The Pittsburgh Steelers have a history of hitting on receivers in the draft. Be it Santonio Holmes in the first round or Antonio Brown in the sixth round, Pittsburgh just has that special stuff when it comes to evaluating talent at the receiver position and finding in impact contributor at nearly any point in the draft.
The Steelers are in position to draft another receiver in 2023 after losing Steven Sims in free agency to the Texans and with Miles Boykin remaining unsigned. The team has Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, who are established starters, and Calvin Austin III, who is coming back after missing the entire 2022 campaign with a foot injury. However, Austin has never played a down of NFL football and expecting him to man the starting slot job from Day One without any real insurance behind him wouldn’t be wise. Sure, the team has Anthony Miller and Gunner Olszewski as depth. But neither possesses much upside relative to their production the last several years.
While WR is a position that can be improved through lost-cost investment with a draft pick in the middle rounds, would that be the right move for this team? Given the state of the draft and the direction of this football team, perhaps it would be better to invest a draft pick into a quality TE instead of going back to the WR well.
When looking at the draft class as a whole, the TE position is one of the deepest. In fact, many have labeled this TE class as the deepest in recent memory with NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah stating that he has 11 TEs with third-round grades. Guys like Michael Mayer and Dalton Kincaid will likely hear their names called in the first round. But players like Zack Kuntz, Payne Durham, Sam LaPorta, and Luke Schoonmaker all could become capable starting TEs that could fall in the draft due to sheer depth at the position.
In comparison, the WR position isn’t as loaded in this draft class with the top of the position featuring options like Quentin Johnston, who has his own concerns regarding if he can develop into a well-rounded WR1 as well as Jordan Addison, who didn’t perform well at the Combine and doesn’t have the prototypical size of an alpha WR. There are plenty of other receivers to be had later in the draft, but there is an apparent lack of depth and quality in 2023 compared to previous classes.
Not only does the draft skew more to the TE position, but the direction of the Steelers’ offensive philosophy may skew to more two- and -three TE sets in 2023 as well. The Steelers committed to the running game after their bye week, finding success with that offensive identity as they went 7-2 down the stretch and nearly made the playoffs. The rate they utilized two-TE sets went up nearly 25% after the bye while the number of snaps they deployed three TEs rose as well. The front office has committed to this identity, signing big, mean people movers in OGs Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo this offseason while showing interest in some of the top OL in the class.
HC Mike Tomlin mentioned that the team wasn’t bashful in its intentions to establish the running game last season and sees that trend continuing in 2023 to help complement QB Kenny Pickett and further his development. While the team did bring back Zach Gentry, he is a serviceable yet unspectacular option as the team’s TE2. Instead of Gentry serving as the team’s blocking TE, imagine if Pittsburgh embraced this smash mouth football identity and selected Georgia’s Darnell Washington or South Dakota State’s Tucker Craft. They are two of the best-blocking TEs in the class and would also give Pickett big-bodied targets in the red zone as well as over the field to move the chains.
Pittsburgh needs to continue to add more talent around Pickett to take this offense to the next level. While drafting a slot WR may help accomplish that, Pittsburgh could potentially kill two birds with one stone by drafting a talented TE in a deep class. It would give Pickett another reliable passing-game target while also improving the run-blocking department to help take this running game to another level in 2023.