By: Michael Stiffler, @Stiffeezy_ on Twitter
It is never too early to look forward to the NFL Draft when your team gets eliminated, and unfortunately that includes the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thanks to an early Wild Card exit, the Steelers will have the 24th pick in the 2021 draft. The outlook of the draft could very well change between now and then depending on retirement, free agents leaving and arriving, and the very unlikely scenario of a trade for the Steelers. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities for the Steelers.
The Steelers have plenty of question marks upfront after the disappointing performance this season. Head coach Mike Tomlin questioned their physicality on multiple occasions when describing why the running game failed week in and week out. Not to mention players like Alejandro Villanueva (contract), Matt Feiler (contract), and Maurkice Pouncey (possible retirement) may not be returning. I would not include Zach Banner in this discussion as he tweeted out, “Best exit interview ever… Back to work…” giving every indication the Steelers are going to resign him, but also I question if this could mean he could possibly be moving from right to left tackle. Either way the Steelers should be looking into the tackle position as Chukwuma Okorafor left a lot to be desired in his performance. This would mean rookie sensation Kevin Dotson would step into the left guard starting spot moving forward but the Steelers need to be weary on how much David DeCastro has left in the tank. DeCastro struggled during camp to see the field and it even took him sometime at the start of the regular season to come off the IR. It would be best for the Steelers to be proactive rather than reactive in drafting his possible replacement. Lastly the center position needs a capable backup at the least or a sure fire day one starter. Pouncey has been contemplating retirement and by his actions after the playoff loss that very well could have been our last time seeing him on the field for the Steelers. After Pouncey is JC Hassenauer and he has not been impressive when on the field.
Prospects to Watch: Samuel Cosmi (Texas), Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Alex Leatherwood (Alabama), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma)
This is a position the Steelers have drafted every year since 2017 and I expect the trend will continue into 2021. James Conner was in the final year of his contract and was not able to replicate the success he had in 2018. Instead, Conner’s play has declined, granted blame can be placed on the offensive line, but you cannot argue he has shown anything to warrant a second contract. A contract that will be pricey and unnecessary for a running back who has not shown enough dynamic traits since stepping into the starting role. Regularly I find myself troubled with his inability to change direction or his lack of vision. He is a good running back but the Steelers need someone who will be a game changer going forward. Someone when Ben Roethlisberger steps away from the game, the next guy can rely on to make his job just a little easier. Onto the rest of the group, Benny Snell was drafted for his toughness and I don’t think anyone can argue that, but he lacks the speed and vision to really succeed as an NFL running back. Anthony McFarland really seemed to hit a rookie wall. Many times he seemed as if his mind and body were out of sync resulting in not much production. While he has the game breaking speed to be dynamic, his early struggles are very concerning for a position that usually has a small learning curve in the NFL. Jaylen Samuels is a jack of all trades but master of none. I struggle to see Samuels make the 53-man roster next season. I know a running back in the first round is a sin in the NFL at this point, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of top tier talent in this draft class so the Steelers may need to use high draft capital on one.
Prospects to Watch: Travis Etienne (Clemson), Najee Harris (Alabama)
This scenario would be possible one of two ways: Roethlisberger retires, or one of the top four prospects drops. While news came out that the Steelers expect Roethlisberger back, this isn’t a 100% lock. Roethlisberger has played chicken with retirement for what seems like a decade except last season. It is clear his age is starting to show with his lack of mobility and we should anticipate if he returns in 2021 that it will be his last. It would be wise for the Steelers to use a first rounder this year because the draft pool in 2022 lacks the star power compared to this year. This year there is a good chance that 5-7 quarterbacks end up being selected in round one. Also, it would be healthy competition for 2022 to have a second year quarterback challenging Mason Rudolph for the starting role instead of a rookie in his first year. I think if the Steelers end up trading up, you should expect a quarterback is the pick.
Prospects to Watch: Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Kyle Trask (Florida), Mac Jones (Alabama)
In today’s NFL, you can never have enough cornerbacks with how wide open the game is. The Steelers secondary is arguably one of the best in the NFL with Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton. Cam Sutton has been a Swiss army knife for the Steelers secondary playing nearly every position possible and stepping in when any of the starting three have been injured. Unfortunately there is a good chance this group may have played their last season together as both Hilton and Sutton will be looking for new contracts. Hilton is a rare breed at nickel corner, while only 5’9″, he has a knack for making plays. In his 4 years as a Steeler, he has 7 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 23 quarterbacks hits, and the most impressive stat being 9.5 sacks. He is a nickel who regularly gets his nose dirty in coming off the edge adding a very rare skillset not many corners have. Hilton should see a sizable contract offer this offseason whether it be from the Steelers or someone else. One last factor to take into account is Haden’s age. Haden will be 32 in 2021 and he isn’t going to keep playing at the level he has. It would be best to infuse some young blood into this group while Haden is still around to mentor and teach them the lay of the land.
Prospects to Watch: Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State)
#SteelerNation, who would you like to see in the black and gold next season? Drop a comment below!