The Pittsburgh Steelers had a great run in 2016, and made it to the AFC Championship game. Losing that game meant they were drafting in the bottom 4, and it is tough to find talent late in rounds, but the Steelers seemed to make all the right picks in 2017.
In the first round the Steelers selected edge rusher TJ Watt from Wisconsin. He came into the league with a family pedigree with brother JJ Watt being a 3-time DPOY, but TJ didn’t have a lot of experience as a linebacker and fell to the end of the round. Fortunately the Steelers had a need at edge and took a chance on him. Since being drafted, Watt has made 3 Pro Bowls, 3 All-Pros and was runner up for Defensive Player of the Year twice. The 5th year option was placed on him last year, so he is the only player from this draft that is definitely returning in 2021.
The 2nd round had a tall, athletic, tough receiver from USC drop into their laps. JuJu Smith-Schuster came to the team with a big, jovial personality, and a tough, physical game on the field. After a great rookie season with 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, he delivered in a big way in his 2nd year. JuJu earned a well deserved trip to the Pro Bowl in his 2nd season with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and 7 TDs. He will be remembered for his tough catches, fun TD dances, and infectious smile, but never forget the great works he did for the community of Pittsburgh.
The Steelers had 2 picks in the 3rd round and chose cornerback Cameron Sutton from Tennessee, and running back James Conner from Pittsburgh. Sutton developed well, which is rare for a Steelers corner, and each year seemed to pick up more responsibility. Whether playing the edge corner, the nickel slot corner, or safety in the dime, Sutton showed he had the coverage skills to match up with quick wide receivers or large athletic tight ends. Though he never made a Pro Bowl, he was still a diverse weapon the Steelers implemented each game on defense. Eleven picks later, Conner was selected. Born and raised in Erie, PA, Conner moved to Pittsburgh to play college football with the Panthers. After an incredible sophomore season with 1,765 yards and 26 TDs, he was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma and essentially missed his junior season on the gridiron. As a senior he returned with a renewed vigor and finished with 1,394 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. Conner had a fantastic 2nd season as a starter and was named to the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, injuries have curbed his ability to play a full season and earn additional accolades.
In the 4th round, the Steelers drafted a rocket scientist, also from Tennessee in Josh Dobbs. Dobbs was a nice depth pickup to serve as the backup quarterback. He unseated Landry Jones as the backup in 2018. In 2019 he was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 5th round draft pick. Then was signed back in 2020 when the Jaguars released him before the start of the season.
The rest of the draft saw the Steelers take CB Brian Allen, long snapper Colin Holba, and linebacker Keion Adams. Adams is currently in the CFL and the other 2 are still trying to find quality time for their NFL teams. Still the Steelers managed to find 3 starters, who all earned a Pro Bowl nod, a quality defensive player and a smart backup quarterback in this draft. This is a very successful draft no matter how you slice it, the only problem is this team can’t keep most of them.
The salary cap reduced significantly this season, due mostly to not being able to have fans in the stands for most games. As a result, the salary cap is anticipated to be about $15M less than it was last year. This is a difficult pill to swallow, since the Steelers were anticipating a $10M increase in the cap each year, as has happened each year for over a decade. They have restructured many contracts and are currently about $8M under the anticipated cap floor of $185M, but it leaves them very little room to sign their rookies and free agents with this little space. Smith-Schuster, Conner, and 2016 1st rounder Bud Dupree are all poised to make lucrative contracts in free agency.
For a team that builds talented rosters through the draft, it is frustrating to see the Steelers, who made all the right picks in the 2017 draft, have to watch most of them leave in free agency this year.