There is no shortage of draft needs for the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. With an aging defense and an offense devoid of playmakers, the Steelers can go in nearly any direction to find players who can contribute as rookies.
The defensive side of the ball will have five starters who will be over 30 years old next year with Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. But there are more problems than just age: Dick LeBeau may be breaking in three new starters who have potential but are still unproven in Jason Worilds, Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen.
Age is not an issue on offense, but the talent at the skill positions is.
The Steelers just lost Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall to free agency and may also be without Heath Miller, who is recovering from a torn ACL. With two of their top playmakers gone and a third potentially missing much of the season with an injury, the Steelers are in a bit of trouble.
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders figure to start at wideout, leaving the Steelers without a true No. 1 threat. They have also been active in free agency, looking to upgrade the running back position by bringing in Beanie Wells and Ahmad Bradshaw for visits.
So which direction should the Steelers go early in the draft? Well, past history indicates that they will select a defender in the first round.
Ever since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007, the Steelers have alternated taking a defensive player and an offensive player every year.
Under Tomlin, the Steelers have drafted defenders Lawrence Timmons, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward and offensive players Rashard Mendenhall, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro.
Of those players, there are only two skill players in the bunch, and to no surprise, these are the areas in which the Steelers have holes.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers lack playmakers at the linebacker position outside of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley—when he is healthy and on his game. They also do not have a threat in the secondary besides Troy Polamalu, and he missed a significant portion of the season last year.
But despite these problems, the Steelers were still able to have a solid defense last season and should once again have a competitive unit this season as the defensive scheme puts the players in position to succeed.
LeBeau said as much last year after the defense was accused of being predictable (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review): “I've got to give them things that they can execute. We've got to trust each other and trust the defense, and the results will come.”
The same cannot be said for the offense.
Even after making a coordinator change, the Steelers still struggled to put points on the scoreboard as they finished 22nd in the league with 21 points per game, nearly two touchdowns below the league-leading New England Patriots, who averaged 34.8 points per game.
So then the question becomes whether the Steelers should reinforce their strength by selecting defensive players early or try to improve a struggling offense. Well, the answer is pretty clear. They must try to improve the offense.
As mentioned earlier, the defense is scheme-oriented, and even less-talented players can be set up for success in the defense. But the defensive coaching staff also likes to take their time with the development of their defenders.
No rookie defender has started under Tomlin, and only Woodley has had success as soon as year two. Odds are that any defender taken early in the draft will be at least a full year away from starting.
Things are much different on the offensive side of the ball, where Pouncey started as a rookie and DeCastro would have if not for an injury in the preseason.
While a rookie on offense may not start right away, chances are that he would be able to make a significant contribution early on.
The Steelers could go in any number of directions on offense as well, with needs everywhere but the quarterback position.
They could select another offensive lineman, but odds are that they will go with the players they already have on the roster, leaving wide receiver, running back and tight end as possible options.
With an emphasis on the passing game in the NFL today, the Steelers need to find playmakers for the passing game, and they should do this early and often.
The wide receiver talent in the first round is solid with players such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins, or they could reach a little for tight end Tyler Eifert.
They could come back to the position between the second and fourth rounds with players such as Justin Hunter, Robert Woods, Da’Rick Rogers, Markus Wheaton, Terrance Williams, Stedman Bailey, Quinton Patton and Ryan Swope all terrific options.
The key with many of these receivers is that they have a different skill set than the Steelers' current young weapons.
While Brown and Sanders have speed, they lack elite speed and size which make them easier to defend. By adding a physical presence to the lineup, the Steelers would have a different element to throw at the defense.
This would be the benefit of adding another receiving tight end.
If Miller was healthy, they would be set with him and David Paulson as their top two options. However, this is not the case. If a player such as Eifert or Zach Ertz is available in the first or second, the Steelers should consider one of them.
Of course, they cannot ignore the running back position either.
This is a position that needs an immediate upgrade, but they can afford to wait given the relative ease at finding quality running backs in the draft.
By selecting a receiving weapon early, the Steelers can then come back and draft a running back in the third round or later.
There is a ton of value in the middle of the draft with running backs such as Giovani Bernard, Joseph Randle, Montee Ball, Le’Veon Bell, Mike Gillislee and Stepfan Taylor, who all would help upgrade the Steelers’ backfield.
The Steelers could potentially get two rookie starters out of this draft with an early-round receiver and a mid-round running back.
Given the talent in the draft, the Steelers could potentially select two receivers or two running backs with different skill sets.
Finding a big, physical presence at receiver early and going back to a speed option later is one option. Another could be to find a running back who can carry the load in the middle of the draft and a speed back later.
Beyond these positions, finding a sleeper at tight end is still a possibility as well as depth for the offensive line.
With eight draft picks, the Steelers must focus on their selections on upgrading the offense. They can find value on the defensive side throughout the draft, but they have time to develop these players.
The Steelers do not have this luxury on offense as they need at least two playmakers who can contribute—or even start—as rookies.
Combined with a potentially improved offensive line, a new running back and wide receiver with big play ability can help upgrade this underachieving unit to one of the better offenses in the league.
The league is all about offense now, and while Roethlisberger is good, he cannot do it alone. It is time to get Roethlisberger the weapons that will fit into Todd Haley’s offensive scheme and help turn this offense into one of the better units in the league.