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Are the Steelers getting the last laugh in the NFL Draft?

The Steelers were heavily criticized for their 2021 draft class, but are the Steelers getting the last laugh?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s way too early to take a victory lap, but perhaps Pittsburgh’s oft-criticized decision to pass on drafting an offensive lineman in the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft is turning out to actually be a good thing.

Haven’t we all heard the constant moaning throughout the NFL media world that the Steelers failed miserably in not addressing their offensive line early in the draft? That drafting a running back in the first round is just so stupid in this day and age in football. Is the Steelers’ brass ignorant? Do they not know what the heck they are doing?

Yes, the Steelers were roundly condemned for blowing it. You could not pull up a draft grade without it mentioning that the Steelers didn’t address the offensive line.

First, they did. I would say that in each year’s draft, the first four rounds are the most impactful draft picks. Obviously, each descending round brings more and more question marks. The Steelers were hardly given credit for spending two of their first four picks on offensive linemen.

Somehow, that was deemed fairly meaningless by many pundits.

But, if you paid proper attention to the drafting process in the 2021 class, you would have been aware of positional strength and weaknesses. This happens every year. In 2021, it was widely considered that this was a deep offensive line class.

It’s funny, but you can often learn something from playing fantasy football. This year, workhorse running backs are scarce (they usually are), as are top end tight ends (again, they usually are). Wide receivers, on the other hand, are plentiful. So, it is sound strategy to secure one or two top running backs very early in your fantasy draft, as well as a tight end, and then secure still quality wide receivers later. If you went wide receiver in your first three rounds, all would be great players, but you’d have pretty much zip at running back. Same goes for top end tight ends.

If you can still get good quality later, why not take studs at other thinner positions early? Well, that’s what the Steelers very well may have accomplished.

So, the Steelers draft a workhorse potential stud in Najee Harris in the first, then come back in the second round and secure what is considered widely a future star in the second-rated tight end in the class. I’d argue that Florida prospect Kyle Pitts is a wide receiver in tight end clothing more so than a true get-down-and-dirty tight end, but that’s neither here nor there.

Then, in the third and fourth rounds, they drafted their two linemen, Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr. More on them later.

In this draft class, there were considered only three jewel running backs – Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams. Trey Sermon was a clear step down, then there were the Michael Carters of the draft, who were more satellite, committee type backs.

The Steelers picked Najee Harris in the first and secured their potential stud running back. Then, by early in the second round, all of the quality running back prospects were gone. After that, only complimentary backs with warts were left. This was a definite need. If you didn’t think the Steelers were in need of talent at running back, then I’m not sure what you were watching last season.

In the second round, Pat Freiermuth falls to the Steelers. By early in the third round, Boston College’s Hunter Long is taken by the Dolphins, and pretty much all of the top tight end prospects are gone.

With the Steelers having skillfully acquired two fantastic prospects, they then turned to the offensive line, the dire area of obvious need for the team.

Of course, the top-rated offensive linemen have already been picked. No debate. However, this was, again, a deep offensive line draft. They picked Kendrick Green. Going by the opinion of draft grinders, I saw no one who hated this pick. In fact, you had to love what you read about the guy. A high motored mauler.

As of now, he apparently has won the starting job. Of course there are bumps, but I believe any offensive line rookie, sans Penei Sewell, would probably have bumps. Overall, you have to like what you’ve seen so far, and the word coming out of camp on him.

I recall as Dan Moore Jr. was being drafted in the fourth round that it was said that in a “normal” year, he’d be a second-round pick. Film grinders like Greg Cosell said they loved his tape. Well, going into the final exhibition game, he has been the darling of Pro Football Focus this preseason as its top-rated offensive lineman and is pushing to start alongside Green.

I’ll leave it there and allow others to grind their tapes and offer opinions on them.

But, remember, if the Steelers had punted on Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth and picked two offensive linemen instead in the first two rounds, sure, they would have drafted two top line prospects, but there would have been zilch in high quality running backs and difference making tight ends left. Who knows who they would have picked, but the Steelers’ running back room and the tight end room would not be exuding the excitement it is currently.

Whether these two offensive line prospects continue to grade out well and, more importantly, perform well, remains to be seen. But, as of right now, if you listen carefully, you might hear some laughter coming from the Steelers’ front office.