The reality of the Steelers draft strategy is clear.
There are a ton of misconceptions out there about how the Steelers draft, people argue about it all the time. It’s an interesting argument, because the Steelers have a lot of success in the draft, especially compared to the rest of the NFL. Very few teams out-draft the Steelers, and the more long-term you look, almost no one can keep up.
I can’t tell you everything, I’ve never been in the draft meetings with the Steelers, but I can look at what the Steelers tell us, and what they do and give you some basic keys to help you think more like the Steelers when you approach the NFL Draft.
Need vs Best Player Available
This is a common argument, do the Steelers look to fill holes on their roster, or do they look to draft the best player regardless of position. The answer is “Yes.” Most of you already know this, it’s why we have terms like “Best player at a position of need” or “Best fit” floating around. I take a slightly different angle on this question.
The Steelers draft to build the best team they can. That, of course, involves finding the most talented player you can, with knowledge of what is on the roster currently to find the player that upgrades the roster the most. They also consider character, work ethic, leadership, coachability, all those things matter in team building. Because teams aren’t just what you see on game day, that team is built in practice, in the weight room, in position meetings and when they hang out in hotel rooms and after practice. All of it matters.
And the Steelers don’t always fill every need that people think they have. The Steelers picking Artie Burns is often viewed as a need pick, but that cornerback room was a mess for years before they picked Burns, and they didn’t reach for a corner in those drafts.
Most of the time the Need vs Best Player argument involves people picking one side, taking it to an extreme and then pointing and saying “See, the Steelers don’t draft for the best player, therefore they draft for need!” Fortunately for Steeler fans, the Steelers don’t make any decisions based on internet argument rules, they do things that make sense.
The bad part of this for fans of mock drafts is the Steelers consider a lot of information that we don’t have access to. And that leads to my second point.
Meetings with players
There is a heavy correlation between players the Steelers select early in the draft and meetings with Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. But too often that correlation becomes overrated. There is a reason you meet with a player, you are interested in that player and you want to learn more about them.
Now, some of these players the Steelers could gather information before the meeting, come up with a few questions they want answered, meet the prospect, get the answers and they are done. With some prospects there may not be many questions. If on film they show they can do everything the Steelers want from them, if they have good relationships with coaches that tell them exactly what they want to hear about the player’s work ethic and leadership. If they have good medical reports that they trust from the combine or other sources, then you might have a player that the Steelers don’t need to meet with much at all.
By the same process there might be a player that interests the Steelers and they go to their Pro-Day, take them to dinner, meet their parents, talk to their coaches and still have some unanswered questions. It could take a lot of time invested before they are confident they have enough information to rank that player on their internal board.
And all that information gathering could end up with that player dropping on the Steelers board. We often see every interaction with a player as a sign the Steelers value that player more, when in reality they are still gathering information on that prospect. Now, it makes sense that players the Steelers are considering spending a bigger investment (like a first round pick) on would warrant a more thorough investigation than a late round pick, and things like character matter more when you are making a top pick, because those players are the ones you want to become your future leaders. But just because the Steelers meet with someone doesn’t mean they like them more because of it.
We don’t get to know everyone the Steelers talk to, we get almost no information about the conversations they have privately with that player’s coaches, and we have no idea what their scouts have told them throughout the college season. So while the draft visits are a sign that the Steelers are interested in a prospect, it gets over-valued because it is a step in the process we can actually see. Just remember that when the Steelers take that player you don’t want out to dinner.
There are no panic picks
The Steelers spend an immense amount of time planning out their draft, and when the draft actually starts their work is almost entirely done. Fans like to think that when the Steelers go on the clock there is a flurry of debate and arguing over who to take, but that’s all done. The debate process is over. They aren’t debating which player they should take because they already did that, they have a list and they follow it. They would be stupid to spend months researching and arguing to get their team rankings and then throw that out in the heat of the moment to make an impulsive choice. Especially in the first round, the roster changes after each pick and values change, but in the first round? Their list is already done.
If someone falls, that player is on their list somewhere, there’s no “They didn’t expect that and didn’t know what to do!” They might not expect it, but that possibility is going to be covered in their draft work. The Steelers know exactly where they rank Trevor Lawrence, and if somehow he fell to #24 they wouldn’t be confused as to what they should do. The Steelers didn’t expect David DeCastro to fall to them, but they knew what to do when he did, he was by far the top player on their board, so they took him.
The same goes for when players they want are taken. When William Jackson III wads taken by the Bengals right before they went on the clock the Steelers didn’t panic, they weren’t unprepared, they went with the next player on their board, Artie Burns was a pick that didn’t work out, it doesn’t mean they weren’t prepared for Jackson to be off the board, it just means they missed on that player. Same with Jarvis Jones. Sometimes their evaluations are wrong. It happens. But it doesn’t happen because they had never considered a scenario where the Bengals take a player they wanted one pick before them.
Drafting a player, or a position?
It is easy to view the draft through the lens of team needs. Steelers need a running back and center, so they should take the best running back and best center available, in some combination of early draft picks. We don’t always look at the player, just take the best guy on the list.
Sometimes though, the Steelers draft a player. They draft a specific player that they want, a guy that fits their scheme or locker room in a way that increases their value over that of other players. Often that shows up in a trade up. Devin Bush and Troy Polamalu stand out as players the Steelers traded up to get because they were players the Steelers wanted more than anyone else, more than two or three players, so they made a trade to get their guy.
But that “our guy” consideration isn’t limited to a big trade up, it will also show up in their normal rankings. Terrell Edmunds is a great example. The Steelers have been focusing on getting elite athletes into this defense for years. Just look at these high picks and those player’s Relative Athletic Score, which ranks them on a score of 1-10, with 10 being the most athletic player to ever test for that position.
2014: Ryan Shazier, 9.88 RAS
2015: Alvin Dupree, 9.47 RAS
2016: Sean Davis, 9.77 RAS (Artie Burns was the first round pick, he put up a 5 RAS but was injured when he tested)
2017: T.J. Watt, 9.92 RAS
2018: Terrell Edmunds, 9.89 RAS
2019: Devin Bush, 9.33 RAS
The Steelers picked Edmunds because they wanted a player who could cover in man, play in run support, and run sideline to sideline to limit big plays. And he’s been that guy.
People can call it a reach, and bring up stats for other safeties that have more interceptions all day, but the Steelers weren’t drafting the best safety in a vacuum, they were drafting a player they specifically wanted, to fill a specific role on their defense. That they valued him a lot more than other teams did makes sense when you understand what they were looking for. Other players didn’t fit that role, so they weren’t as valuable.
That list should also tell you that the Steelers value elite athletes, especially at linebacker and safety. But don’t overvalue it either, in the end it’s just part of the equation.
Putting it all together
One of my favorite articles about the draft is about Antonio Brown, when Jeremy Fowler went back to figure out why Antonio Brown slipped through the cracks in 2010. It’s a great read, and hits a bit differently when they talk about his “high maintenance” personality in 2017 compared to reading it in 2020. Check it out.
One of the bits from that that has stuck with me is the Steelers WR coach Scottie Montgomery had late 2nd round grades on both Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, they had Sanders rated slightly higher and took him in the third round. Montgomery then watched Antonio Brown, who he rated roughly equal to Sanders, fall through the 5th round. The Steelers took him in the 6th round, and he’s still one of the best 6th round picks of all time. So while even in this article I talk about the Steelers setting their board and using it, you can see how having Sanders on the board roster dropped Antonio Brown’s value to the Steelers, but at some point, Scottie Montgomery was able to get him back on that board for a sixth round pick.
The big takeaway from this should be that the Steelers draft process is complex but well organized, and we only see a few snippets of the process. Don’t get too attached to projections and mock drafts, the people doing those don’t have access to the Steelers process either. Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the Steelers select players based on knee-jerk reactions to anything, unless it is a player from Virginia, because we all know that being from Virginia is more important than everything I’ve discussed in this article.