Pittsburgh Steelers: Is it time to move away from a defensive mindset in the draft?

It was a strange season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, despite losing their future hall of fame quarterback in Week 2, losing their first three games and not managing a game with over 300 passing yards they came within a game of the playoffs. How did they manage it? An incredible trade from Mike Tomlin to get Minkah Fitzpatrick in the black and gold rejuvenated the defense and kept the Steelers fighting for the postseason. Numerous injuries and an ever revolving quarterback carousel made it incredible that the Steelers got to 8-8 and yet many people are disappointed they didn’t make the playoffs.

It was a completely different season for Pittsburgh than it has been in recent years. For as long as I have been watching the NFL the Steelers have been a powerhouse on offense and outscored everyone else. That has meant they haven’t had to particularly worry about winning games with their defense. In 2019 however, the tables were flipped and it was the defense that had every Steelers fan reminiscing of not only The Steel Curtain but also the Blitzburgh defense of the 90’s. With the offense struggling and Big Ben Roethlisberger edging ever closer to retirement it is a big offseason for a team that has used their first round draft pick on a defensive player for seven straight seasons. This offseason it may well be time to change the focus of the draft, although not having a first-round pick may make things interesting.

General Manager: Kevin Colbert

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

It has been a difficult season for both the head coach and the general manager. After losing both their star running back and wide receiver it was going to be difficult for the Steelers to compete in an AFC North that had a juggernaut in the Baltimore Ravens and a Cleveland Browns team that has had high first round draft picks seemingly since the world began. Yet somehow, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin led their organisation to the second best record in the division. Frankly, the division did not perform well at all, but getting eight wins and building a stellar defense should be considered a great season.

It will be a tough off-season for Pittsburgh. The fans expect a lot from the team and for the last two seasons they have missed the playoffs, and not been in a Super Bowl for the best part of a decade. This is far from where the Steelers expect to be as an organisation and going by how the offense performed it will be difficult to get them back there next year. A big bonus is getting Ben Roethlisberger back, but with that comes difficulties of its own.

Cap Space: $5.4 million

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With a measly 5.4 million dollars in cap space for the upcoming season it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Steelers to develop their offense. The Steelers do get their quarterback back for next year but he will costs them a whopping 31 million in cap space. Compare that to Kansas City who have last year’s MVP costing them under 6 million in cap space in 2020. I know that this is still his rookie deal and when that is up he will break the record for what a quarterback gets paid but still this goes to show what could have been the biggest downfall with the Fitzpatrick trade in Week 2 of the 2019 season.

I’m not saying that getting Fitzpatrick was a bad idea by any stretch but in a division that is going to have Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and probably now Joe Burrow, the Steelers need to find a young quarterback and build weapons around him. With the 18th pick in the draft they could have targeted that young option this season.

Obvious cuts are hard to find because the Steelers big contracts are all to key contributors. However, there are some options, including allowing Vance McDonald to leave, as he has a club option for 2020. His departure would save over $5 million against the cap, which would be very valuable space in return for a player offering limited upside. Defensively, they could also let both Mark Barron and Anthony Chickillo walk this season to save another $10 million in cap space for the 2020 season.

Impending Free Agents

The Steelers decision over UFA Bud Dupree is going to be a tough one. 2019 saw him have a career year in the black and gold, finishing with a career high in sacks as well as being a part of one of the best defenses in the league. Dupree played on over 90% of defensive snaps for Pittsburgh and together with TJ Watt made them one of the most feared duo of quarterback rushers in the league. With Dupree set to become an unrestricted free agent and having had a great year he will be in high demand from teams with plenty of cap space. His position to some extent means he can basically state his number and wait on a team to pay it, and someone eventually will. With their defense firing on all cylinders last season, the Steelers would be wise to consider the franchise tag for Dupree and then find a way to work out a long term deal to keep him in the black and gold for a few more years.

Team Needs

Major Need: Running back

As mentioned earlier, this year the Steelers need to focus on the offense and get them back to piling the points onto opposing teams. With the loss of Le’Veon Bell and James Conner proving unreliable, the Steelers could do with a running back. Benny Snell and Jaylen Samules have both been decent when they stepped in but neither have lit teams up like Bell did when he was a Steeler and when Conner stepped up in 2018. Granted this year was difficult to judge running backs in Pittsburgh due to them not having a passing game but I do not think many Pittsburgh fans, myself included, felt like they witnessed the next great running back to wear the black and gold.

Minor Need: Tight End

IF Vance McDonald is allowed to leave then tight end would need to be addressed. Jesse James walked out of the door last year and it would wise for the Steelers to invest in at least one tight end, be it in free agency or through the draft.

Mark Ross