News flash: the Steelers are talented.
If you’ve followed the team over the last five years, you’ve had the privilege to see the team get rebuilt from the ground up, without really missing a beat, considering back-to-back seasons with 8-8 records was the low-water mark of head coach Mike Tomlin’s career to-date.
The only position groups that haven’t been overhauled since 2012 are quarterback, where Ben Roethlisberger continues to play at an elite level; and offensive line, which has still seen 40 percent turnover in that time.
Offensively, the following starters were drafted, or earned their full-time starting spot, since the 2012 off-season: running backs Le’Veon Bell (2013) and Roosevelt Nix (2016); receivers Antonio Brown (2012) and Martavis Bryant (2014); tight end Jesse James (2016); and offensive linemen Alejandro Villanueva (2015) and David DeCastro (2012). Besides Roethlisberger, only center Maurkice Pouncey (2010), right tackle Marcus Gilbert (2011) and left guard Ramon Foster (2011) were starters prior to 2012.
Defensively, it’s much the same: James Harrison is the lone long-time starter still (possibly) in that role as we barrel onward toward the 2017 season. Otherwise, everyone else has gained their starting spot since the 2012 pre-season: defensive linemen Cameron Heyward (2013), Javon Hargrave (2016) and Stephon Tuitt (2015); linebackers Bud Dupree (2016), Ryan Shazier (2015) and Vince Williams (2017); cornerbacks Artie Burns (2016) and Ross Cockrell (2015); and safeties Mike Mitchell (2014) and Sean Davis (2016).
Even the three specialists have turned over, with Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry and (presumably) rookie Colin Holba taking their positions since 2015.
The exciting part of all this is that it hasn’t been change for change’s sake. Just about every position is in a good place going forward, with proven talent or, at least, high-ceiling players.
With that said, what unit stands to be the team’s best position group in 2017?
I really wanted to go with the offensive line here. I really did. But, with the exception of Villanueva, that unit is collectively very near its ceiling. The defensive line, though, has so much room left to grow, despite accounting for 10 of the team’s 38 sacks in 2016 — without Heyward, and with a rookie at nose tackle.
Heyward is the unquestioned leader, and is returning for his eighth season. Prior to suffering a season-ending injury seven games into the 2016 season, he was on pace for his third consecutive season of at least seven sacks. In his only other season as a starter, 2013, he had five sacks.
Rookie Hargrave was terrific in the third quarter of the season, but hit the “rookie wall” as the year wore to a close. Still, his two sacks and 18 tackles were the best statistical performance for a Steelers nose tackle since Casey Hampton retired. With a full off-season in the team’s strength and conditioning program, he should be a force all season long in 2017.
Stephon Tuitt may end up being the best player on the defensive line in 2017. He was already a sure-fire first-round pick who fell to the Steelers in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft because of an injury, and he’s lived up to that pedigree. He’s already got 11.5 sacks in his career, including four in 2016, and caused a lot of hurried throws thanks to his strength and relentlessness when chasing the quarterback. The idea that he is still a long way from his ceiling borders on terrifying.
Traditionally, the role of the defensive line in a 3-4 defense is a two-gap assignment, meant to absorb blockers and take up space. Thanks to the athleticism of this group, though, defensive coordinator Keith Butler is entering his third season with the ability to play a one-gap scheme with the defensive line attacking aggressively downhill. Because of that athleticism, this group won’t just be the best unit on a very talented team; they will be one of the top position groups in the entire NFL in 2017.
Wide Receiver, and it isn’t even close.
I understand why Mike chose the defensive line. Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave, McCullers, and Alualu is a stout unit, but the Steelers’ wide receivers are ridiculously deep.
Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers and Justin Hunter all battling for six roster spots. Regardless of who makes the final 53-man roster, if they all remain healthy, this will be one dangerous receiving unit.
Envision the four wide receiver sets the team could deploy.
Brown and Bryant on the outside, with Smith-Schuster and Rogers running wild on the inside. If you want to count Le’Veon Bell as a receiver, and why shouldn’t you considering what he is capable of and how the team deploys him, it only makes this unit better.
Fortunately, the Steelers have several positions which could be considered the strongest, the offensive line comes to mind, but in my opinion the deepest, and strongest, is none other than the team’s playmakers through the air.