Draft. Develop. Re-sign.
This has been the mantra for the Pittsburgh Steelers organization for decades, putting an emphasis of building their team through the draft rather than relying on free agency to fill their key needs with premium talent. Sure, Pittsburgh has spent to acquire key free agents like LB James Farrior, CB Joe Haden, and most recently OG Isaac Seumalo to address key needs on the roster with quality players. But ever since Kevin Colbert started calling the shots back in the early 2000s, this team has made its identity regarding roster construction by building through the draft.
However, while the Steelers crushed it in the first round of the draft early in Colbert’s tenure, anding long-term cornerstones like DL Casey Hampton, S Troy Polamalu, QB Ben Roethlisberger, and TE Heath Miller, the team’s results on the first day of the draft recently haven’t been as fruitful — specifically in terms of drafting players that make it to a second contract with the franchise. In fact, since 2008, the Steelers have only had four players that they drafted in the first round make it to a second-multi-year contract with the team: C Maurkice Pouncey, DL Cameron Heyward, OG David DeCastro, and EDGE T.J. Watt.
That three-year run with Pouncey, Heyward, and DeCastro yielded great results for Pittsburgh from 2010-2012, but the two years prior and the seasons following that stretch didn’t yield near the same positive results:
2008: Rashard Mendenhall
2009: Evander (Ziggy) Hood
2013: Jarvis Jones
2014: Ryan Shazier
2015: Bud Dupree
2016: Artie Burns
2018: Terrell Edmunds
2019: Devin Bush
2020: No first-round pick (Minkah Fitzpatrick trade)
2021: Najee Harris
2022: Kenny Pickett
Obviously, a couple of these picks need context. Shazier would’ve likely been brought back on a lucrative second contract to Pittsburgh if it weren’t for the career-ending spinal injury he suffered in 2017. Dupree tore his ACL in his final season on his fifth-year option and Pittsburgh opted to roll with Alex Highsmith instead of paying Dupree, which ended up being the right call. The Steelers traded their 2020 first-round pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is playing at an All-Pro level and agreed to a lucrative multi-year extension of his own last June.
Still, for a team that prides itself on building through the draft, the use of first-0round draft capital hasn’t matched Pittsburgh’s motto when it comes to drafting, developing, and retaining its own guys in recent seasons. Mendenhall only managed one more year with Arizona before retiring after six years in the league. Ziggy Hood bounced around the league for several seasons after his rookie contract while Jarvis Jones, Artie Burns, and Devin Bush turned out to be huge busts relative to their draft capital. Terrell Edmunds returned on a one-year deal last offseason but reportedly signed with the Philadelphia Eagles today.
The jury is still out on Najee Harris and Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh’s most recent first-round selections. Pickett will likely see a second deal from Pittsburgh should he prove himself to be a franchise QB in the coming seasons. Harris has become a face of the franchise after just two seasons, but given his status as a RB, it’s difficult to say whether Pittsburgh will be inclined to sign him to a multi-year extension after his initial four years. Assuming they pick up his fifth-year option, the Steelers could then use the franchise tag on Harris instead of committing long-term guaranteed money to him.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are known for being one of the most consistent, competitive franchises in the National Football League. The expectation is to compete for championships, but the team has failed to do just that over the last half decade. A lot of factors are the cause of that but missing on your first-round picks isn’t going to help as Pittsburgh has failed to hit on several players, who were supposed to become foundational pieces for a title contender, in recent drafts.
Whatever way Pittsburgh elects to go in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, here’s hoping this team selects a player it sees wearing the Black and Gold for the next decade as Omar Khan and Andy Weidl attempt to get this team back into title contention.