Here's the game. What follows are my best sales pitches for why Pittsburgh could use someone at each of these positions.* Read them and then vote according to which you find most convincing. Simple, right?
[FN] These are not my personal beliefs, just my best, good faith efforts to argue for each one as powerfully as possible.
Edge Rushing OLB - This one is obvious and everyone agrees that it's Pittsburgh's #1 priority. Bud Dupree looks great on one end, but who's there to hold down the other? Deebo? He'll be 39 next year. Father Time always wins in the end. Jarvis Jones? He's going into a contract year, and in any event he looks more like a solid backup than the man you want as your starter. Anthony Chickillo? Arthur Moats? Again, they look like superior backups in a position that calls for serious stardom. If Harrison and JJ are both headed out the door, there are two distinct holes to fill at one of the highest profile and most important positions on the defense.
But wait! It's not that easy. Kevin Colbert simply does not go into the draft with this big a hole in his starting roster. History says that he is going to replace at least one of those two (Harrison and JJ) with an able free agent. It might be the original version - Harrison signing on for a 1-2 deal, or Jarvis Jones at a team-friendly backup's price. Or it might be an outsider such as the very able but often injured Melvin Ingram. So assume that's the case. Here's the scenario for your vote: Deebo returns for another year because the team really believes he can play at the same level until the Big 4-0 becomes a literal truth. What's the priority now?
Heir to Timmons ILB - What will happen if Shazier gets hurt? And how many years does Lawrence Timmons have left? I noted above that I love our depth when it comes backups for the Buck ILB position behind Timmons. (This is the one that calls for more of a smart, thumping, line-pressing run support player, while the Mack ILB calls for more speed and range). That description fits Vince Williams to a "T", and is pretty darned accurate for Tyler Matakevich and A.J. Fort as well. But none of those guys has anything like the range that Ryan Shazier brings to the position.
This means there will be a real drop off if Shazier goes down, simply because the amount of field our ILB's can control would shrink. A really fast ILB would cover that hole. If he's good enough, he could also beat out Williams et. al. as the heir to Timmons when that sad day finally arrives. I am a self-professed ILB junkie and can only fantasize about what this defense would look like with a young L.T. to pair with Shazier. The amount of inside-to-out speed on the field would frustrate defenses for as long as we could hold the two together. ILB is already a strength. Imagine what would happen if it turned into unending dominance.
Hybrid SS/ILB - The Steelers are set at Safety, right? Mitchell gets some stupid penalties, but he plays well above the line other than that. Sean Davis looks like a star in the making. And Robert Golden is a wonderful backup who could start on many lesser teams. The team is set at ILB too, with Shazier on one side and the long line of Timmons/Williams/Matakevich/Fort for depth. So where is the hole? Let me explain.
Modern offenses are all about finding a mismatch and then exploiting it. They do this by trying out different personnel packages and formations until they can create a situation like "Gronkowski on Your Backup Safety", or "Big RB on Your Extra Cover Guy." Modern defenses counter this by using fast, flexible hybrid talents who are big enough to be a genuine help in run support but also fast enough to have genuine coverage skills. All those times the Steelers got gashed by good TE's in the middle of the field? That is the missing player who would have prevented it.
Besides that, who is our actual backup behind Shazier? Williams plays faster than he is because his recognition's gotten so good, and I believe the same will be true of Matakevich. But physical realities trump all that in the end - neither guy would have good odds if it came to covering Ladarius Green up the seam, and modern offenses would find a way to force that matchup if the backups had to go in. A hybrid guy, though, who could be at the center of a "light to normal package" with Williams coming in for a "normal to heavy package"... That tandem would be enough to replace all the things Shazier manages to do on his own.
Safety - Do Mitchell's penalties drive you nuts? There's an answer to that! Draft a really fast Safety or a FS/CB hybrid who can spend a redshirt year learning the system and growing until he can captain the back of the defense. Such a player would also be useful in sub packages by acting as an extra deep coverage presence and allowing Mitchell to shift forward into more of a Strong Safety role. The man can hit, there's no denying that part. Our current Safety backups (Golden and Dangerfield) are more on the "strong" side of the Safety equation than a true, free wheeling centerfielder.
Cornerback - Wait, hear me out! Artie Burns looks great, and Ross Cockrell has no bigger fan than yours truly. But what's behind them? A series of huge, boom-or-bust question marks.
- Big Play Willie Gay is nearing the end of his career. Who's to say that the end won't come quickly, as happens all to often?
- Senquez Golson is an ideal slot corner on paper, but he has yet to play a snap in the NFL because of chronic mishap and injury. Who's to say that won't continue, or that he'll live up to his billing against NFL receivers?
- Justin Gilbert has an unbelievable pedigree and a ridiculous amount of athletic talent, but what good has all that done so far? He busted out of Cleveland! Cleveland!! And he hasn't been able to earn snaps in Pittsburgh even as a return man, where he was sold to us draftniks as a sure thing. Who's to say he'll ever develop in the way we hope?
- And then there's Al-Hajj Shabazz, the 6'2" mystery man no one knows about. Who's to say if he'll ever develop enough to earn a single snap?
We've all seen what a huge difference it made when Artie Burns finally crossed the line and began to hold his own. That provided Pittsburgh with the third competent CB that's so essential in today's game. It freed up the defense to blitz and to expand the playbook in uncounted ways that were impossible when one of the corners always needed help ‘just in case.' If BPWG loses that final step, what do we have except faith to encourage a belief that the essential final piece will still be there? The same goes for a serious injury to Cockrell or Burns.
One more serious (and successful) talent at CB will ease those worries, and might even free up Willie Gay to shift over toward Free Safety for his closing movement.
Run Stuffing Nose Tackle - Run defense has been the Steelers' biggest defensive weakness in the second half of the season. We can all understand why that is. Cam Heyward is out, Stephon Tuitt has been hurt enough to miss games, and Javon Hargrave is more of a "Slashing Attack NT" than a massive run stuffer. Both of Pittsburgh's backups at DE played much better than expected. Kudos and more to Ricardo Matthews and L.T. Walton. But they aren't that run stuffer in the middle who could be relied on to firmly and finally shut the door on rushing attacks. Big Dan McCullers was supposed/hoped to be that guy, but he hasn't blossomed in response to the crossed fingers of Steeler Nation (particularly on stretch plays). If you don't believe that he will, a hole exists for a Size XXL run stuffer who could replace Javon Hargrave on obvious running downs. It's essentially a sub package position in the modern NFL - no more than 30% or so of the snaps even if he's downright great at the job - but it's a sub package that's real nevertheless, and one of the few personnel weaknesses that opponents might be able to exploit.
Remember: defense always starts in the trenches. With a healthy Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave and Run Stuffer, plus Matthews and Walton as backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have as good a defensive line as any of us could wish for.
Defensive End - Okay, you've got me. I can't make an argument for this one. Heyward's an outright star, Tuitt looks like he's going to be, and both Ricardo Matthews and L.T. Walton have proven to be quite able as backups. This one's set.
Quarterback - Landry Jones did okay in Cleveland. The first 30 minutes stank but he definitely redeemed himself with a strong 2nd half performance - and he did it without the offense's major weaponry. IMHO he has now achieved the status of "Qualified and Competent NFL Backup." But so what? Landry's about to be a free agent and might leave, and what we really need is an Heir To Ben. If the team waits 3-4 years there will be no choice but to start spending 1st Rounders until lightning strikes. How much better if we could hit on a Dak Prescott now, before the crisis arrives in full force?
The Steelers have way more draft picks than they need this year. Surely one could be spend on a longshot gamble when the rewards could be so rich. The Patriots seem to get one a year to play behind Brady, and the worst thing that happens is valuable trade bait for the future. B*tch all you want, but New England's won a lot over the past decade. Perhaps this is one tactic worth learning. And don't forget that Brady himself was just such a long shot pick who was intended to learn behind an established star in Drew Bledsoe.
Backup RB - Deangelo Williams can't last forever, and Toussaint is more of a 3rd down guy. This is also a strong year for running backs. How about we spend a pick to snag one. Yes, this is a player who we hope will never see the field. But what are the odds of that given Lev Bell's history?
Dual Purpose RB To Pair With Bell - Deangelo Williams can't last forever, and Toussaint is more of a 3rd down guy. Pittsburgh needs a backup to Bell. But why be satisfied with a backup alone? This is what I recently wrote about the possibility of picking Christian McCaffrey in the 1st:
McCaffrey is a unique fit for the Steelers because he fills several small holes all at once. That combination is where I see his first round value. He'd be a solid backup for Lev Bell; he could be on the field at the same time as Bell; he can push Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers as a beat-‘em-in-space slot receiver; he could get Antonio Brown off punt return duties; and he'd generally add to the overall challenge of preparing for a potentially legendary (on paper) offense. Plus he is a smart player who will learn the system (Stanford), and has no character down checks with the possible exception of skipping the bowl game, which I'm willing to forgive.
Here's another way to sum this idea up. Bell's unique value is his ability to serve as a multipurpose threat. McCaffrey does the same thing, but from a speed-first point of view rather than a power-first version. That dual-purpose ability is the thing that might allow them both to be on the field together and thereby extend the offense to a new and even greater height. McCaffrey may be the best of these prospects but he isn't the only one.
Tight End - The Steelers have a pretty solid unit here. There's Ladarius Green, who's not much of a blocker but counts as a serious pass catching threat when he manages to stay healthy. There's Xavier Grimble, who's sort of like a Ladarius-Lite (receiver but not blocker). And then there's Jesse James, who looks like he is maturing into a player that can be sound but unspectacular in both roles. There is zero room for ‘just another body' in the Tight End film room. But there is definitely room for a really superior athlete who could match Green's receiving skills while beating out James as a blocker. Who can doubt that a young Heath Miller would make a real difference even on this offense?
And as it happens, this particular draft class has a number of those guys who should be available in the first three rounds, plus Jake Butt who'd be towards the top if he hadn't torn his ACL in the Orange Bowl.
Wide Receiver - It's tempting because the F.O.'s been so successful, but this is a hard sell. Here is next year's Steeler lineup at Wide Receiver, assuming the departure of Markus Wheaton in free agency:
- Antonio Brown (the best receiver in football)
- Martavis Bryant (talented enough to be the best receiver in football if he doesn't - ahem - burn out)
- Sammie Coates (with healed fingers and a year of football maturity under his belt)
- Eli Rogers (another year better, and a starting slot receiver almost anywhere)
- Demarcus Ayers (another excellent slot prospect who pushed onto the team as a rookie, has looked great even against Joe Haden, and gets rave reviews wherever you look)
- Darrius Heyward-Bey (6'2", 4.30 speed, veteran savvy despite the iffy hands, and the ultimate team player)
- Cobi Hamilton (a tall receiver who's shown enough to make most rosters, and is also so young that we can confidently expect improvement in each of the next few years)
I just don't see it unless the team believes that Bryant is a goner, or that trading some of this wealth is worthwhile for a gigantic move up the draft board.
Offensive Tackle - Nope. Marcus Gilbert should be a regular all pro. Villanueva has been more than sound all year, and is still improving. And last year's 4th Rounder was a prospect named Jerald Hawkins, who earned reviews just short of ecstatic giggles in the early preseason before conveniently suffering a "season ending boo boo" that effectively gave him a redshirt year without exposure to getting poached from the practice squad.
Guard - Nope. DeCastro, Foster, and the amazingly effective B.J. Finney. ‘Nuff said.
Center - Nope. Marquise Pouncey. Okay, maybe there's a small hole. Finney is strong enough to succeed as an NFL Guard, but has looked helpless when moved to his college position at the NFL level. He should have been a natural to succeed but somehow he didn't. If you believe that he won't pick it up in the future there's room for a backup Center... with the understanding that I never, ever want to see him on the field in any game or moment that could matter.