The massive first-round mistake Steelers must avoid in the 2024 NFL Draft

Reaching for this position in Round 1 could derail Pittsburgh's 2024 draft.

Sam Houston v Texas A&M, Edgerrin Cooper
Sam Houston v Texas A&M, Edgerrin Cooper / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages

The NFL Draft is the most exciting time of the year for hardcore football fans. It's a three-day event that could reshape the future of an NFL franchise. We witnessed this just last year when the Texans drafted the future Offensive Rookie of the Year (C.J. Stroud) and future Defensive Rookie of the Year (Will Anderson Jr.) in back-to-back picks last April.

Over the years, Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been hopeful and optimistic about what their team would do in the NFL Draft, but the final five years of former GM Kevin Colbert were a mess when it came to the draft, and the foundation of the team started to crumble.

That's when Omar Khan took over. In his first full offseason as general manager, Khan -- along with new assistant GM Andy Weidl -- raked in an incredible draft haul in 2023 that included players like OT Broderick Jones, CB Joey Porter Jr., DL Keeanu Benton, TE Darnell Washington, and EDGE Nick Herbig.

Landing a draft class this impressive on paper isn't going to be possible every year, but most front offices understand that a strong first selection can make or break a team's draft class. Unfortunately, there is a realistic scenario in which the Pittsburgh Steelers make a colossal mistake in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

The Steelers quietly have a big need at linebacker

The Steelers have several big needs -- their most notable come at cornerback, offensive tackle, and center. But there's another position they could go on draft day: off-ball linebacker.

Since the career-ending spinal injury of Ryan Shazier back in 2017, Pittsburgh has desperately searched for a reliable option at the position. After one bad year of linebacker performances in 2018, Colbert mortgaged a first, second, and third-round to move from pick 20 to pick 10 in the 2019 NFL Draft to acquire Michigan linebacker, Devin Bush. What a miserable selection this turned out to be.

Bush's career in Pittsburgh was short-lived and incredibly underwhelming. Since then, the Steelers have tried plugging holes at linebacker with stop-gap free agents, but nothing fit.

Last offseason, Khan finally forked up for linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, while later signing Kwon Alexander before the start of training camp. And this worked... for a while anyway. Holcomb and Alexander both went down with season-ending injuries in the middle of the year. Alexander won't be ready by the start of the year and is no longer under contract.

This leaves Holcomb and Roberts as the only viable options at the position. Everything else was a disaster in 2023. Holcomb is currently rehabbing from a torn ACL, while Roberts is going to be a 30-year-old box linebacker who specializes in coming downhill but has been a liability in coverage for most of his career.

Steelers must avoid off-ball linebacker in Round 1 of the NFL Draft

That's where things get scary. Because of Holcomb's extensive injury history and a severe lack of depth at the position, the Steelers may be tempted to address the off-ball linebacker position as early as the first round this year. This would prove to be a massive mistake.

The 2024 draft class is neither strong at the top nor deep when it comes to the linebacker position. However, it's the lack of quality depth and a potential run on the top linebackers by their second-round pick that could cause them to take the bait.

Admittedly, there are some decent prospects this year, players like Texas A&M's Edgerrin Cooper, Clemson's Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Michigan's Junior Colson, and NC State's Payton Wilson are all solid football players, but I won't have a single first-round graded linebacker this year. It's worth noting that Pro Football Focus currently doesn't have a single linebacker inside their top 60 players this year on their 2024 draft board.

Each of the top linebacker prospects lacks something in their game this year, whether it's unspectacular ability in coverage, average athletic traits, or inconsistencies in their game. Combine this with the fact that linebackers have a short NFL shelf life on average and aren't a 'money' position.

This isn't to say that a great linebacker isn't valuable, but finding a great one is a challenge in and of itself. What's noteworthy is that most of the best linebackers in today's game (Fred Warner, Demario Davis, Matt Milano, Dre Greenlaw, and many others) were not former first-round picks.

Based on history and considering that the game has changed immensely over the years, the only teams should be willing to take off-ball linebackers in the middle of the first round is if they are true first-round prospects. Even then, there's never a guarantee that they will be able to stay healthy playing such a physically taxing position.

There would be rare occasions where I would be okay with the Pittsburgh Steelers taking an off-ball linebacker in Round 1, but that would probably consist of them getting tremendous value late in the first round. That won't be the case this year. There are sure to be numerous better options at more important positions when the 20th overall pick rolls around in the 2024 NFL Draft, and the Steelers should look elsewhere.

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