Steelers Draft Strategy: Why using top-50 pick on offensive line would be mistake
Steelers Have More Pressing Needs
The other half of my argument is that the Steelers’ draft strategy requires their attention elsewhere, particularly on defense. Pittsburgh desperately needs new starters at cornerback and nose tackle, along with possibly inside linebacker. The latter need is not so desperate now, given the swapping of Myles Jack, Devin Bush, and Robert Spillane for Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. But this team still needs an off-ball linebacker that can comfortably play on passing downs. Holcomb can, to an extent, while Roberts is more of a pure two-down thumper type. Mark Robinson is more like Roberts, so this defense still needs a coverage backer to play on passing downs.
Perhaps no need is more pressing than cornerback. This team shockingly let Cam Sutton walk after turning in his best season. They signed Patrick Peterson as a replacement, but Peterson is not the player most people remember. Aside from him, they have Levi Wallace, a solid but uninspiring starter; Ahkello Witherspoon, who was benched; James Pierre, who can be serviceable in a pinch but should be limited to special teams, and Arthur Maulet, a run-defending slot corner.
Even assuming Teryl Austin will experiment with playing the safeties in the slot more, this team needs a cornerback who can comfortably play man coverage, even as this team seems to be swinging back toward playing more zone. If you bring Patrick Peterson in as a leader and mentor for young corners, you need young corners.
The final need is at interior defensive line, specifically nose tackle. Even though the Steelers have followed the rest of the NFL toward playing mostly Nickel packages on defense, they still deploy their base 3-4 personnel quite a bit. Per TruMedia, they played Nickel at the third-lowest rate in the NFL (48.7%) and 3-4 at the eighth-highest rate (25.1%), which would be 13th if you just counted by use of Base defenses. Sure, maybe they won’t be deploying behemoths like Casey Hampton, Steve McClendon, or Daniel McCullers. But Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley are now gone, leaving Montravius Adams as the penciled-in starter at the nose. Adams is a serviceable rotational player, but this team still needs some young depth at this position, with Cam Heyward hinting at retirement recently.
The Steelers have some other needs where they need depth as well. They could use a blocking tight end, some edge depth, and possibly even a starting box safety. But the Steelers desperately need a player that can come in and contribute immediately in these three positions. Typically, teams pick those players in the first two rounds. If the Steelers use a top-50 pick on an offensive lineman, I believe it is far from guaranteed that that player is a Day-1 starter or that he is an improvement on the player he replaced. There’s a real possibility that if the Steelers use a top-50 pick on an offensive tackle, and he doesn’t play while the Steelers still have several major holes on defense.
Conversely, even with their history of highly-drafted defensive backs, a top-50 corner should be able to supplant Levi Wallace or Ahkello Witherspoon as the cornerback across from Patrick Peterson. A top-50 inside linebacker that can play all three downs keeps Cole Holcomb or Elandon Roberts from having to execute challenging coverage assignments. A top-50 defensive tackle could rotate with Montravius Adams to begin the year and would most likely replace him as the primary nose tackle by midseason.
In conclusion, this argument comes down to resource allocation, scarcity of talent relative to draft position, and snap distribution. The Steelers could come away from this draft with three new starters on defense that will be long-term contributors for this team, and their offensive line should still be solid. Alternatively, they could come away with a new offensive tackle that isn’t guaranteed to start and a defense with at least one major hole. Of those two scenarios, I would pick the former every single time.