When you pick near the bottom of the draft every year, you probably have a pretty good football team. When you make the AFC title game and lose to the eventual Super Bowl champions, you most certainly have a good football team. When you have a conference championship level football team with one of the youngest, most explosive offensive attacks in the league and a storied history of dominant defenses, you don’t have many positions of need to address. You can afford to make some luxury picks and fill out what thin spots you have. You evaluate your favorite players and “let the draft come to you.” That is the approach the Pittsburgh Steelers tend to take at the NFL’s annual selection meeting. 2017 saw no exception. Some of the names stood out, but the Steelers did what they always do: They took who they viewed as the best players available when they came available, despite fans insistence otherwise.
In the Mike Tomlin era, it wouldn’t be a Steelers first round if a linebacker isn’t selected. In Tomlin’s 11 drafts he’s chosen a linebacker five times, four of them over the last six years. While Lawrence Timmons (2007) put in a successful decade in the black and gold, Jarvis Jones (2013) floundered and the jury is still out on Ryan Shazier (2014) and Bud Dupree (2015), though their upside seems promising. The same can be said of the newest minted Steelers linebacker, University of Wisconsin product T.J. Watt. Watt came as a surprise at pick number 30 because of his lack of experience, starting only one year for the Badgers. Naturally he reminds experts of his brother J.J. and another former defensive player of the year, James Harrison, thanks to his comparably small frame and explosiveness off the edge.
The Steelers went with relative unknowns on draft day two, picking wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC and the lusted-after cornerback in Cameron Sutton from Tennessee. Smith-Schuster gives Ben Roethlisberger 6’2″ target alongside Antonio Brown, immediately challenging Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, and Cobi Hamilton for touches. His greatest ability to begin with will be availability, considering the aforementioned seem to constantly battle injury. The same can be said of Sutton. What he lacks in ideal size he makes up with speed and ball skills, a trait the Steelers secondary sorely lacks. Sutton may share time as a returner with Knile Davis, who came to Pittsburgh as a free agent from Kansas City. Fans would have preferred the Steelers draft a bigger name at corner in the first or second round considering more defensive backs went off the board than any in history. The Steelers took advantage of the draft’s secondary depth, hoping to add to their own.
Pittsburgh spent their compensatory third-round pick on local hero James Conner, whose jersey will no doubt sell out the second it hits the shelves. He shows the same determination and downhill running proficiency as predecessors DeAngelo Williams and Jerome Bettis. Conner likely shows Williams the door to the SouthSide facility with which he’s become so familiar. As long as he remains healthy, Conner should provide the relief Le’Veon Bell needs in his franchise-tagged year.
The final day of the draft proved baffling. With looming rumors of Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers used a fourth-round pick on quarterback Joshua Dobbs from Tennessee — the same round in which they chose the much maligned Landry Jones just four years ago and re-signed just last month. Dobbs emerged from a group of potential later-round QBs including Cal’s Davis Webb (Giants), Miami’s Brad Kaaya (Lions) and Pitt’s Nate Peterman (Bills). Dobbs bring an aerospace engineer’s intellect to Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks room along with a strong arm but questionable accuracy, drawing comparisons to Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Steelers could do and have done much worse, but Peterman and Kaaya were still unchosen by round five, when they selected another unknown corner, Brian Allen out of Utah. Allen goes 6’3″ and alongside Sutton and last year’s number one pick Artie Burns fits the Steelers evolving press scheme. Former Steelers DB Ike Taylor sees a little of himself in Allen and believes he will contribute right away.
Fans nationwide let out a collective, “Huh?!?” when the Steelers took Louisville long snapper Colin Holba in round six. Specialists are usually claimed as free agents and the Steelers had yet to select a tight end or a defensive lineman, other positions perceived as areas of opportunity. The pick cast doubts on the future of vested veteran Greg Warren, who was also recently re-signed.
Another project pass rusher from the MAC came to the Steelers with their seventh-round selection of Western Michigan linebacker Keion Adams. He tweeted that he loves “to prove haters wrong,” and he seems to approach the game with equal parts humility and hustle, likening him to an Arthur Moats. Whether that attitude is enough to earn him a roster spot is yet to be seen.
The Steelers sought to build on their family tradition by selecting eight players defined by character and raw skill. Some of those names were jawdroppers, others were head scratchers. They brought in a crop of rookies with plenty of room to grow as their future — and a fairly easy 2017 season schedule — closes in.