Steelers likely to focus on defense early in draft
PITTSBURGH — Kevin Colbert isn’t a fan of the word “need.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers general manager believes it points too specifically to one area of weakness.
“We have to be better and I do not think we were better in 2017 than we were in 2016 because we got eliminated a round earlier,” Colbert said of the AFC North champions, who were upset at home by Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs. “And I think that’s a reflection on the job that all of us did or didn’t do. And how do we get better?”
For the Steelers — who never met a salary cap they didn’t like to butt up against — that means using the draft as a way to address what Colbert prefers to call “challenges.”
Even for a team that’s won three division titles in four years, there are plenty to go around.
Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ryan Shazier has already been ruled out for 2018 while recovering from spine stabilization surgery that has put his career in jeopardy.
All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell could be playing his final season in Pittsburgh in 2018 if the two sides can’t find enough common ground to lock him up to a long-term deal.
The secondary is in the process of yet another overhaul after Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden were cut loose in March.
While Pittsburgh added defensive back Morgan Burnett and linebacker Jon Bostic as relatively low-cost free agents, the Steelers prefer to add difference makers in the draft, as they did last year when they took linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second.
Pittsburgh has the 28th overall pick and multiple picks in the fifth and seven rounds, with none in the fourth or sixth. A linebacker along the lines of Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch or Alabama’s Rashaan Evans could help immediately address Shazier’s absence.
A cornerback might also be in play considering 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns appeared to take a step back in his second season.
Regardless, the Steelers are almost certain to use their top pick on the defensive side of the ball for the seventh time in eight years, as tends to happen when you give up 45 points to Jacksonville.
“I think that the group we have coming back, most of those players, are either in their prime or they are on the rise,” Colbert said.
“I do believe that group has a chance to get better. Does that mean we won’t add to it? If we don’t change the roster we had in 2017, what reason would we think there would be any difference in the results? So, we have to be ready to be better than we were last year.”
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to maintain its Super Bowl window a little longer.
Depending on when you ask him, Bell might hold out a week or two during the regular season.
Or he might not.
He might stay in Pittsburgh the rest of his career.
Or he might not.
Either way the All-Pro is almost certainly going to wait until late August at the earliest to sign his franchise tender if he and the Steelers can’t work things out.
Pittsburgh could tip its hand about its plans at the position by taking a back in the early rounds. The Steelers used a third-round pick on James Conner last spring, but his rookie year was cut short by injury.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went from waffling about his future to telling teammates he can go three more years. The two-time Super Bowl winner turned 36 in March and now gets to see what he can do with Randy Fichtner as the offensive coordinator following Todd Haley’s departure.
Still, Roethlisberger isn’t going to play forever. The Steelers met with high-level quarterbacks in the run-up to the draft. They haven’t taken a quarterback before the fourth round since tabbing Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in 2004.
If they do it this time — Lamar Jackson anybody? — it would provide them time to groom the pick as Roethlisberger’s eventual successor, though it’s more likely they wait at least one more season.
Hits, misses and bargains
The Steelers are as adept as any team in the league in turning late-round picks into success stories (see Brown, Antonio). Their record in the early rounds, however, is spotty. For every Vince Williams — taken in the sixth round in 2013 who is now a starter at inside linebacker — there is a Senquez Golson.
Pittsburgh selected the cornerback in the second round in 2015. He missed all of 2015 and 2016 because of injury and then was among the final cuts in 2017.