Ben Roethlisberger got help. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell too. And Greg Warren? Really?
For a team whose defensive shortcomings were exploited by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a bit of a “we’ll just outscore them” mentality instead during the NFL Draft.
While Pittsburgh took another shot at finding the replacement for the seemingly ageless linebacker James Harrison when the Steelers grabbed T.J. Watt (younger brother of Houston star J.J. Watt) in the first round, the heart of the AFC North champions’ selections veered toward finding depth and talent on an offense that could be among the league’s best next fall.
In talented USC wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh thinks it has found the big red zone target to complement Brown, a perennial All-Pro who has found a regular running mate elusive. Markus Wheaton spent most of 2016 hurt then left for Chicago in free agency. Sammie Coates started off then tailed off. Martavis Bryant didn’t even play a snap last season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Enter Smith-Schuster, the second-youngest draft pick in Steelers’ history (he won’t turn 21 until November) who has the size (6-foot-1) Pittsburgh lacked last season while Bryant sat out. Smith-Schuster also has a thirst for blocking.
“The ability to add a young receiver who has big possession type abilities and big red zone abilities was important,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “He adds a size and strength dimension.”
Enter running back James Conner, less than a year removed from cancer treatment , though that didn’t stop him from leaving Pitt as the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdowns scored. His arrival gives the offense a physical thump to complement the versatile Bell. Though if Colbert is being honest he’s just as pumped to see what Conner can do on kick coverage.
Enter quarterback Josh Dobbs, who will be given a chance to learn from Roethlisberger and maybe — maybe — one day be the two-time Super Bowl winner’s successor.
The secondary received some depth with cornerbacks Cameron Sutton (third round) and Brian Allen (fifth) and Pittsburgh ended things by taking a flyer on outside linebacker Keion Adams from Western Michigan.
Oh, and then there’s sixth-round pick Colin Holba, a long snapper who left Louisville early then saw it pay off when he became the first player at his position to be taken by the Steelers in 13 years. The selection raised more than a few eyebrows, but Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin pointed out that the 35-year-old Warren isn’t getting any younger and competition for jobs isn’t just for the traditional spots.
A quick look at the group of eight men Pittsburgh believes can help close the gap on New England.
VERSATILITY: Watt, Conner and Allen all spent a portion of their college careers at different positions. Watt was a tight end at Wisconsin before moving to linebacker in the spring of 2015. Durin his one year as a starter he racked up 11.5 sacks. Conner split time as a defensive end in pass rushing situations with the Panthers, one of the reasons Colbert is so eager to watch Conner on special teams. Allen started as a wide receiver at Utah before becoming a defensive back.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Smith-Schuster, Watt, Conner and Holba all left school with eligibility remaining. The Steelers, as much as any team in the NFL, like getting young players they believe they can develop, ones who might not have to unlearn bad habits picked up by extended stays in college.
A LONG SNAPPER? FOR REAL? For real. At 6-3 and 248-pounds, Holba is a former high school valedictorian who walked on at Louisville and handled the long snapping duties each of the last two seasons. He has the size to be an asset in coverage, though unseating Warren will be difficult. Warren has missed just one game since 2009.
THE NEXT BEN? Roethlisberger hinted at retirement earlier in the offseason before announcing he was returning, an announcement that came just a couple of days after Dobbs made a pre-draft visit. The two met during Dobbs’ brief tour of the team facility. Dobbs needs refinement in the passing game but ran for over 1,500 yards at Tennessee over the last two years. While Landry Jones remains the top backup, expect Dobbs to make a run at third-stringer Zach Mettenberger and – who knows – maybe even be “the guy” after Roethlisberger decides enough is enough.
“We just like everything that we saw about Josh … in terms of potential upside, natural leadership skills, communication skills,” Tomlin said. “The things that accompany the quarterback position are natural for him.”