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Steelers “What if....?”: Draft Edition, Part 8 (finale)

The best draft rooms still make mistakes: 2015-17

NFL: APR 27 2018 NFL Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The draft is almost on us, so let’s head down the home-stretch in our “What If...?” series on the last 30 years of Steelers draft history. Earlier editions can be found here:

Part 1: Chuck Noll (1969-74)
Part 2: Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe (1993-94)
Part 3: Bill Cowher/Tom Donahoe (1995-99)
Part 4: Bill Cowher/Kevin Colbert (2000-02)
Part 5: Bill Cowher/Kevin Colbert (2003-06)
Part 6: Mike Tomlin/Kevin Colbert (2007-11)
Part 7: Mike Tomlin/Kevin Colbert (2012-14)

The final edition in this series sees the Steelers near the top again (and the end of each draft round) but also enduring a lot of odd roster static. They’ve got the top OL in football, and the best set of NFL “triplets” of the era, with those Killer B’s. They ought to have a great defense too, but the edge rushers have been depleted by bad luck, and the secondary is a ghost town. It’s maddening to recognize how close this team was to another dynasty-run. And yet.

There’s an old Yiddish joke, I like — my favorite version of it goes: “How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.” If you’re more poetically minded, try Robert Burns’ words: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley” (go oft awry). Roster building is always a type of plan; no matter how well you set yourself up, you’d better be able to adjust. Let’s see how the Steelers handled these hiccups:


We’re tracking the team’s first four rounds of picks each draft, and then noting who they passed up on. This is not as some exercise in insulting the front office (which has maintained consistent winners for most of the last half-century). Rather, I’m interested in how a terrific front office sometimes misses what looks obvious in hindsight, and in noticing how a “bad” draft pick is sometimes still the best option on the board. Hot takes are everywhere, so maybe this will be an antidote. Stay tuned.

Pittsburgh Steelers Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium
This is Bud’s first NFL game, and the play where he won my heart.
Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images


Round 1: #22 OLB Bud Dupree
Round 2: #56 CB Senquez Gholson
Round 3: #87 WR Sammie Coates
Round 4: #121 CB Doran Grant

Other notable picks:
#160 TE Jesse James
UDFA OT Al Villanueva

The 2015 draft is a frustrating one, with the top three choices coming with great promise, but terrible injury luck. Bud Dupree carved the strongest career, earning a massive contract in Tennessee (where he washed out with... injuries). Sammie Coates also seemed like a great pickup, getting 20.7 yards per catch in 2017 (as Martavis Bryant sat suspended). But a mangled finger ruined that season and he was never the same. Senquez Gholson, meanwhile, was a ball-hawk and coverage star at Mississippi (two things Pittsburgh desperately needed), but was injured in his rookie preseason, and never played an NFL down.

Worse? These were the highest urgency positions — in 2016, Pittsburgh started Antwaan Blake at CB and Markus Wheaton at WR, with edge rushers Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moates. Uf.

Bud is hardest to redraft; partially because he had a respectable run, but also because the Steelers really needed him. Lamarr Woodley was in Arizona and Jarvis Jones was already busting. James Harrison had returned, but no one knew for how long. The next generation of edge rushers HAD to arrive. And Bud was promising, particularly in his tornado 2016 December (after missing most of the year with injury). A couple seasons of mixed results eventually culminated in 19.5 sacks over a season and a half, as he and T.J. Watt became the top edge duo in football, and he earned himself that ill-fated free agency contract. I’m probably keeping old Alvin, but let’s see our options.

In round 1, there’s not much. Edge Frank Clark (#63 Seattle) has been to three Pro Bowls, and comes alive in the playoffs. That’s not bad. We might also consider All Pro SS Landon Collins (#33 Giants) now that Troy Polamalu has finally returned to his home planet. I’ve never been as impressed by Clark as I’m supposed to be, so it’s Bud or Collins for me.

In round 2, I’d like to get us a corner, which may have been team’s the most urgent need. Sadly, there’s not much here. Instead, there’s a WR we can pair with AB: All Pro WR/KR Tyler Lockett (#69 Seattle). This is a vintage “20/20 hindsight” pick though; CB was a far more urgent need than WR, even with Bryant’s four-game suspension to start this year. And honestly, if you were looking at CBs at this point in the draft, you’d have grabbed Gholson every time. In fact, of the CBs drafted in 2015 after pick #22 (Pittsburgh’s 1st rounder), only two have ever been the Pro Bowl: Byron Jones (#27 Dallas) and Quandre Diggs (#200 Detroit), and only Jones was playing corner at the time (Diggs moved to safety). Lots of people label this pick as one of Kevin Colbert’s “worst” draft choices over the years (a weird jab anyway, since Gholson’s problems were injuries); but what else do you do this year?

Let’s say we traded in all our picks this year, and grabbed Collins in round 1, then Lockett in round 2. Those are realistic. At #87, we’re still not finding a corner, but we do need an edge. How about three time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter (#88 Vikings)? Hunter mostly plays DE in Minnesota, but I think he can shift to OLB. If you’re not sold, you could grab DE Zadarius Smith (#122 Ravens) who transitioned to OLB in Green Bay and promptly went to three Pro Bowls.

We’re not taking CB Doran Grant (#121) in round 4, but let’s stay on defense. I still can’t help in the secondary, but how about Pro Bowl ILB Kwon Alexander (#124 Buccaneers) to apprentice behind Lawrence Timmons, then pair with Ryan Shazier. Too much of a luxury pick? What about two time Pro Bowl NT Grady Jarrett (#137 Falcons), who could plug the middle between youngsters Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt? The only other option I see is another WR — Stephon Diggs (#146 Vikings), who’s a legit option if we didn’t take Lockett or Coates — or a backup running back, Miami’s Jay Ajayi (#149), who will gouge the Steelers for 204 yards during his Pro Bowl 2016 season, but do essentially nothing else for his career. We don’t need him.

Thank goodness for Al Villanueva on the UDFA pile. If any draft has ever seemed like a craps shoot, this one has.

Side note: The 2015 draft was a rough round for the whole league. This entire draft has produced 11 All Pro seasons (spread out among only 9 players). The following year produced 21 (among 13 players). 2017 produced 21 more (among 16 players). Even 2018, which is only five years ago, has seen 19 All Pro seasons (among 12 different players). The Steelers got an unimpressive haul in ‘15, but sometimes you can only do what you can do.

NFL: NOV 06 Steelers at Ravens
Artie Burns grabbed an INT against the Ravens in the 2016 game no one remembers (not the Immaculate Extension — the other one)
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Round 1: #25 CB Artie Burns
Round 2: #58 FS Sean Davis
Round 3: #89 DT Javon Hargrave
Round 4: #123 OT Jerald Hawkins

Other notable picks:

Whoo boy. 2016 is not a complete wash, but it’s certainly another draft you revisit with a heavy sigh.

After the Cortez Allen experiment collapsed, and Senquez Gholson couldn’t get on the field, the Steelers were desperate for DBs. And they reached a little in the first two rounds of this one. Artie Burns (#25) was generally understood to be over-drafted, after the Bengals snuck in front of Pittsburgh to take future Steeler injury report filler, William Jackson III (#24). Fun story, though: Jackson hasn’t exactly had an all star career. In fact, you can argue that Burns was a better player in their first two seasons. (In 2016 and 2017, Burns started 25 games, recording four INTs and 119 tackles; those same seasons saw Jackson snag one pick and make 68 stops, despite 21 starts himself.) Burns actually led the Steelers in interceptions as a rookie, and looked like the real thing for a time. But like Allen before him, he inexplicably lost his wings within two years. His playing time diminished in years 3 and 4, and he was out of town by year 5.

So what could the Steelers have done instead? Well, if DBs were highest priority, there’s (annoyingly) a good one who went just 13 picks after Burns: two time NFL interceptions leader Xavien Howard (#38 Miami). That’s probably the guy we wanted. Some other stars were there as well, but not at spots we need — All Pro DL Chris Jones (#37 K.C.), who isn’t passing Tuitt or Heyward; two time NFL rushing champ, Derrick Henry (#45 Tennessee), who isn’t passing Le’Veon Bell; or record-setting WR Michael Thomas (#47 New Orleans), who might’ve been good, given Martavis Bryant’s demise, but simply wasn’t necessary like a CB. We’re taking Howard.

As for round 2, Sean Davis (#58) is another early return who didn’t last. There’s a persistent myth in comments sections suggesting Davis was some kind of miserable bust, but that’s seriously revisionist history. If you checked in during Davis’s first couple years, he looked like a gamer. In 2017, Davis led the 13-3 Steelers in both tackles and interceptions, and actually led the team in tackles in 2018 as well. He was even 4th in that department as a rookie, with more stops than vets like William Gay or James Harrison. A season-ending injury in week 1 of 2019 led to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival, and Davis was suddenly superfluous. But let’s not label a consistent contributor a “failure” just because he’s not as good as the best safety on the planet.

I’m tempted to stick with Davis at this spot, but there is at least one upgrade that would have been a better selection: Kevin Byard (#64 Tennessee), who’s been an All Pro at both FS and SS. If we wanted to go CB with the first two picks (after grabbing Howard in round 1) we could have taken Pro Bowler James Bradberry (#62 Carolina). The other good option in this round was Pro Bowl edge Yannick Ngakoue (#69 Jacksonville). But I feel like safety was the pick; let’s take Byard.

In round 3, we see a genuine home run, with Javon Hargrave (#89) filling out the best defensive line in football. What a crime that that unit couldn’t play together longer. If we still needed a safety at this point, Pro Bowler Justin Simmons (#98 Denver) averages four INTs per year, and has been 2nd team All Pro three times. But man, I liked J-Wobble. I’m sticking with him.

OT Jerald Hawkins (#123) seemed promising for a couple years, but never delivered. We can unload him. But for whom? Well, here are three names to make you silently weep at the possibilities. Let’s say you want to draft Big Ben’s eventual replacement, to apprentice for a few years and then take over. How’s Dak Prescott (#135 Dallas) sound? He sure would’ve been nice to have in 2019, when Ben went down... Or maybe you’re still itchy for a pass rusher. Grand Valley State’s Matthew Judon (#146 Baltimore) has four Pro Bowls on his resume. Of course, Judon might convince you not to bother with T.J. Watt next year. So that’s out. Instead, maybe another of those super-talented head case wide receivers. Rumor has it there’s a cheetah available who will eventually be a four time All Pro — some kid named Tyreek Hill (#165 K.C.). I don’t know about bringing Hill’s particular flavor of violent jagoff into the locker room, especially with Antonio Brown already beginning his descent. So it’s probably Prescott for me. I mean, he’s no Jerald Hawkins, but you know...

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
One of T.J. Watt’s 3.5 sacks on some free agent RB who used to play QB in Baltimore.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images


Round 1: #30 OLB T.J. Watt
Round 2: #62 WR Juju Smith-Schuster
Round 3: #94 CB Cam Sutton
Round 3: #105 RB James Conner
Round 4: #135 QB Josh Dobbs

Other notable picks:
UDFA CB Mike Hilton

This might be the strongest draft since the ‘70s. We’re going to poke some holes here and there, but honestly, all five of the top picks were success stories, and Mike Hilton came off the UDFA pile as a bonus. Honestly, the only quarrels I’ve got are mid-draft or late-round picks. Bravo.

To start, you don’t second guess a future Hall of Famer, so we’re not questioning T.J. Watt (#30) in this series. But I will remind us all how many people rolled their eyes at this pick, insisting that the Steelers were dumb to think that T.J. would be great just because his big brother had been. Plenty thought they were slinging clever insults at Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert by saying this; funny how few people will cop to it now that Watt is historically great.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#62) has a mixed reputation — he was clever and likeable as a rookie (remember when Al Villanueva taught him to drive, after his bike got stolen — everyone loved JuJu). Then those same tendencies got under everyone’s skin (the TikTok challenges... dancing on opponents insignias... “Browns is Browns” before the playoff loss...). In the end, he was a hard working and tough wideout. And he laid out Vontaze Burfict in one of my all time favorite plays. I’m happy drafting JuJu at #62. BUT if I wasn’t, I might try to grab All World rock star Cooper Kupp (#69) before the Rams can. Kind of a no-lose situation here.

I always liked Cam Sutton (#94), and we’re still rebuilding that secondary, so we can use a flexible corner. We just missed out on Pro Bowler Shaq Griffin (#90 Seattle), so Sutton is probably our best bet. James Conner (#105) did yeoman’s work in relief of the career torpedo that was 2018 Le’Veon Bell, and has been to a couple of Pro Bowls. He might be sneakily the best bet here too. If we really want to get rid of safety Mike Mitchell, we could swap Conner for Bears All Pro S Eddie Jackson (#112), but knowing how important Conner is about to be, we might be better sticking with him.

In round 4, QB Josh Dobbs was more of a coach-on-the-sidelines than a player in this city. Ben loved him, but maybe we can roll the dice and take 49ers All Pro TE George Kittle (#146), who Ben also probably would’ve loved. My only stutter here is a hindsight choice. We don’t know it on draft day, but in week 13 of this very season Ryan Shazier will suffer a gruesome and career ending injury. A 4th round depth ILB might have been good no matter what, but we’ll be especially glad if we pick future Bills All Pro Matt Milano (#163).

Whatever we do here, we’re certainly signing slot man Mike Hilton, who was the best blitzing DB in the NFL during his time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have never adequately replaced him since he left for Cincinnati.

My re-picks here are largely just coin-flips. This draft is a masterpiece.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
James Conner says goodbye on behalf of this series...
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

What did we learn?

I was always taught to end on a high note, so I’m cutting this series off here. It’s been a little exhausting, but really fascinating. Lots of lessons I learned in assembling it. Here’s four:

1) Sometimes a bust was still the best option available (Dri Archer when no one else was there... Senquez Gholson, easily the best corner on the board...)

2) Sometimes a great draft room still makes boneheaded decisions (Charles Johnson over Isaac Bruce... Myron Bell over Rodney Harrison... Bob Campbell over Charlie Joiner...)

3) Just because we think we know better than the front office doesn’t mean we do (T.J. Watt... Le’Veon Bell... Cam Heyward... all called dumb picks or busts)

4) Luck is a bigger part of the NFL than any of us want to admit

That last one is probably the key. Who knows what happens in this year’s draft. Probably another of those 1974 versions. We’re due for five Hall of Famers in one year. Go Steelers.