This is a strange place that the Pittsburgh Steelers are in. Sitting at 3-7 on the season, there’s not much hope that remains for a second-half rebound and a push to the playoffs. The Steelers are still technically alive in the AFC playoff picture though, as silly as that might sound, which has some fans believing there’s still a chance.
On the other hand, much of the fanbase has seemingly turned its attention towards the 2023 NFL Draft, where the Steelers are currently projected to have three top 40 picks in the first two rounds in what will be new GM Omar Khan’s first full draft as the man in charge, along with assistant GM Andy Weidl by his side.
Based on what has been put on display through 10 games of the season on the field for the Steelers, many believe that the biggest need for the Steelers — either in free agency or early in the NFL Draft — remains on the offensive line where names like Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson and possibly even Chukwuma Okora for need to be upgraded.
That all makes plenty of sense, considering the inability to consistently run the football with second-year running back Najee Harris coupled with the struggles to protect rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett under first-year offensive line coach Pat Meyer. Currently, just one offensive lineman grades over 70.0 on the season for the Steelers, for Pro Football Focus’ metricsthat being free agent signee James Daniels who currently has a 72.9 grade overall.
Doston (66.9) and free agent center Mason Cole (66.5) have been fine, especially in recent weeks, but they could be upgraded on as well. Then there’s Moore Jr. and Okorafor. Moore Jr. has a 60.4 overall grade from PFF and has struggled mightily in pass protection in recent weeks, while Okorafor has a grade of 61.7 this season.
If the Steelers are serious about getting the most out of Harris in the ground game and protecting their investment in Pickett long-term, they’re going to need to invest in the offensive line in a big way, either through free agency, the draft , or both.
That’s where Weidl comes in. He’s had great success building dominant offensive lines in Philadelphia, and that likely largely attracted the Steelers to him after Kevin Colbert retired.
The offensive line is a major concern, but based on the tape from the Steelers this season, there remains a larger need for the Steelers moving forward, and it might not be what fans want to hear. That need is at cornerback.
After throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall in hopes of something sticking defensively following the free agent signings of Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace, and the trade deadline acquisition of William Jackson III. Jackson is on Injured Reserve due to a back injury, so it’s a bit unfair to include him with Witherspoon and Wallace, but that move and the subsequent placement on IR was par for the course for the Steelers at the cornerback position this season.
This season, Wallace (52.5) and Witherspoon (45.4) have struggled mightily in increased roles.
While Cameron Sutton has been the lone steady presence at cornerback this season, the need for a true No. 1 cornerback moving forward is far greater than some upgrades along the offensive line, at least in the immediate future.
In a division in which names like Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Amari Cooper reside, the Steelers have a great need for that shutdown cornerback like Joe Haden was for a stretch. Though the Steelers have a terrific front seven featuring TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward and Alex Highsmith and have a star at safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick, the inability to consistently cover guys has undone the Steelers’ defense, which is already the highest-paid defense in football .
The Steelers have decent No. 2 and 3-type cornerbacks, but no clear-cut No. 1. That’s a massive need moving forward.
Sutton is a free agent and needs to be retained, but names like Rock Ya-Sin, Byron Murphy, Sean Bunting and James Bradberry are intriguing names in free agency, but for the Steelers to really address the position, it will need to come through the draft.
That might raise some concerns for fans, considering the Steelers’ inability to identify cornerback talent over the last two decades in the draft, with misses such as Artie Burns, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson and Curtis Brown, just to name a few .
But it’s a new regime in Pittsburgh with Weidl and Sheldon White in charge of scouting overall.
Names like Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., South Carolina’s Cam Smith, Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Utah’s Clark Phillips III, Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon and, of course, Georgia’s Kelee Ringo are all names to target in the top 50 for the Steelers at the cornerback position. Make no mistake about it: the position needs addressed early in the draft, maybe often.
It’s a passing league where more and more stars are emerging at wide receiver every season, not to mention elite-level quarterbacks throughout the league. Going relatively cheap at the cornerback position isn’t going to cut it at this point in the NFL.
For as great as the Steelers defensive front is, the cornerbacks have been exposed in a big way this season.
Weidl and White will have to come up big in the scouting at the position to help identify who the best fit is for the Steelers early in the draft, whether that’s Porter, Smith, Gonzalez, Phillips, Witherspoon, Ringo, or someone else.
Good news is, they have plenty of success finding those standout cornerbacks. Weidl had a hand in the acquisitions of guys like Avonte Maddox, Marcus Epps and Darius Slay in Philadelphia, while White was a key figure in the decision to draft players like Slay, Jeffery Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Dre Bly, Nevin Lawson and Fernando Bryant while in Detroit.
The experience and the success finding those starting caliber cornerbacks in the NFL is there with Weidl and White. They’ll have to do it again in Pittsburgh. It’s a far greater need than offensive line at this point.
Realistically, the Steelers’ first round pick gets spent on whichever cornerback they deem the top guy, hopefully giving them a shutdown player for the next 4-5 years — possibly longer — before then circling back early in the second round to address the offensive line in whichever way they see fit.
It’s quite clear, at least in my mind though, what the biggest hole on the current roster is for the Steelers, and it doesn’t reside in the trenches.
What are your thoughts on the Steelers’ biggest need moving forward? Is it at cornerback or in the trenches along the offensive line? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below letting us know what you think and why! If it’s cornerback, who is your top target in the draft and free agency for the Steelers?