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Would the Steelers really draft a wide receiver in the first round?

ESPN’s resident draft guru seems to think so—and to some extent, it makes sense.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-Wake Forest vs Texas A&M Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s make one thing clear right off the bat: criticizing a mock draft (or the people who construct them) is so dumb. Mocks drafts are rooted in conjecture, and since it’s the beginning of April, most of them are arbitrarily assembled and intended to entertain you, the reader. So let’s chill on the grr how is [analyst] still employed sentiments.

With that said, I noticed that ESPN NFL Draft analyst and veritable hair god Mel Kiper Jr. recently predicted that the Steelers would select Alabama WR Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. This initially struck me as a deeply insane suggestion, as the Steelers already boast what could be the league’s most potent receiving triumvirate in Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Important, too, is the fact that Pittsburgh has myriad—and debatably more urgent—needs at other positions. Making what would be the epitome of a luxury pick in lieu of these obligations would understandably infuriate a sizable contingent of the fanbase (as evinced by the comment section on Jeff’s earlier story), but it’s certainly an interesting outcome to consider. Would the Steelers actually draft a receiver in the first round? Let’s unpack this.

The history

The Steelers, whose ability to develop capable wide receivers is legitimately second-to-none, have not drafted a receiver in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2006, when they selected future Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes. Holmes had two pretty good seasons and two really good ones as a member of the Steelers before being shipped to the Jets for draft picks, and it would not be inaccurate to say that Holmes, for all intents and purposes, was a solid pick.

The difference between 2006 and 2018, however, is that the aught-06 iteration of the Steelers desperately needed another pass catcher. Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, Pittsburgh top two receivers during the 2005 regular season, combined to catch 104 passes for 1,426 yards and a dozen touchdowns, which was just about on par with what Antonio Brown produced all by himself in 13 games in 2017. Pittsburgh’s third-best receiver in 2005 was a beefy rookie tight end by the name of Heath Miller, and their fourth-best pass catcher was the anonymous and unassuming Cedrick Wilson (as a friendly reminder, the 2005-06 Steelers won a Super Bowl with this roster—defense really does win championships).

With a franchise quarterback in place, a world-class rushing attack, and a top-ranked defense, addressing the limitations in the receiving corps was an obvious solution for the Steelers back in 2006. The 2018 Steelers have a handful of pronounced needs, but receiver is simply not among them.

The rationale

The Steelers and Martavis Bryant are not compatible lifelong partners, and I would wager that a post-2018 split is forthcoming. If this indeed the case, drafting a receiver could be a prudent decision for safeguarding the long-term vitality of the depth chart. Selecting a receiver does makes some degree of sense in the interim, too, as the Steelers not only deploy four-receiver packages with some regularity (they did, anyway—how the offense changes in Todd Haley’s absence remains to be seen), but they don’t have a ton of depth beyond the top three. Pittsburgh is one tweaked ankle or ill-timed bout of food poisoning away from tossing Ken Griffey Jr.’s kid in the slot. This is not ideal.

The contenders

The 2018 Draft does not appear to be one that is particularly top heavy in blue-chip receiving talent. Ridley seems to be the consensus top prospect at this position, but Texas A&M Christian Kirk, SMU’s Courtland Sutton, LSU’s D.J. Chark, and Maryland’s D.J. Moore have all earned requisite praise for their notable collegiate production and solid measurables. For the sake of argument, let’s just grab three of these dudes: Ridley; Kirk, who has apparently earned the “Baby Beckham” moniker for his likeness to New York Giants superstar Odell Beckham Jr.; and Chark, whose combination of size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) and speed (4.34 40-yard dash) should make him a desirable, high-upside prospect.

The competition

The Colts, Bills, Bears, Niners, Dolphins, Packers, Cardinals, Ravens, Seahawks, Cowboys, Panthers, Titans, and Saints could all use a shiny new receiver, though most of these teams have considerably more urgent hurdles to surmount before adding another receiver. If Ridley is indeed the top receiving prospect, it would be difficult to imagine him slipping past all of these receiver-needy teams...

More rationale

...but let’s say he does. General manager Kevin Colbert is very much in the “best player available” camp, and as a member of #teamBPA, it stands to reason that Colbert and his various compatriots—including Mike Tomlin, whose word certainly carries a great deal of weight in draft day proceedings—would pull the trigger on a max value player, regardless of whether or not said player fits a particular “need.” Of course, I do not have access to Colbert’s draft board, so I have no idea how highly Ridley (or Kirk or Chark) is regarded by the front office. But if Colbert et al. view Ridley as the next Marvin Harrison, or Kirk as an Odell Beckham Jr. clone, or Chark as a less-refined A.J. Green, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Steelers draft one of them instead of an inside linebacker or safety.

The conclusion

There are circumstances in which I could see the Steelers pulling the trigger on a receiver in the first round, but, from an outsider’s perspective, for this to actually transpire seems like a long shot.