Evaluating the 2017 Steelers Draft

By: Zach Herbaugh


With the rookie contracts for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 draft picks set to expire at the end of the 2020-2021 season, let’s take a look back at one of Steelers GM’s, Kevin Colbert‘s best drafts during his tenure in Pittsburgh. The Steelers finished the 2016 season losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the AFC Title Game. The Steelers faced many question marks leading into the 2017 off-season including who was going to fill the hole left by James Harrison, who was going to be Le’Veon Bell’s primary backup, and what were the Steelers going to do with their secondary. With all that being said, let’s take a look back at the 2017 draft!


1st Round, Pick 30: T.J. Watt, EDGE Wisconsin

This was a franchise-altering selection made by the Steelers at the end of the first round. Watt was the 7th edge rusher taken in the 2017 NFL Draft and could easily be considered the best defensive player of his draft class. Watt has started 47 of 48 games since being drafted and has done nothing but improve from his rookie season. Not only have his sack numbers significantly increased over the past three seasons, but he has also improved annually in pass deflections, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, tackles for loss, and quarterback hits. Watt capped off a spectacular 14.5 sack season in 2019 by being named to his second Pro Bowl, first All-Pro selection, finished 3rd in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and was named team MVP.

Watt is currently the 60th highest paid EDGE rusher in the NFL, according to Overthecap.com, and could be due for a record-setting payday. The Steelers have already placed the fifth-year option on Watt for the 2021 season, but that does not mean they can’t sign him to a long-term contract before next season. The significant cap hit of QB Ben Roethlisberger may hinder the Steelers ability to offer Watt a lucrative deal next off-season, but look for the Steelers to prioritize locking up Watt before the start of the 2022 season.

Draft Grade: A+

The likeliness of re-signing: 100%


2nd Round, Pick 62: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR USC

With their second selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected a 20-year-old Southern California receiver named JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster became one of the most popular and well-liked players in the NFL in his rookie season. The California native came to Pittsburgh and quickly adopted the city as his own. From riding his bike to the Steelers practice facility on South Side, to hosting multiple community service events in the Pittsburgh area, Yinzers quickly fell in love with Smith-Schuster’s charismatic and happy-go-lucky attitude.

Smith-Schuster was the 6th receiver taken in the 2017 NFL Draft and is one of only three to have made a pro-bowl so far in his career (Kenny Golladay, Chris Godwin). In his rookie season, Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven TD’s, finally providing Ben Roethlisberger with a reliable second option behind Antonio Brown. 2018 proved to be the best season of Smith-Schuster’s young career catching 111 passes on 161 targets with 1,426 receiving yards, and 7 TD’s. He capped off a spectacular 2018 season with his first Pro Bowl nod and was named team MVP. However, much like draft classmate James Conner, Smith-Schuster had a down 2019 season. Much can be said about the correlation between the absence of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his production, but Smith-Schuster also struggled with injuries. A major dip in on-field time saw Smith-Schuster only catch 42 passes for 552 yards and three TD’s while only playing in 12 games. It would be hard for Steelers fans to see Smith-Schuster leave after this season, but the chances grow higher if he does not have a bounce-back 2020 season.

Draft Grade: B+

The likeliness of re-signing: 75%


3rd Round, Pick 94: Cameron Sutton, CB Tennessee

With their first third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected versatile cornerback, Cameron Sutton from the University of Tennessee. Sutton was drafted to come in and compete at slot corner when he was taken as the 94th pick in 2017. Unfortunately, Sutton spent the first 12 weeks of his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury. This allowed cornerback Mike Hilton to begin the 2017 season as the starting slot corner and Sutton has not been able to pass Hilton on the depth chart since. Sutton spent most of his second season in the NFL playing on special teams while recording 20 total tackles, three passes defended, and his first career interception.

Sutton challenged Hilton throughout training camp and the preseason during 2019 and saw his playing time significantly increase over the course of the season. He ended playing 25% of the defensive snaps and finished the season with 16 tackles, five passes defended, one interception, and his first NFL sack. The Steelers envisioned Sutton as a starting slot corner in the NFL, but an injury-plagued rookie season gave way to the rise of Mike Hilton and Sutton has not lived up to expectations so far. Sutton has shown plenty of potential, but the quantity of defense reps has hindered him from taking the next step in his career. The Steelers obviously like what they have with Sutton based on the fact that they have not offered Mike Hilton a long-term contract, so watch for a tight battle during training camp for the starting slot corner position. Due to his lack of playing time and exposure as a full-time starter, the Steelers are likely able to re-sign Sutton to a team-friendly contract at the end of the 2020 season. However, if Sutton is able to beat out Hilton for the starting position and performs well this year, don’t be surprised if he demands a larger contract like Javon Hargrave did this off-season.

Draft Grade: C+

The likeliness of resigning: 80%


3rd Round, Pick 105: James Conner, RB Pittsburgh

With their compensatory pick in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected James Conner, a running back from the University of Pittsburgh. If you follow the NFL at all, then you know the story of Conner and his off-the-field battle with cancer. Conner was an inspiration to many when his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma became national news during the winter of 2015. So when the Steelers chose Conner in the third round of the 2017 draft, Steelers fans were already rooting for him. Unfortunately, the only thing that has held Conner back from becoming a perennial All-Pro player has been injuries.

Conner struggled to see playing time as a rookie in 2017 behind Bell. He only rushed for 144 yards on 32 carries and saw his season end early with an injury. However, much like Smith-Schuster, Conner had the best season of his young career in 2018. When Bell sat out the 2018 season due to contract disputes, Conner took full advantage and was elected to his first Pro Bowl. He amassed 1,470 all-purpose yards while only playing in 13 games. Conner finished the season with 13 total TD’s and quickly looked to be the long-term answer at RB for the Steelers. The injury bug got Conner for the 3rd time in his short NFL career during the 2019 season. He only started 10 of 16 games and only played in six quarters during the final eight games of the season.

To many people’s surprise, the Steelers seem to be all-in on Conner going into the 2020 season. With multiple big-name running backs still on the draft board at pick 49 this year, the Steelers elected to pass on running back, a position many saw as a hole on this team. Perhaps the biggest question mark going into the 2020 season for the Steelers is whether or not Conner will stay healthy and play a full season for the first time in his career. If Conner is on the field, the Steelers are a Super Bowl contender. Conner’s punishing running-style forces teams to stack the box more often and leaves multiple mismatches on the outside. His ability to also catch the ball and make plays out of the backfield create headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. If Conner can stay healthy and produce to his highest ability, then the Steelers will likely look to sign him to a second contract. But if he fails to stay healthy and prove he can be a reliable option in the backfield, then we may see the two partway during the upcoming off-season.

Draft Grade: B

The likeliness of resigning: 50% 


Round 4, Pick 135: Joshua Dobbs, QB Tennessee

With their fourth round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Josh Dobbs, a quarterback from Tennessee. The second Tennessee player selected by Pittsburgh in the 2017 draft, Dobbs came in right away and competed with Landry Jones as the primary backup behind Ben Roethlisberger. Dobbs spent the season as the 3rd string quarterback and when the Steelers parted ways with Jones after the 2018 preseason, Dobbs beat out rookie Mason Rudolph as the backup behind Ben Roethlisberger. After being beaten out by Rudolph during the 2019 preseason, Dobbs was slated to spend the season as the 3rd string quarterback again. However, Dobbs was traded at the beginning of the 2019 season to Jacksonville just a few days prior to Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending injury. It is hard to tell what would have happened last year if the Steelers had decided to keep Dobbs, but his chance of becoming a starting quarterback in the NFL is not likely at this point. The Steelers were compensated with a 5th round pick when they traded Dobbs which made the draft signing worthwhile.

Draft Grade: B-

The likeliness of resigning: 0% 


Round 5, Pick 173: Brian Allen, CB Utah

With their fifth round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Brian Allen, a cornerback from Utah. Allen was primarily seen as a project when he was selected with the 173rd pick in the draft. A converted receiver from Utah, Allen had very little experience playing cornerback in college, totaling 12 starts in four full seasons. At 6’3″, Allen was seen as somewhat oversized to play corner, but his 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine landed him in Pittsburgh. After spending two seasons with the Steelers, he was waived after the 2019 preseason when he was placed on Injured Reserve. He played in a total of 16 games during his two seasons with the Steelers and had three combined tackles. He is currently on the Seattle Seahawks practice squad.

Draft Grade: D

The likeliness of resigning: 0%


Round 6, Pick 213: Colin Holba, LS Louisville

With their sixth round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Colin Holba, a long-snapper from Louisville. This pick was somewhat curious at the time as the Steelers had just re-signed long-time long-snapper Greg Warren in the off-season. However, with the knee injuries Warren had suffered over his career, the Steelers saw a need and drafted Holba with the 213th pick in the draft. The Steelers also signed free-agent Kameron Canaday to compete in training camp with Holba. Holba was eventually beaten out by Canaday and never played a snap for the Steelers. The Holba selection is likely seen as a big disappointment, but the Steelers were able to snag reliable long-snapper Canaday in the process, so not all is lost.

Draft Grade: F 

The likeliness of resigning: 0%


Round 7, Pick 248: Keion Adams, DE Western Michigan

With their seventh round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted Keion Adams, a defensive end from Western Michigan. Adams was a slightly undersized defensive end standing at only 6’2″ and weighing 245 pounds. He started out his career at Western Michigan playing a limited number of snaps, but made a significant jump in his final two seasons collecting 13 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. The Steelers were in need of pass-rushers at this point and saw potential in drafting Adams. Unfortunately, Adam’s size and durability never allowed him to play a snap for the Steelers. He was eventually waived by the Steelers at the end of the 2018 season. Adams got a second chance with the New York Giants last year, but was cut in October. He is currently a free agent and has failed to play an NFL snap.

Draft Grade: F 

The likeliness of resigning: 0% 


In conclusion, the Steelers first round pick was a slam dunk. Watt will likely anchor the defensive line for the next 10+ seasons and be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Smith-Schuster and Conner have both provided glimpses of superstar potential, but consistency and availability have hindered their progression. Sutton has the potential to provide sustainability at the cornerback position, but his mark as a Steeler will likely be made this season. The rest of the Steelers 2017 draft picks never materialized, but it’s hard to argue with Colbert’s overall success in the 2017 NFL Draft. This season should provide loads of optimism among Steelers fans, but contract situations will be at the forefront of discussion 10 months from now regardless of how the season turns out.

Overall Draft Grade: B+ 


What grade do you give the Steelers 2017 draft class? How many players could you recall off the top of your head? Which Steelers from the 2017 draft class will be on the roster at the beginning of the 2021 season? Comment below!


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