clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Pittsburgh Steelers must change their defensive drafting philosophy

The recent history of Steelers’ draft picks calls into question their overall defensive drafting philosophy.

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I remember in April when the Steelers selected Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. I was disappointed because it followed the very same trend the Steelers have been following in their drafting style for the better part of eight years on defense.

Edmunds fits the mold of the super athlete, but not the polished football player. Coming out, he tested like a first-round athlete, but his tape surely didn’t look like one. I had Edmunds rated as a mid-third-round prospect entering the draft, and I favored such players as Justin Reid, Jessie Bates, and Kyzir White over him. All of these players have one thing in common — they’re not supreme athletes, but they are polished football players.

They all fit into the scheme in different ways. Reid would give the team much of what Morgan Burnett is right now, that is to say, a versatile defensive back who can play in numerous positions. Bates would give the team a true Free Safety, and there still isn’t one on the roster. Sean Davis luckily has played well through the first three weeks, but he’s naturally better as a Strong Safety in the box. But they’ve schemed to his range nicely in zones. White would have been an all-purpose DB who could have fit in at money-backer or even at ILB a bit. Edmunds is strictly a Strong Safety who has no versatility outside of some play in the box — but that’s all on Burnett right now. Edmunds’ job was to cover Tight Ends in man coverage, but they didn’t employ this in Week 2, even when facing Travis Kelce. So if they ran a ton of zone with Edmunds not even playing 50% of the snaps, what does that say about their first-round pick?

For one, he’s not ready for the job he was drafted to do. Edmunds has had a rough go of things the first few weeks. David Njoku beat him a ton Week 1, but Tyrod Taylor either didn’t see him or Njoku had stone hands. In Week 2, he was fine in coverage but missed three tackles, including one that allowed Kareem Hunt to score a touchdown.

I’m not going to jump out and judge Edmunds based on three performances. We knew he was raw and needed work, but will he progress like he should? If we go by past experience, the answer would be “no.”

Carnell Lake is gone, but what can we derive from the past picks at DB? They’ve all been athletes who’ve been pretty raw. The two prime examples of this are Artie Burns and Sean Davis. If we really want to go further back in history, Cortez Allen fits into the mold as well.

Burns was a massive reach in the first round after the Bengals took away should-of-been Steeler William Jackson III. Burns simply hasn’t developed into what he should be. He might now may be getting benched for Coty Sensabaugh, which isn’t the correct call, but it is concerning. They haven’t been able to develop him into a real football player. He’s still as raw as he’s always been. Sean Davis has been moved around so much I can’t even say whether he’s good or bad. His rookie season was amazing, but last season he was one of the worst safeties in the NFL. Luckily, it seems his move to FS has worked out well for him. He had a great Week 1 and was easily the best member of the secondary the following week. Allen had a great start to his career but fizzled out too. He was extremely raw to start his career and never really progressed, but great scheming covered up his weaknesses as a younger player. It may only be his second year, but Brian Allen has already been cut and shunned to the practice squad, thus showing the experiment of transforming the long, raw, and athletic corner into a polished, top CB has gone awry.

Quite frankly, we don’t know what happens with a polished DB on the Steelers. The closest thing we have to that is Cam Sutton, and he’s played so little there’s not much of a basis for evaluating him. He played well last year when he filled in for Joe Haden, but he’s had a rough start to this season. We’ll see how that progresses as the season churns on.

At Outside Linebacker, the Steelers have chosen three athletic freaks in Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt. One of these three differs from the other two. Watt is the exception, not because he actually panned out, but because he was extremely polished and happened to be a great athlete too. Jones and Dupree were raw pass rushers that needed a ton of refinement even to become good players. Dupree has improved in run defense and coverage enough not to be considered a complete miss. He’s an average to slightly below-average player. One thing is for certain, though. His pass-rushing skills haven’t changed at all. He plays too tall and his hands are dead on most plays. Jarvis Jones had no redeeming qualities and didn’t change at all from the player he was in college. Some of this blame has to fall on Joey Porter, but yet again, the polished pass rusher shows to be superior to the athletic, raw ones.

A look around the rest of the defense shows you the success of selecting polished players. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams were all extremely polished players coming out of college. Not surprisingly, they were all big hits. Some might argue Shazier was raw, but his only aspect of rawness was in was the pursuit department. Outside of that, Shazier was polished and probably the best ILB in the draft that year.

So, to Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Keith Butler, please change your defensive drafting philosophy. The defensive coaches on this team aren’t great developers of raw talent. Keith Butler is a defensive coordinator who lacks schematic understanding. How can the team cover up this deficiency and improve the defense? By drafting polished players. If you really want to make a great defense, you take the polished guys with high ceilings in the early rounds and the more polished guys in the later rounds like Mike Hilton and Vince Williams. This trend of drafting athletic-and-raw is killing the team. They can become play-makers, but even the polished guys have that knack. They’ve got the polished instincts and they create turnovers.

Simply put, it’s time for a change in Pittsburgh. Start drafting the T.J. Watts of the world rather than the Bud Duprees.