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How the Steelers use the draft for the most expensive positions

The Steelers have added a good number of free agents the last two seasons, but certain positions are still mostly from their draft picks.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Like a lot of Steelers fans who confess to be highly invested in the team, I sit around and think about the Steelers quite often. Lucky for me, I have an opportunity to put those thoughts out into a corner of Steelers’ Nation to share with others.

Considering about how much the Steelers have added in free agency the last two years and what positions they should address in the upcoming draft, I got to thinking about the positions the Steelers have on the team that have been dominated more by draft picks than free agent acquisitions.

The more I thought about it, the more I started to realize a pattern. Do the Steelers take the most expensive positions in the NFL and focus on building those through the draft?

In order to see if my hypothesis was at least somewhat correct, the first thing I did was seek out the most expensive contracts. While I found how I could look at positional breakdown by team and the amount of money spent, it didn’t total it for the entire league so it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Additionally, some of the positions weren’t broken down enough for me. I didn’t want to group together all the offensive line or the entire secondary. Still looking for answers, I decided to look at the most expensive individual contracts in their average per year (APY) throughout the life of the contract.

To briefly explain why APY is the best metric when looking at a contract, it doesn’t take into account manipulated values used for salary cap purposes. A cap number for a player can be manipulated both with an original signing bonus and restructures. The cash paid to a player in a year isn’t as indicative because it doesn’t take into account a huge signing bonus. Looking at the total contract divided by the number of years in the contract really does give the best indication of where a player’s salary ranks among others in the NFL.

I then had to decide on a good stopping point. If I look just the top 20 contracts, there were some ties which made it difficult. Additionally, it was very much dominated by one position. For that reason, and to keep from having to go with too many players, I set an amount of $22 million to keep from going over 40 players.

When looking at the current 2023 contracts where players have an APY of $22 million or more, there are 37 players with 16 of them being quarterbacks. It’s not surprising that this has become the most expensive position in the NFL because it really is the most important. The next most were wide receivers with nine followed by edge rushers with six. To round everything out there were three offensive tackles and three defensive linemen landing with $22 million or more.

Since this is where the cut off was, I looked at the five positions as being the most expensive in the NFL. And then turned my focus to the Pittsburgh Steelers. How have they addressed these positions?

Starting with quarterback, it’s really hard to look at it historically because it’s dominated in recent years by Ben Roethlisberger. But Ben Roethlisberger was a draft pick for the Steelers. Yes, the Steelers went out and signed Mitch Trubisky for 2022, but when they were able to draft Kenny Pickett the transition lasted only four games until the drafted player was back in the starting role. Building this position by drafting a quarterback, having them on your roster for four or five years as the Steelers get to know them, and then making the choice to pay them is much safer than bringing in a free agent acquisition who may or may not fit well.

Going next to wide receiver, I really had to think about the last time the Steelers had a wide receiver contributing in a significant way who was not drafted by the team. I picked the standard of 40 receptions in a season and decided to check out who was the last receiver who wasn’t a Steelers draft pick or brought up as an undrafted player who saw their first NFL action in Pittsburgh. The last receiver with 40 receptions in a season who wasn’t drafted by the Steelers was Jericho Cotchery in 2013 with 46 receptions. To go back before him, the next receiver would have been Bobby Shaw in 2000 with 40 receptions.

Looking at the Steelers list of players who had 40 receptions in a season going back to 2000, and having each season count for every time a player did so, the total number was 54. Of those 54 players within a given season, two slots were filled by players drafted by other teams in the aforementioned Shaw and Cotchery. The only other two spots filled by a player not drafted by the Steelers was the undrafted Eli Rogers in 2016 and the undrafted Nate Washington 2008. But both of these players saw their first NFL action with the Steelers. So to think about how much the Steelers use their drafted players as their top-end receivers is unprecedented.

Moving onto edge rusher, I didn’t sort out the stats in the same way that I did wide receiver. But looking at the players who are considered the starters at outside linebacker, these are once again players either drafted by the Steelers or developed by the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.

Looking at just the starters, the last player to start for the season at outside linebacker who wasn’t a Steelers draft pick (or the primary undrafted player developed by the Steelers in James Harrison), was Arthur Moats in 2015. Since then starters have been players such as Harrison, Anthony Chickillo, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Alex Highsmith. Going back farther to find another outside linebacker who started for the season other than Motes that didn’t begin their career in Pittsburgh, you would have to go all the way back to 1995 with Kevin Greene.

Moving on to offensive tackle, this is another position where the Steelers have found their starters with their own draft selections or players they have developed who went undrafted. The last players to start at tackle for the season in Pittsburgh who was not a draft pick was Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams in 2010. This has simply been another position that the Steelers utilize their draft picks even though they have not drafted an offensive tackle in the first round since Jamain Stephens in 1996.

To round out the top five, the Steelers also have gone with their own drafted players on the defensive line for at least two of the three positions. The 2021 season got away from this trend and has been this way ever since with the unfortunate situation with Stephon Tuitt stepping away from football. Had it not been for this, chances are it would still be Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt holding down the interior of the defensive line rather thn having to look at free agents.

So when looking at the positions which cost the most to replace in free agency, the Steelers like to stick with the guys they have had from the beginning. Being overly familiar with players before having to give them a huge payday is such an added benefit. So when fans are looking at what positions the Steelers will add in free agency versus the NFL draft, Steelers history points towards the most expensive positions usually coming via the draft.