The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the season with a 45-42 loss to Jacksonville in an AFC divisional round playoff game. As a result, there were plenty of questions about how they were going to fix their defense over the offseason.
The biggest hole was at inside linebacker. Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal cord injury in December and will not play in 2018 as he recuperates from the injury. The Steelers’ 3-4 defense was built around Shazier and his talents as a run defender and pass defender, and it will not be easy to replace his unique skill set.
The Steelers also had concerns in their secondary, most notably how to prevent so many big passing plays. They were among the worst teams in the league in 2017 when it came to giving up plays of 40 yards or more.
Part of the solution was cutting ties with some longtime veterans in the back end. They released starting free safety Mike Mitchell, veteran cornerback Will Gay and backup safety Robert Golden.
The message was loud and clear. The inconsistent pass defense has to improve in 2018.
The Steelers addressed both of the aforementioned needs in free agency by signing linebacker Jon Bostic, who for now is penciled in to start alongside Vince Williams at inside linebacker; and by signing safety Morgan Burnett to shore up the back end of their defense.
By signing Bostic and Burnett the Steelers are wide open to choose the best player available on their board when it’s their time to pick at No. 28.
Here is a closer look at where the Steelers are, how they got here and a shot at what they should do with their first pick in the draft.
2017 finish: 1st AFC North (13-3)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 377.9 (3rd)
RUSHING: 104.2 (20th)
PASSING: 273.8 (3rd)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 306.9 (5th)
RUSHING: 105.8 (10th)
PASSING: 201.1 (5th)
- Inside linebacker: Yes, the Steelers signed Jon Bostic in free agency, but they lack depth and an impact player at the position. The Steelers could easily select an inside linebacker with their first-round pick and insert him into the starting lineup alongside either Bostic or Williams. If Bostic ends up being the top reserve at inside linebacker, it’s still a good signing for them given his small price tag. The Steelers need a three-down linebacker who can play the run and the pass. Williams is not that type of player, and it remains to be seen if Bostic can fill that role. If one of the top inside linebackers is available at No. 28, the Steelers are likely to select him.
- Safety: Morgan Burnett is 29, and while he will start next season alongside Sean Davis, the Steelers are still in the market for a long-term starter at safety. If Burnett can play at a high level into his 30s, that’s great for the Steelers, but they have to be get a younger player into the system who could be groomed for a bigger role in future years. That player could come as soon as the second day of the draft. The Steelers are in desperate need of a playmaker in their secondary. This defense hasn’t had a ball-hawking defensive back for years.
- Wide receiver: The Steelers are set with starters Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant as the third receiver, but there is not a lot of depth behind them. Eli Rogers was the fourth receiver last season, but he remains unsigned after undergoing offseason knee surgery. The Steelers could use a player to develop because Bryant is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is unlikely to be re-signed. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers take another receiver fairly early in the draft. They want to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surrounded by quality skill players.
KEY PERSONNEL TRACKER (As of April 6)
–WR Justin Hunter: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
–DL Daniel McCullers: UFA; $880K/1 yr, $90K SB.
–RB Stevan Ridley: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
–S Nat Berhe: UFA Giants; terms unknown.
–ILB Jon Bostic: UFA Colts; $4M/2 yrs, $1.4M SB.
–S Morgan Burnett: UFA Packers; $14.35M/3 yrs, $4.25M SB.
–CB William Gay (released).
–S Robert Golden (released).
–T Chris Hubbard: UFA Browns; $36,5M/5 yrs, $15.15M guaranteed ($6.15M injury only at signing, $4M SB).
–S Mike Mitchell (released).
*NFLDraftScout.com analysts suggest (No. 28 overall)
Rob Rang (April 5 mock draft):
–Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State. The frightening spinal injury to star Ryan Shazier could force the Steelers to strongly consider investing an early pick at inside linebacker. Some will criticize Vander Esch as a one-year wonder at Boise State, but the same criticism also followed standout rookie T.J. Watt at Wisconsin. Like Watt, Vander Esch has the motor Steelers fans will love, as well as the length, athleticism and playmaking ability to earn a first-round selection.
Dane Brugler (April 6 mock draft):
–Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville. The addition of Joe Haden helped, but cornerback is still one of the weak spots on the Steelers’ roster. Alexander, who is skill-set similar to Haden, might be undersized, but he plays bigger with his athleticism, toughness and ball skills.
Agree? Disagree? Still shopping?
Based on the team’s current status, those are our suggestions for that first pick. To double check or find another candidate see full mocks and ratings at NFLDraftScout.com.