Tim Benz: Let’s talk about what the Steelers DIDN’T get during the draft
We’ve spent three days talking about what the Pittsburgh Steelers got in the draft. Now let’s talk about what they didn’t get.
That’s quality “starter-in-waiting” (to use a Tomlinism) depth for two positions where they are thin and potentially will be thinner after this season because of free agency: outside linebacker and safety.
No safeties were drafted or acquired last month via free agency. The only undrafted free agent safety obtained was West Virginia’s Dravon Askew-Henry.
Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen are the only backups for Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds. Davis is going into the final year of his first contract. So it would’ve been nice to acquire his potential successor if the Steelers deem he isn’t worthy of another contract or if he plays well enough to price himself out of Pittsburgh in free agency.
Allen had just two tackles in two games last year. Dangerfield had seven over the course of 16. Neither was involved in a turnover.
That was an unfortunate trait among players on the Steelers defense. The unit generated a putrid 15 turnovers, the lowest total in the AFC.
At outside linebacker, the team did draft Sutton Smith from Northern Illinois. But he’s an undersized sixth-round pick that may play inside as much as he does outside.
“We’ll look at him outside, inside. Anything that we feel like he can fit us,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “To make our team, he better be a good special teams player, and then we’ll graduate from there.”
Smith sounds more like Tyler Matakevich insurance than a backup for Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.
Keep in mind that Dupree is entering his walk year before free agency.
Opportunities were there deep into this draft to address both spots. Alabama safety Deionte Thompson slipped until the top of the fifth round (Arizona). Georgia’s D’andre Walker stayed on the board until the 30th pick of the fifth round (Tennessee). At 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds, he’s got a build much more similar to that of Watt and Dupree than that of Smith (6-0, 233).
Perhaps the Steelers would’ve been better served going with those guys and waiting on a running back because they do have James Conner and Jaylen Samuels already on the roster. Yet they drafted Benny Snell from Kentucky in the fifth round.
Apparently, they could’ve waited a while to draft Michigan tight end Zach Gentry instead of snagging him in the fifth round. According to NFL.com, 12 tight ends with a higher grade were either drafted after Gentry or went undrafted.
“You’ve seen (cornerback) Cam Sutton play some safety,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the draft. “You’ve seen (cornerback) Mike Hilton play some safety on our football team in the past. We’re going to provide opportunities for those guys to show their position flexibility and their chances of impacting us.”
However, that “position flexibility” may result in Peter getting robbed to pay Paul. Because Tomlin spoke of Allen on Saturday as a sub-package linebacker.
The concern with juggling Hilton and Sutton is that Sutton has had issues avoiding injury, and the ranks at cornerback then get thin. That could result in third-year prospect corner Brian Allen needing to expand his role beyond special teams.
As for outside linebacker, the Steelers have used 22 draft picks since they selected Watt at the top of the 2017 draft. The only picks used on outside linebacker help have been on Smith this weekend and Keion Adams in the seventh round of 2017.
Adams was on injured reserve his entire rookie season. He was on the practice squad all of 2018.
Behind Watt and Dupree, the only player with extensive experience is Anthony Chickillo. He had just 11/2 sacks in 16 games last season.
I was hoping we’d see more of Ola Adeniyi last year after his flashy preseason. But he started 2018 on injured reserve and played in just one game after being recalled.
Now general manager Kevin Colbert is speaking as if his role could be expanded.
“We activated him, but he wasn’t going to be a contributor,” Colbert said. “I think that’ll be a difference. We always talk about players moving into their second season. We are excited about what he can do.”
Was that Colbert channeling his inner Jim Rutherford? That sounded like “GMJR” proclaiming Daniel Sprong was going to be a regular contributor for the Penguins after the loss to the Washington Capitals in the playoffs last year.
Maybe Adeniyi will wind up on the same line with Sprong in Anaheim by the start of next season. Can Ola play on his off wing?
I understand that every position can’t be bolstered in every draft. And one pick was traded — wisely, might I add — to acquire Devin Bush in the first round.
But it is odd that in a year when many were saying the Steelers weren’t going to know what to do with so many picks, there are still some needs that have to be addressed before the season begins.
It sounds like the answers are coming from within. And those answers are attached to guys who carry lots of questions. Most commonly, those questions are, “Can they stay healthy, can they switch positions and are they really good enough?”
Those are some pretty weighty questions to answer before Sept. 8 in Foxborough.