In 2014, the Steelers' made the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season, ending a rare two-year hiatus from the postseason.
In large part, that was due to the drafts Kevin Colbert had starting in 2010, as he began retooling the team's roster and the team acquired offensive stars such as Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro.
The teams built primarily on their defense were a thing of the past, as the offense took center stage. But that doesn't mean the Steelers weren't trying to revamp the defense after all of the stars from the Super Bowl era moved on.
In fact, every first-round draft pick the team has made in the past six seasons has been on defense. Unfortunately for the Steelers, injuries and ineffectiveness have meant not all of those picks have worked out.
The Steelers made the playoffs every season from 2014 through 2017, but made just one appearance in the AFC Championship, losing to New England at the end of the 2016 season. And as we'll see, it was because of a mixed bag of results in the draft for Colbert during the period.
But, until this year, when the Steelers moved up from the 20th to the 10th pick to select Devin Bush, the team's average draft position in the previous four years in the first round was 26th. That doesn't lend itself to drafting sure-fire stars.
Today, 2015 through the present:
Round 1, Bud Dupree, LB, Kentucky; Round 2, Senquez Golson, CB, Mississippi; Round 3, Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn; Round 4, Doran Grant, CB, Ohio State; Round 5, Jesse James, TE, Penn State; Round 6, LT Walton, DE, Central Michigan; Round 6, Anthony Chickillo, LB, Miami; Round 7, Gerod Holliman, S, Louisville
Best Pick: Dupree -- Yes, Dupree hasn't become a star. But he has developed into a decent starter. He might never become a 10-sack player in the NFL, but he's capable as a run stopper and can be an eight-sack guy. In fact, he was on that pace last season until suffering a torn pectoral muscle in late November. To his credit, Dupree played through the injury, but after recording 4.5 sacks in the team's first nine games, he finished with 5.5, at least in part due to the injury. The Steelers picked up his fifth-year option for this season at $9.2 million. He has 20 sacks in 54 career games, so he's not in the same ballpark as Jarvis Jones, but his play does leave you wanting more.
Best Value: James -- The Steelers got some good years out of the fifth-round tight end. And his departure this season for a 4-year, $22.6-million contract with the Lions gave the Steelers the ammunition to go sign Steven Nelson and Donte Moncrief without losing the potential third-round compensatory pick they might receive for Bell's departure. The Steelers got 120 catches for 1,189 yards and nine touchdowns -- and one near touchdown against the Patriots that nobody will ever forget -- in his four seasons in Pittsburgh.
Worst Pick: Grant -- It would be low-hanging fruit to take Golson here. Injuries robbed the second-round pick of any chance at a career and he never appeared in an NFL game. But nobody would have thought that would happen. And Golson was a solid pick at the time. Coates also got consideration here, but he did have a strong start to the 2016 season subbing for Martavis Bryant, who was suspended. Coates had 19 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns in the team's first five games before a severely broken finger limited his ability to catch the ball. No, we'll go with Grant here. The fourth-round pick was released at the end of training camp and signed to the practice squad. He was signed to the active roster later in the year, but appeared in just three games. He has since bounced around to four other teams and just played for the now-defunct AAF's Atlanta Legends in 2019. The player taken immediately after Grant, Kentucky outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, just signed a 4-year, $66-million contract to leave the Ravens for the Packers. Kwon Alexander, an inside linebacker, was selected by the Buccaneers three picks later. He just signed a 4-year, $54-million deal with the 49ers this offseason. Only 18 players selected in this entire draft have appeared in a Pro Bowl, but the Steelers could have done better.
Overall Grade: D-plus
Round 1, Artie Burns, CB, Miami (Fla.); Round 2, Sean Davis, S, Maryland; Round 3, Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State; Round 4, Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU; Round 5, Travis Feeney, LB, Washington; Round 7, Demarcus Ayers, WR, Houston; Round 7, Tyler Matekevich, LB, Temple
Best Pick: Davis -- Davis has been moved around quite a bit early in his career, going from slot corner to strong safety, and now free safety. But he's been better than some Steelers fans give him credit for being. Yes, he struggled with Rob Gronkowski. Who didn't? The second-round pick has made 40 starts in his three seasons, recording 239 tackles and five interceptions. We also considered Hargrave here, but he was the best value.
Best Value: Hargrave -- Remember the people who were blaming Hargrave for the team's loss to the Jaguars in the postseason in 2017? Remember when they said the Steelers needed to get a "real" nose tackle? We didn't hear much from them in 2018, as Hargrave had a very productive season, recording 49 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Yes, he's not Casey Hampton. But there might not be a place for a Hampton-type player in today's NFL. Rushing the passer is key, and Hargrave does it well. Getting Hargrave with the 89th pick in the draft was a steal.
Worst pick: Burns -- Though he has never missed a game in his three-year career and started 31 of them, Burns lost his starting job to Coty Sensabaugh midway through a terrible 2018 season. The Steelers chose not to pick up his fifth-year option, meaning Burns is likely headed into his final season with the team -- unless he's released or traded before the season. A press-man corner in college, Burns has been unable to adjust to playing more zone in the NFL. In fact, he has often been the culprit for blown assignments in those situations. Think about how the blown assignments came to an end in 2018 when he was no longer on the field. To make matters worse, Xavien Howard, the next cornerback selected in the 2016 draft, has turned into a Pro Bowl player for the Dolphins. Only 19 players from this draft class have played in a Pro Bowl, but the Steelers missed on one there. Davis and Hargrave save the draft grade here.
Round 1, T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin; Round 2, JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC; Round 3, Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee; Round 3, James Conner, RB, Pitt; Round 4, Joshua Dobbs, WB, Tennessee; Round 5, Brian Allen, CB, Utah; Round 6, Colin Holba, LS, Louisville; Round 7, Keion Adams, LB, Western Michigan
Best Pick: Watt -- Tough call here, since Watt, Smith-Schuster and Conner all went to the Pro Bowl a year ago, but given the fact Watt became the team's first linebacker to reach double digits in sacks since 2010 with his 13 in 2018, we'll go with him here. Watt is the only first-round pick beyond the top 12 in the 2017 draft to make a Pro Bowl. And it looks like he could be a perennial pick given his 20 sacks in his first two seasons. He also had six forced fumbles last season, which is what the Steelers need from that position.
Best Value: Smith-Schuster -- Again, another tough call. We could have gone with Conner here after his Pro Bowl season in 2018. But Smith-Schuster was selected with the 62nd pick in the draft and was the sixth receiver taken. He's been the best by a bunch. Conner was the eighth running back taken in what is looking like a great running back draft, so we'll go with Smith-Schuster as the better value.
Worst Pick: Holba -- Yes, it was just a sixth-round pick, but if you take a long snapper in the draft, shouldn't he at least make your team? Holba did not, getting beaten out in training camp by Kameron Canaday. The Steelers went into this draft knowing longtime longsnapper Greg Warren was likely done. And they reacted accordingly. So we're not going to kill them for taking a shot here. Holba might still work out for some team. He played in seven games for the Jaguars as a rookie and four last season for the 49ers. In this otherwise solid draft, however, he seems like a wasted pick.
Round 1, Terrell Edmunds, S, Virginia Tech; Round 2, James Washington, WR, Oklahoma; Round 3, Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma; Round 3, Chuks Okorafor, OT, Central Michigan; Round 5, Marcus Allen, S, Penn State; Round 5, Jaylen Samuels, RB, North Carolina State; Round 7, Joshua Frazier, NT, Alabama
Best Pick: Edmunds -- We're a bit incomplete in evaluating this draft, given that these players have only been around for a year. But Edmunds played 1,189 snaps in 2018, which was not only the most of any player on the Steelers' roster, it led all NFL rookies. He produced 78 tackles, an interception and four passes defended, and he seems to be just scratching the surface on his overall ability. Some critics feel Edmunds was not a first-round talent, but those people fail to recognize Edmunds was the 28th pick in the draft, not the eighth or even the 18th.
Best Value: Okorafor -- Some very respected draft analysts had a first-round grade on Okorafor. In fact, one had him listed as its top offensive tackle prospect. He played reasonably well in his one spot start in 2018, in Denver, despite matching up against Von Miller most of the game. Okorafor has a shot to be the starting right tackle this season. Even if he doesn't win that, he's going to be a starter at some point for the Steelers, which is nice value for the 92nd player taken.
Worst pick: Incomplete -- The only player from this draft not on the current roster is Frazier, but it's tough to call a seventh-round pick the worst. Yes, perhaps the Steelers could have taken Jessie Bates or Justin Reid in the first round instead of Edmunds, but Bates lasted until the middle of the second round and Reid went in the third. Perhaps they could have taken linebacker Darius Leonard in the first round and Reid in the second, but hindsight is 20-20 on that. So, let's wait a couple of years to see how things play out.
Overall Grade: C (based on one year)
Round 1, Devin Bush, LB, Michigan; Round 3, Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo; Round 3, Justin Layne, CB, Michigan State; Round 4, Bennie Snell, RB, Kentucky; Round 5, Zach Gentry, TE, Michigan; Round 6, Sutton Smith, LB, Northern Illinois; Round 6, Isaiah Buggs, DE, Alabama; Round 6, Ulysees Gilbert, LB, Akron; Round 7, Derwin Gray, OL, Maryland
Best Pick: Bush -- The Steelers moved up in the first round for the first time since going up to get Santonio Holmes in 2006. He's looked every bit the future star the Steelers pegged him as going into this draft. Of course, he hasn't played a down in the NFL yet, so there's still plenty to prove. But the Steelers are very happy with his progress thus far. They gave up their first- and second-round picks this year and a third in 2020 to acquire him, so he'd better be good.
Best Value: Layne -- Layne was a player receiving first-round consideration throughout the draft process. Then, the cornerbacks fell in this draft, with the first not going until the end of the first round. The Steelers took advantage of that by getting Layne with the 83rd selection. A 6-foot-2 corner with ball skills, Layne looks the part of a future starter.
Worst pick: Incomplete -- Honestly, the only pick that was a head scratcher was Gentry, a slow, pass-catching tight end. But given the run on tight ends in this draft -- there were 10 taken ahead of him, including eight in rounds 2 through 4 -- who could have guessed the run would go like that. There was just one other tight end taken in the fifth and sixth rounds, so the Steelers made the move when they had to. And they loved the other players they selected when they took them.
Overall Grade: B (Based on post-draft analysis)
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