One of the really curious things about the 2017 NFL Draft is that it’s stocked with a lot of guys who would look awfully good rushing the passer as an outside linebacker in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ black and gold. How fortunate it is, then, that that’s one of the biggest positions of need for the Steelers this off-season.
Looking at least year’s primary outside linebacker rotation, it’s safe to say there are some holes. Former first-round pick Jarvis Jones’ fifth-year option was declined last off-season, and he is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Due to an undeniable lack of production as a pass rusher, Jones likely will be given the chance to seek a contract elsewhere without any immediate competition from the Steelers. Should he garner no real offers, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that the Steelers would make him an offer to return, purely as a depth option.
James Harrison, who defeated Father Time by unanimous decision once again in 2016, is also a free agent, but he has made it perfectly clear in the past that he is a Steeler, or nothing. Given the lack of depth, and a voiced desire to return in 2017, it’s a safe bet he will be back in black and gold come time for organized team activities in May and June.
On the other side of the line, Bud Dupree will enter his third season after an abbreviated, yet wildly successful, season in 2016. His backup, Arthur Moats, has one year left under his current contract.
Then there’s Anthony Chickillo, who started seven of the 15 games in which he played in 2016, and played well against the run and in coverage, with only mild success as a pass rusher. He did, however, manage 2.5 sacks
And that’s pretty much it. That’s all there currently is, folks. Well, there’s Kevin Anderson, who was placed on the Injured/Reserved list last pre-season and who is currently an exclusive-rights free agent, but he was basically brought in as a camp body last year, and that’s the best he can likely hope for this year.
However, even if the Steelers had James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in their heydays right now, 2017 would be the draft to say, “screw it, let’s draft an edge rusher in the first round!”
The confluence of need and available talent at a single position may not have ever been better for Pittsburgh. There are eight to 10 edge rushers available in this year’s draft who could play 3-4 outside linebacker who could end up gone by the end of the first round, or they could fall all the way to the third. The field is, literally, that stacked this year.
If you want a top pick, there’s Missouri’s Charles Harris and Alabama’s Tim Williams, although Williams is likely to be removed from the Steelers’ draft board entirely due to substance abuse issues that could result in another Martavis Bryant-like situation. T.J. Watt of Wisconsin — not to mention, the younger brother of All-Known-Universe defensive lineman J.J. Watt — could end up anywhere from the late picks in the first round to the end of the second. Kansas State’s Jordan Willis could be a sleeper who deserves to go early in the second but could slide into the third or even the fourth because of playing for a school with a lesser football program. And injury concerns could push Auburn stud Carl Lawson down to day three in much the same way Stephon Tuitt fell to the Steelers, from a top-five pick to a late-second round pick.
Local favorite Ejuan Price, of Pittsburgh, is being held down because of his height. But let’s not forget that he’s a tick taller than Harrison, who went from an undrafted free agent to 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and was considered for the Super Bowl XLIII MVP after his 101-yard pick-six to end the first half of that game. If it’s bang for your buck you are looking for, Price may very well be one of the biggest value picks of the entire draft.
The amazing thing about this draft field is that there is hardly a bad pick in the bunch at edge rusher, and there is a wealth of variation available, from small-and-fast to big-and-powerful. No matter who ends up being picked from this group by the Steelers, they will have the chance to make an early, and tangible, impact. And that’s just what Pittsburgh needs from any pass rusher they select in 2017.