CROW WORTHY

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A Look Ahead: The Steelers’ 2021 Draft

The Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2020 NFL season by winning their first 11 games. Since then, they have unleashed hell on the losing column in December. Losers of 3 straight, injuries, and poor play all around by the offense has made 11-3 feel like 3-11. Having already clinched a playoff spot, the team continues to search for answers. Some of those answers might not come until the 2021 draft, unfortunately.

They’ve failed to score 20 points in four straight games. While Ben Roethlisberger isn’t THE reason, he is A reason. We have gone from wondering if another extension should be on the horizon to lower next year’s cap hit to wondering if it’s time for Roethlisberger to hang them up. With several key free agents, there are going to be some departures. The Steelers will have to utilize the draft to fill several holes, but it’s unlikely they can address every area. With QB climbing near the top of needs, how should they approach this draft? The team has all eyes on 2020, but I have one eye looking towards 2021. Let’s take a look at this thing position by position.

Quarterback

There are few people who are bigger fans of Ben Roethlisberger than I am. He has been the Steelers QB for pretty much my entire football watching life. Coming off a major elbow injury, he looked to be guiding the Steelers back into Super Bowl contention. He has made a living off carrying bad coordinators, bad offensive lines or bad defenses throughout his career. The confidence in the 38 year old’s ability has shifted dramatically, though.

Father time is undefeated and whether we want to admit it or not, he’s knocking on the locker of #7. He recently said he would hang them up if he felt like he didn’t have it anymore. Will he hold true to that should things not turn around for him? Only time will tell, but he and the organization may have a tough call to make when the offseason rolls around. Regardless, what is the future of the QB position for the Steelers? Some think the jury is still out on what Mason Rudolph could do in a new offensive system. Some argue they should address QB in free agency or a trade (I love Matthew Stafford). The “Steelers Way” suggests they will address the position in the 2021 draft. Will it be in 2021? It certainly is more likely than it was just a couple of weeks ago.

Running Back

James Conner is relatively productive when on the field. Unfortunately for he and the Steelers, he isn’t on the field a good portion of the time. The often injured hometown hero is set to hit free agency after this season and a new deal seems unlikely. In his absence over the last two seasons, we have seen a good bit of second year back Benny Snell. The more volume he has been given, the more productive he has been. I don’t think anyone could say one way or the other that he is the definitive answer at running back, but he certainly could be part of a committee.

The Steelers also spent a 4th round pick in 2020 on running back Anthony McFarland. This season has just been about getting his feet wet. We’ve seen some flashes, but it looks like his feet are going faster than he is processing. I firmly believe he can contribute to a backfield, but I have my doubts on him ever being a lead back. Jaylen Samuels may or may not be on the roster next season, but he provides marginal value to the roster. They could certainly use a draft pick to add somebody else to the room.

The debate comes with how high or low of a pick to address the position. Some will argue to take a back in round 1 should Travis Etienne or Najee Harris be available. Others will argue there are far greater needs and the position should take a back seat. Having added a back in the mid rounds in four straight drafts, does it make sense to do it again? Could what they have be fine should they shore up the offensive line?

Offensive Line

Hey! Speaking of the offensive line, let’s talk about it! Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler are slated to be free agents at season’s end. Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro each have one year remaining on their contracts. Zach Banner who tore his ACL in the opener, would need a new deal to return to Pittsburgh. Not only have they been injured, they just haven’t been good.

They have been a bottom 10 unit in run and pass blocking this season. Kevin Dotson (a 4th round pick last year) offers a nice building block for the line. The jury is still out on how good Chuks Okorafor is but he will likely hold down a tackle spot next season. Upgrades are certainly needed for now and the future. As we sit here today, offensive line is where I would like the Steelers to go with their first round pick. The 2021 draft is a solid tackle class and some good ones will probably still be there late in round 1.

Wide Receiver

The Steelers wide receiver room is filled with guys who were taken on day two of their respective drafts. It’s one of the deeper wide receiver groups in the league, with plenty of players who could keep getting better. Here’s the thing, though; the “veteran” of the group, 24 year old JuJu Smith-Schuster, is set to hit free agency after this season. James Washington will follow suit after next season.

Should JuJu depart, wide receiver immediately becomes a position they need to target at some point. It wouldn’t be their biggest need, but in today’s NFL you have to be four deep at wide receiver. It would certainly be a need. It’s more so about replacing the skillset that was lost. Due to their success in drafting and developing the position, it’s likely they would address this in the middle rounds of the 2021 draft.

Tight End

Vance McDonald ranks at the top of potential cap casualties on the Steelers roster. He is due way more money than his usage warrants. The Eric Ebron experience has been a roller coaster, but I would expect him to return next season for the final year of his deal. They have Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader as depth behind Ebron, but not much more than that. It’s hard to imagine either of those guys contributing consistently.

The tight end position has been one the team hasn’t addressed in terms of a long term solution. Multiple free agent moves and trades have given the Steelers a short term plan, but not a long term one. There are some intriguing options in this 2021 draft class, but it once again boils down to how great of a need is this? I’m kind of sick of seeing what the mid round selection tight ends of the Steelers turn out to be, so I’d prefer they address it early or not at all. Could you imagine Kyle Pitts in Pittsburgh, though? The shirts would sell themselves.

Defensive Line

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are as good as it gets along the defensive front. The only question along the front is in the middle. 33 year old Tyson Alualu has exceeded expectations playing a role unfamiliar to him. He’s also a free agent at season’s end. With how little the team uses a traditional defensive tackle, it’s unlikely the Steelers will use a high pick on the position. I think it’s far more likely they roll with Isaiah Buggs and/or rookie Carlos Davis in that role, should Tyson Alualu depart.

Outside Linebacker

This one is interesting. T.J. Watt is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate on one side, so the only question is opposite of him. Bud Dupree was having a second consecutive monster season before an ACL tear put an end to his 2020 campaign. Rookie Alex Highsmith has stepped in and filled in admirably. Common sense says Highsmith will just take over that starting spot, should Dupree get paid by another team. In the perfect world that’s great, but some questions will need to be answered with his play.

He’s flashed the ability to play at this level, but it’s about consistency. I have all the faith in the world that once he gets a full, normal off-season under his belt he will turn into a high impact player. They still may need to address the position due to a lack of depth at the position. Behind Watt and Highsmith you have Ola Adeniyi who is an RFA after this season, Jayrone Elliott who is a UFA and Cassius Marsh who is also a UFA. The names aren’t intriguing and they aren’t guaranteed to be here anyways. Highsmith will be the starter but they need depth, whether it be through the 2021 draft or free agency, should Dupree walk.

Middle Linebacker

Devin Bush had his 2020 season cut short by an ACL injury, but is the foundation of the middle of this defense and will return in 2021. Vince Williams is also under contract and, barring a cut, will be back next season. They also have Ulysees Gilbert back but Maruc Allen and Robert Spillane (who has filled in nicely following Bush’s injury) are both exclusive rights free agents. With Spillane’s play this season, it will be very interesting to see how the team approaches this situation. It’s not a position I would expect the team to target in the 2021 draft. I think you will see them roll with what they currently have on the roster.

Cornerback

Cornerback could end up a sneaky need for the team. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are one of the better boundary corner duos in the league. However, both will be in the last year of their deals next season. Cam Sutton has emerged as a major impact player for this defense, but will hit free agency following this season. The same is true for Mike Hilton who is one of the best slot corners in the NFL and a perfect scheme fit for defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

The team has hopes that Justin Layne will continue to progress and James Pierre is here too, but it’s fair to question if the team will target cornerback at some point. Their top four corners are all slated to hit free agency between now and next offseason. It’s not likely that all four won’t be Steelers by the time 2022 rolls around, but it’s also not likely all four are still Steelers either. I think this is a position they spend a pick on, but more than likely in the middle rounds on a high upside project, as opposed to an early pick on a hopeful day one starter.

Safety

Having Minkah Fitzpatrick is a good start. Opposite of him, Terrell Edmunds is having a bit of a breakout season. Labeled a bust following his first two seasons, he’s having what has easily been his best season in year 3. The team will have to make a decision on a 5th year option as it pertains to 2022, but for 2021 he will be the starting strong safety. Will they add somebody to back up those two is the question. I’d also like to point how often teams around the league use three safeties nowadays before I give my opinion on this.

Behind Fitzpatrick and Edmunds you have special teams ace Jordan Dangerfield, hybrid Antoine Brooks Jr., and Sean Davis who is a free agent at season’s end. Should either of the former go down, would we trust any of the latter to step into a prominent role? I think the team would be wise to add a safety at some point during the middle to later rounds for depth purposes.

A Pivotal Draft

The Steelers currently have seven selections in the 2021 draft and could also be awarded compensatory pick(s) before draft day arrives. They have the ammo to address plenty of the areas of need. How they prioritize them remains to be seen, but as we get closer to the draft it seems like there are more and more questions about the future of the franchise. Interesting decisions await one of the league’s most prestigious franchises.