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History shows the best-player-available approach is a smart draft strategy for the Steelers

Why the Steelers should deploy a Best Player Available approach to the 2022 NFL Draft.

NFL: MAY 08 National Football League Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In this article, I break down Pittsburgh’s 1st Round pick in their previous eight drafts, which amounts to seven players overall since they traded away their top selection in 2020 for Minkah Fitzpatrick. For each draft, I’ve considered the circumstances that led to their top pick, including roster depth and the talent available when they selected. Then, I’ve created a 1-10 scale that evaluates the degree to which each pick was the Best Player Available (BPA), with low scores representing need-based picks and high scores indicating BPA. What the evidence shows is clear — when the Steelers have had the freedom to go BPA in Round 1, it has paid big dividends. When they have not, the results have been less impressive.

2014

Pick: Ryan Shazier, ILB, Ohio State

Need at Position Group: Low

Best Player Available Score: 10/10

The Shazier pick epitomizes the value of drafting the best player available on a team’s board. Draft boards are subjective and vary according to individual evaluations and team depth charts. So, a BPA pick might not literally be the best player available. But, in an instance like the Shazier selection, it clearly demonstrates prioritizing the acquisition of talent above reaching to fill a need.

The 2014 Steelers were in good shape at inside linebacker, where 27-year-old Lawrence Timmons was in his prime and rookie Vince Williams had established himself as a solid starter. A greater need existed at cornerback. Pittsburgh’s starters the previous fall had been William Gay, who was dependable but unspectacular, and 33-year-old Ike Taylor, who was nearing the end of his career. They had signed journeyman Brice McCain in free agency, and their top reserve was Antwon Blake. The urgency of bolstering that position group seemed high.

It was a weak year for drafting corners, however, with only Justin Gilbert rated as a Top 10 prospect. Players like Darqueze Dennard and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were still on the board when the Steelers selected at 1:15. Rather than select either of them, they opted for the dynamic Shazier. Shazier was a playmaker, something the Steelers had lacked since Troy Polamalu retired, and they valued the opportunity to add him more than a need-based selection like Dennard or Clinton-Dix.

It was the right move. Shazier was on track to become a perennial Pro Bowler when he suffered the injury that ended his career in 2017. By contrast, Clinton-Dix and Dennard have both bounced around the league, playing for multiple teams. The BPA approach in 2014 was a far better strategy for the Steelers than forcing a pick on account of need.


2015

Pick: Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky

Need at Position Group: Moderate

Best Player Available Score: 7/10

The Dupree pick falls somewhere in the middle of need versus BPA. The Steelers were fairly deep at outside linebacker in 2014. They had started Jason Worilds and Arthur Moats, with James Harrison and Jarvis Jones as their backups. But Worilds stunned the team by retiring after the season at the age of 27, and Jones had struggled to establish himself after being drafted in the 1st Round in 2013. Harrison could still play, but at age 36 was slowing down. The cupboard wasn’t bare at outside backer, but it definitely needed some fresh supplies.

Dupree was a top prospect who some expected to go as high as #8 to Atlanta. Corner remained the Steelers’ biggest need at that time, but the best ones in the draft — Kevin Johnson, Marcus Peters and Trae Waynes — were off the board when the Steelers selected at 1:22. With Dupree still sitting there, and Byron Jones and Damarious Randall the best remaining corner prospects, the Steelers again bypassed their need to add a talented player at a position group they valued highly. It took Dupree a few years to master the intricacies of being an NFL edge rusher, but he blossomed into a solid starter before leaving in free agency for Tennessee. All things considered, the Dupree pick was a good one for the Steelers.


2016

Pick: Artie Burns, CB, Miami

Need at Position Group: High

Best Player Available Score: 1/10

The Steelers had been awful at corner in 2015. Their starters were Gay and Blake, with Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin and Ross Cockrell as backups. The 2016 draft had four projected first round corners, and the Steelers, picking 25th, were determined to nab one of them.

Jalen Ramsey, Eli Apple and Vernon Hargreaves III all came off the board early, but William Jackson was still available when Cincinnati, a team with needs elsewhere, selected right before the Steelers. The Bengals stunned Pittsburgh by taking Jackson. Rather than re-evaluate their board, which still contained talented defensive linemen like Kenny Clark and Vernon Butler as well as receiver Michael Thomas, the Steelers wasted no time in selecting Burns.

Many experts believe Pittsburgh was so desperate to pick a corner they simply went to the next one on their list once Jackson was taken. That was Burns, despite the fact he’d been evaluated as a late-second to mid-third round talent by most analysts. The decision proved to be disastrous, as Burns struggled mightily for four seasons before the Steelers let him walk in 2020. Burns remains a cautionary tale on reaching to fill a need early in the draft.


2017

Pick: T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin

Need at Position Group: Low/Moderate

Best Player Available Score: 10/10

The Steelers learned their lesson, or seemed to, when they selected T.J. Watt with the 30th overall pick the following season. Watt joined an outside linebacker group that was not desperate for talent. The Steelers had Harrison, Jones, Moats, Dupree and Anthony Chickillo. Jones and Dupree were both recent 1st Round picks, so they had invested highly in the position. They were still thin at corner, and their talent at safety, where Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell had struggled, was questionable as well. Many believed Budda Baker, the safety from Washington, would be their choice.

The pick, instead, was Watt. The thought of pairing him with Dupree to create one of the fiercest pass-rushing duos in the league was too tempting to pass up. Baker has gone on to forge a solid NFL career, but Watt is a future Hall of Famer. Again, the Steelers showed that prioritizing talent over need was a wise decision.


2018

Pick: Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech

Need at Position Group: High

Best Player Available Score: 2/10

The next season, however, they returned to a need-based philosophy and selected safety Terrell Edmunds. The selection wasn’t unwarranted. The Davis-Mitchell duo had flopped, and the cash-strapped Steelers had little room to sign replacements in free agency. They needed to land a safety in the draft, badly.

When Pittsburgh picked at 1:28, the draft’s two elite safeties — Fitzpatrick and Derwin James — were long gone. Edmunds was a raw but athletic player who, like Burns, had been given a 2nd or 3rd Round grade by most analysts. Several talented defenders were still on the board, including linebacker Darius Leonard, who some saw as a perfect replacement for the injured Shazier, as well as Jesse Bates, the safety from Wake Forest. Others thought Mike Gesicki, the 6’6 tight end from Penn State, would be a great addition to a thin tight end room. The Steelers could have selected Leonard or Gesicki and found a way to get Bates or Edmunds in Round 2. But fear of missing on both led them to pull the trigger on Edmunds. While he has not been a flop in Pittsburgh, starting 60 of 65 games the past four seasons, the fact the Steelers have not yet resigned him hints of disappointment.


2019

Pick: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan

Need at Position Group: High

Best Player Available Score: 5/10

In 2019, the Steelers traded up in the 1st Round to acquire Devin Bush. The move was made to address a thin inside linebacking corps that included Williams, John Bostic and Tyler Matakevich. The Steelers saw Bush as a Shazier-type player who would upgrade the athleticism of the unit.

The move made sense at the time. Bush and Devin White, who had gone to Tampa Bay at #6, were the only inside backers in the draft with 1st Round grades. So, if Pittsburgh wanted a top backer, they needed to be aggressive. Also, there weren’t great options beyond Bush at any position in Round 1. You can see here that the list of 2019 1st Rounders was underwhelming. Sitting at #20, where they were originally slated to pick, could have landed them tight end Noah Fant, but little else.

The problem for Pittsburgh was that the 2019 class was exceptionally weak for linebackers. Only White has excelled. Otherwise, the best include Bush, who seems unlikely to be resigned by the Steelers, Mack Wilson, who has been so-so in Cleveland, and Germaine Pratt, a serviceable starter for the Bengals. The Steelers didn’t exactly make a mistake in trading up for Bush. They did, though, error by putting themselves in a position where they needed to land one of the top two backers. By creating such a need at the position, they forced themselves to reach for one.


2021

Pick: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Need at Position Group: High

Best Player Available Score: 10/10

With the departure of James Connor in free agency, Pittsburgh arrived at the 2021 draft with Benny Snell at running back and little else. They made no secret of their desire to take Harris, who was widely regarded as the top back. When no one selected him prior to their pick at 1:25, the Steelers happily snapped him up.

The interesting thing about Harris’s selection is that, while Pittsburgh had a huge need for a back, they did not reach to take him. Some argued that drafting any running back was unwise in Round 1. Still, Harris was a consensus Top 30 prospect. None of the players taken after him in Round 1 — Travis Etienne, Greg Newsome, Rashod Bateman, Payton Turner, Eric Stokes, Gregory Rousseau, Jayson Oweh and Joe Tryon — would have represented better value. The Steelers hit the nail on the head by marrying BPA and need with Harris. This makes him the exception, not the rule, when it comes to their recent Round 1 selections.


2022

What have we learned so far? The big takeaway is that, with the exception of Harris, the more the Steelers have felt compelled to fill a specific need in Round 1 — Burns, Edmunds, Bush — the less success they’ve had with that selection. The more they’ve been willing to go the BPA route — Shazier, Watt, Dupree — the better they’ve fared.

Which brings us to next Thursday night. Because the Steelers did a great job filling needs through free agency, they don’t have any glaring positional deficiencies heading into the draft, except at strong safety, where they’re expected to sign a veteran. This frees them up to consider BPA in Round 1. Selecting at 1:20, a host of talented players will be there. Whom might the Steelers choose?

At offensive tackle, Bernhard Raimann or Trevor Penning could be available. Interior players Tyler Linderbaum, Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson should be, too. At receiver, the electric Jameson Williams, who suffered an ACL injury in the national playoffs, could slide to them, while a pair of Ohio State stars, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, may as well. On defense, the Steelers could go with corners Trent McDuffie or Andrew Booth, while a trio of Georgia Bulldogs — linemen Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt and linebacker Nakobe Dean — would be tempting as well.

Then there’s the quarterback position, which has been the talk of the off-season. If Malik Willis somehow lasts until 1:20, it seems likely the Steelers will run to the podium with his name. But they could take Kenny Pickett, or even Desmond Ridder.

That’s 16 names as potential 1st Round selections, none of whom would be particularly shocking or deemed a considerable reach. Everyone has a preference, and arguments will inevitably ensue about the merits of one versus another. But the key thing for the Steelers is they have the flexibility this year to select the player they value most. They do not have to reach for need. History suggests this is a good thing, and the player whose name they call will be worth celebrating.