In this article, we’re going to break down the Steelers’ recent drafts by position and round, looking for evidence we can use to identify their drafting approach. By studying the success they’ve had in drafting individual position groups, and in the rounds in which they’ve targeted these groups, we can examine both past practice and what it might mean when considering a draft strategy for 2021.
To begin, let’s examine the data. Here’s a breakdown by round and position group of all of the Steelers’ selections from 2015-2020:
The Steelers have made 45 picks over the past six years — 26 on defense, 18 on offense and one (the immortal Colin Holba) on special teams. Their concentration on defense makes sense, as the unit declined in the middle of the previous decade and demanded an infusion of talent. They have targeted defense in particular in the early rounds. All five of their first-round picks over this span have been defenders and, outside of wide receiver, they have not selected an offensive player in the first two rounds.
They have also concentrated on skill positions early in the draft. In the first three rounds, they have selected just two linemen. The other seventeen picks in those first three rounds have been at the skill positions.
For a more specific look at their draft strategy, here’s a breakdown by position group.
Mason Rudolph (Round 3, 2018); Josh Dobbs (4, 2017)
Obviously, with Ben Roethlisberger still entrenched as the starter, the Steelers have not searched actively for his successor. The selection of Dobbs in the fourth round in 2017 and Rudolph in the third round in 2018 were more about finding reliable young backups than his heir apparent.
Running Back (4)
James Conner (3, 2017); Jaylen Samuels (4, 2018); Benny Snell (4, 2019); Anthony McFarland (5, 2020)
The Steelers have taken a running back in the middle rounds of each of the past four drafts, with lukewarm results. Conner was selected in 2017 to back up Le’Veon Bell and became the starter when Bell held out and then left. The other three players were taken to back up or compliment Conner. All have positive attributes - Samuels is a good receiver, Snell can run between the tackles and McFarland is quick - but none are complete enough to become the starter when Conner (likely) leaves in free agency. The Steelers desperately need a #1 running back.
Tight End (2)
Jesse James (5, 2015); Zach Gentry (5, 2019)
The Steelers have not taken a tight end higher than the fifth round since 2007, when they grabbed Matt Spaeth in the third. They would love to add a physical player to pair with Gentry and Eric Ebron, neither of whom are on the roster to block. There is speculation they may re-sign James, who is available after being cut loose by the Detroit Lions, and their interest in Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, a Top 50 prospect in this draft, is intriguing. They could also plug fullback Derek Watt into this role. The Steelers have some options. But history, and their needs elsewhere, suggest a high draft pick won’t be one of them.
Wide Receiver (6)
Juju Smith-Schuster (2, 2017); Diontae Johnson (2, 2019); Chase Claypool (2, 2020); Sammie Coates (3, 2015); James Washington (3, 2018); Demarcus Ayers (7, 2016)
The Steelers have had more success drafting receivers than any position group on either side of the ball. Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Claypool and Washington make up the nucleus of their current receiving corps and comprise one of the deepest units in the league. Their success with receivers correlates directly to the value they have placed on the position. Three second-round picks and two thirds over the past six years means the Steelers have not sought projects, long-shots or depth pieces. They’ve targeted players they believe can start and make an impact. That strategy has served them well and has justified their investment. With their 2021 rotation set, however, they are not likely to spend another high pick at the position.
Offensive Line (4)
Chuks Okorafor (3, 2017); Jerald Hawkins (4, 2016); Kevin Dotson (4, 2020); Derwin Gray (7, 2019)
Offensive line is a different story. This is another position group where the Steelers have been bargain-hunting. Pittsburgh has not drafted an offensive lineman higher than round three since 2012, relying instead on late-round picks and cheap free agents. Their failure to invest in top-level talent has caught up to them, as the OL was Pittsburgh’s worst position group in 2020.
The Steelers stayed the course in free agency, signing journeymen B.J. Finney and Joe Haeg. Finney may initially start at center but Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement demands a long-term solution. They also need depth at tackle. Pittsburgh must address the OL in the draft. The question is, at what point will they do it?
Defensive Line (5)
Javon Hargrave (3, 2016); Leterrius Walton (6, 2015); Isaiah Buggs (6, 2019); Joshua Frazier (7, 2018); Carlos Davis (7, 2020)
Similar to the offense, the Steelers have picked just one defensive lineman in the first three rounds over the past six drafts. Unlike the OL, this has not been detrimental. The consistent play of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and the increasing reliance on sub-packages that require just two defensive linemen have lessened their recent investment in this group. The stunning return of Tyson Alulalu, who appeared to be leaving for Jacksonville, coupled with the re-signing of Chris Wormley has solidified this group for 2021. It’s unlikely the Steelers will prioritize DL in the upcoming draft.
Outside Linebacker (7)
Bud Dupree (1, 2015); T.J. Watt (1, 2017); Alex Highsmith (3, 2020); Anthony Chickillo (6, 2015); Travis Feeney (6, 2016); Sutton Smith (6, 2019); Keion Adams (7, 2017)
The Steelers have drafted better at outside backer than any position group on the defensive side of the ball. It’s a good thing, too, since Pittsburgh is so reliant on them for play-making. With Dupree’s departure via free agency, the Steelers are perilously thin behind Watt and Highsmith (the unheralded Cassius Marsh is the top backup on the roster). With seven picks at the position in the last six drafts, history says they will select another this year. Watt is headed for a contract extension and Highsmith is entering his second year so their starters are set for the near-future. The question is, will they go high at OLB to find starter-level talent or will they look for an Anthony Chickillo-type for depth in the later rounds?
Inside Linebacker (3)
Devin Bush (1, 2019); Ulysees Gilbert III (6, 2019); Tyler Matakevich (7, 2016)
Pittsburgh has gone big twice in the last decade on inside backers, using a first-round pick on Ryan Shazier in 2014 and trading up in the first to grab Devin Bush in 2019. Otherwise, it’s been sixth and seventh rounders like Vince Williams, Gilbert and Matakevich and low-cost free agents like Sean Spence, Jon Bostic, Avery Williamson and Robert Spillane.
Spillane is penciled in as the starter beside Bush but there’s no question the Steelers would like an upgrade. They hit a home run in 2014 by grabbing Williams in the sixth round but, with limited depth at the position, will likely spend a higher pick to acquire a player who can compete for the starting job.
Artie Burns (1, 2016); Senquez Golson (2, 2015); Cam Sutton (3, 2017); Justin Layne (3, 2019); Doran Grant (4, 2015); Brian Allen (5, 2017)
The Steelers need corner depth after the release of Steven Nelson. They’ve drafted a corner in rounds 1-5 over the past six years, with little success. Maybe the sixth or seventh round should be their target. They haven’t failed in those spots yet.
This section is depressing me. Let’s just move on.
Terrell Edmunds (1, 2018); Sean Davis (2, 2016); Marcus Allen (5, 2018); Antoine Brooks (6, 2020); Gerod Holloman (7, 2015)
They’ve been a little better drafting safeties, but not much. Edmunds has shown continual improvement, although some believe he was a reach in the first round. Allen has been converted to a linebacker and Brooks did little as a rookie. Again, they’ve drafted safeties all over the spectrum the past six years with little to show for it. With their starters set (Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick), they may take another late-round flyer on a player as a depth piece.
What can we conclude from this recent history, and how might it affect their draft strategy this year? Here are some thoughts.
They can’t afford to go bargain-hunting at running back
Running back is a position where value can be found in the middle rounds. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn’t worked for the Steelers. The two best backs in Pittsburgh since they won their last Super Bowl have been Bell and Rashard Mendenhall, selected in rounds two and one, respectively. The Steelers have not shown an ability to pluck a starting-quality back from deeper in the draft. With this year’s three best runners (Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams) likely to be off the board in the first forty picks, they should address this need early.
Ditto for the offensive line
Nearly everyone in the organization has talked about improving the run game. Most recently it was Art Rooney II, who suggested the Steelers will look to the draft to do so. This hints at them taking an offensive lineman early.
The Steelers struck gold in three consecutive drafts between 2010-2012 by taking OL in the top two rounds. They chose Maurkice Pouncey in the first in 2010, Marcus Gilbert in the second in 2011 and DeCastro in the first in 2012. Those three anchored the line for the better part of a decade. Now, with DeCastro the only high pick remaining, they need an infusion of talent up front.
This draft demands they do more than cast about for developmental prospects or depth pieces. The Steelers need an offensive lineman who can push for a starting job immediately. To find one, they will have to use a high pick like they were willing to do in 2010-2012.
OLB is the wild-card of this draft
History says the Steelers love to draft them. But, with Watt and Highsmith in-house, the starters look set for the next few seasons. This suggests a depth pick in the mid-to-late rounds.
What if a coveted edge-player like Michigan’s Kwity Paye falls to 1:24, though? Would the Steelers be too tempted, despite the lack of starter-quality need at the position, not to pull the trigger? It’s hard to say. OLB is the position most likely to be affected by how things unfold on draft day. My suspicion is, with more urgent needs elsewhere, they will wait to take one. But it wouldn’t shock me if they didn’t.
Their top picks should address the biggest areas of need
The Steelers have been very good with their picks in the first two rounds (except at corner and safety, of course). They landed a superstar in Watt, solid starters in Dupree and Bush and a trio of very good receivers. If history is a guide, they should be able to fill some needs with their top picks once again.
Their most pressing needs include a starting running back, a center to compete with Finney and an inside backer to compete with Spillane. They could also use depth at offensive tackle, tight end, corner and outside backer. Which should they target in the first two rounds, where the talent is best and their track record superb?
The Steelers love the “best player available” approach and could go that route to address any of the position groups mentioned above. As previously noted, they would be wise to target a running back early given their struggles at landing a good one later on. And they should take corner off the board here as well, with past practice suggesting it’s too risky a proposition.
This is a tough draft to project because the Steelers have more needs than usual. While “BPA” is always an option, they would be wise to have specific targets in mind. No one can say for sure how things will unfold, but I can see the Steelers’ draft board looking something like this:
Rounds 1-2: RB/OL/ILB
Rounds 3-5: CB/TE/ILB/OLB
Rounds 6-7: TE/OLB/S/WR
With recent history as our guide, we can get a feel for how this draft may take shape. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.