Steelers fans have been taken on a pretty severe roller coaster in the decade since their team's last Super Bowl run. As the team transitioned away from many of the players who won the team's most recent championships, the offense was the first group that took a step in the wrong direction. That was quickly resolved, however, with Antonio Brown's ascension and the selection of Le'Veon Bell in the 2013 draft.
But while the Steelers boasted one of the league's most prolific offenses, their defense -- the team's dominant force during the 2000s -- was ranked in the back half of the league in several significant categories, specifically in pass defense. The Steelers quickly resolved this issue with the draft selections of Ryan Shazier and T.J. Watt and the free agent signing of Joe Haden. The 2017 Steelers had a top-flight offense and a formidable defense, and the result was a 13-3 regular season.
Pittsburgh is set up to have a similarly balanced team in 2021. While they lost several integral pieces of last year's team during the offseason, the Steelers' roster is more well-rounded now than the one that was defeated by Cleveland in the 2020 playoffs. A large reason for the Steelers' improved roster is what general manager Kevin Colbert and company did during the draft. Let's take a look at what the Steelers did and did not do during the draft, and how that may impact the team's championship chances in 2021.
2021 Steelers draft picks
- Round 1 (No. 24): Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
- Round 2 (No. 55): Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
- Round 3 (No. 87): Kendrick Green, C, Illinois
- Round 4 (No. 128): Dan Moore Jr., DT, Texas A&M
- Round 4 (No. 140): Buddy Johnson, LB, Texas A&M
- Round 5 (No. 156): Isaiahh Loudermilk, DE, Wisconsin
- Round 6 (No. 216): Quincy Roche, LB, Miami
- Round 7 (No. 245): Tre Norwood, S, Oklahoma
- Round 7 (No. 254): Pressley Harvin III, P, Georgia Tech
Running game revamped
As promised, the Steelers invested heavily in their running game during the draft. For the first time since 2008, the Steelers spent a first-round pick on a running back. With the 24th pick, they took former Alabama back Najee Harris, the reigning Doak Walker Award winner. And while former Ohio State running back Trey Sermon would have been there for the Steelers to take in the third round, Pittsburgh instead decided to invest fully at the position by taking Harris, the top-ranked running back prospect in this year's draft.
To help open up holes for Harris, the Steelers used two draft picks on the offensive line. In response to Maurkice Pouncey's retirement, the team spent a third-round pick on Kendrick Green, who made 33 consecutive starts at Illinois. They spent their first of two fourth-round picks on tackle Dan Moore Jr., a second-team All-SEC performer in 2020. To further bolster their offensive, the Steelers raced to the podium to select tight end Pat Freiermuth, who should fill in seamlessly for the recently-retired Vance McDonald.
These changes may not result in the Steelers having the league's top running game, but the odds of Pittsburgh again finishing last in rushing is about as likely as Mike Tomlin not wearing aviators on the sidelines this fall.
After spending its first four picks on offense, Pittsburgh spent its next four on defense. In the fourth round, the Steelers got much-needed depth at inside linebacker in the form of Buddy Johnson, a valuable member of what was a stout Aggies' defense in 2020. Johnson is a nice addition to an inside linebacker corps that is led by Vince Williams and Devin Bush.
Like T.J. Watt, the Steelers believe that fellow Badger Isaiahh Loudermilk will thrive in the Steelers' system after playing in a similar one at Wisconsin. Edge rusher Quincy Roche, an underrated facet of Miami's recent defenses, will help fill the offseason losses of Bud Dupree and Ola Adeniyi. And while he's listed as a free safety, seventh-round pick Tre Norwood was referred to as a "Swiss Army Knife" by Tomlin during draft weekend.
The Steelers did not replace Dupree with another top-tier pass rusher. But they are confident that second-year back Alex Highsmith can hold his own in the starting lineup.
What are they missing?
To the surprise of everyone, the Steelers did not draft a cornerback despite losing Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this offseason. They did, however, sign former Michigan State cornerback Shakur Brown after he went undrafted. This could go down as being one of the steals of draft weekend, as CBS Sports NFL draft analyst Ryan Wilson recently said that he gave Brown a third-round grade during his pre-draft evaluations. Brown, the Big Ten's highest-rated cornerback last season (according to Pro Football Focus), finished second in the nation with five interceptions in 2020. If Brown can make an impact in 2021, no one will be giving the Steelers grief about passing on a cornerback during the draft.
The Steelers also did not select a receiver, something they had done in nine consecutive drafts. That is largely due to Pittsburgh retaining JuJu Smith-Schuster, as the Steelers have their complete receiving corps in tact for the 2021 season.