By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
With the NFL Draft just a month away, the Steelers have gone about business the way they normally do: resigning priority in-house free agents, sifting through the NFL bargain bin of NFL free agents, and meeting with potential draftees that could fill holes in their roster. With the first big wave of free agency now complete, here are 5 questions that still need answered
1. What is the secondary going to look like next season?
Yesterday, reports were released that CB Brandon Boykin signed with the Carolina Panthers just 2 weeks after the team also lost CB Antwon Blake to the Tennessee Titans. With the loss of these two corners, the Steelers are left with just William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Cortez Allen, Senquez Golson, and Doran Grant. They are not much better off at safety, with only Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, and Robert Golden on the roster with any experience and Will Allen having yet to be resigned by the Steelers or any other team. Neither of these groups of players should instill much confidence in anyone if the team hopes to substantially improve their defense next season. Mike Tomlin told the media that the team would not likely sign any free agents at either position, meaning that any other additional help will come from the draft. It is extremely probable that the team will target both positions in the first 4 rounds of the draft. Look out for CB’s William Jackson III, Mackensie Alexander, and Eli Apple as potential targets in the first round and S’s Jeremy Cash and Keanu Neal as potential targets in the 2nd or 3rd round.
2. How will the loss of Martavis Bryant for the season impact the offense?
After serving a 4-game suspension this past season, it was reported earlier in the month that WR Martavis Bryant will miss the entire 2016 NFL season. As one of the league’s rising stars at the receiver position, this loss has a large impact on one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. But will it really be that devastating? The Steelers still boast one of the best and deepest receiving corps in the league, starting with All-Pro Antonio Brown. Behind Brown, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates all have the ability to take the top off a defense and are all reliable receivers. All 3 receivers will fight for the newly vacated #2 spot opposite of Brown, with Wheaton being the most likely candidate. With that being said, do not sleep on Coates being a prime competitor for the spot. He has shown flashes of greatness in limited snaps, especially in the playoff game against Denver last season. The team might also look to the draft for another mid- to late-round diamond in the rough to compete.
3. Which young players will make the jump in the upcoming season?
Over the past few seasons, the Steelers have become a substantially younger football team. Players like RG David DeCastro, DE Cam Heyward, and RB Le’Veon Bell have all made the jump into stardom for the Steelers. But who will be next to make that jump? There are many young players on the team who are primed for breakout years:
- OLB Bud Dupree came into the league and earned a starting spot by the end of the season and showed many flashes of pass-rushing ability. He tallied 4 sacks and 26 tackles on the season and has all the tools to continue to develop as a pass-rusher for the team. With James Harrison’s increasing age and the lack of development from Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree must make huge strides to become the defensive force the Steelers drafted him to be.
- ILB Ryan Shazier, when healthy, is arguably one of the most athletic linebackers in the league. His vision and ability to move from sideline to sideline is nearly elite and has proven time and time again that he can deliver huge hits. Going into his 3rd season, he has already become one of the budding stars on the Steelers defense and that should only continue this upcoming season.
- DE Stephon Tuitt came into the 2015 season as the starter opposite of Cam Heyward and did not disappoint, tallying 54 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 1 interception. His blend of size, power, and athleticism should allow him to develop into one of the leagues best 3-4 defensive ends and a star for the Steelers for years to come, especially considering that he is only 22 years old.
- LT Alejandro Villanueva came into the 2015 as an inexperienced backup to Kelvin Beachum but when Beachum suffered a torn ACL, Villanueva was thrown into the starting left tackle spot and performed admirably. Now that Beachum signed a deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the starting left tackle spot is Villanueva’s to lose, with only newly signed swing tackle Ryan Harris as the main competition. Villanueva showed some flashes last year and with Hall of Fame offensive line coach Mike Munchak to help him further develop, 2016 could be a huge year for the former Army Ranger.
- WR Sammie Coates, as previously mentioned, has a great opportunity in front of him with the suspension of Martavis Bryant. Coates has a nice blend of size and speed that makes him a dangerous threat for the Steelers. Earlier in the offseason, Coates cited that his conditioning is what kept him from seeing the field very often during his rookie campaign. He claims that this is no longer an issue and he is becoming more acclimated to the speed of the NFL. If that is truly the case, expect big things from the former Auburn receiver as he tries to steal away the #2 spot from Markus Wheaton.
- CB Senquez Golson might not make much sense on this list considering that he has yet to play a down for the Steelers. But when you hear the Steelers brass talk about the Ole Miss corner, it appears that they have all the confidence in the world that he can be a special player. At only 5’9″, Golson played much larger than his stature at Ole Miss making big plays against top receivers and showing excellent ball skills, leading to the Steelers selecting him in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft. With the departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, Golson will be called upon to help fill the void and show everyone why the Steelers are so high on him.
4. Will the Steelers give an extension to David DeCastro before the start of the season?
When LG David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, the team rushed to the podium to select the Stanford guard that was drawing comparisons to former guard Steve Hutchinson and former Steelers great and future Hall of Famer Alan Faneca. After a devastating knee injury during the preseason of his rookie season, DeCastro has developed into one of the best interior offensive linemen in the NFL, being selected as a First Team All-Pro and earning a trip to his first Pro Bowl in 2015. The team picked up his 5th year option before the start of the 2015 season and will become a free agent at the end of the 2016 season. With DeCastro being arguably the Steelers best offensive lineman (with the exception of a healthy Maurkice Pouncey, who was injured during the 2015 season), it is imperative that the team locks him up with a long-term contract similar to the extensions that were given to Pouncey and RT Marcus Gilbert before the 2014 season.
5. What will the draft bring for the team?
In my previous two articles, I outlined the needs of the team, as well as a 7-round mock draft. With only a month left until the draft, the Steelers are still left with some glaring needs, primarily on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest need still remains in the secondary, which remains the weakest area of the team. The team also needs to address the lack of depth on the defensive line behind Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt due to Cam Thomas being unsigned and Steve McLendon signing a deal with the New York Jets. Beyond these two needs, the team needs to address their lack of depth at linebacker and quarterback. Check out the links below for further information on the Steelers draft needs and potential players to keep an eye out for:
“Steelers 2016 Offseason Outlook:
“Steelers Mock Draft 1.0: