Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Year: 11-5)
2017 NFL Season Preview:
RB Knile Davis, WR Justin Hunter, DE/DT Tyson Alualu, CB Coty Sensabaugh.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/OLB T.J. Watt, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, CB Cameron Sutton, RB James Conner, QB Joshua Dobbs. Steelers Rookie Forecast
RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Markus Wheaton, TE Ladarius Green, DE/OLB Jarvis Jones, ILB Lawrence Timmons, CB Justin Gilbert.
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
While Tom Brady and Drew Brees have told the media that they’d like to play for several more seasons, Ben Roethlisberger has a different thought process. Roethlisberger seriously contemplated retirement this spring, according to former teammate Willie Colon. Roethlisberger turned 35 this offseason and has taken quite the beating over his career, so it’s hard to blame him for thinking about hanging up the cleats. Roethlisberger will play in 2017, but it’s fair to wonder if his heart will be completely into it.
Roethlisberger has a great arsenal of weapons on paper, but the team struggled to post any sort of points in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots once Le’Veon Bell was knocked out with an injury. New England focused entirely on Antonio Brown after that, and the Steelers basically had no hope. Bell is one of the NFL’s top running backs, so it’s understandable that the Steelers would lose some offensive momentum, but they were legitimately shut down.
Things figure to be different in 2017, as the Steelers picked up some reinforcements. Third-round rookie James Conner, who has come back from cancer, could be a better backup than DeAngelo Williams, who looked decrepit in the playoff defeat. Meanwhile, Martavis Bryant has been reinstated following a suspension that kept him out of the entire season. Bryant is incredibly talented, but needs to be able to stay out of trouble. If he can, he’ll be a strong No. 2 across from Brown, one of the top wideouts in the NFL. If Bryant falters, the Steelers at least selected JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round. Smith-Schuster is a tall (6-1) receiver who is only 20 years old, but he thrived at USC for three seasons and could supplant Sammie Coates as Bryant’s backup. Slot receiver Eli Rogers, entering his second season, will be even better than he was in his rookie campaign with some experience under his belt.
The one thing Pittsburgh doesn’t have offensively is a dynamic tight end threat. Ladarius Green was supposed to be that player, but he hasn’t been able to overcome his concussions, so the Steelers parted ways with him. The scuttlebutt was that Roethlisberger asked the front office to select a tight end No. 30 overall, but O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Evan Engram were all off the board by the time Pittsburgh was on the clock. The Steelers will have to go with the underwhelming Jesse James and Xavier Grimble at the position instead.
The Steelers at least have a prolific offensive line. There aren’t any weaknesses in the entire unit, though it could be argued that center Maurkice Pouncey is, if only because of his health. Pouncey has missed 32 games in the past four seasons, though he played in 15 contests last year. But that’s about it. The tackles are both very skilled, as Alejandro Villanueva has evolved into a talented blind-side protector. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is even better. Meanwhile, the two guards are the strength of the blocking corps, as Ramon Foster and David DeCastro are both exceptional.
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
The Steelers improved in defensive yards surrendered from 21st in 2015 to 12th this past season. However, that didn’t stop them from spending their initial draft selection on a player to further bolster their stop unit.
T.J. Watt was the player chosen at No. 30 overall. The pick made a lot of sense, as James Harrison isn’t going to be around much longer. Harrison’s ability to perform on a high level is unreal; he turned 39 this offseason, yet is still an extremely potent edge rusher. The numbers say that he recorded only five sacks, but his snaps were limited each week to preserve him for the entire year. The Steelers still have Bud Dupree across from Harrison, but he was on the field for just seven games this past season. They needed another edge rusher to eventually supplant Harrison, and the athletic Watt probably won’t disappoint them.
The rest of the defense is pretty much the same, save for inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons’ departure; Timmons defected for Miami this offseason. However, Timmons was a rapidly regressing player, so he won’t be missed. The Steelers will move forward with Ryan Shazier and one of Vince Williams or Tyler Matakevich as their linebackers. Williams was the third inside linebacker this past season, but Matakevich has promise as a second-year player. He was chosen in the seventh round last April, but he was highly regarded in some circles, so he could emerge as a worthy complement to the speedy Shazier.
Rounding out the front seven, the Steelers took a huge blow when they lost Cameron Heyward last year to a torn pectoral in November. Heyward was already struggling with a hamstring issue, but his absence was enormous, as he’s arguably the top player on Pittsburgh’s defense. Stephon Tuitt stepped up when Heyward went down, but Pittsburgh really needed both defensive ends on the field versus Tom Brady in the AFC Championship. They’ll flank Javon Hargrave, a 2016 third-rounder who did OK at nose tackle as a rookie. He figures to improve his play next year.
The Steelers have two other second-year players on defense whom they expect to thrive with some experience. The first is cornerback Artie Burns, who was chosen in the opening round. Burns struggled to tackle in his rookie campaign, but did fairly well in coverage and showed enough promise that the Steelers have to believe that he’s going to be a solid starting cornerback fairly soon. Burns will play along with William Gay and Ross Cockrell, two decent corners. Cockrell, just 26 in August, is entering his contract season, so the Steelers may have to find a replacement next spring. Gay, on the other hand, turned 32 this offseason, so he may regress.
The other promising young player is safety Sean Davis, who did an adequate job as a second-round rookie last year. Davis will start next to Mike Mitchell, a talented safety who is coming off shoulder surgery. Mitchell is expected to be cleared prior to training camp.
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
Excluding New England, no one in the AFC has a better road record than Pittsburgh since 2004; the Steelers are 65-46 as visitors in that time frame. They’re not bad at home either (83-30).
The Steelers had some major kicking woes in 2015 – until they found Chris Boswell, who drilled 29-of-32 attempts, including 2-of-2 from 50-plus. He was slightly worse this past season, going 21-of-25. However, he didn’t miss a single extra point.
Jordan Berry was just in the middle of the pack in net punting yardage, ranking 15th in that department.
Pittsburgh must improve on special teams, as it was outgained on both punt and kickoff returns in 2016.
The Steelers have a somewhat easy schedule, as only one of their first seven opponents reached the playoffs last year (Chiefs). Their other foes in that span are the Browns, Vikings, Bears, Ravens, Jaguars and Bengals. Things get harder after that, though they do get to battle their tough opponents – Patriots, Packers, Titans – all at home.
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies:
Go here for the Steelers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: The Steelers have one of the top offenses in the NFL, while their defense is good enough to help them get to the Super Bowl. They also happen to play in an easy division, and they own a soft schedule as a result. If Ben Roethlisberger’s head is in the game, rather than impending retirement, the Steelers stand a realistic chance of claiming yet another Lombardi Trophy.
Projection: 11-5 (1st in AFC North)
2016 Projection: 10-6. 2016 Actual Result: 11-5.
NFL Draft Team Grade: B+ Grade
Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: The Steelers struggled offensively when Le’Veon Bell was lost with an injury in the AFC Championship. More play-making talent is needed on offense. The defense doesn’t need as much work, but an edge rusher, an inside linebacker and a cornerback should be acquired.
2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Steelers certainly focused on their needs, as their first four selections were used to fill obvious holes. They began by selecting T.J. Watt, who will help their pass rush. The highly athletic Watt projects as a capable replacement for James Harrison in the future, but for the time being, he’ll be a solid rotational player to go along with Harrison and Bud Dupree.
Two picks were used on offense in the first three rounds. JuJu Smith-Schuster was chosen at the end of the second frame, which was a bit later than he could have been chosen. Smith-Schuster’s selection actually sparked a Twitter war between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates, where the two disappointing receivers argued whom Smith-Schuster would replace. The answer would obviously be Coates, unless Bryant gets into trouble again. Meanwhile, James Conner was a solid choice at the end of the third round. Unless something devastating happens, he’ll continue to get healthier and revert back to pre-cancer form. If so, he’ll be a strong backup behind Le’Veon Bell.
Pittsburgh took care of other needs, such as finding a potential successor for Ben Roethlisberger in Joshua Dobbs (at the very least, a replacement for Landry Jones). The Steelers also chose two cornerbacks in Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, and both provided good value with where they were chosen, especially Allen.
The Steelers did a very good job with their draft overall. Five of their initial six selections earned a B+ or A-, and the one exception was a “B.”
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
30. T.J. Watt, DE/OLB, Wisconsin: B+ Grade
This is a solid pick by the Steelers, acquiring a player some believed wouldn’t be available. I’ve had Watt slotted either to the Lions (No. 21) or Cowboys (No. 28), so this is solid value. Watt fills a huge need for Pittsburgh as an eventual replacement for James Harrison. He also has the great athleticism the Steelers look for in their prospects, so this seems like a very good fit.
62. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC: B+ Grade
I thought the Steelers should’ve gone after Chris Godwin, but JuJu Smith-Schuster makes a lot of sense as well. Smith-Schuster fits the range, as I moved him back and forth between the second and third rounds, and he definitely fills a need as well. Pittsburgh had no offense when Le’Veon Bell got hurt in the AFC Championship, which allowed Bill Belichick to completely focus on Antonio Brown. The Steelers can’t count on Martavis Bryant, so Smith-Schuster could be a big factor in this offense.
94. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee: B Grade
I had Cameron Sutton going around this range, so it makes sense from a range standpoint, and it’s no surprise that the Steelers have opted to land a cornerback on Day 2, as they were reported to be looking for one here. Sutton struggles to tackle and tested poorly at the combine, but he’s decent in coverage. He’s not an exciting pick, but he makes sense for Pittsburgh.
105. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh: B+ Grade
The projections on James Conner were all over the place. I know that another team considered James Conner in the third round. However, a couple of other teams graded him as a late-round pick, and not all of that had to do with his ability. Some were scared that something terribly unfortunate could happen, and Conner’s cancer could return. If it doesn’t, Conner could be a great pro. He wasn’t as explosive last year as he was before his cancer, but he could regain his ability and be an effective NFL back. The Steelers needed a reserve behind Le’Veon Bell, and Conner should be a solid No. 2 runner at the very least if he stays healthy.
135. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: B+ Grade
And finally, the Landry Jones era is over. Joshua Dobbs didn’t emerge as the first-round prospect Todd McShay expected him to be, but Dobbs did legitimately get some second-day buzz. Dobbs is a very smart quarterback, but doesn’t possess much ball velocity. Still, he projects to be a better backup than Jones, who has been the worst quarterback in the entire NFL for quite some time.
173. Brian Allen, CB, Utah: A- Grade
Brian Allen is a bit of a project, as he used to play receiver, so he’s still learning how to be a cornerback. However, he’s long, fast and agile, and he tested extremely well. His upside is tremendous, and I thought his range in the fifth round made sense. I like this pick a lot.
213. Colin Holba, LS, Louisville: C- Grade
I’m not a fan of selecting a long-snapper in the sixth round. It’s like taking a kicker before the last round of your fantasy league. Long-snappers can be found on the street, so it’s seventh round or UDFA for me.
248. Keion Adams, DE/OLB, Western Michigan: B Grade
Keion Adams wasn’t in my mock, but I considered him for the seventh round, so he fits the range. Even though the Steelers selected T.J. Watt in the first round, it doesn’t hurt to add more pass-rushing depth.
The Steelers lost four consecutive games at one point during the regular season, thanks to Ben Roethlisberger not being healthy for three of them. Roethlisberger was able to return to 100 percent, and Pittsburgh went on a long winning streak as a result. However, their year ended in the AFC Championship. Their defense couldn’t stop Tom Brady, while their offense sputtered because Le’Veon Bell suffered an early injury.
- Edge Rusher: The Steelers can’t keep counting on James Harrison, who turns 39 this offseason. They’ll need to add a talented, young edge rusher to start across from Bud Dupree in the near future. Re-signed James Harrison
- Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons is headed for free agency, but he’s been a declining player anyway. The Steelers have to find a new starting mate next to Ryan Shazier. Perhaps Tyler Matakevich can be that guy, but he didn’t play much as a seventh-round rookie.
- Safety: Sean Davis was a second-round pick last year, but he struggled as a rookie. I’m sure he’ll improve, but a veteran safety should be added as competition.
- Cornerback Depth: If Ross Cockrell leaves via free agency, Artie Burns will replace him as the starter across from William Gay. Depth will be needed though. Signed Coty Sensabaugh
- Running Back Depth: DeAngelo Williams is an impending 34-year-old free agent. He’ll have to be replaced if he heads elsewhere.
- Backup Quarterback: Landry Jones is a free agent, so the Steelers will finally be forced to find a quality backup quarterback. Re-signed Landry Jones
- Center Depth: The Steelers could lose Cody Wallace to free agency this year. If so, they’ll need a new backup center behind Maurkice Pouncey.
Follow me @walterfootball for updates.
2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
- Tyson Alualu, DE/DT, Jaguars. Age: 30. — Signed with Steelers
- Justin Hunter, WR, Bills. Age: 26. — Signed with Steelers
- Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Giants. Age: 28. — Signed with Steelers
- Knile Davis, RB, Chiefs. Age: 25. — Signed with Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:
Salary Cap Space: $43M
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers. Age: 25.
Franchised by Steelers
Le’Veon Bell is arguably the best running back in the NFL. He’s a terrific runner, and he’s also very dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield; he caught 75 passes in 2016. He’ll also be just 25 in February. The only concern regarding Bell is his tendency to get suspended for drug tests. Ian Rapoport has reported that Bell will be franchised.
Ross Cockrell (RFA), CB, Steelers. Age: 26.
Tendered by Steelers (original)
The Bills selected Ross Cockrell in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. They cut him, and the Steelers were able to greatly benefit, as Cockrell has been a very solid starter for them over the past couple of seasons. He turns only 26 in August, so he could continue to improve his game.
James Harrison, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 39.
Re-signed with Steelers
James Harrison is a freak of nature. How does he continue to dominate despite being in his late 30s? Harrison recorded five sacks in 2016, but that number is misleading because Harrison played about half the team’s defensive snaps. This was done to keep him fresh, and it worked out, as Harrison was very effective when on the field.
Jarvis Jones, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 27.
Signed with Cardinals
Jarvis Jones is one of countless busts from the 2013 NFL Draft. However, he hasn’t been nearly as bad as some of the other players from that class. Jones hasn’t put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but he’s been solid in run support at least.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB, Steelers. Age: 31.
Signed with Dolphins (2 years, $10 million)
Lawrence Timmons has always been an underrated player; the NFL routinely keeping him out of the top-100 players list was a crime. Unfortunately, Timmons has regressed rapidly over the past couple of years, and he was a liability at times this past season.
Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers. Age: 27.
Ladarius Green’s career has been extremely unfortunate. He never had a chance in San Diego because of Antonio Gates, and his concussion issues prevented him from ever emerging in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have given up on him despite not having anything but Jesse James at the position, which is a horrible sign for his long-term outlook. Hopefully he can eventually recover. There’s still time, as he’s only 27.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Steelers. Age: 34.
DeAngelo Williams was the league leader in rushing yards when Le’Veon Bell was out of the lineup. However, he finished the year with a meager 3.5 YPC average in 2016, and he turns 34 the week of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Steelers. Age: 25.
Justin Gilbert has been absolutely terrible in the NFL thus far, but I’m rating him above the 1.5-star players because he was the eighth-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, so he obviously has some great potential. Gilbert, however, has put zero effort into his career thus far. Perhaps being waived by the Steelers will serve as a wake-up call for him to turn his career around before he’s out of the league for good.
Karlos Williams, RB, Steelers. Age: 24.
Karlos Williams has tremendous ability and is good enough to be a very good starter in the NFL. Unfortunately, he has some mental issues he’ll need to overcome before he can continue his playing career.
- Anthony Chickillo (RFA), DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 24.
- Chris Hubbard (RFA), OT/G, Steelers. Age: 26. — Tendered by Steelers
- Ricardo Matthews, DE/DT, Steelers. Age: 30.
- Steven Johnson, ILB, Steelers. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Steelers
- Markus Wheaton, WR, Steelers. Age: 26. — Signed with Bears
- Shamarko Thomas, S, Steelers. Age: 26. — Signed with Jets
- Cody Wallace, C, Steelers. Age: 32.
- Landry Jones, QB, Steelers. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Steelers
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