The 2019 NFL Draft continues to draw closer, now in the single digits for days counting down to draft day.
The Pittsburgh Steelers currently hold ten selections in the draft, a first for Pittsburgh since the 2010 NFL Draft, which included Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Draft day trades are somewhat unusual for GM Kevin Colbert, yet we’ve seen him pull the trigger more than once. One year ago, the Steelers moved up in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft to select quarterback Mason Rudolph. The pick (#79 overall) used to wheel and deal with the Seattle Seahawks? Acquired from the Oakland Raiders in a trade that sent Martavis Bryant packing to wear silver and black.
The Steelers currently hold the 20th overall pick in the first round. Colbert has two notable first round moves to climb up the board and select a player, as the Steelers moved up to get Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL Draft and Santonio Holmes in the 2006 NFL Draft.
First Round Consistency
Since 2010, the Steelers have spent eight of nine first round picks on the defensive side of the ball (the lone exception being David DeCastro in 2012). The trend is expected to continue in 2019. Pittsburgh still has needs at both the inside linebacker/cornerback positions. One prospect that has been linked with Pittsburgh is Michigan’s Devin Bush, a speedy. three down inside linebacker who would perfectly fill a need for the Steelers at number 20. The problem? He may not even be there, as Bush’s draft stock has soared in the last few months thanks to impressive combine+pro day performances.
Would the Steelers move up to take Bush?
“Trading up or trading back, that is always going to be a possibility. We won’t know that until probably draft day, but you always have those different scenarios” said Colbert to Steelers.com. “Understanding when you have 10 you have more ammunition to either take 10 players or use ammunition to trade up.”
Judging by Colbert’s comments on having the ammunition to move up, and earlier comments about failing to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier, it’s not out of the question if Colbert decides pick up the phone to make a move.
Should Bush be out of sight, two popular choices for the Steelers reside in cornerbacks Washington’s Byron Murphy and LSU’s Greedy Williams. The status for either defender remains unknown, yet it’s believed to be a good possibility that either of the two are on the board when Pittsburgh is on the clock. The addition of a new cornerback would be a welcome sight for Steelers fans, as first round pick Artie Burns has regressed since his impressive rookie year.
If nobody is there for the Steelers liking? Trading down is another option for Colbert, as he did in 2001 with Casey Hampton. The Steelers free agency spending (Steve Nelson, Mark Barron) has afforded Colbert of avoiding a panic scenario similar to the events that unfolded in the 2016 NFL Draft, where Pittsburgh’s highly-coveted pick William Jackson III was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals right before the Steelers went on the clock. Colbert has been under fire for the performances of recent first round selections, as T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier are the outliers of solid contributors among the likes of Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Artie Burns (The jury is still out on Terrell Edmunds, as his first season was just completed).
The NFL Draft is one of the more entertaining events of the season due to its chaos and uncertainty with each pick, yet it’s a fairly safe bet the Steelers will be looking to upgrade the defensive side of the ball in the first round.
Day Two: Hit or Miss
Day two (2nd and 3rd rounds) currently holds three picks for the Steelers, one second round selection (52nd overall) and two third round picks (66th, 83rd overall). If the Steelers choose to keep both third round selections, 2019 will mark the third consecutive year Pittsburgh held multiple picks in the third round. Of the 20 picks selected in the second+third round since 2010, 12 have been on the offensive side of the ball. Those selections include the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Marcus Gilbert and Emmanuel Sanders. On the defensive side of the ball, players such as Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt have seen their name called on the second day of the draft.
The Steelers have a few options available to them, all of which are dependent on what happens in the first round. Michigan’s Chase Winovich has seen his name linked with the Steelers in the second round if Pittsburgh addresses one of their top needs. Winovich is arguably the most underrated pass rusher in this class, yet his lack of coverage skills may be enough to scare away the Steelers if they plan on finding a potential replacement for OLB Bud Dupree.
As for the cornerback position, Pittsburgh has struggled to see production from any of their day two picks (Cameron Sutton, Senquez Golson, Sean Davis). If the Steelers are unable to grab either Murphy or Williams, options such as DeAndre Baker (Georgia), Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) and Trayvon Mullen (Clemson) are potential second round picks for the Steelers to grab.
Another avenue the Steelers could explore is adding depth to their receiving corps with the departure of Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster and newly signed free agent Donte Moncrief will top the Steelers depth chart, yet the team could potentially look to add another receiver to the long line of receivers drafted and developed outside of the first round. Names such as South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler are popular names expected to go at some point in the second round. The Steelers have drafted a receiver in either the second or third round the last 5/6 years (We’re counting Dri Archer as a WR coming out of school).
For as much praise as Colbert seems to receive for hitting on mid-round picks, he’s also seen his fair share of flops. Picks such as Senquez Golson, Dri Archer and Mike Adams immediately come to mind. Granted not every player will turn out to be a Pro-Bowl player, the Steelers have indeed seen missteps after the first round. With the last four selections on day two have been on the offensive side of the ball, will Pittsburgh go defensive heavy? With needs in multiple places, it’s a possible scenario.
Late Round Finds
The majority of Pittsburgh’s ten selections rest within rounds 4-7 with the Steelers currently touting six selections towards the later parts of the draft. Trades during this time period tend to fly more frequently, and this can be displayed upon discovering 4 of the 6 selections are from various trades Pittsburgh have completed over the past couple years. Obviously a team would love to find the next Tom Brady or Antonio Brown in the later parts of the draft, but a good chunk of this time is spent finding depth when needed and acquiring draft capital for the future. In some instances, players selected in this range may not even last long as a member of their original team.
In example, since the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted 16 players in the fourth round or later. Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, half of those players (8) are not on the Steelers roster.
It’s the nature of the business. With the average NFL career lasting only three seasons, players will undoubtedly find themselves not meeting the mark to make a NFL roster.
While the Steelers haven’t found the next big thing in those draft slots, Colbert has still been able to successfully add solid contributors. Linebackers Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo have carved roles out for themselves through special teams play, tight end Jesse James proved to be a valuable addition, and the likes of Josh Dobbs, Marcus Allen and Jaylen Samuels are all young players expected to contribute at some point in the future.
In some scenarios, teams will address the often-forgotten special teams aspect of the game by drafting kickers, punters and long-snappers. Since 2010, the Steelers have not drafted a kicker or punter, and have one long snapper (Colin Holba, who was cut before playing a game in Pittsburgh) to their name.
The Steelers, at some point in the draft, are expected to add to the depth of the running back position to go along with James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers hosted a handful of running backs during their pre-draft visits: Jordan Scarlett (Florida), Mike Weber (Ohio State), Travis Homer (Miami FL), Miles Sanders (Penn State) and Damien Harris (Alabama) all have visited the Steelers facility and met with the team.
Other names of interest to the Steelers in the later rounds of the draft: LB Germaine Pratt (NC State), WR David Sills V and LB David Long Jr. (West Virginia), TE Foster Moreau (LSU).
2019’s Draft Class Will Need to Impress
I’ve written about the importance of this year’s draft class, and I will continue to echo that sentiment. 2019 is one of the most important drafts in recent memory for the Steelers for a variety of reasons. With Mike Tomlin and friends failing to reach a Super Bowl in nearly a decade, Roethlisberger’s days beginning to dwindle and the departure of two superstars, Pittsburgh will need to reload rather than rebuild. A strong 2019 draft class will not only assist in helping Pittsburgh reach their goals of a championship in Roethlisberger’s window of time left to play, but would also set the Steelers up to maintain future success when viewing the core of young play-makers on the roster.
Luckily for Pittsburgh, a team that will certainly be looking to beef up the defensive side of the ball, the 2019 draft features a wide array of defensive talent. Will Colbert follow the trends outlined in the paragraphs above? Only time will be able to tell, yet one thing is for certain: The draft can make or break the direction of a franchise.