Repeat after me: the Steelers don’t need to draft a defensive lineman before the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers are set at offensive line, and it would border on the absurd to draft someone there unless there are injuries to starters we aren’t yet aware of. On the defensive line, they are only marginally worse off. When healthy, their current front three of Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt could grow into one of the best 3-4 fronts in the NFL. Against the run, they were as stout as anyone else over the second half of the season, and they got after quarterbacks with reckless abandon.
And that was without Heyward, who may be the single-best defensive player on the team, and top-five in the entire AFC North.
Depth is good too, assuming they re-sign Ricardo Mathews this off-season. Given the likely low price to do so, they’d be foolish to pass. Along with Mathews, there is true nose tackle Daniel McCullers and 2015 draft pick L.T. Walton, along with John Maxey, who all saw time on the field due to injuries to all three starters throughout the season. All in all, the backups acquitted themselves well.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, even if it’s someone who sits for a year or two or — close your eyes and breathe, Steelers fans — even the possibility of mixing in even more 4-3 looks into the defensive scheme. Another value pick in the second, like Tuitt, could provide just that. Of course, that was an exception, but stranger things have happened.
Short of a miracle, the only player who could fit into a 3-4 defensive line who the Steelers have absolutely no chance of drafting is Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. Outside of Allen, any player could be available at the bottom of round one. Round two or three are more likely, though, due to a confluence of need and available talent at other positions. Florida’s Caleb Brantley may be gone by the time the Steelers pick in the second round, but he would be a good fit if he truly is the best player available in the first. Michigan’s Chris Wormley may not have the explosiveness of Tuitt, but he has a similar build and is a true Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. He’d be an excellent option to play both inside and outside, and could easily be available for the Steeler’s second-round pick. In the third, Notre Dame’s Jarron Jones would be an excellent addition.
In the later rounds, Oklahoma State’s Vincent Taylor has size and strength to play defensive end, and had himself a fine season in 2016. He could be available in rounds four or five. Ditto for Elijah Qualls of Washington, who projects as a true nose tackle and could be a more natural fit for the position than 6’-7” McCullers, who has improved considerably but still understandably struggles with leverage issues.
In the end, any of these guys would be an immediate depth upgrade, but wouldn’t see the field much in 2017 without injuries playing a role. Thanks to having one of their deepest rosters in a long time, the Steelers will have plenty of opportunities to simply pick the best player available, regardless of position, which is exactly why they are likely to choose at least one defensive lineman in the 2017 NFL Draft.