The NFL draft is less than a week away and the Pittsburgh Steelers are armed with eight draft picks. From the outside, the Black and Gold don’t have many pressing needs. Only one starting player is not returning from a successful 2016 season. The Steelers have Vince Williams waiting in the wings with a modest salary, and the front office may view him as the heir apparent to the departed ILB Lawrence Timmons. But delve deeper and one may find more pressing needs that may hinder a run at a seventh Super Bowl ring in 2017.
Do the Steelers have their 11 starters on offense and 11 starters on defense already in place?
If the answer to the above question is no, it spawns myriad other questions that the Steelers will have to answer for themselves before the first round kicks off on April 27. Scratching below the surface, one may find cracks in those 22 presumed starters.
1. Is Ladarius Green’s roster spot safe?
How concerned is Pittsburgh with the health of Green? Five reported concussions is nothing to sneeze at. Green’s last concussion cost him the last two games of the regular season and the three playoff games. Five weeks is a long time to recover from a concussion. Can he pass a physical now? Word leaked out that it was his concussion symptoms, not his lingering ankle issues from an offseason surgery, that caused Green to miss the first nine games of the season. If Green can’t be counted on 2017, has Jesse James progressed enough to be viewed as the starting tight end?
2. In a deep EDGE rush draft class, do the Steelers wait as long as the third day of the draft to find a player to pair with him and replace James Harrison?
Steeler Nation is excited to have Harrison back, but fans know he should/can not take a full complement of defensive snaps. The speculation is that Pittsburgh will use a high draft choice on a player who will take over for Deebo when he hangs up his cleats for good.
3. Can Vince Williams play on third downs?
On the outside, this might not seem that big of an issue. But if he can’t , this detail has huge ramifications. Pittsburgh ran a nickel defense on 64.9% of the 1,040 defensive snaps out of a 2-4-5 alignment. If VW is not versatile enough to keep in nickel packages and Pitt does not draft a player that can, how will the defense look? 3-3-5? Or go right into a dime package of 2-3-6 or another variant?
4. Will the Steelers’ defense change dramatically if VW cannot play on third downs?
If Williams cannot play on passing downs and Pitt does not have an ILB who can play those downs, will the Steelers draft CBs and/or safeties to fill the specific role? Will there be three CBs in nickel, or will there be an additional safety? The same question arises in the dime defense with what variant would be utilized.
5. How does the CB position get addressed?
Many at BTSC believe CB is a position of need. Is there a need to upgrade or even replace Ross Chockrell, whose contract expires after 2017? Does Pitt need a CB who can play the slot CB now or beyond 2017? The draft will shed light there. It may also mean a notable shift away from the zone scheme currently used if a man-man CB is taken high in the draft.
6. Beyond 2017 or 2018, can Martavis Bryant be relied upon?
The answer to this question is murky. Reinstatement from his year-long drug suspension has not transpired. Reinstatement prior to the draft is looking doubtful. Does Pittsburgh view Sammie Coates as a possible long-term replacement in the No. 2 WR role? A high draft pick would answer both questions.
7. Does the front office view Stephon Tuitt and Le’veon Bell as being able to be locked into long-term contracts?
Tuitt and Bell are under contract through 2017. Or will replacements be drafted? The Steelers are very thin at RB and might address that need early in the draft. Will using a high draft choice be a shot across Bell’s bow, signifying that he is seen as expendable and needs to lower his contract demands to remain a member of the Black and Gold?
8. Do the Steelers address the QB position in 2017?
Will Pittsburgh draft a QB to replace Ben Roethlisberger? Will they draft a QB to replace LJ or Zach Mettenberger?
Now, with those eight player-specific questions out of the way, here are three more general thought-provoking questions:
1. Will the Steelers break tradition and become the only team in the NFL to never trade their first-round draft pick?
2. Rarely are players with character issues drafted by Pittsburgh. Will that change in 2017? Of Tim Williams, Joe Mixon, Reuben Foster, Dalvin Cook or Cam Robinson, whom would you take in the draft, and when? Do you believe Pitt would take any of these players? If so, when?
3. Who will be the first Steeler to lose his roster spot because of a draft pick?
Where will you be watching the first round of the NFL draft?