Steelers' Team Needs to Fill in 2021 NFL Draft
Free agency came with limited options to actually improving the team on the field. With little salary-cap space and several key players on expiring contracts, the Steelers were forced to pick and choose who they would retain and who would sign elsewhere.
Overall, they did a good job of doing what they could. Getting Ben Roethlisberger on a restructured deal was a big win, bringing back JuJu Smith-Schuster on a one-year deal keeps a deep receiving corps together, and they were still able to hold on to a few key defenders, including Cameron Sutton and Tyson Alualu.
There's still plenty of positions that could be strengthened through the draft, though. While they'd love to be able to simply take the best player available, there are a few spots where they'd be better off to add an exciting rookie into the mix.
With one pick in each of the first three rounds, here's a look at the positions that should be getting the most consideration.
Robert Spillane stepped in admirably when Devin Bush Jr. went down for the season with a torn ACL. The former special teamer came in and made 45 tackles with two sacks and four passes defended in seven starts.
The two inside linebacker spots were primarily filled by Avery Williamson after the Steelers traded for him at the deadline, Spillane and Vince Williams. Now Williamson is a free agent and Williams has been released by the team.
That leaves a (hopefully) recovered Bush and Spillane as the only viable options on the inside. Spillane is a feel-good story and stepped up when he was needed most, but he leaves a lot to be desired as a plan moving forward.
That should belong to an off-ball linebacker the team acquired through the draft.
They don't have to use a first-rounder to address it. But there are options who should be considered in the third round like Kentucky's Jamin Davis, who is the kind of long, athletic prospect who could pair up with the rangy Bush in the middle.
Alejandro Villanueva might not have had his best season in 2020, but he still graded out as the 28th-best tackle by Pro Football Focus. If the Steelers don't get significant improvement from Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor next season, they are going to know the pain of subpar play at tackle.
It isn't a problem the Steelers are giving them a chance to prove they can play. Okorafor was ranked 70th of 79 tackles graded by PFF last season, but he's only 23 years old. There's a chance he could still see massive improvement.
Zach Banner is an even bigger wild card, though. He has only played 302 snaps in his career. While the hulking tackle has the size at 6'8" and 360 pounds to be a difference-maker, there isn't a lot to go on.
The Steelers would be wise to add another tackle through the draft, potentially with their first pick at No. 24. After losing Matt Feiler and Villanueva in free agency, both tackle positions should be considered open for competition.
Christian Darrisaw, Teven Jenkins or Liam Eichenberg could all garner consideration if available. The second and third rounds could provide opportunities as well. This class is relatively deep at tackle as prospects such as Brady Christensen, Samuel Cosmi and Alex Leatherwood could all be starters but slide to the Steelers' later picks.
Early running back selections are divisive from a value standpoint, but if there's a team that should be looking to pull the trigger early, it's the Steelers. No team was more reliant on their passing game than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That's fine if you have a prime Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball around. They don't, though.
If Roethlisberger is to carry this offense into the postseason one more time, they have to help him with a better running game. The Steelers were dead last in rushing at 3.6 yards per carry on just 373 attempts last season.
Losing James Conner and replacing him with a committee of Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. isn't going to help that.
The Steelers need one of the dynamic running backs who are expected to go in the first two rounds to maximize the offense. That would include Travis Etienne, Najee Harris or Javonte Williams.