Doesn’t the lead-up to the 2021 NFL Draft feel about the same for the Steelers and who they could possibly pick at 24 as it did a year ago when nobody had any real idea about who they would select at 49? (Pittsburgh’s first selection of the 2020 NFL Draft wasn’t until the second round.)
Much like last year, Pittsburgh heads into the 2021 NFL Draft with many perceived needs, making it almost as impossible to predict the 24th selection today as it was in February.
That’s the beauty of this draft; that’s what makes it so intriguing. Furthermore, it appears that the Steelers will have a few first-round prospects at perceived positions of need—I think most can agree that Pittsburgh has at least five units that could be addressed in the first round—available to them when it’s their time on the clock at 24.
Some positions may be totally depleted of first-round talent by that point—running back could be one such example—but that may mean even more tackles and cornerbacks to choose from.
In other words, it’s likely that the Steelers will have to extend their arms really, really far if they want to reach this year.
I don’t envision 2021 being like, say, 2016, when they were dead-set on taking a cornerback and just knew that there was no way Cincinnati, a team that had just selected Michigan State’s Darquez Dennard two years earlier, would have any interest in drafting Houston’s William Jackson III at 24—one spot ahead of the Steelers.
Jackson emerged as a first-round talent in the weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft; when you considered the perceived needs of many of the teams picking before 25—and the Steelers’ seemingly endless journey to find a corner—Pittsburgh felt like a realistic destination for Jackson.
When the Bengals pulled a Bengals and shocked the world, I believe the Steelers panicked. Artie Burns was the next cornerback on their draft board, and they simply went with him. I think it’s fair to point out now that Burns was a fringe first-round prospect in 2016, so it wasn’t a tremendous reach. However, I don’t believe the Steelers really wanted to take him with the 25th pick.
Fast-forward to the 2018 NFL Draft and the selection of safety Terrell Edmunds with the 28th pick of the first round. Ryan Shazier had just suffered a horrible spinal injury at the end of the 2017 season, and inside linebacker was definitely a big area of need heading into the draft. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds—Terrell’s younger brother—Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans were the big three at the position. There was hope that at least one would fall to the Steelers at 28—Evans seemed to be the most realistic possibility.
When Evans was snatched up by the Titans at 22, I think this left Pittsburgh in a bind. Trade out of the first round? Draft Lamar Jackson? The Steelers may have presented sound reasons for taking Edmunds when they did—he was a great athlete who could be an all-everything in the middle of the defense. But he wasn’t considered a first-round prospect, and it may have been the Steelers' biggest draft surprise since Jamain Stephens back in 1996.
To be clear, I don’t think Edmunds has been a bust (far from it), but he was certainly a reach. (What is that saying I never seem to understand about two things not being mutually exclusive?) Burns on the other hand? Yeah, that one still kind of burns.
But I don’t see a Burns or Edmunds scenario presenting itself this year, not with Pittsburgh having so many needs.
In conclusion, there will be fans who love what the Steelers do at 24 and those who want to throw things because of it. But unless some weird stuff happens between the time Jacksonville drafts Trevor Lawrence and the Steelers are on the clock, it’s going to be hard for them to take a player who isn’t perceived as a first-round talent.