With the NFL draft over a month away, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more time to do their due diligence on a few players that may fill some voids.
The Steelers have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL, anchored by Pro Bowlers at the skill and line positions (Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Receiver Antonio Brown, Running Back Le’Veon Bell, Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva, Center Maurkice Pouncey, and Right Guard David DeCastro).
Defense is a different story. The Steelers lost probably their best defensive player, Ryan Shazier, to a spinal injury that forced him to miss the final four games of the regular season and playoffs. It has already been announced Shazier will miss all of the 2018 season and quite possibly end his career.
Losing Shazier creates a huge void for the Steelers, among other defensive holes. Mike Mitchell, who has started at free safety for the Steelers in the last four seasons, was cut during this offseason after seeing his play on the field decline. Having two defensive voids is big and creates needs at safety and inside linebacker that the Steelers will need to address in the draft.
The problem is which need is more important to address in the first-round and will there be a talented enough player at either position with the 28th pick?
Recently, the Steelers signed free agent and former Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett. Burnett started 12 games for the Packers in 2017 and registered 68 total tackles and one forced fumble. He has been fairly reliable over his eight-year career with the Packers, amassing over 500 tackles, nine interceptions, and can serve as an upgrade at safety over the aging Mitchell. But is Burnett enough to satisfy the need for a game-changing safety?
Players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James may be off the board by the time the Steelers select in the first-round, but take a took at some safeties who could be available in the first or second round of the draft.
- Ronnie Harrison (Alabama): Harrison played in 44 games for the Crimson Tide over his three-year stint. He had 74 tackles and three interceptions in his 2017 campaign, which culminated in a 2017 National Championship. Harrison is known for his enforcer mentality, delivering big hits up the middle and not shying away from contact.
- Justin Reid (Stanford): Reid, who is the younger brother of former San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, is strikingly similar to his brother. Both are sure tacklers and make their presence felt while on the field. Reid finished last season at Stanford with 99 tackles and 5 interceptions.
- DeShon Elliot (Texas): Elliott’s greatest attribute while at Texas was his ability to be a center-fielding type free safety. In 12 games last season, Elliott had 6 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
Just as the Steelers signed a proven free agent at safety this offseason, they did the same at inside backer by signing former Indianapolis Colts, Jon Bostic. The former 2013 second-round pick finished third on the Colts in tackles with 97. He missed the final two games with a knee injury that landed him on the injured reserved. While Bostic seems like a great fit for the Steelers, there is still a void left in Shazier’s absence.
Will a player come in and have the same impact as Shazier? That is hard to judge, but here are a few inside backers that can help mitigate the absence of him:
- Rashaan Evans (Alabama): Evans is perhaps the most versatile linebacker in this draft class. While at Bama, he positioned all over the field: middle backer, outside backer and defensive end. Evans finished with 74 tackles, six sacks, and two pass deflections. Evans NFL position will be inside backer, but his versatility will make him a valuable player.
- Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State): Esch was only a one-year starter, but he finished with 141 tackles. He is the pure definition of an inside linebacker and could reach his full potential with help from Linebackers Coach and former Steelers great Joey Porter.
- Malik Jefferson (Texas): Jefferson racked up 231 tackles in his three years at Texas. He has playmaking ability and is able to roam the middle of the field and getting players in position. His athleticism and coverage skills make him valuable in the passing game as well.
Pittsburgh has three picks in the first four rounds with no fourth round selection. It is likely they could be targeting a few players at linebacker and safety. The first round selection will be huge, but they can address their needs in the second or third round as well. These voids need to be filled if the Steelers want to win another Super Bowl.