As soon as Cameron Heyward sacked Deshaun Watson with seven seconds left in the Steelers’ Week 18 win over the Cleveland Browns, the team’s 2022 season had come to an end. With Pittsburgh missing the postseason, the offseason had technically kickstarted.
Since that 28-14 victory on Jan. 8, the Steelers’ team needs have been rather clear in the last three months: offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback and safety. Some of those positional voids have been long-standing issues; for instance, Pittsburgh did not draft a CB in 2022 or a safety since 2020.
As of early April, many of those have been filled through the work Omar Khan has done in free agency. By bringing in Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts at inside linebacker, Patrick Peterson at corner and retaining Larry Ogunjobi and Damontae Kazee, the Steelers really have very few glaring holes on their roster as they begin the 2023 campaign.
The fun of the NFL offseason, though, is that five months of it remain — including, most critically, the NFL Draft, held from April 27-29.
In light of the retooling done by Khan and Andy Weidl, it might be easy to tie a bow around the Steelers’ 2023 transactions and to view the starting depth chart as finalized. However, that’s what makes the draft — especially Pittsburgh’s unique situation — so intriguing.
While the team has bolstered weaker position groups, there are few blue-chip players, especially youthful ones, at CB, LB, etc. Consequently, almost all pundits expect Khan and Mike Tomlin to dip their toes into the pool of available players at those spots, specifically with their first two selections at No. 17 and No. 32.
The Steelers taking a corner or inside ‘backer would be anything but surprising. The same applies at defensive line, safety and offensive tackle, where Pittsburgh has starting options but could use upgrades.
The remaining positions are where matters become more interesting.
With the black and gold boasting a receiving corps of Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and 2022 fourth-round pick Calvin Austin III, the Steelers have a solid group at wideout. But, don’t discount adding a receiver through the draft, especially after the departure of slot man Steven Sims Jr. Pittsburgh has drafted a receiver in 10 of the last 11 seasons; meeting with Ole Miss’ Jonathan Mingo and Purdue’s Charlie Jones for a pre-draft visit only amplifies the idea that Khan may take a receiver.
Remaining on the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh retained its 2022 tight end room, bringing back Zach Gentry to form a bunch of Pat Freiermuth, Gentry and Connor Heyward. Even with a burgeoning star in Freiermuth and a promising second-year player in Heyward, the Steelers may look to add a more reliable blocking TE in light of Gentry’s woes last season. With a litany of intriguing tight end prospects throughout this year’s crop, don’t rule out the front office nabbing one in the later rounds.
In terms of running backs, Pittsburgh should feel content with a one-two punch of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. However, Benny Snell Jr. is still a free agent, and the team had no third running back eclipse the 100-yard mark last season. In a running back class with players that can reinforce rooms well until the fifth or sixth round, the Steelers very well could select one to further reduce Harris’ sky-high workload.
While Khan and Weidl put in tremendous effort to shore up Pittsburgh’s interior offensive line by inking Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig to contracts, center is a bit of a toss-up in terms of the draft. Mason Cole was about average in 2022, but he only has two seasons left on his three-year deal. Center probably isn’t very high atop the Steelers’ draft list, but if a promising one falls, it may be hard to pass up to give Cole some competition.
The Steelers appear to have landed their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future in Kenny Pickett. At the same time, Mitch Trubisky is a free agent after 2023, and third-stringer Mason Rudolph has not yet been re-signed. The organization tends to like to have three quarterbacks on the roster and even drafted Chris Oladokun last year despite acquiring Pickett six rounds earlier. As teams such as the 49ers have proven, having multiple quality backups is never a bad idea, especially in a crop that offers athleticism and big-game experience.
In terms of defense, many of Pittsburgh’s pre-existing dilemmas stemmed from liabilities on that side of the ball but appear to have been stabilized. That doesn’t mean, though, that other untouched spots won’t see shifts.
The Steelers have a fearsome edge-rushing duo in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, but no other linebacker had more than one sack last year. The team has already expressed interest in reuniting with Bud Dupree, so EDGE figures as a position that Khan could home in on in the draft.
While Ogunjobi returning gives the Steelers a projected defensive line of Heyward, Montravious Adams and Ogunjobi, the team’s DL is still rather thin — even after signing Breiden Fehoko — and does not possess a quality nose tackle. Pittsburgh has continued interest in interior players like Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton and Florida’s Gervon Dexter, so selecting a DL is somewhat plausible.
With offense and defense addressed, what about specialists? Even that could raise Khan’s eyebrows.
Pittsburgh’s special teams were far from unblemished in 2022. Kicker Chris Boswell made only 71.4% of his field goal attempts last year, the second-worst mark of his career. While Boswell did just sign a four-year deal, making drafting a kicker rather unlikely, taking one (e.g., Jake Moody, Jack Podlesny) with a seventh-round flier isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
2021 seventh-round selection Pressley Harvin III improved his play in his second year, bettering his average yards per punt by 1.9 yards and increasing his net yards/punt by 3.1 yards. However, Harvin only has two seasons left on his rookie deal; the same applies above with regard to selecting a punter in the later rounds.
Collectively, the Steelers have done well to prioritize their major areas of attention with their first few selections in each NFL Draft. Beyond that, though, the team has tended to take a “Best Player Available” approach in Rounds Four-Seven. With a new general manager assuming the helm, plus question marks in terms of depth/contracts at multiple positions, Pittsburgh will probably have few — if any — groups crossed off on its 2023 prospect big board.