The 2017 NFL Draft begins in, like, several hours. Until then, please consider these 5 things:
Kevin Colbert is really good at drafting good players in the first round
Since joining the Steelers as Director of Football Operations in 2000 (effectively the general manager, since Pittsburgh didn’t officially adopt this title until 2010), Colbert has drafted 17 players in the first round. Nine of these players have been selected to the Pro Bowl, 10 have played in the Super Bowl and two — Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger — are headed to the Hall of Fame. Colbert’s lone misses, debatably, were Ziggy Hood in 2009 and Jarvis Jones in 2013, though both players did start 39 and 50 games, respectively, for Pittsburgh during their careers. No, Hood and Jones didn’t quite live up to their first-round statuses (though, in Hood’s defense, he was the No. 32 pick and hardly a blue-chip prospect), but they certainly can’t be considered “busts.”
Point being: Trust the dudes in the front office.
The Steelers probably don’t need a receiver, but...
History says they are gonna take one anyway. Consider this: Since 2005, the Steelers have drafted at least one receiver in every draft, with 2011 representing the lone exception. Naturally, casting such a large net has enabled Colbert and Co. to check pretty much every box on the receiver spectrum, which ranges from Antonio Brown (very good) to Limas Sweed (not good).
One of the players who, at least from a talent standpoint, resides closer to the Brown end of the spectrum is Martavis Bryant, who played in precisely zero games last season after receiving a suspension for failing too may drug tests. Unfortunately, Bryant’s decision-making acumen has done little to instill confidence in his ability to be a major contributor to the Steelers in 2017 and beyond. If the Steelers draft a receiver in the first or second round, that dude will be a literal Martavis Bryant insurance policy.
However, let’s assume Bryant has successfully righted the ship and is fully reinstated by the NFL before Week 1. Assuming Bryant performs well in training camp and the preseason (and I expect him to, because he stayed in phenomenal shape), he will give the Steelers an extremely viable No. 2 receiver, something the team severely lacked in 2016. Eli Rogers was a good No. 3 receiver, Sammie Coates led the NFL in yards per catch until the bones in his right hand apparently exploded and Darrius Heyward-Bey is by far the best special teams player on the team. Moreover, both Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton caught touchdowns last season, and Justin Hunter, a former second-round draft pick, signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent.
That said, evaluating the Steelers’ receiving corps is a matter of perspective. Not drafting a receiver essentially means Pittsburgh is betting on Bryant’s sobriety. Drafting a receiver—especially in the first round—is not a particularly compelling endorsement of the current core.
The NFL is a business, and the NFL Draft is just a series of increasingly unstructured business decisions (in other words, teams put far more thought into their first-round pick than their seventh-round pick). With that said, Bryant has proven that he is capable of playing at a borderline superstar level. Derailing his confidence by drafting Corey Davis or John Ross might not be a prudent decision.
Realistically, the Steelers are maybe, like, one or two pieces away from being Super Bowl contenders
Pittsburgh’s last three playoff results are as follows: 2014, lost to Baltimore in the Wildcard round; 2015, lost to Denver in the Divisional Round; 2016, lost to New England in the AFC Championship game. Thus, the next logical step would be...losing the Super Bowl, I guess.
A similar setup occurred with the Indianapolis Colts a few years ago. Andrew Luck dragged a 2-14 roster to three consecutive 11-5 records, the final of which culminated in a loss to the Patriots in the now-infamous “DeflateGate” AFC Championship game. After dropping that game, the Colts finished 8-8 the next season and missed the postseason. Sad!
Pittsburgh’s roster is infinitely better than Indianapolis’ was post-DeflateGate, however, and everyone and their mother is picking the Steelers to be New England’s lone challenger in the AFC. To maintain their status as a leading AFC contender, the Steelers must first address several glaring holes in their defense, particularly at outside linebacker and cornerback. If the Steelers don’t draft one of the aforementioned positions on Day One, take out a second mortgage and bet on them to do so in round two.
The Steelers probably aren’t going to draft a quarterback...
...unless they trade up, which seems entirely possible. Predicting how exactly the draft will shake out is an impossible task, but it can be reasonably assumed that three quarterbacks—Mitchell Trubisky, DeShaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes—are probably going to all be picked in the top 26-27-ish. Pittsburgh has expressed interest in the latter, but there is virtually no chance Houston (or Kansas City, potentially) allows Mahomes to escape their grasp. If Mahomes truly is Pittsburgh’s target, they are going to have to trade up, possibly as high as No. 24, which is the pick that Oakland currently holds. This is surprisingly achievable for Pittsburgh, as moving up would likely cost them the No. 30 pick and maybe like a third and a fifth, or something. The Raiders surrendered a fifth-round selection to acquire Marshawn Lynch (yay!), so they could be interested in recouping some capital.
Also, Colbert said that we can expect more “trade-up and trade down possibilities; not so much with us, but around the league,” which means we can absolutely expect those possibilities to occur with Pittsburgh.
This will probably be the most balanced draft we’ve seen in a long time
Two of the poorest defensive performances in franchise history in 2014 and 2015 forced the Steelers to target almost exclusively defenders in the 2015 and 2016 drafts. In fact, 11 of their 15 picks in 2015 and 2016 were used to address holes in the defense. Trades notwithstanding, the Steelers hold eight picks in the 2017 Draft. Expect the results of this draft to be more balanced than they were in previous years.