Steelers Draft Needs Ahead of the 2020 Draft
Photo Credit: Temple Athletics
The Pittsburgh Steelers made the best value pick in round one of the NFL Draft this year… before the draft has even begun. The Steelers draft pick at 18 was traded to Miami in exchange for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick was one of the best defensive backs in all of football last season and is still only 23 years old.
But after a quiet free agent period, the team has needs to fill through the draft. In this article, I will consider some of those needs.
Normally, I would specify a specific offensive line position, rather than labelling offensive line, vaguely, as a need. However, after signing Stefen Wisniewski in the offseason to start at guard, the team is going to be looking to add a depth piece through the draft.
The Steelers are most in need of an interior offensive lineman, but bringing anyone in to patch up depth on the offensive front, either inside or outside, would be a welcome addition. Pittsburgh has grown accustomed to relying on capable depth along the offensive line for a number of years, and taking an offensive lineman in the draft would help secure that.
Potential Targets: Lloyd Cushenberry III (LSU), Matt Hennessy (Temple)
This position description is, again, more vague than I’d normally be when describing draft needs for similar reasons as I outlined above. The Steelers likely aren’t looking to bring in a starting-caliber linebacker through the draft.
This is especially true at outside linebacker with T.J. Watt and recently-tagged Bud Dupree manning the starting spots. Inside, Devin Bush will be looking to follow up a very strong rookie campaign and veteran Vince Williams will play opposite him. The depth behind these guys is pretty slim. The team has Ulysees Gilbert, Christian Kuntz, Dewayne Hendrix, Robert Spillane, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper. Combined, they have 28 career total tackles.
The Steelers have had mixed success drafting linebackers over the years, so we’ll see how well they can search for and select a formidable depth piece to play behind an incredibly talented, young group of starters.
Potential Targets: Akeem Davis-Gaither (App State), Troy Dye (Oregon), Malik Harrison (Ohio State), Casey Toohill (Stanford)
A combination of a lack of glaring roster needs and not having a first-round pick puts the Steelers in a position to simply look to add young talent and depth through the draft. This opens up the opportunity for the team to draft the best available player, rather than focus primarily on need.
I imagine this will be the strategy they deploy in this year’s draft. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be surprising if they opt to trade back in the draft at some point to acquire more picks and help sure up some more second or third spots on the depth chart.
A Note on the Non-Mention of Offensive Positions
Many Steelers draft analysts have considered needs at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. I have not included those in this list, and I think I have done so for good reason.
The Steelers have spent a lot of draft capital addressing these needs in recent years and have a lot of young players they believe in at these positions.
At quarterback, the Steelers seem content with Mason Rudolph and are hoping he continues to develop this year, as he returns to a backup role behind Ben Roethlisberger. There was a lot of speculation the team would bring in a backup quarterback in free agency after Rudolph played subpar football last year (and was eventually replaced by Devlin Hodges), but that has not materialized. That is a signal that indicates Hodges and Rudolph will be on the roster in 2020.
At running back, the team will still start James Conner in 2020. While Conner didn’t live up to expectations last season, it’s hard to disentangle how much of that was due to lack of playing ability versus playing through hampering injuries. Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell play behind Conner on the depth chart. The two are both under the age of 25 and have shown flashes of starter potential during their young careers. 2019 fourth-round pick Benny Snell, particularly, appeared poised to become a lead back toward the end of last season.
And finally, at wide receiver, the team has three young players they believe are primed to usher in the next era of their passing game. They are Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson.
Prior to last season, 23-year-old Juju Smith-Schuster was emerging as one of the league’s best receivers. The Steelers spent a second-round pick in 2018 on James Washington, who took the next step in his development last year, reeling in over 700 yards. And, they spent a third-round pick in 2019 on Diontae Johnson, who had 680 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie year.
There has been a ton of speculation that the team will draft a receiver with their second-round pick. I’m just not confident it will happen or that it makes sense; I think they will move forward with Smith-Schuster, Washington, and Johnson manning the top three receiver spots.