert told reporters, “we’re gonna have a Ben Roethlisberger available, and to have that caliber of quarterback available, everybody’s play picks up, so I’m gonna look forward to having Ben in the mix and seeing how the rest of the group responds with him, and we’ll factor that into all the thinking we have as we move forward into the draft”.
Now, it’s not like he’s saying that he’s considering Roethlisberger an extra first-round pick or anything like that, but I think his point should be clearly understood. So much of the characterization of the state of the Steelers’ skill positions is based on a 2019 evaluation, during which their top wide receiver and running back were dogged by injuries for most of the year, and also did not have Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of play.
They feel that they have more at running back and wide receiver than perhaps some on the outside do, and they expect that reintroducing Roethlisberger to the offense (and getting away from the level of play that Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges presented) will allow those players to show what they are capable of, also provided if they are healthy.
Both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner were Pro Bowl players during the 2018 season, when Roethlisberger threw for over 5000 yards and a career-high 34 touchdown passes, a franchise record. At the time, they were being hailed as the future of the team. Now many are preparing to find their replacements based on 2019 in spite of the presence of a myriad of extenuating circumstances.
Does that mean they won’t draft a Michael Pittman or a Jonathan Taylor if they are the highest player ranked on their board when it’s time to pick at 49? Absolutely not. The purpose they were making, however, was that they are not going to feel pressured to reach in order to addressed deficiencies perceived by those on the outside, trusting that health will show the 2019 season was the aberration rather than the norm for their crew.