Make no mistake: the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, one that features arguably the league’s top offensive trio and a handful of young defensive stars.
Like all NFL rosters (err, *most*, I guess, since New England continues to be loaded with talent), the Steelers have some major depth issues, particularly at some of the most important “impact” positions. Ben Roethlisberger is 35 and figures to have at least a couple productive seasons left, though he spent the last four months apparently pondering retirement. He could retire next offseason or five years from now. Neither outcome would be surprising. Likewise with linebacker James Harrison, who will be the oldest defensive player in the NFL this coming season.
Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the universe, but he alone cannot solidify the long-term well-being of the receiving corps. Martavis Bryant very well could, but he’s played in just 21 games due to injuries and suspensions. A third suspension for Bryant would almost certainly spell the end of his Steelers career, if not his professional football career entirely. That is a lot of pressure for a guy who allegedly only used marijuana in the first place to manage his anxiety and depression.
The secondary, meanwhile, was as good as it has been in three seasons in 2016, but still finished in the middle of the pack in pass defense. This would have been just dandy had Tom Brady and the Patriots not shredded Pittsburgh’s secondary in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers could easily win 11 or 12 games without even touching the secondary—they made the postseason in 2014 and 2015 with units that were drastically inferior to 2016’s squad—but beating the Patriots (or, potentially, Oakland in the AFC or Green Bay or Atlanta, in the event of a Super Bowl run) is going to require some modifications.
With that said, the best pass defense begins up front, and the Steelers have some holes to fill. When Jarvis Jones signed a contract with Arizona, he took 475 snaps with him. Harrison will obviously assume a sizable portion of Jones' workload, but it would be lunacy to expect a 40-year-old man to play 40 snaps per game for the duration of a 16-game season and the playoffs. To ensure Harrison is at his best, his playing time must be managed accordingly. Pittsburgh's can't bet on unearthing a franchise edge rusher with the 30th pick in the first round, but they do need to find a rookie defender who is polished enough to play 400 or so snaps.
Herein lies a major issue: the 2017 class of edge defenders is pretty weak. Aside from consensus top prospect Myles Garrett, there isn’t a single edge player who looks like a blue-chip player. Solomon Thomas, who could be the second overall pick, was extremely inconsistent during his tenure at Stanford (check out Stephen White’s excellent piece of Thomas here), while Derek Barnett, who could be picked as high as No. 6 overall, is an average athlete. Taco Charlton, Tak McKinley, Tyus Bowser or T.J. Watt could all be on the board by the time Pittsburgh makes its first pick, but none of them look particularly remarkable. Would Pittsburgh be wise to reach for one of those players (or a quarterback, for those of you who are sold and DeShone Kizer or Pat Mahomes) to fill a position of need rather than dipping into the unprecedentedly deep class of cornerbacks or tight ends? Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.