Connect with us

2024 NFL Draft

Saunders: Five Steelers Thoughts after 2024 NFL Draft

What all did we learn about the Pittsburgh Steelers after three days of the 2024 NFL Draft beyond the names of the picks?



Pittsburgh Steelers OT Troy Fautanu
Pittsburgh Steelers 2024 NFL Draft first-round pick Troy Fautanu on April 26, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The 2024 NFL Draft is done, and while the stories of the players selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers are still being written as they move forward in their NFL careers, we can still glean plenty from what lays ahead based on what we learned this weekend.

Here’s five things I think about the Steelers 2024 NFL Draft Class:

Get Ready for Rookie Steelers Starters

At center, the Steelers don’t have much of a choice. At wide receiver, they have a bit of one. They do have a decision to make at tackle.

But I think, at the end of the day, that all three of the team’s top draft picks will be in the starting lineup when the first game of the regular season rolls around this September.

There are some commonalities between all three that make me think that. The first is age. Roman Wilson will be 23 before training camp. Zach Frazier turns 23 in August. Troy Fautanu will be 24 in October. Broderick Jones, last year’s first round pick, is a month younger than Wilson and younger than every member of the Steelers’ 2024 NFL Draft class.

So while many were up in arms about the Steelers not starting Jones from the get-go a year, ago, remember that these are a much older, much more experienced group. They’re also battle-tested in big games. 

Wilson played in three Big Ten Championship Games, an Orange Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl, a Rose Bowl and won a College Football Playoff National Championship. Fautanu was the loser in that game, after having previously played in a Sugar Bowl and a Pac-12 Championship Game. 

And having spoken to all three men, they the kind of bright, mature individuals that ought to be able to pick up the playbook quickly and will take their transition from college to the pros seriously.

Troy Fautanu Should Play the Right Side, Right Away

Fautanu played left tackle at Washington. Jones played left tackle at Georgia. One of them is going to play right tackle for the Steelers. It should be Fautanu. Here’s why.

Fautanu played left tackle for a left-handed quarterback at Washington. He’s used to being on the quarterback’s front side. He’s also a little bit shorter and has slightly shorter arms, so he’s therefore a little bit easier for a quarterback see over (perhaps of elevated importance with the short-of-stature Russell Wilson as a passer) and will have a slightly harder time with the best of the best edge rushers, most of which play on the offense’s left.

He’s also very pro ready, so putting him into a place without competition should be an issue. In fact, even with Jones’ one year in the NFL under his belt, I think you could make a pretty good argument that Fautanu is still the more NFL ready of the two right now.

Jones will be more comfortable on the left side, and since he has a very high ceiling, letting him work there ought to help him reach it. Starting him there eliminates him bouncing from side to side throughout the season.

I say this even acknowledging that there’s a chance that Dan Moore might beat Jones out of training camp. That’s still the way they should line up.

Expect Arthur Smith to Find Some New Tricks

We got our first chance to talk to new Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith over the weekend, and my big takeaway from talking to him is to expect this offense to be more than just a carbon copy of what he did in Atlanta and Tennessee.

I expect the Steelers to keep some of the power and gap-style runs they used with success last season, particularly when it comes to getting Najee Harris going. One of the biggest improvements after Matt Canada’s firing was the team finally seeming to figure out which runs worked better for Harris and which worked better for Jaylen Warren. I think that is one of the reasons that Mike Sullivan, Eddie Faulkner and Pat Meyer were all retained.

RELATED: New Steelers Arthur Smith, Russell Wilson, Justin Fields All Have ‘Something to Prove’

Not Just Win Now

While it is an older draft class, and the Steelers did get three players at the top that are ready to play right away, they didn’t give away high-end upside or positional value to get win-now players. The Steelers could likely have gotten through the 2024 season without drafting a linebacker or a guard. Instead, they saw great value in Payton Wilson and Mason McCormick, even if those players don’t have a likely path to a starting role any time soon.

So while the team has pledged urgency in winning this season, and would very much like to erase its current playoff losing streak, they did not make only win-now moves in the draft. Where those goals aligned, like with Fautanu, Frazier and Roman Wilson, they did. But that’s not all they did, and I think that’s a credit to the front office’s ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. They want to win right now, but they want to put together a sustained winner, not a Los Angeles Rams-style moonshot that comes crashing back to Earth.

Steelers Still at Least One More Good Draft Away

The Steelers left the 2024 NFL Draft with two obvious needs to play this season, at outside wide receiver and slot cornerback. Those slots will likely be filled this offseason, but unless the team pulls off a trade for Brandon Aiyuk, the slot-filling will likely be more of the short term variety, someone on a one- or two-year contract. The same goes for slot cornerback.

Meanwhile, with respect to sixth-round pick Logan Lee, the Steelers did not come away with someone that looks to be a long-term option at defensive tackle. Cam Heyward will be 35 and is entering the final season of his contract. Larry Ogunjobi was only barely worth his salary in 2023. Keeanu Benton looks to be one piece of the future defensive line, but he might be the only one. Former third-round pick DeMarvin Leal was a healthy scratch down the stretch last season. If the Steelers do nothing else at defensive tackle this offseason, it will be rocketing to the top of their draft board in 2025.

Another hole likely to open up after the 2024 season it as outside cornerback, where Donte Jackson is only signed through this year. Unlike Heyward, who could still sign an extension, the Steelers already re-worked Jackson’s contract once and didn’t add any years, so that seems unlikely to be the plan. There is a chance that Cory Trice and/or Darius Rush develop enough to fill this hole organically, but will still be a future position to watch.

So right now, if you were to circle the Steelers’ 2025 draft needs, it’d be a starting defensive lineman, a starting outside cornerback, a starting outside wide receiver and a slot cornerback. They got three likely year-one starters in this year’s draft class, so I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but they’re already set up to need a third straight good draft in 2025. This team is at least a year away from really looking championship-caliber on paper.

And that’s assuming that one of the team’s veteran quarterback options pans out in 2024 and can be retained going forward.