The Steelers have more needs than usual as they enter the 2021 NFL Draft, with two starters retiring, and free agency and cap casualties claiming another half dozen full-time members of the Black and Gold squad from 2020. Some of those needs are more pressing than others, and as the draft approaches, it’s become clear in which areas the Steelers need the most help.
In the first part of this three-part series, we’re taking a look at the places on the team where the player that’s currently at the top of the depth chart needs an upgrade, and a rookie could possibly provide it. Unlike most years, the Steelers have a bunch of them.
The salary cap-related loss of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton’s departure through free agency has the Steelers looking to the future without their No. 1 and No. 4 cornerbacks from last season in terms of snap count.
Returning Dime corner Cam Sutton has the versatility to play inside or outside, but with three corners playing a starting role, the team will need another. Second-year former UDFA James Pierre would probably fill that spot as the team’s starting Nickel if they had to play right now, and with just 28 career snaps to his name, that’s not a good sign.
With Sutton’s versatility, the Steelers could look for an outside corner to keep Sutton as the Nickel or keep him outside and find a slot corner. Either way, this is a position where an upgrade is needed, as well as likely multiple bodies (more on that later).
Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement left big shoes to fill in the middle of the Steelers’ offensive line and with due respect to J.C. Hassenauer and B.J. Finney, there’s probably good reason the pair of former undrafted free agents has a combined 10 starts since 2018. This is a position where a big upgrade is possible in the draft.
The team went out and got Finney to provide experience and depth, and he can also be a quality backup at guard if they bring in a rookie to start ahead of him, so it’s not an imminent disaster if the Steelers don’t get an upgrade, but this should be a spot where they can target a better player than what’s currently on the roster, even into the second and third rounds.
Last year’s starter James Conner remains a free agent, and the Steelers have done little to replace him, with only former Miami draft pick Kalen Ballage joining the club.
Backups Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr. and Jaylen Samuels remain, so the Steelers could attempt to replace Conner by committee. Those players have shown varying levels of promise as Conner’s backups and injury replacements.
But there is the ability for the Steelers to get a true No. 1 back toward the top of this draft. To use a Mike Tomlin phrase, they don’t have a “bell cow” among their current backs, and with president Art Rooney II pledging to fix the running game this offseason, they could target one early in the draft this year.
Vince Williams was another salary cap casualty for the Steelers, and though he leaves a hole in their starting lineup, it’s one that’s a bit more realistically filled by the players they have on the roster.
Robert Spillane filled in well for Devin Bush when he was injured last season, and tasked with the less athletically demanding of the Steelers’ two inside linebacker spots, he should be able to provide a solid baseline of play.
Ulysess Gilbert III is a prospect the Steelers like that has been beset by injuries the last two seasons, and converted safety Marcus Allen provides quality depth, so the cupboard is not totally bare.
But with the amount of pressure modern offenses put on covering backs, tight ends and slot receivers in space, the Steelers could still use an upgrade at this spot and could still get one early.
Zach Banner was supposed to be the starting right tackle in 2020, and he’s back for 2021 after re-signing with the team following his ACL injury. Chukwuma Okorafor replaced Banner, and he was graded by Pro Football Focus as the No. 70 tackle in the league.
Starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva remains a free agent. It’s possible that either Banner or Okorafor could slide to the left side to start in 2021, but it’s also possible that the Steelers use a high pick to address the current and future needs at the position.
There are probably other positions where the team could upgrade their current starter with the No. 24 overall pick, but those do not rise to the same level as the ones listed above.