Predicting the Impact of the Steelers 2017 Draft Class

By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer

Now that the dust has settled on the 2017 NFL Draft and the rookies have began acclimating themselves to their new system, the potential roles of these players around the league is starting to come into view. For the Steelers, many people are waiting to see what type class the team put together. The Steelers’ draft class has been met with mixed views that have been primarily positive, but what are the realistic expectations for each of the rookies?

2017 Draft Recap:
1. T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
3. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
3. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
4. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
5. Brian Allen, CB, Utah
6. Colin Holba, LS, Louisville
7. Keion Adams, OLB, Western Michigan

1. T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin

After swinging and missing on Jarvis Jones in 2013, it appears that the Steelers finally found their man off the edge in Bud Dupree in 2015 as he looks primed to make a huge impact in 2017. While the Steelers also have the ageless James Harrison on the outside, the team was in need of adding an eventual replacement. Enter T.J. Watt. The 1-year starter at Wisconsin produced at high-end level and has great length as a pass-rusher (6’4″, 252 lbs.). His long frame and long arms give him the frame to add more size with an NFL strength and conditioning program without compromising any athleticism. This length also allows him to get great separation and leverage against opposing offensive linemen against both the run and the pass. But where Watt really shines is his hand placement and usage and his relentless motor and effort. Off the snap, Watt strikes with his hands in a blur and is able to knock players off track and then follows up with great vision to track the play.

So far, Watt has gained the praise of his teammates and coaches due to his elite work ethic and superior football IQ, which has allowed him to begin grasping the Steelers’ defensive playbook while also getting him some reps with the first team defense.

Watt probably won’t begin the season as the starter unless he absolutely blows away everyone during training camp and the preseason. Recent history has shown that the Steelers are becoming increasingly willing to throw their rookies (specifically their 1st-round picks) into the fire early and let them grow. Watt will have growing pains due to his inexperience at outside linebacker but I would expect to see him in the rotation early in passing downs before ultimately taking over the starting spot from James Harrison around a quarter of the way through the season (which simultaneously can help preserve Harrison’s longevity and health).

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 40 total tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception

2. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a surprise selection for the Steelers but the truth is that he has the ability to give the offense an added dynamic that they haven’t had since Hines Ward: a truly physical receiver. While at USC, Smith-Schuster had 212 receptions for 3,092 yards and 25 touchdowns. His playing style shows a fearless receiver that is willing to go anywhere on the field to make a play, including over the middle of the field. What Smith-Schuster lacks with having the speed to blow the top off of a defense, he makes up with having great field vision and a constant awareness of where defenders are around him on the field. This causes him to get open in the field by sitting down in openings on the field that some other receivers might not see, which is something that Ben Roethlisberger loves in a passing target. One of Smith-Schuster’s biggest strengths is his ability to use his big, strong frame to his advantage by being physical when the ball is in the air and fighting to make contested passes, which demonstrates his extremely strong hands.

The former Trojan has drawn numerous comparisons to Anquan Boldin due to his with his strong hands, physical playing style, and his ability to win 50/50 passes against defenders. With the Steelers already having Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, Smith-Schuster will likely see himself get his first shot in the slot, where he’ll be able to show off his possession receiver traits, ability to be fearless in the middle of the field, and utilize his playmaking ability from his superior vision. The Steelers used Eli Rogers in the slot last year and he proved to be a solid receiving threat for the offense. Rogers isn’t the same physical specimen that Smith-Schuster is, so many experts expect the 2nd-round pick to come in and compete with Rogers for the starting slot spot and that likely will happen if he can learn the playbook quickly and build a rapport with Big Ben.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 35 receptions, 450 yards, 2 touchdowns

3. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee

The Steelers have spent a lot of time trying to rebuild their secondary and it appears that they are now closer than ever to finally being at a point where they can sport a solid secondary. A large part of this rebuilding effort has been by finding players that will allow them to compete in more man coverage, something the team has been emphasizing since being embarrassed in coverage by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last season. Artie Burns is the Steelers certain #1 corner heading into the 2017 season but everything beyond that is up for grabs. Ross Cockrell is expected to snag the #2 spot on the outside opposite of Burns and William Gay is projected to be in the slot in nickel packages. Realistically, even Cockrell’s spot isn’t secured, nor is Gay’s.

It might not be that simple, however.

The Steelers selected Tennessee corner Cameron Sutton in the 3rd round this year as one of the purest man-cover corners in this draft class. Sutton garnered praise from coaches around the league during the draft process due to his high football IQ, team-first attitude, and diligent film room studies to help improve his game and give him a high level of potential to grow as a player. Not only does Sutton study his own position on the field, but he also makes it a priority to know what every other defensive players responsibilities are on each play.

Sutton was projected to be a 1st-round cornerback in the 2016 NFL Draft before deciding to go back for another season at Tennessee. If it weren’t for an injury last season, Sutton likely wouldn’t have lasted until the 3rd-round. Sutton’s fluid movements out of his backpedal in coverage and his solid instincts make him a threat to contend each pass that comes his way while blanketing opposing receivers. The strongest part of Sutton’s game is his excellent ball skills, which is something the Steelers have come to look for in defensive backs. With 30 defended passes and 7 interceptions, Sutton has great hands and awareness when the ball is in the air. In addition, Sutton also has the capability of being a punt returner in the NFL, which is something I’m sure the Steelers weighed when selecting him.

Many people (including myself) expect Sutton to get his first crack at playing time in the slot in nickel packages. Interestingly, Sutton has worked primarily on the outside during the Steelers OTAs and minicamp practices this offseason, meaning that the Steelers are willing to test his abilities on the outside. Draft experts believed he would end up on the inside due to his 5’11”, 188 lb. frame which isn’t considered “big enough” to play on the outside. Realistically, Cockrell will be the starter on the outside, barring any superstar performance by Sutton. Gay, due to his veteran experience, will likely start off in the slot, but Sutton will get his chance to see playing time early on while potentially slipping into more playing time and even perhaps a starting role as the season progresses. The Steelers threw a raw Artie Burns into the fire early and often and Sutton is a much more polished player so anything is possible. No matter what happens, though, Sutton will be the full-time starter somewhere in the secondary by no later than 2018.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 25 tackles, 1 interception, 5 passes defended

3. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

There is no denying that James Conner was the feel-good story of this year’s draft. But his selection goes far beyond that. Sure, the Steelers already have Le’Veon Bell and even though he hasn’t signed his franchise tag or gotten a long-term deal yet, the expectation is that he will be a Steeler for the foreseeable future. The Steelers needed to add quality depth behind Bell after the aging, yet effective, DeAngelo Williams was not re-signed.

With Bell’s history of injuries and off the field issues, the Steelers needed a reliable backup that was young and could play in a pinch if needed.

Enter James Conner.

While Bell has a patient running style is unlike any other in the league and is the ultimately dual-threat offensive weapon, Conner will provide the Steelers with a hard-nose, pound the rock running back. Conner is always looking to lower his shoulders and deliver a heavy blow to would-be tacklers. He is about as high character as they come and his leadership, intelligence, and resilience have been well noted over the years. An area that Conner doesn’t receive nearly enough praise, though, is his ability as a pass-catcher, which is a must in the Steelers offense. Throughout the draft process and from time-to-time at Pitt, Conner displayed surprisingly soft hands on wheel routes and swing routes out of the backfield. He has athletic restraints that prevent him from ever being a burner in the league, but his punishing running style will give him ample opportunities as a short-yardage back, goal line back, and potentially even a 3rd-down back.

Who knows, maybe we’ll even see some 2RB sets with both Conner in the backfield and Bell split out.

A man can dream.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 75 rushes, 300 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns, 15 receptions, 100 receiving yards

4. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

Ben Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer. He is still performing at a high level. But there is no denying that is career is coming to an end, as he continues to flirt with the idea of retirement. Beyond that, Big Ben has had his fair share of injuries that has limited his ability to play a full 16-game season just 3 times. The future at quarterback is a huge question mark for the Steelers, as Landry Jones enters his 5th year as the Steelers backup quarterback but that is all he is: a backup. Jones has all but reached his ceiling as a player, which is fine. In the event that he needs to enter the game, he has shown that he can at least keep the Steelers in the contest due to the bevy of talent he has around him.

He shouldn’t be considered the future of the quarterback position, however.

The Steelers used their 4th-round pick on arguably the smartest player to come out of college football in some time in the form of Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs, an aerospace engineer major at Tennessee, is an athletic quarterback with a tight spiral, solid velocity, and great pocket presence when the line is collapsing around him. Unlike many quarterbacks to enter the league, Dobbs reads through his progressions effectively and is not afraid to throw to his check down options. His biggest issues lie in his accuracy, where he shows some technical issues below the waist. This all stems from questionable footwork, where Dobbs displays a narrow base when making throws under pressure, limiting his torque to really power balls down the field at times and causing them to float over the receiver’s head. Under pressure, he also has a habit of opening up his shoulders too much from having his feet pointed up the field.

The good thing with these? They are completely correctable issues, which Dobbs has reportedly spent some time already fixing.

In a perfect world Dobbs (and Jones, for that matter) will not see the field at all this season. The two players will spend much of the offseason and training camp battling it out for playing time. I previously predicted that Dobbs will eventually beat out Jones for the spot due to his higher upside as a passer, better athleticism on the run and in the pocket, and seemingly greater arm strength.

Regardless, I’m expecting to see Dobbs very minimally on the field this year beyond the preseason, and that’s only if he is able to beat out Jones for the #2 spot. It’s hard to say if the Steelers will put a rookie at #2 behind Roethlisberger with his injury history when you have a backup that you know what you’re going to get. I just feel that Dobbs’ upside is too great with proper coaching and he’ll prove himself to be a capable backup in year one. If not, he will spend most Sunday’s inactive and growing as a player at practice with the intent of pushing for more time in 2018.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 200 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, 30 rushing yards

5. Brian Allen, CB, Utah

Brian Allen comes to the Steelers as just as inexperienced player as 1st-rounder T.J. Watt. After spending most of his career playing wide receiver, Allen made the switch to cornerback, where he showed flashes of great potential as a defensive back. At 6’3″, 215 lbs. and possessing 4.48s speed, Allen is a physical specimen with excellent ball skills to match. While he plays cornerback, he has seen some time at safety and very much reminds me of last year’s 2nd-round pick Sean Davis.

While in man coverage, Allen does a good job of pressing and staying with opposing receivers and in zone coverage, he does well reading the quarterbacks vision and tracking the receiver’s routes. This is great for potential, but Allen has a lot of work to do if he plans on making any impact this season on anything other than special teams. I believe that Allen has a chance of making the 53-man roster because quite frankly, I don’t believe a player with this type of natural size, length, and athleticism would clear waivers. If the Steelers believe that he has enough potential and upside to keep around as a depth corner with special teams capabilities, you can almost certainly expect Allen to grow as a prospect due to his undeniable potential. He just needs to learn the nuances of the cornerback position and hopefully Carnell Lake can help in that process.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 5 tackles

6. Colin Holba, LS, Louisville

The Steelers appeared set at long snapper, with long-time snapper Greg Warren seemingly set to return for another season as the Steelers reliable special teams ace.

Then, the Steelers selected Colin Holba in the 6th-round of this year’s draft. And Steelers Nation let out a collective groan.

Now looking back at it, the Steelers look like geniuses for their selection (you can attack me for that statement later). Here is why the pick makes sense. How often does a 6th-round pick turn into the next Antonio Brown or Tom Brady? Not very often. More often than not, a team’s 6th-round pick is lucky if they make it to year two with the same team, if they even make the final 53-man roster. The Steelers appeared set with Warren, but after a failed physical that indicated he’d be putting his long-term health at risk if he were to be re-injured, the Steelers and Warren determined that it would be time to call it quits, leading to the selection of Holba.

Most NFL long snappers are undrafted players that are signed off of the street. What most fans don’t realize is that there is a significant difference between a long snapper with a draftable grade and a one that doesn’t have a draftable grade. Holba was one of the few snappers you will see that had a very clearly draftable grade. These players enter the league with elite velocity and placement to consistently put the ball wherever their holder or punter wants the ball. This might not seem important, but when the holder or punter doesn’t have to worry about where the ball will be and can focus on the proper spin of the ball when placed, you have a higher probability of a successful field goal, extra point, or punt. Holba has the capability of doing this.

Steelers fans should be all too aware of what can happen when you don’t have a reliable long snapper. Look no further than a 2008 game against the New York Giants when Warren went down with a torn ACL and James Harrison was forced into action as an emergency snapper. On a snap, Harrison air-mailed a snap over the head of punter Mitch Berger and out of the endzone, which caused a safety to tie up the game and ultimately led to a Giants 21-14 victory.

Colba is not a perfect prospect, as he still has some room to add to his frame and he could add some strength as well, which will only improve his snapping. At the end of the day, though, Holba will likely be the Steelers long snapper for the next decade or more. And when you have a 6th-round pick that can last with your team for that long with success, that makes the value of the pick that much greater.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 1 tackle

7. Keion Adams, OLB, Western Michigan

Keion Adams was a player that the Steelers showed plenty of interest in during the pre-draft process. Adams predominantly flew under the radar for the months leading up to the draft and was and is a relative unknown as a pass-rusher. But don’t be mistaken, Adams is a dark horse candidate to sneak onto the Steelers’ roster as a depth player.

Adams is a solid fit as a 3-4 edge rusher in the NFL, which is exactly what the Steelers desire, even with their multiple sub-packages and multiple fronts. While Adams lacks idea size for the position that Dupree and Watt have, he does have an elusive pass rushing set that utilizes his athleticism and quick feet. This allows him to quickly set the edge while rushing and his tremendous flexibility and bend makes it easy to get leverage, very similarly to James Harrison. Tackles often have difficulty mirroring these types of players, especially as tackles seem to become taller and taller in the NFL.

Adams could add some more upper and lower body strength to help him anchor more effectively against powerful offensive linemen, but having players like James Harrison to look up to, I’m sure that can happen in time.

As a 7th-round pick, Adams has some work to do to crack the 53-man roster. Where he has an edge is his potential to make an impact on special teams, something that Arthur Moats doesn’t do as a depth outside linebacker. If Adams can provide an impact on special teams while showing promise as a rotational piece at outside linebacker, he can push Moats for the final outside linebacker spot.

Makes Roster: Yes
Projected Stat Line: 10 tackles

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