The Pittsburgh Steelers value youth when it comes to potential draft prospects, seemingly more so than many of their NFL peers. It has long been one of the criteria they utilize for evaluating these prospects. The question remains; Does their draft philosophy still have merit considering the NFL's current salary cap structure?
The reasons for this emphasis are probably two-fold; the first being the reduced wear and tear endured during any prospect's collegiate career, the second being the theoretically extended opportunity for personal growth prior to hitting the prime of their careers. The idea of getting them young and raising them right could almost be labelled the Steelers Way.
I have praised the Steelers recently in my articles for re-evaluating their approach to team building through moving up aggressively in the draft, and in free agency. Rethinking their emphasis on youth when selecting draft picks should be the next step in their evolution.
A month or two before the 2018 NFL Draft, I was perusing a mock draft that had the Steelers selecting South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst with their first round selection. I had to laugh, cause there was no way I could take the suggestion seriously. Hayden Hurst didn't meet the Steelers draft criteria. Having played minor league baseball after high school, Hurst was an older prospect, practically ancient by Steelers standards.
Success in today's NFL hinges as much on the timing of player development in conjunction with the salary cap as it does with the overall talent level of your roster. There has to be a strong contingent of young players performing at a high level who are still on their rookie contracts. The days of drafting a young, raw prospect and have him play special teams for a season or two while he learns the professional game are long gone.
Early round picks have to play, and perform, almost immediately. The organization has to know as early as possible what they have in a player so they can plan accordingly, with salary cap implications being paramount. Too many times an organization puts in the time and resources to develop a prospect, only to see another franchise reap the benefits of their commitment. Players slow to develop often put their GM in a precarious position.
Bud Dupree's slow development has put the Steelers between a rock and a hard place. The definition of a young, athletic, raw prospect that the Steelers selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His progress as a professional was hindered apparently by sub par positional coaching and numerous nagging injuries. Nevertheless, the Steelers decided to pick up the fifth year option of his rookie contract, with outstanding results. Dupree enjoyed a breakout season, a career year if you will, but now what? Is his improvement sustainable, or was he more benefactor of the talent surrounding him than actual contributor? Recently released analytics provide more questions than answers.
The Steelers are, as always, tight up against the salary cap. Presently, they don't possess the funds needed to retain his services, even with the franchise tag possibility. The Steelers could create some cap relief by releasing some borderline contributors and renegotiating some contracts, but is Dupree worth the efforts based on past performances and with numerous proven performers requiring new contracts in the near future.
T.J. Watt is a no brainer. His contract extension is paramount and will be expensive. He has done nothing thus far in his career that would suggest he isn't worthy of all the accolades and every penny coming his way. Can the Steelers afford to have two of the elite edge rushers on their cap at the same time? This would have been a much easier decision if Dupree would have peaked a little earlier. Regardless, Watt is the priority moving forward, and takes precedent.
Then you have JuJu Smith Schuster and James Conner. The Steelers decision on JuJu should be pretty clear, while Conner's future is cloudy at best.
JuJu's first couple of seasons are legendary, record setting actually. His drastic drop in production can directly be traced back to injuries and terrible quarterback play. It is hard to produce like a WR1 with QBs incapable of getting you the ball, something the former WR1 never proved capable of either. Regardless, the 2020 season will be huge for JuJu Smith Schuster and his bank account.
James Conner is a straight up baller. An inspiration for a multitude of people. His hard-nose running style is certainly entertaining, and he has been very productive in certain instances. However, those instances have been few and far between, mainly due to his inability to stay healthy. Maybe Big Ben's return will help Conner's production gain consistency, but he has to find a way to stay on the field. One things for sure, he can count on some competition for carries moving forward.
Then you have the latest example of a young, raw Steelers selection trying to turn potential into production; Terrell Edmunds. The 2020 season will be a make or break opportunity for Edmunds. The Steelers have to figure out what they have in Edmunds soon to avoid a repeat of the less than optimal Bud Dupree situation.
The Steelers would be wise to not place as much emphasis as they presently do concerning the age of the prospect, but instead focus on their ability to contribute in a timely manner.