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Breaking down the Steelers Team Needs: Part 3, EDGE Pass Rusher

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Part 3 of the series. Imagine the defense if both of Pittsburgh’s ILB’s were budding superstars...

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Article No. 3 in my effort to put on the blinders and look forward, only forward, and not in any other direction that could lead me to remember that I rooted hard for the Browns! [Sigh]. At least this one promises to be extra fun and extra interesting because adding talent on the Edge is one of the sneakier ways Pittsburgh could really improve. The tea leaves suggest that the F.O. is going to smell so much talent that Colbert & Co. will invest some serious capital into the position. It might be spent in free agency. It might be spent in the draft. They may even do both. The numbers just look right.

Here is the current roster:

  • T.J. Watt. Grade: “Budding Superstar.” Having only one is the main issue. That, and the disaster that we’d face if he ever gets hurt.
  • Bud Dupree. Grade: “Solid Starter,” which is a nice thing to say after some years of frustration. But he’s also going to get really expensive in the near future and few believe that true stardom is still on the table. Bud just doesn’t have T.J.’s ability to bend around the corner and it’s now become clear that he never will.
  • Anthony Chickillo. Grade: “Emergency Starter, Solid Contributor.” Lack of bend is the main issue here as well, but he gets extra credit for his special teams play.
  • Ola Adeniyi. Grade: “Unfinished.” Speculate at will but don’t make any assumptions about the dreams coming to actual life.

Moral of the story: Adding another Edge player the caliber of a T.J. Watt would raise all boats in a lot of ways. For one thing, Pittsburgh has gotten a lot of pressure on the QB in the past two years but a lot of that success has been enhanced by a reckless amount of blitzing. A true dynamic duo would seriously strengthen the secondary by allowing the team to regularly keep seven players back in the passing lanes.

Another ace pass rusher would also let the team give key players a bit more rest so they are fresher for end-of-game heroics. Drafting another stud OLB would not be the same as sending Bud Dupree to the bench. Third, it might create some really special sub packages in which the third hyper-athletic OLB would move inside to play the Buck position. Pure athleticism is the one thing VW and Dirty Red are missing.

FREE AGENCY

Pittsburgh is going into the offseason cap rich for the first time in forever. Ryan Shazier’s money is going to come off the books. So will Lev Bell’s, and I believe there may even be carry-forward money from Bell’s 2018 holdout as well. The team will obviously spend a big chunk of that cap space to sign young, internal talent like Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave and Mike Hilton. That is a given. But there will still be enough to go all in on the sweepstakes that’s likely to emerge over some serious Edge talents who could be hitting the market. Consider these names:

  • Dee Ford
  • Jadeveon Clowney
  • Frank Clark
  • Preston Smith
  • Shaq Barrett

Splash free agents have never been Kevin Colbert’s style, but neither is going home with money in the team pocket and he’s never had this kind of money to spend on the open market. Just sayin’.

THE DRAFT TALENT IS AMAZING IN ROUND 1

This is where it gets even more interesting. We saw in earlier articles that the CB talent is clustered around the end of Round 1. The Steelers will likely have plenty of shots at a “solid value” Corner but there won’t be a genuine bargain. There are a few more high-value midfield talents to hope for (ILB’s and Nickelbacks) but it’s a thinner pool overall. The 2019 Edge class has a different distribution. There is such a major cluster of Top 20 talent that it’s easy to see a massive BPA bargain falling into the Steelers’ eager hands. Here is a list from the initial BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have been compiling: [fn]

  • 1:01 EDGE Nick Bosa, Ohio State. 6’3”, 270 lbs. Ain’t Gonna Happen, thank heaven. Bosa is a superb prospect as a 4-3 DE, good enough to shape a defense around. The Steelers play enough hybrid formations to do just that, and they would do it for a kid like Bosa. The result would drive us fans crazy as we tried to follow along. Steeler Nation is nutty enough already, so I choose to give thanks for that which is bound to happen anyway.
  • 1:05 EDGE/BUCK ILB Josh Allen, Kentucky. 6’4”, 258 lbs. Remember the debates about LVE in 2018? Get ready for a repeat. As an Edge player Allen has all the assets you could want in a Top 10 guy limited by only-adequate technique and strength – which are exactly the things good NFL coaching and training can fix. As a hyper-athletic Buck he features range, ability to play in space, and of course an exceptional talent blitzing when necessary. Here is a solid November scouting profile.
  • 1:10 EDGE Brian Burns, Florida State. 6’5”, 231 lbs. The top sack artist in college football and designed by nature to play 3-4 OLB. Not quite as athletic in space as Bud Dupree but waaaay more bendy and polished moving forward, good enough already in run support, and there’s room on his frame to add any strength he’ll need. Watt from one side and Burns from the other would keep opposing coaches up at night with palpitations.
  • 1:10EDGE Jachai Polite, Florida. 6’2”, 260 lbs. Explosive, bendy, polished as a rusher, disciplined as run defender, and athletic enough to play in space. Can you have too many pass rushers? This one might be irresistible if the Steelers are sure he’ll stop taking a few plays off. Here is a good, gif-supported scouting report from October along with a briefer scouting profile from the same period. This gif-supported January scouting report from our sister site for the Jets examines his tremendous burst, bend and overall athleticism.
  • 1:25 EDGE Clelin Ferrell (“Furl”), Clemson. 6’5”, 260 lbs. Has only moderate bend and clearly fits better as a 4-3 DE. Still a Round 1 talent even for Pittsburgh because he has an array of moves already, exceptional length, the athleticism to play in space, and that ineffable way of finding a path to victory when he needs it most; but his value is lower to the Steelers than it will be for other teams.

Holy Delayed Christmas Batman! Now you may be wondering: Why do I think there’s any chance in the world that one of those extraordinary talents might fall to 1:20 when Edge players have traditionally been picked at a premium? It’s because there is an even bigger and more impressive cluster of pass rushing Defensive Tackles in this class, and the buzz for ‘interior pressure’ and ‘pure BPA’ is going to absorb a lot of the draft picks that other defense-focused teams would otherwise spend on Edge talent. Find that hard to believe? Come my frinds, and let us count the potential Round 1 DL’s together. In no particular order: (1) Ed Oliver; (2) Quinnen Williams; (3) Jeffrey Simmons; (4) Raekwon Davis; (5) Rashan Gary; (6) Christian Wilkins; (7) Gerald Willis; (8) Jerry Tillery; (9)... I could continue but I trust the point is made. There will be at least - at least - half a dozen DL’s taken in the first 20 or so picks. Someone at a more Pittsburgh-desirable position is bound to fall, if not all the way to the Steelers’ pick then at least within decent trade-up range.

As usual the Edge talent falls of something of a cliff after Round 1. Our draft Board has only three players with a Round 2 grade from a Steelers POV:

  • 2:01 EDGE Montez Sweat, Miss. State. 6’6”, 245 lbs. Another player who should go in Round 1 to a 4-3 team but needs a discount here because Pittsburgh already has a Bud Dupree. Fantastic first step, great discipline setting the edge, and a ready made array of moves and counters are enough to dazzle, but the fit can really be questioned.
  • 2:12 EDGE Christian Miller, Alabama. 6’4”, 244 lbs. As described in this December scouting profile from Jon Ledyard, Miller has all the athletic tools that Pittsburgh will look for but in measured amounts that will drop him into Day 2. Very good but not great with his burst, bend, ability to play in space, sophistication as a pass rusher, and ability to set the edge. Also known as a real team leader whose absence was a genuine issue in the big Bowl game. Almost certainly the best pure, 3-4 OLB outside of Round 1.
  • 2:12 EDGE Jabari Zuniga, Florida. 6’3”, 245 lbs. [UPDATE - HE IS RETURNING TO SCHOOL]
  • 2:24 EDGE Jaylon Ferguson, LSU. 6’5”, 265 lbs. Incredible, record-setting sack production but he’s tended to load the stat line against inferior competition and he’s also more of a 4-3 DE. Hopefully some 4-3 team will snap him up early.
  • 3:01 EDGE Jalen Jelks, Oregon. 6’6”, 245 lbs. He’s got fantastic length and a great first step but seems to lack the gift of putting it all together at the same time. If coaching can fix this he’ll be a fixture for many years to come. If not, the discipline of NFL tackles will make him a nonfactor.
  • 3:01 EDGE D’Andre Walker, Georgia. 6’2”, 240 lbs. An athletic specimen who could test out of the building - and needs to if he wants to hear his name on Day 2. This 2-reviewer New Year’s scouting profile describes Walker as a player who has all the individual assets you want but has never managed to unite them into an organized pass rush. Already good at setting the edge.

And one bonus entry for those who want a developmental athlete on Day 3 of their next mock draft:

  • 4:01 EDGE Shareef Miller, Penn State. 6’5”, 256 lbs. Possesses a flashy and explosive first step that he can combine with decent bend around the edge, but he’s lacking when it comes to grown man strength, technical skill with his hands and moves, and overall discipline as part of a run defense unit. But those are fixable problems, right? Which means the kid from Philadelphia could end up being a major draft day steal after two or three years of professional development.

So, what’s it going to be? It’s clear that there is room for improvement at the Edge position even if it’s just a matter of adding another superb athlete to the rotation. Do you think the team will blow some budget on a splash free agent like Dee Ford or Jadeveon Clowney to play across from T.J. Watt? [Sigh]. If not, what will the Steelers do if they suddenly have a chance to snag a legitimate Top-10 or Top-15 pass rusher, or to enrich the entire Front-7 with a hybrid puzzle piece like Josh Allen? The possibilities are enough to make you [LANGUAGE SUITED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY].

Yes, I would concede that both CB and ILB fall a hair or two higher on the “want” list than Edge, but the Board suggests that Edge may offer the clear BPA. Laugh all you want at “Colbert’s Obsession with LB’s” but I kid you not: if Josh Allen, Brian Burns or Jachai Polite are on the Board at 1:20 it will be hard indeed to make a different choice. And probably impossible if it’s Allen.

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.