The Steelers have a ton of immediate needs for the 2021 season that they will hope to address with their selections in the 2021 NFL Draft later this month.
But there’s another category of need that the Steelers and all other NFL teams have, and it’s one the Steelers have typically been better than most at addressing: future starting needs. Every team hopes to slot their first-round pick into a current hole in their lineup. In the first part of this three-part series, we took 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.
But the ability to see where future holes will open and use lower-round picks on prospects that can develop with time into starters at those positions is much more difficult.
In 2020, the Steelers performed a master class at the concept, drafting players in the second round (wide receiver Chase Claypool), third round (outside linebacker Alex Highsmith) and fourth round (guard Kevin Dotson) that have already worked their way into part-time starting roles as rookies and are slated to inherit bigger ones in 2021 and 2022, with Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler moving on in free agency ahead of Highsmith and Dotson and JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington entering the final seasons of their contracts at wide receiver.
While the Steelers have a number of immediate needs, they also have future needs like they did last year, and particularly with the team’s second and third day picks, they can target players to fit into a starting lineup in 2022 or beyond.
Picking up right where we left off, the Steelers could possibly look to upgrade either Zach Banner of Chukwuma Okorafor, the current projected starters at tackle, in this year’s draft. But even if they do not, tackle is a position of future need.
Okorafor is entering the final year of his contract and Banner re-signed a two-year deal that would be easy for the Steelers to walk away from following the 2021 season if he underperforms.
That means the Steelers could end up needing two tackles over the next few years, and their developmental prospects at the position have essentially dried up. They’ve brought in Joe Haeg as a stop-gap backup, but at 28, he’s not likely to develop into much more than that.
So whether or not the Steelers get a high-round tackle to push one of Banner or Okorafor out of the starting lineup, a development future starter could be the type of player they’re looking for on days two and three.
Eric Ebron will inherit a full-time starter’s role after the retirement of Vance McDonald, but Ebron is entering the final season of his contract and wasn’t exactly flawless himself in 2020.
Ebron continued his career-long propensity for drops and while apparently willing, did not show much of an aptitude for blocking, something the Steelers have traditionally relied on from their tight ends a good bit.
Backups Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader do not project as future starters and don’t even currently project to be good current backups (more on that later), so an injection of talent at the position is needed.
David DeCastro is entering the final season of his contract, and struggled in 2020, to put it mildly. Despite a Pro Bowl nod, DeCastro was rated as the No. 28 overall guard by PFF in 2020, tied with rookie Dotson.
Even if DeCastro returns to that true Pro Bowl form in 2021, it’s unclear if the Steelers will be interested in signing a then-32-year-old to a contact extension after this season.
Other than Dotson, who appears set to inherit the left guard spot from departed free agent Matt Feiler, the Steelers do not have much in the way of young developmental talent at guard, with Finney, Haeg and Rashaad Coward expected to be steady veteran backups.
If DeCastro moves on after 2021, the future starter at the position is not on the team, and could certainly be found later in this year’s draft, as the Steelers mined Dotson out of the fourth round last spring.
The Steelers have immediate needs at cornerback thanks to the losses of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, but they have a future need at the position, as well. Starter Joe Haden’s contract will void at the end of the 2021 season, meaning he is set to hit free agency for the second time in his career.
So whether or not the Steelers find replacements for Nelson and Hilton, or if they end up using Sutton inside or outside, they will have a future need at outside cornerback, as well. The lone developmental prospect on the roster at the position, Justin Layne, was passed by James Pierre for playing time last season — not a good sign the team sees him a future starter.
Ben Roethlisberger’s contract will void after the 2021 season, making him a free agent, and while the Steelers’ franchise quarterback hasn’t made his plans for beyond 2021 official, it seems more likely than not that this will be his final season in black and gold.
Behind Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph has been the heir apparent for the last few years, but did not take advantage of the opportunity provided to him by Roethlisberger’s injury in 2019. Rudolph looked better in limited action in 2020, but is also entering the final season of his contract.
If the Steelers don’t extend Rudolph, it could be quickly down to reclamation project and former Washington first-rounder Dwayne Haskins, who is also on a one-year deal, but will be a restricted free agent for 2022.
It seems hard to envision the Steelers drafting a quarterback highly, given the number and pressing nature of their other needs, and they don’t need a backup for this season, but they definitely have a future need at the spot.