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Assessing where the 2017 Steelers draft needs lie heading into February

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Let’s step back and look at the 2017’s distribution of talent...

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Who should the Steelers consider in the 2017 NFL draft? That’s what the Big Board is for. This article addresses a few of the patterns we can see in the distribution of talent.

First, this particular draft class has a monstrous cluster of Edge Rushers with late-1st to early-2nd grades. Edge Rusher is the team’s biggest need, especially if you accept that drafts should focus on the expected situation in Year 2 rather than what’s coming up (i.e., draft for the holes you foresee in 2018, not 2017). Ipso facto, the team will almost certainly pick an Edge Rusher at 1:30.

BUT, a lot of these Edge guys are pegged in the fringe-1st category because of unknowns that will slowly disappear as the process moves forward.

  • How athletic is Derek Barnett?
  • Can Takk McKinley bend the corner?
  • Can Carl Lawson bend the corner?
  • Can Charles Harris bend the corner?
  • Are Tim Williams’ off-field issues real?
  • Can Taco Charlton play in space?
  • Can T.J. Watt be an elite pass rusher, or only a good one?
  • Can Dawuane Smoot play with discipline?
  • Can we find enough evidence to confirm the grade Joe Mathis got from several respected analysts versus the "unfinished" and "unknown" grades he got from others?
  • Etc., etc.

Some or all of the prospects in this cluster will accordingly move up and out of reach.

It’s also possible that several guys will drop down the rankings, either because the questions got negative answers or because we collectively decide that dip/bend is a mandatory requirement rather than a much-desired one. This has been a semi-heated debate on our Comments already. Bud Dupree really is a miracle athlete, but he isn’t a bendy one - and that forces him to compensate in the same way that Mike Tyson had to compensate for his lack of a jab. There’s also a benefit to having pass rushers with different styles of getting after the QB, to take advantage of offensive linemen who have different types of weakness. So there’s a good argument that Pittsburgh should place special value on dip-and-bend ability when it picks. The question is, how much?

Second, the team could surprise us with a major move in free agency. We are all assuming that either (A) Jarvis Jones will leave, or (B) Deebo will leave, but either way (C) one of the two will be there as a presumptive starter for 2017. This fits the pattern of what Kevin Colbert likes to do, but his patterns aren’t set in stone. What happens if the Steelers decide to go all in on their Super Bowl runs in the next three years, and start by opening the pocketbook for a really elite free agent pass rusher?

Answer: The team would still have room for a young stud to train up, but OLB would no longer stand alone as the primary target. Defensive Back (at whatever position) and Offensive Weapon would instantly have an equal priority.

Third, it just so happens that the draft also has a major cluster of late-1st talent for Corners. The Big Board clusters these at 2:01, but that is because the need is less pressing than we see at the Edge. Eliminate that priority and many of these players would leap up to their “natural” grade somewhere in the early- to mid-1st.

Corners normally go very early, but the same is true for Edge players. Something has to give, right? If the teams ahead of us devour the pass-rush class, or the Steelers make a big move to reduce the level of need at that position, then DB could be the way to go at 1:30. It could be a guy like Jabrill Peppers, who would drop because he’s more athlete than position player. Or it could be a true #1 corner, like Conley, Jackson, or Lattimore.

Fourth, what should Pittsburgh do if the need at OLB remains but there’s a major run before the Steeler pick? If it’s a choice between "solid" at OLB or "extraordinary" at DB, extraordinary wins it every time. Field-tilters are just too rare. What are the odds on this happening? Poor. But far from unimaginable.

Fifth, the offensive class is relatively weak, especially at two positions we would normally rely on for pushing down the talent Pittsburgh is after: Quarterback and Offensive Tackle. But… teams without a QB tend to reach for a favorite despite the objective grade. Will there be a normal run on QB’s anyway? And on tackles? If so, a prime Edge guy is all but guaranteed at 1:30. If not… Well, those same teams are likely to focus on our priorities as their #2.

Sixth, if teams follow the objective ratings, that means a major run on both Edge players and DB’s, with a couple of WR’s and elite RB’s mixed in. What does this leave? Well, after OLB and DB, the Steelers’ biggest target would be a multipurpose Offensive Weapon. This would keep Ben happy, and a fit could be found if the player was a super-elite TE (either to pair with Green in an ungodly package, or to replace him if he’s hurt), a super-elite H-back who could block like Rosie Nix but also be a seam-busting nightmare, or a super-elite RB/WR hybrid. And behold! There are a number of those in this draft too (the H-backs with Round 2 grades).

So if there is a major run on Edge Rushers, AND Corners, AND Safeties, AND the few QB’s we might consider… then O.J. Howard, David Njoku, and/or Christian McCaffrey are going to be there for the taking. Adding those to the Pittsburgh offense would bring Ben back for sure. Who wouldn’t like to be the quarterback on an offense that Madden 2017 would be ashamed to include as an option? It would be a weird situation, but it’s worth considering nevertheless from an academic point of view.

Seventh. And now we come to the QB situation. I am 99% sure than Roethlisberger will be back in 2017. But you don’t draft for 2017, you draft for 2018. What are the odds for that year? 70%? Okay, and what about 2019? [Yikes]. So the Steelers may not need to draft a QB this year, but they probably will have an actual "need" if they wait until 2018. And one thing we know about quarterbacks is that they are expensive. You simply can’t rely on getting a Brady in the 6th or a Montana in the 3rd. In fact they are so expensive that the soon-to-be 2017/2018 World Champion Steelers will have no realistic shot at getting one, even though 2018 is supposed to have a pretty deep class at the quarterback position.

My answer? The Steelers have more 2017 picks than available spots on the roster. Instead of wasting those on players who won’t make the team, trade them up for higher-round picks in the upcoming year. Then use those 2018 picks as trade-bait to make a major move for a QB who might actually be the Heir to Ben. It’s worth thinking about, at least in theory.

The Bottom Line: OLB is Pittsburgh’s biggest need right now, and that it’s likely to be the biggest need on draft day. The shape of the Board is great for that, because the distribution of talent strongly suggests that Pittsburgh will be given a choice among several #1 quality pass rushers that would fit the bill. But those are, when it comes right down to it, expectations rather than certainties. That’s part of the fun – figuring out all the "what if’s".