The Pittsburgh Steelers opted against wide receiver, cornerback or defensive line in Round 1, instead taking versatile Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier with the 15th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
We have Selected Ryan Shazier, LB Ohio State. #SteelersDraft— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 9, 2014
Shazier is clearly a talent. He can play both inside and outside on a 3-4 line, and his value as a situational pass-rusher is high. But did the Steelers need to take him in Round 1, considering their other more pressing needs?
A team's big board is always a mystery, but there's no denying the Steelers must have been quite enamored with Shazier, who has a good combination of speed and power. He ran an unofficial 4.36 40-yard dash at his pro day, and he racked up 15 career sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss over his three years at Ohio State.
However, for a defensive player who is not likely to start in his rookie season, the Steelers could have addressed another position that would be almost guaranteed to take the field this year. Wide receiver and cornerback could have yielded a starter. Shazier, for all his talent, will be a developmental player in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's system.
There is an opportunity for Shazier in Pittsburgh, of course. Should he have an impressive summer, his draft pedigree could put him squarely in the running to take over the inside linebacker job once held by free agent Larry Foote, who is now with the Arizona Cardinals.
In that case, he'd be competing with second-year player and 2013 sixth-rounder Vince Williams, who started 11 games in 2013 in place of the injured Foote and ended the year ranked 26th out of 55 inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His fellow starting inside backer, Lawrence Timmons, came in at 25th.
However impressive Williams was as a late-round (and compensatory) pick, he had 53 combined tackles and little else in 2013. He recorded no sacks, no interceptions and no passes defensed. It's possible that Shazier's ability to both stop the run and rush the passer—and play a bit of coverage—gave him enough upside to warrant a first-round pick.
It's also possible that while Williams' ability to step in and start last year was impressive, he didn't show enough to retain that job full time in 2014. And while the Steelers' depth at linebacker isn't poor, they certainly lack enough starter-capable players on the inside to warrant Shazier being their first-round selection.
But the inside linebacker position is one that could have waited until Round 2 or even 3, even if that means forgoing Shazier for someone else, like Michigan State's Max Bullough or Wisconsin's Chris Borland. That would allow the Steelers to address this more marginal need while taking a player who meets a more pressing one at a high-priority position.
"Reach" is a relative word. If Shazier carves out a starting spot for himself and makes an impact, it won't matter if he was drafted ahead of his (mostly manufactured) projection. And for the Steelers, they clearly believed that this pick was the correct one. "Reach" is mainly in the minds of those outside the decision.
"Need defensive play-makers, this guy is a play-maker" GM Kevin Colbert on #1 pick @RyanShazier— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 9, 2014
However, considering the Steelers' apparent bigger needs in this year's draft, it seems that for as much as they like Shazier, what roster hole he fills could have been better met at better value later on.
Ultimately, the hit-or-miss decree on this pick will take a year, if not years—plural (defensive end Cam Heyward didn't catch on until 2013, and he was drafted in 2011). There's no denying that Shazier has a lot of potential, especially with his ability to move from inside to outside and back again, and he does add a higher quality of depth at linebacker that the Steelers did not have before Thursday.