Forgive me for talking in absolutes in my headline for this article, but I feel like it fits with the theme of the Steelers 2021 NFL Draft strategy.
You see, I believe most drafts have a strategy, a plan. If not, a team is probably doing it wrong (lots do).
The Steelers went into the 2018 NFL Draft looking for the next Ryan Shazier. They didn’t quite find that, but they did begin their love affair with the hybrid defender with the surprise selection of safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round. A year later was when Pittsburgh found its new Shazier when it went “all-in” and made an aggressive move by trading up into the top 10 to select inside linebacker Devin Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft. The 2020 NFL Draft, one that didn’t include a Steelers’ first-round pick because of the trade that landed safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, was clearly about finding adequate depth and possible future starters at various positions. As we sit here today, receiver Chase Claypool may not officially be a starter after the surprise re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he sure does feel like one. Also, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Alex Highsmith will get the first crack at taking over for Bud Dupree at outside linebacker. Meanwhile, Kevin Dotson is darn near a shoo-in to replace Matt Feiler at left guard.
That brings me to the 2021 NFL Draft and the Steelers’ theme heading into it: Starters. They needed starters at several positions, with some being more urgent than others.
While you could have made a decent argument that a few positions included strong in-house candidates—offensive tackle is a good example—it was hard to defend the depth and strength of others.
In addition to center, running back was clearly a position where some young, talented prospect could step in and be the man in the Steelers’ backfield as soon as Day 1. Therefore, when the Steelers quickly made Alabama’s Najee Harris their latest first-round pick last Thursday evening, you could see the logic in it. Could you see the potential pitfalls in it, too?
Of course, you could.
After all, Harris is not only a draft pick, he’s a draft pick who plays a position that has been severely de-valued over the past decade or so. But can you put a price on improving the Steelers ground game in the eleventh hour of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's career? I realize it is risky to use a first-round pick on a position that normally has such a short shelf-life, but unless or until extensive research is done on running backs and what makes some last and others fade by their mid-20s, we really have no idea who the next Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore will be.
Perhaps this isn’t the time for the Steelers to worry about the longevity of their first-round draft pick. I realize this is a silly take to some—and this is a take that I didn’t even consider having as I spent most of the offseason railing against the notion of drafting a running back in the first round—but if the Steelers get four or five Le’Veon Bell-level years out of a player like Harris before he hits the running back wall, wouldn’t that be worth it?
If it leads to some great playoff memories, sign me up.
You might say Najee Harris isn’t Le’Veon Bell, but Le’Veon Bell wasn’t Le’Veon Bell when Pittsburgh selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. In fact, there were many—including yours truly—who didn’t think he was the right running back to take in that round.
The Steelers headed into last Friday evening’s portion of draft weekend—Rounds 2 and 3—in search of a center who could, well, center their line for many years. Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, the top two centers entering the draft, were still available and at the top of everyone’s wish list. Like running back, center was a position where the right prospect could come in and start from Day 1.
The Steelers didn’t land either Dickerson (he was drafted before 55) or Humphrey (they bypassed him to select Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round), but they did take Illinois center Kendrick Green in the third round.
While many were disappointed that the Steelers didn’t wind up with one of the top two centers, had they rolled the dice on either Dickerson or Humphrey in the first round, there would have been just as many questions as there are about the Harris pick. Many experts and wannabe experts spent months leading up to the draft stating that there was no center worth taking in the first round—including Dickerson (injury concerns) and Humphrey (no “it” factor). Like running back, center is often considered a position that doesn’t offer much first-round value.
That’s right, running backs aren’t usually valuable enough to take in the first round, while centers don’t normally offer great first-round value.
Wrap your head around that.
In summary, the Steelers were going to face many questions if they decided to use their first-round pick to address one of arguably their two biggest needs.
They did that with Harris, the top-rated running back according to most draft experts.
Could they have waited and drafted a running back in a later round? Sure, if you truly believe running backs are a dime a dozen. Could they have gotten better first-round value at another position? Certainly not at center, according to many.
All we know for sure is the Steelers exited the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft much stronger at the running back position than they were entering it.
Not bad, for starters.