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Steelers 2017 Draft Outlook: Just how critical of a need is wide receiver?

Guessing whether the Steelers will pick a receiver in the 2017 draft is about as easy as guessing who will be their number-two receiver this fall. In other words, not easy at all.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

When you talk about the current situation the Pittsburgh Steelers face at wide receiver, be sure you don’t forget: numbers are not the issue. Unless, of course, you mean they might run out of receiver-eligible numbers. Then, it may be trouble.

The Steelers have a veritable army of wide receivers. At the very least, it’s a battalion. Specifically, they currently have eleven under contract. That number includes Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Eli Rogers. Those guys did the bulk of the work at receiver in 2016. They were joined for periods of time by Cobi Hamilton and rookie Demarcus Ayers. True number-two receiver Martavis Bryant missed the entire season due to suspension, and Canaan Severin was placed on injured reserve during the pre-season. Finally, the Steelers also currently employ Marcus Tucker and Dez Stewart, who are likely no more than eventual practice-squad cannon fodder.

The problem isn’t even expiring contracts. There is only one of those — Wheaton — and he isn’t likely to garner much attention in free agency, and could very well end up re-signed by training camp despite an absolutely terrible year in 2016.

The problem is simply the unknown: no one knows for sure if the team can reach a long-term agreement with Brown, who is as good of a receiver as the NFL has seen in the last 15 years. It’s unknown if Bryant will be reinstated by the league and, even if he is, it’s no sure bet he won’t get himself suspended yet again. It’s unknown how Coates will return after surgery to repair bone and tendon damage in his hands. It’s unknown if Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers will take the next step forward in 2017.

Simply put, it’s unknown who — if anyone — is likely to be the team’s number-two receiver in 2017, and what any of the lineup will be in 2018. Right now, Heyward-Bey and Coates are the only ones who actually made the final 53-man roster in 2017 who are under contract for 2018.

The team said Friday they expect to have reached an agreement with Brown “well before training camp”, which is either a good sign of positive negotiations, or simply a statement of blind hope.

The funny thing is, this is an exceptionally deep group, based only on the assumption that Bryant will keep his nose clean going forward. It’s a dangerous assumption, of course, but if it happens, 2017 could be a record-setting year. Brown and Bryant mutually open the field for one another, and the addition of Rogers as a slot receiver and Coates as another deep threat could make for a scary-good foursome.

Still, there’s that one, nagging word: maybe. Maybe Bryant screws up again. Maybe Rogers is at his ceiling. Maybe Coates won’t be the same when he comes back. Maybe Brown will simply demand too much money.

It really puts the criticality of need for the position in limbo. That’s why this year’s draft could be the key to rounding things out for the next several years.

Only one receiver in the 2017 draft class qualifies as a not-gonna-happen pick, and that’s Clemson’s Mike Williams. He’s the only receiver who has a definite first-round grade.

The second-tier group is still quite impressive, with Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, Washington’s John Ross and Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel a mixed bag of physical traits, but remarkably similar in production. Each is intriguing. Ross is a touchdown machine, with just over four catches per touchdown. Davis plays in a smaller school adn conference, and had to produce above and beyond to be in the same zip code as some of these other guys, and he did just that with 97 catches for 1,500 yuards and 19 touchdowns. And Samuel is simply a dynamic player all around, who had 74 catches and 98 carries in 2016. If the Steelers wanted a smaller, leaner and slightly less talented version of Le’Veon Bell, Samuel would be that guy. And let’s not forget how much head coach Mike Tomlin values diverse skill sets.

The reality, though, is the Steelers have to weigh the future need at receiver with the current need at other positions. It’s possible the need for another EDGE rusher and a safety to eventually replace the aging Mike Mitchell could trump the immediate need for a receiver, especially when EDGE and safety are so deep this season. The guys available at the bottoms of both the first and second rounds, at both positions, are still likely to be top-tier players.

Additionally, the top four receivers are likely to come off the board by about the 50th pick. That means the Steelers either may end up reaching in the first, or praying in the second, if wide receiver is truly that high of a priority. It’s fair to point out, though, that they have spent much of the last ten years turning late-round water into fine wine when it comes to drafting and developing receivers, considering it’s been 11 years since they drafted a receiver in the first round. Since then, they have selected a receiver no higher than round three, yet have developed the likes of Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates. Undrafted Rogers looks like a solid number-three guy after just one season, and even seventh-rounder Ayers is showing promise.

While not as deep as other positions, this draft also goes deep at receiver. There are anywhere between 15 and 30 receivers who could be off the board in the first four rounds. Guys like Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook or East Carolina’s Zay Jones could be around late in the third, while Baylor’s K.D. Cannon and 6’-5”, 235-pound Texas A&M monster Ricky Seals-Jones could be there in the fourth or even fifth rounds.

There is talent to be found into day three and, with need at other positions, I doubt the Steelers are likely to take a receiver early unless a deal too good to pass up falls into their laps.