Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin recently told Washington Football Team edge rusher Chase Young that he hopes he never has a record bad enough to get a guy like that. Young was the second overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Fortunately for Mike, pick number 30 in the 2017 draft landed him a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in T.J. Watt. It also landed the Steelers several other key contributors. With that in mind, let’s take a look back on a class that has given them a combined four Pro Bowl selections, as the Steelers 2017 draft class is on the cusp of reaching free agency.
Let’s just get this part out of the way. Not every draft class is going to have contributors from top to bottom. Some guys just don’t pan out and will be out of the organization within a short period of time. 5th round pick Brian Allen did contribute on special teams in both 2018 and 2019, but didn’t log a single snap on defense and is no longer with the organization.
Playing any type of meaningful snaps for the team is more than can be said about 6th round pick Colin Holba or 7th round pick Keion Adams. Holba lost the long snapper position battle to Kam Canaday, who has held the position since. 6th round picks are a dart throw, but I would never throw that dart on a long snapper. Keion Adams showed a lot of promise in training camp and preseason action, but never played a single snap in the regular season…and still hasn’t. Needless to say, the back end of this draft offered no diamonds in the rough. The first 3 rounds of the Steelers 2017 draft class however, proved to be very fruitful.
Should we just do this as a countdown type of thing? I think we should. In round 4 the Steelers selected a quarterback by the name of Josh Dobbs out of Tennessee. Dobbs best attribute is his brain. He’s smart, like really smart. He finished his college career with a 4.0 and a major in aerospace engineering. Back to the football side of things, though.
With Landry Jones being the backup to Ben Roethlisberger at the time, fans were pretty excited about the idea of drafting a guy to replace Jones behind Roethlisberger. That wasn’t the case. Dobbs was #3 in line. The team traded Dobbs to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 5th round pick in 2019, only for him to circle back to the organization after being waived by Jacksonville. He isn’t active on gamedays, but the others in the QB room will tell you Dobbs is an asset to it. Even though he himself may not have the capabilities to make certain plays, he can read defenses to the point where Roethlisberger has credited him multiple times this year for giving him a tip on what the opposition is doing and where the ball should go.
Would I feel comfortable with him having to step into a game? Probably not. Do I like having a guy like that in the organization? Absolutely. George Kittle was still available though, and we needed a tight end! *Sad Face*
The team made two selections in round 3. Cornerback Cameron Sutton out of Tennessee and hometown hero James Conner, a running back out of Pittsburgh. Sutton really hadn’t been a contributor to this team the way you might’ve hoped for a top 100 pick up until last year. However, his career has taken off since the beginning of last season.
Now playing regular snaps, Sutton is proving to be one of the more versatile defensive backs in this league. He’s one of the best cover guys not only on the team, but, in my opinion, in this league. That may be a bold statement, but watching him flourish regardless of the role he’s put in has me willing to die on that hill. The team will need to give the upcoming free agent a sizable new deal to keep him in Pittsburgh. I hope Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin read this article.
An Erie native and Pitt graduate, this James Conner pick was considered to be a “sentimental” one. Why take a running back in round 3 if you already have Le’Veon Bell? We found out why one year later.
Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers couldn’t get on the same page in terms of a new deal. Bell decided to hold out due to this. It was a hold out that lasted the entire 2018 season and effectively ended his Steelers tenure. All of a sudden, on very short notice, the door was opened for James Conner to be the new back in town. The story was already there for him to resonate well with the fans. A local guy, a cancer survivor. He was an easy guy to root for, but he was still going to have to produce. He did.
Conner totaled 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, despite missing three games. He made the Pro Bowl and made a lot of fans forget about Le’Veon Bell…for one season. That missed games thing I talked about has hampered him over the last two years. His yardage total over 2019 and thus far in 2020 is just over that single season total in 2018. He just hasn’t been the same guy, and that can be attributed in part to the Steelers offense just not looking like the same offense as well. The play of the offensive line has regressed along with Conner’s. Are the issues fixable? Maybe. Conner is a free agent after this season and his chances of getting paid in Pittsburgh, much like the chances of Le’Veon getting the guarantees he wanted, are slim to none. Friends don’t let friends pay running backs.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected WR JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC with the 62nd selection in round 2. What a sweet name! I was on board immediately. Then he chose a number in the teens. This was a slam dunk pick from the beginning. There was a lot of disagreement on draft night between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates on who JuJu was here to replace. Well the answer was everyone, even Steelers great Antonio Brown (for different reasons).
JuJu slowly but surely carved out a role for himself in his rookie year. Martavis was right to a degree, as Coates was traded to Cleveland shortly before the 2017 season began. Unfortunately for Martavis, after watching JuJu total close to 1,000 yards and 8 TDS, the Steelers decided to ship him out of town during the 2018 NFL Draft.
JuJu would be one of the league’s break out stars in his second season. He recorded 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and 7 TDs. He earned a Pro Bowl selection and was named the Steelers team MVP. Earning team MVP also helped him earn the title of WR1 in Pittsburgh. A broken relationship between the team and star WR Antonio Brown resulted in the Steelers and Raiders linking up for another trade. This left a 22 year old JuJu as the WR1. This didn’t go so well.
The numbers dropped off in 2019 without his QB and injuries to himself as well as others up and down the offense. He had just 42 receptions for 552 yards and 3 TDs. He has bounced back nicely thus far in 2020 in hopes of earning a new contract in the Steel City. His numbers this season already surpass his entire 2019 output and having Ben Roethlisberger out there has unsurprisingly paid dividends. The team would be wise to pay their most dependable wide receiver. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Hines Ward since he retired.
I already mentioned the tremendous value the Steelers got in selecting T.J. Watt at pick number 30, but let’s talk about it some more. Watt was a converted tight end from Wisconsin who had just recently made the transition to the defense. The idea of that seems pretty wild to think about, looking at it now. The selection was met with a lot of criticism, as fans thought the selection was made just based off name and not performance.
An Alabama linebacker by the name of Reuben Foster had slipped down the board, leaving many fans wanting him in black & gold. The organization insisted selecting T.J. had nothing to do with him being the younger brother of future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt.
He pretty quickly put to rest the notion that he was here just because of his name. Watt was named a starter to begin his rookie season and in that game recorded seven tackles, two sacks and an interception. He hasn’t slowed down, making the Pro Bowl each year since. Watt was also a first-team All Pro and finalist for Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. He’s simply turned into one of the best players in football and is a good bet to earn all those accolades again in 2020.
The edge rusher has accumulated 107 QB hits, 46.5 sacks, 55 tackles for loss, 16 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and four interceptions. This guy is going to be handed a blank check whenever it does come time to pay him, and it’s safe to say he will be in black and gold for a long time. While you might need to have a top two pick to select a player like Chase Young, pick number 30 just might turn out to be T.J. Watt.
The Steelers 2017 Draft Class: A Job Well Done
To wrap up, the Steelers 2017 class is one of my favorites in recent memory. Getting a star player such as Watt will do that, but the day two additions are what really solidify it. With free agency looming for most of them, the rest of this season will prove vital for their futures. Will they remain in Pittsburgh? The personal accolades they’ve accumulated are nice, but now it’s time for them to help us add some different hardware.