Steelers Quietly Became the Team to Beat After the 2018 NFL Draft

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMay 2, 2018

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26:  Terrell Edmunds of Virginia Tech poses after being picked #28 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium on April 26, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There was nothing splashy about the Steelers draft. They took no big risks, made no gonzo trades. They didn't select any "storyline" guys. The Steelers didn't do any of the things that merit A-plus or D-minus grades, which is why most draft-graders ranked them somewhere in the low/middle of the pack. 

The Steelers draft class may look ordinary at first glance. But a closer look reveals Pittsburgh may have selected the rookie crop that finally returns it to the Super Bowl.

Before we start listing draft picks—you are probably already weary of pick lists, anyway—let's recall that the Steelers won 13 games last season and have been one of the NFL's most successful franchises for many years. Ben Roethlisberger shows no signs of slowing down except for occasional injuries, which he always recovers from quickly thanks to his mutant healing factor. Antonio Brown is the league's best receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster among its most exciting young players. Le'Veon Bell, while perpetually perturbed about his contract situation, is one of the NFL's best all-purpose players. The Steelers defense recorded a league-leading 56 sacks last year, though it mixed those big plays with some ill-timed catastrophes.

A team like the Steelers doesn't go into the draft with the same priorities as the Browns or Colts. It's easy for terrible teams to get better by just hoovering up talented bodies. Finding the marginal values that turn 13 wins and playoff disappointment into a Super Bowl victory is much trickier.

But Pittsburgh may have just pulled it off. Meanwhile, a certain perennial AFC powerhouse with a reputation for having all the answers could not.

The Steelers draft started quietly. Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds is best known as the Other Edmunds Brother: His mega-talented 19-year-old younger brother, Tremaine, selected by the Bills with the 16th overall pick, got all the predraft attention. Edmunds was a need pick in a secondary plagued by blown coverages and missed tackles last year. Need picks don't get the draftnik juices flowing.

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The sexy thing for the Steelers to do would have been to trade up for Minkah Fitzpatrick or Derwin James (trumpeting either as the new Troy Polamalu) or even for Tremaine (a replacement for injured Ryan Shazier). Those would be headline-grabbing deals, and we would all be talking about how the Steelers are all-in for a 2018 Super Bowl run.

But despite last year's accomplishments, the Steelers did not kid themselves that they were just one player away from winning the AFC. Instead, they used the rest of the draft to cram upgrades into as many corners of the depth chart as possible.

The second round brought Oklahoma State's James Washington, a smooth-operating deep-threat receiver who is built like a feisty running back. Washington was available with the 60th pick because he is just 5'11" and posted an ordinary 40 time at the combine (4.54 seconds). But to paraphrase an old saying about Cris Carter, all he does is get open and catch bombs.

Washington joins Brown and Smith-Schuster to give the Steelers the mismatch nightmare that Martavis Bryant (traded to the Raiders during the draft) gave them when available and dialed in last year. Good luck figuring out a way to cover all three Pittsburgh receivers while at the same time preventing Bell from running roughshod over your on-its-heels dime defense.

Mason Rudolph, Washington's quarterback at Oklahoma State, arrived in the third round. Rudolph threw for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, but the knock on him was he operated in a talent-gorged offense that allowed him to easily float passes to wide-open receivers. If forced to start some games in Pittsburgh, Rudolph will operate in a talent-gorged offense that will allow him to float passes to wide-open receivers.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Big Ben's backups typically start some meaningful games each year, while he takes two weeks to recover from an injury with a 10-week timetable. Losses by backups like Landry Jones or Michael Vick have meant the difference between home and road playoff games in past seasons. If Rudolph can keep the Steelers out of Jacksonville or Foxborough in January with a bullpen victory or two, he could turn out to be the most valuable contributor in this draft class. Also, Roethlisberger is 36 and often mumbles retirement-sounding words.

Worried about depth along the offensive line? Chuks Okorafor may have been the best long-range tackle prospect in the draft. Not sure Edmunds can patch the secondary by himself? Penn State's Marcus Allen is a Mister Dependable type. Alabama seventh-rounder Joshua Frazier is the kind of mammoth space-eater the Steelers have gotten maximum value out of for 30 years. Every pick fills a need or eliminates a worry.

Then there's fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels. He's a changeup for Bell and a holdout insurance policy. He's also an H-back, tight end, possible fullback and slot receiver. Pittsburgh never had an all-purpose matchup weapon quite like him, and he will be the fifth or sixth option in its offense.

The Steelers significantly upgraded both their offense and defense, and they did it while investing in the future instead of mortgaging it. The Steelers are insulated against any Doomsday Scenario you can imagine. Big Ben finally buckles? Rudolph is a viable quarterback of the future. Bell holds out forever and ever? The Samuels/James Conner backfield can move the ball.

To see how brilliant the Steelers draft was, just compare it to the Patriots draft. New England entered it with two first-round picks, two second-rounders and a longer-than-usual list of obvious needs. Yet it walked away with even more questions.

The Patriots needed a left tackle, but they drafted a likely guard (Georgia's Isaiah Wynn). They needed several bodies to repair their secondary, but they drafted one (Florida's Duke Dawson) prior to the seventh round. They needed Gronk insurance but scooped up a blocking tight end in the seventh round (Florida State's Ryan Izzo). They needed a backup quarterback but appear to have hedged their bets against Tom Brady's bruised feelings when they settled for seventh-rounder Danny Handoffs (listed in the LSU media guide as Danny Etling). The Patriots didn't really need committee backs or skinny slot receivers, but they selected Georgia's Sony Michel and Miami's Braxton Berrios out of habit.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

You don't have to leap onto the comment thread to remind me how many Super Bowls the Patriots have won or explain how their draft is secretly brilliant. Instead, ask how the draft makes them better in 2018. How does Wynn, Trent Brown (acquired in a draft-day trade) or anyone else replace Nate Solder? What does Michel do that Dion Lewis, James White and others haven't done for years? How do Dawson and some late-rounders spackle all the holes on that defense? And what happens if Brady misses some starts or Gronk injures a knee playing motorcycle paintball?

The Steelers now have a better roster for 2018 and a better long-range plan than the Patriots. Oh. And we haven't forgotten you, Jaguars fans: You'll be in the mix as long as Blake Bortles' late-season improvement was 100 percent genuine, which...maybe.

After the draft, we talked about massive-haul teams like the Browns and Colts, the quarterbacks and Saquon Barkley and Shaquem Griffin. But in late January, we will be talking about James Washington, Jaylen Samuels and a Steel Curtain that no longer has holes in it. The Steelers didn't put together a draft class that sizzles. They put together one that matters.

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