Article

An Overview Of Pittsburgh’s Wants And Needs

Well, that’s it. Every NFL season is a novel full of plot twists and sudden surprises to keep you on the edge of your seat. The Steelers’ 2022 season was a thriller, ended on a cliffhanger. I cannot wait for the sequel. But now it’s time to turn to the draft.

First step: What were the lessons we learned from that journey, and what picks would most improve the outlook for 2023? It’s going to take some time to digest it all, but here are my initial thoughts and observations. [NOTE: Please feel free and more than free – invited! – to agree or critique in the Comments. I’m hard at work on building the 2023 Big Board, but have little idea of our group consensus on which positions can be downplayed. Your thoughts will be heard and will matter, even if I don’t end up agreeing. The Big Board is a community project just as much as mine.]

DEFINITIONS:

  • “Hole” = the situation when there is no NFL-competent player to man the starting role. LT Dan Moore and LG Kevin Dotson looked like “holes” during the first half of 2020, but IMO those holes were closed during the 2nd half of 2020 when they both matured into NFL-average linemen.
  • “Need” exists when the starter is barely competent, and for lesser concerns like missing depth. For example, there are 2023 “needs” for depth at OLB and QB even though the starters look good, also along the OL even if there is no way to upgrade the starters.
  • “Wants” are all the spots where the team would improve by adding a higher-quality player. This year that means basically everywhere except at RB and probably QB. One could argue for Safety too if the team can resign both Kazee and Edmunds, though this is one of those positions where good talents can almost always find a way to contribute.

The lines between those get fuzzy, of course, and provide a lot of the grist for draft season debate.

NOTE: All of this is subject to free agency, which will change the equation in drastic ways by opening or plugging particular spots. It will help raise the level of conversation if you remember to preface Comments with assumptions, like “If they only sign one of Edmunds or Kazee” and “If you trust that both Leal and Loudermilk are going to be better moving forward…” Many thanks in advance. I only mention it because, as I said, I intend to read, parse, and carefully consider the general community position.

MY TAKE: THE STEELERS NEED STARS MORE THAN STARTERS

I’m pretty well convinced that the 2023 NFL draft is going to succeed or fail based on the number of impact players the Steelers manage to find. 100% pure BPA in Round 1 with almost no regard to any position except RB, especially if there’s a shot at any Colbert Specials. [For those who don’t know it, that term originated several years ago with an offhand statement from the Steelers newly retired GM. The gist was this: every draft has something like 8-12 special talents who are special even compared to normal Round 1 athletes. If fate gives you a shot at one of those talents, you take it. Period.]

Down below I acknowledge the slight, tiebreaker weight that may be granted in favor of OT, OG, OC, DT, ILB, and CB. But in this particular year? That finger on the scale will be exceptionally light because I can make good arguments about how much good a superior talent would also do at QB, WR, TE, and EDGE.

  • Kenny Pickett has impressed the heck out of me as a rookie, but what would actually happen if the Steelers somehow ended up with the chance to pick C.J. Stroud? The two of them push each other to learn faster, better, and deeper; and the Steelers would at worst end up with their pick of two excellent talents plus some immensely valuable trade bait down the road. Much more valuable than an OT who’d be just a little bit better than Moore or Okorafor.
  • And just imagine how this WR room would change if you dropped in a genuine, fringe-HOF #1 at the level of señor Chase out in bad-chili-on-spaghetti land! Single coverage every time on Pickens, Johnson, a healthy Austin, and Freiermuth? Plus his own production? OMG.
  • Or go ahead and pair Freiermuth with a Heath Miller on the other side. How the heck could a team defend against that? Guard them as run blockers and one or the other is bound to be open for an easy 10 yards on every play, and guarding them as receivers would give Najee Harris a field day. It’s enough to make you break out in giggles.
  • And yes, there is an actual need for depth at Edge, but imagine what this defense would look like with a true all-pro as the OLB3? Would you even need a CB with every QB that sincerely frightened? It would also be a great investment against the giant price that would soon be needed to pay Alex Highsmith.

So my #1 priority is to get any Colbert Special who has a chance to be available. And after that, as many Round 1 talents as possible – again with barely a pinkie on the tiebreaker scale since I don’t see any actual “holes.”

I have to admit that this is a much rosier picture than I expected to have, so let’s dig down deeper and look at a few details. Please, please, pretty please let me know where you disagree with the analysis. I really was surprised to find myself in this position, and would deeply appreciate some reality checks.

GOING THROUGH THE POSITION GROUPS

  • The OL has grown enough to turn off the sirens, but lacks depth and has lots of room to improve

The Pittsburgh OL actually had me frightened during the first half of the 2022 season. It looked genuinely bad across the line, with only occasional glimpses of average. Now? I’d grade the unit as an average across the board, with young player inconsistency as the biggest concern.

– CTR Mason Cole isn’t Maurkice Pouncey, but neither is he a problem. Solid, leaning toward good.

– RG James Daniels isn’t David DeCastro, but he is a genuine asset. I’d be willing to call him good, but not special.

– RT Chuks Okorafor has plateaued into being reliably good in pass protection and a little below average in the run game.

– LG Kevin Dotson has matured into being a real asset on late 2022 run-downs. Watch the second Baltimore game and you’ll see him moving unwilling 320 lb. behemoths with relative ease. Nor is Dotson a problem in pass pro… on about 90% of his plays. The other 10% make you want to scream. But one has to admit that both parts of his game were improving with every passing week by the season’s end, and consistency tends to go hand in hand with maturity. Beginning of 2022? A disaster. End of ’22? Good, offset by head-shaking inconsistency, with the arrow looking up.

– LT Dan Moore has followed a very similar pattern to Dotson; superior against the run, solid in pass pro… except when he looks like a fool. But, like Dotson, those bad plays declined with every week during part two of the season, and all reports say he has the native stuff to grow past them once and for all. Low average, with the arrow looking up.

– AS A UNIT: 2022 stands as a beacon to prove that unit cohesion counts as OL #6. Hindsight couldn’t be clearer that Moore’s struggles were a part of Dotson’s, and vice versa. As each improved, so did the other. The same thing occurred on the right side with Chuks and Daniels, though to a lesser extent since they were both rookies. And we also saw some temporary regression due to Coach Pat Meyer’s new angle on blocking technique, followed by continuing improvement as those lessons sank in. With the entire 2022 OL under contract, familiarity alone should improve the results almost as much as individual growth.

That leaves two issues. (1) The lack of greatness, and (2) the lack of depth.

Don’t underestimate the first one! What do you think would happen if a peer of Pouncey or DeCastro dropped in to any of the five spots along the line? Every boat would rise, and the unit would almost instantly grow from average up to good. Add two of those talents and the line could grow into something truly special. Greatness would make a huge difference. But adding someone who projects as merely good? Meh. It would certainly provide depth, competition, and therefore security, but would it really improve the results we were seeing by season’s end?

Don’t underestimate the value of depth, either. The Steelers enjoyed an almost impossible run of good health in 2022. No one missed a snap except for a few times when Center Mason Cole went down. If someone had been hurt the next man up would have been Kendrick Green at Guard (could he have grown?), with veterans like Trent Scott and Jesse Davis at Tackle. Uninspiring.

Translation: A great OL prospect would be the best possible outcome, and therefore gets the pinkie-weight tiebreaker advantage in the early rounds, but it doesn’t won’t be a success or failure dividing line for grading the draft as a whole. Outside of that, adding a quality Round 3-4 prospect for depth and competition would help, but likewise qualifies as a Want more than a Need.

  • The DL could also use a genuine star, but that’s about it unless there is a free agency disaster

Poof! Stephon Tuitt never retired, and was back as good as ever in 2022.

Question: How good would Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line have been in that case? Answer: Best in the NFL, bar none. Conclusion: The Steelers are exactly one all-pro away from genuine greatness, subject to whatever concern you have about Cam Heyward’s age). Even the depth would be sickening. You can build an exceptional defensive line by building on three quality starters, one rotational journeyman, and one developmental backup. Five spots to fill, with a sixth as nothing but depth. Make one of those starters a Heyward, and your DL becomes positively good. Make a second Tuitt, and… You get the point.

The 2022 Steelers had not five, not six, but seven NFL-level bodies to man those five positions. Heyward, Ogunjobi, Wormley, Leal, Loudermilk, Alualu, and Adams. So why would anyone ever be worried, or wish for the team to pick anything other than a potential Tuitt? Simple. Every one of those seven carries an unnerving amount of question marks.

– Alualu is going to retire of course, which instantly takes us down to six.

– Age will eventually catch up with Heyward at some time in the next 5 years, and most likely in the next 1-3. Make it five, at least for 2024 and beyond.

– Wormley and Ogunjobi are both free agents who could be hard to sign, and Wormley tore his ACL in Week 14. Three.

– If the January version of DeMarvin Leal dropped into the 2023 draft, he’d be a Top 10-15 prospect. Add some grown-man muscle onto last year’s player, and you’ll have a very good DT3 with splash play upside. Add improved technique as well and you’ll have an every-down DT2. Project a second jump in years 3-4? [Grins maniacally] So the future is bright. But pencil is not pen, developmental jumps are only projections until they’re made, and even Heyward was being called a bust until Years 3-4 of his career. Security factor down to two (2½ if you want to be really fair).

– Then we come to Loudermilk and Adams. Both failed to make the 2022 jumps that I expected. That’s hardly a fatal verdict, and I’d be nothing more than smugly pleased if it happened for either or both in 2023, but it’s not something to rely on. We’ve had good news on both fronts recently, with relatively solid games toward the end of the season and confident words from Wormley about Loudermilk, but those are signs rather than certainties.

Question marks on every single one of the crew = angst and unease. Live in your fears and you’ll see a looming disaster. Live in your hopes, and you’ll see no worry at all beyond investing for the future. Live in the middle, and… what? Angst and insecurity. Free agency will do a lot to push all of us one way or the other. No one could be really nervous if both of the free agents return, and everyone should be nervous if both of them leave. Until then, break out the antacid or the happy juice as your nature demands.

So here’s the bottom line. We would love to get a Colbert Special, and could really use a true Round 1 addition even if Leal and Loudermilk live up to all our hopes. But a developmental DT prospect who’d only be competition for Loudermilk? Meh. That player may even be on the roster if you have a rosy view of Carlos Davis.

The situation at Nose Tackle is a little different. Alualu’s retirement leaves us with only one NT, and Adams’ plateau means we can’t assume anything more than “good backup” quality. But what is the value of a NT? Two-down run stuffers are no more than a Round 4 priority because they play such limited snaps, and 3-down NT’s are Round 1 talents and Colbert Specials almost by definition. There is precious little room in between, and it’s occupied almost exclusively by boom-or-bust types who need a few years of training and growth.

  • Moving on to ILB…

There are two basic categories of ILB: (1) your lightweight, Mack ILB who leans toward speed-oriented duties like coverage or outside runs, but who cannot do inside run support unless the DL keeps them clean, and (2) your beefier Buck ILBs who excel at thumping in the box, but can be exposed against spread field offenses who force them into coverage. Great ILBs can cross those lines. Good ILBs do one of the two well.

Pittsburgh has four ILBs who are now in the public eye:

  1. Devin Bush. All snarking aside, he does perfectly well if the DL keeps him clean. He just looks like a bug on the windshield when the DL fails in that role. A pure Mack, who doesn’t straddle the line as his lofty draft status required, and he’s a free agent who will almost certainly depart.
  2. Myles Jack really can cross the lines, but only when he’s fully healthy, and he almost never is. The rest of the time he’s a limited Mack who relies on the D-Line rather than covering its occasional holes. Improvable but competent, with a worrisome history on the injury front.
  3. Robert Spillane is a pure Buck, who only succeeds in coverage because he’s an extra step quick at reading the play. A talented two-down player, and a very valuable locker room guy, but nevertheless a player who relies on the defensive scheme. He pulls his oar, but he doesn’t raise the other boats. He is also a free agent, though most of us have little doubt he’ll return.
  4. This year’s rookie surprise Mark Robinson looks like a promising Buck ILB, but no one will confuse him with a do-it-all talent like Shazier used to provide. He flashed a lot, but closer study shows that the team did a lot to protect him, and he still made occasional blunders. Let’s call him excellent depth with starter upside, but all the question marks that go with youth.

Verdict: The pieces are solidly average, especially if the front office can find a second Mack ILB to replace Bush. A unicorn talent would have a vast impact, a Round 1 talent would be a significant upgrade, and a Round 2-3 Mack would make a lot of sense if it doesn’t get addressed in free agency, but there is no particular need to prioritize the position if the BPA calculation leans in some other direction.

NOTE: Terrell Edmunds played a sneaky and successful role as a hybrid SS/MACK when Kazee was healthy enough to allow 3-Safety looks. A lot of the film watchers I know were downright gleeful at how well that package worked. I.e., there are ways to scheme around a lack of depth at Mack ILB if the team has superior depth at Safety.

  • The CB room.

Let’s start with another cartoon model. Every team has five basic CB spots to fill: a CB1 to either close off half the field, or eliminate the opponent’s WR1; a CB2 who can reliably cover any WR if he gets some help from the Safety; a CB3 who is either a talent on the rise or a veteran with extraordinary football IQ; a Slot CB/DB who is exceptionally tough and quick (often a Mike Hilton Mighty Mite); and a wild card developmental talent at CB5 who can legitimately dream of working his way up to CB1.

The Pittsburgh CB room includes three CB2s in Cam Sutton (a free agent), Levi Wallace, and Akhello Witherspoon; a CB3 in James Pierre (RFA), who can still have CB1 dreams, and an adequate Nickel in Arthur Maulet when Cam Sutton isn’t moved to the slot instead. Plus William Jackson III for whatever that is worth, since he will also be a free agent and has started to show fragile health.

That averages out to a very solid room, but holes appear when you give the opponent a field-tilting WR1 like J’amarr Chase, especially when Witherspoon spends his traditional 8-12 weeks on the injury list. Verdict: the Steelers’ secondary isn’t going to be a weakness any time soon, but it will be exploitable by A-1 offenses until the team lands a CB1. All of which adds up to what should be a familiar refrain by now: Ecstacy if we draft a Colbert Special, Glee if they pick a genuine Round 1 talent, and a shrug if they find another CB2.

  • EDGE

Hooray! We finally have a different situation. Pittsburgh has excellent starters in Watt and Highsmith, but the rotation is dismal, without a legitimate OLB3 anywhere on the roster. Plus there’s the unavoidable fact that Highsmith will hit his free agency years in 2024, and free agent pass rushers at his level are expensive. Great veneer with no substance underneath.

That leaves the door open to almost any level of draft pick. A true Round 1 talent won’t provide quite the same bang for the buck as the positions up above, but who can complain if the most important spot on the defense turns from excellent into both spectacular and secure? A Day 2 talent would add essential depth and hopefully a rotational OLB3 who could mature to take Highsmith’s spot as T.J.’s official Robin. A developmental, Day 3 OLB4 would help too, though I fully expect Khan & Co. to address this one through free agency.

Room at the top, room in the middle, and room at the bottom. This may be the one surefire draft pick bet we could make.

NOTE: The 2023 Edge prospects look spectacular at this point in the process, with real bargains likely to be available in both Round 1 and Round 2. I will call my shot that BPA and desire are going to meet up on an OLB at pick #17, #32, or #49.

  • The Wide Receivers

Johnson, who constantly gets wide open but needs a QB who can hit him; Pickens, who can get deep and turns 50/50 balls into 80/20; a hopefully healthy Calvin Austin, who has liquid speed to spare; XL special teams ace Miles Boykin; two try-hard returner types in Sims and Olszewski; and TE Pat Freiermuth, who will rightfully absorb a lot of the midfield targets. Yes, there is room for an extra weapon; but that room isn’t “weak,” and the addition could be any of the prototypes: shifty, fast, big, or chain-moving security blanket. Could it even include a legitimate receiving TE2 to pair with Freiermuth?

An average priority that should be in the BPA calculus for every round, but has no finger on the scale for any of them.

  • Tight End

Freiermuth looks like a genuine TE1. Then there is Zach Gentry as a viable but not particularly good TE2 (and a free agent), plus Connor Heyward as a hybrid TE/FB with good receiving chops. The room is full, with the proviso that a second player of Freiermuth’s caliber would turn this position into a ridiculously potent asset. Anyone who remembers the combination of Gronkowski and Hernandez will see the possibilities in an instant.

NOTE: This class looks to be especially strong in both Round 2 and 3, with a potential straggler who could fall to the 4th. If the need is relatively low, the BPA value may be a little extra high.

  • Safety

This one is also set with Fitzpatrick and a sidekick. Kazee will do, and so would Edmunds, but both are free agents who played well enough to demand a raise over their bargain salaries in 2022, and having three good safeties would cover up any weakness at Mack ILB. There’s also a concern that Pittsburgh leans extraordinary weight on Minkah Fitzpatrick, with little or no Free Safety depth behind him.

Besides, I’m a longtime Safety aficionado who’s almost as fond of these ultra-versatile players as I am of ILBs and TEs. Personal bias counts for something too, doesn’t it? Let’s call it another time will tell spot until free agency comes and goes.

CONCLUSION

Again – PLEASE feel free and more than free to critique the analysis down in the Comments. These are my genuine opinions but I have a militantly open mind, and I could really do with a reality-check critique. Politely, of course, since the season for hot takes ended with Joe Flacco’s failure. Here are the results of all that in a nutshell:

#1 – Every spot on this team could use a Colbert Special, with the sole exception of RB. If someone of that caliber drops in Round 1, take him without regard to position. Period.

#2 – Every position group on the team but RB and QB could use a true Round 1 talent, which amounts to a recipe for all-but-pure BPA. One might give OT, OG, OC, ILB, DT, NT, and CB a slight, pinkie-weight, tiebreaker advantage over WR, TE, and EDGE, but no more than that. Maybe a 5-10 spot discount on the 2023 Steelers Big Board?

#3 – WR, EDGE, and Mack ILB are the only spots where a Round 2-3 talent could really contribute in 2023, but there’s a massive list of positions that would casually benefit from quality depth in the pipeline (those three plus OT, OG, OC, WR, DT, EDGE, ILB, SAF, and maybe CB). Buck ILB offers lesser value in light of the surprising development of both Spillane and Robinson, unless Spillane departs in free agency. TE could be a sleeper position to the extent he would fill the WR hole, and because this may well be the Day 2 BPA in abstract. The odds on TE would go down if free agent Zach Gentry returns, which seems likely since he shouldn’t be all that expensive.

#4 – The slightly favored Round 1 targets (OT, OG, OC, DT, and CB rooms) would want to focus on upside for their Day 2 pick. High floors will be less valuable.

#5 – The only Day 3 holes (see the definition!) are for a 2-down, run-stuffing NT and a developmental QB to fill one of the soon-to-be-vacated spots that were occupied in 2022 by Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. After that, it’s all about depth, competition, and long-term pipeline talent.

#6 – The primary free agency targets will be OL depth, NT starter, Mack ILB, SAF2, SAF3, backup QB, and maybe DT or TE depending on what happens with Edmunds, Ogunjobi, Wormley, and Gentry.

#7 – We’d know a heck of a lot more if we had access to the team’s internal projections for Leal, Loudermilk, Adams, Dotson, Moore, and Robinson. Those are the Great Unknowns to remember around your local water cooler. Many a casual fan will make unwarranted assumptions that should be used to your benefit. Bonus #8: We should all make a note to collectively pester the site’s film watchers for detailed breakdowns on all six.

To Top
error: Alert: Content is protected !!