The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. For the sake of their season, it sucked: they were 11-0 with a voracious defense and a multifarious offense, and a wild-card departure is disappointing relative to those expectations. But for the sake of their offseason, it was a good education.
The Steelers have a lot of expiring contracts: RB James Conner, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, LT Alejandro Villanueva, OL Matt Feiler, iDL Tyson Alualu, EDGE Bud Dupree, CB Mike Hilton, and CB Cam Sutton are all entering free agency in 2021, and the Steelers can only bring a few of them back.
They also have an expiring quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger. Due more than $40 million in 2021, the 38-year-old has declining arm strength and accordingly limits the offense: he throws the ball too quickly and too close to the line of scrimmage. The Steelers need a solution to beef up their passing game, and it’s tough to imagine a short-term answer including Roethlisberger, let alone a long-term one.
Unfortunately, a quarterback problem is hard to solve when you’re picking at 24. I didn’t address the position until late in this one, assuming the Steelers add one of the young, reclamation quarterbacks (Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold) to develop behind Roethlisberger and potentially take his job. Instead, I tried to build the offense to support the new quarterback, while still ensuring the defense remains tops in the league.
Round 1 (No. 24 overall): Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
You’d love for there to be a quarterback here, but there won’t be. Even if you’re willing to take Mac Jones at the end of Round 1, you’ll have other teams in the 20s to compete against—and I’m not sure you should be willing to make that pick in the first place.
So instead, attack your biggest need, which also happens to be a huge contributing factor to the success of any quarterback you add in the event of a Roethlisberger retirement: offensive tackle. Villanueva and Feiler are both free agents this season, and Chuks Okorafor’s contract expires after 2021. The Steelers’ offensive line struggled in pass protection this year with all three players starting on the line (Feiler played guard), so improvements across the board would be welcome.
How he fits: Cosmi wins with athleticism and length, so he should be comfortable on an island for a Steelers team that doesn’t often play with in-line tight ends. Cosmi will take his lumps early in his career, as he needs more functional mass, and won’t be a people-mover in the running game—but for the Steelers’ quick passing game, he should provide a safe blindside.
Round 2 (No. 56 overall): Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
This is a thin corner class, and it didn’t fall to me the way I wanted it to. Jaycee Horn went one pick before my first-round selection, and Shaun Wade went just before my second-round selection. Sometimes, that’s just how mock drafts go. But I strongly feel corner is a need for the Steelers, so I wanted to spend the premium pick on it.
Accordingly, I took a bit of a gamble on Adebo, a two-year starter at Stanford whose best ball came as a freshman in 2018. Adebo’s evaluation will be a tough one, but he has ball skills, route recognition, and good length to survive as a zone corner. It’s his man coverage that will take time.
How he fits: Adebo is a good candidate to play outside, which gives the Steelers depth behind Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, both of whom played worse in 2020 relative to their 2019 performances. That will keep Cam Sutton in the slot, where he’s been great the season, after they lose Mike Hilton in free agency. With the difficulty Justin Layne has endured seeing the field, the Steelers need a young corner to develop.
Round 3 (No. 87 overall): Michael Carter, RB, North Carolina
The Steelers will be tied to the top of the running back class for the entire draft cycle, and deservedly so: their running game died over the stretch and James Conner is a tough free agent sell given his injury history. You need a player you’d feel comfortable giving the lion’s share of the carries.
Carter is perfect for that. He brings third-level speed, a ton of experience, and more receiving game value than any back the Steelers currently have on the roster. For my money, he’s the RB4 in this class, which is a nice value at the end of the third round.
How he fits: Carter will be best on zone runs, which isn’t exactly where the Steelers’ offensive line is right now: they’ve got size and they want to run power. But every team in the league has to invest more in working zone flow with the advantages it offers in the play-action passing game, which the Steelers sorely lacked this year as part of their aerial approach. Carter would hopefully represent the beginning of that shift.
Round 4 (No. 125 overall): Malcolm Koonce, EDGE, Buffalo
The Steelers hit on a middle-round, Group of 5 dart throw on an athletic EDGE in Alex Highsmith, and I’m right back to the well with Koonce. The Buffalo product is a little light, as Highsmith was, but has the explosiveness and length to win as an outside edge rusher, which is what the Steelers need opposite Highsmith.
How he fits: He’ll play behind Highsmith and rotate with Ola Adeniyi providing more depth to a position that needs it—did you see Cassius Marsh against the Browns on Sunday night? The combined chance of Highsmith and Koonce hitting in a big way gives the Steelers security opposite T.J. Watt and keeps a strength a strength in their pass rush.
Round 4 (No. 138 overall): Ar’Darius Washington, S, TCU
Remember when I said the Steelers should draft Adebo to solve the cornerback problem on the outside? Well, let’s hedge that bet.
Washington is a great player for the Horned Frogs—smart, physical, quick. His size may limit him in the league, but as a nickel defender, I love his projection as a subpackage starter. By adding Washington, the Steelers could solve the slot problem if and when Mike Hilton leaves, and then push Cam Sutton to the outside to start there. This move gives them versatility
How he fits: Washington won’t look like he belongs in the Steelers’ safety room with their tremendous size and hitting power, but don’t get it twisted: he’s super tough. Consider him a slot corner who will also bring Hilton-like intensity to his blitzing role.
Round 5 (No. 201 overall): Alaric Jackson, OT, Iowa
Consider Jackson a guard/tackle swing for the Steelers in 2021. He’s got some good film at tackle for Iowa, but the league may consider him as a guard prospect given some of his quickness and length concerns against top-tier EDGEs. They can play him at tackle if they think he wins that job, but he can also compete for guard roles. He lets you experiment with lineups and put your “best five” linemen on the field come Week 1.
How he fits: Jackson has a great profile as a road-grader unlike Cosmi, so this is far more of a familiar Steelers culture fit. They love size and strength in the trenches, and that’s how he succeeds.
Round 5 (No. 221 overall): Malik Herring, IDL, Georgia
Went after a scheme fit here. Herring is a big end in the mold of Isaiah Buggs and Chris Wormley, who the Steelers have added over the last couple of seasons. This is a spot the Steelers want to get right so they can two-gap in some of their more diverse fronts with their ends to keep players like Watt and Dupree free. With Javon Hargrave gone and Alualu potentially leaving in free agency, Herring adds depth to a position that may see fewer snaps from Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward as they play more inside.
How he fits: As I said, it’s a scheme fit. Herring must get stronger and more aggressive taking on and disconnecting from blocks in the league, so weight room time will be good for him. His knowledge of the game is pro-ready though, coming out of such a multiple front as Georgia’s.
Round 7 (No. 239 overall): Ian Book, QB, Notre Dame
I didn’t want to leave this draft without a quarterback, though the board never fell great for me. A seventh-round pick on Book is fine for me. Book is unlikely to ever be a good starter in the league, as he’s physically limited and doesn’t have elite accuracy, but players like Gardner Minshew and Taylor Heinicke have shown you can get high-floor play out of quick scramblers who are willing to check down aggressively.
How he fits: If the Steelers continue with an extremely short passing game, then Book’s arm strength will be enough—and his ability to buy time and hit scramble-drill throws downfield will be a welcome boost. If they want to become more than that—which they should—he will limit them.
Round 7 (No. 249 overall): Austin Watkins, WR, UAB
I didn’t want to leave this draft without a wide receiver, either. The Steelers didn’t need to spend a middle-round pick on wideout, though they usually do, but I decided to wait till the end of a great draft and go after Watkins. He’s got good size for a speedster and presents a good replacement for James Washington and running mate for Chase Claypool on the outside, leaving Diontae Johnson as a primarily slot receiver.
How he fits: Watkins will challenge Ray-Ray McCloud at the bottom of the depth chart, where he must win the starting returner job to hang on the roster. If he can hang, he can fill a field-stretching role as Claypool and Johnson work to fill more of the underneath routes that JuJu Smith-Schuster will be vacating if he departs in free agency.
Now it’s time for you to use our Mock Draft Machine and help the Steelers accomplish their 2021 goals.