The 2021 NFL Draft starts on Thursday, April 29. As a lead-up to the draft, we’ll be giving a team-by-team breakdown for positional needs. For each team, we’ll give an overview of the current depth chart and how big of a need each position in the upcoming draft. You can find the rest of the team needs (as they’re updated) and the rest of our draft content in the 2021 NFL Draft hub.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Picks
Round 1 (24)
Round 2 (55)
Round 3 (87)
Round 4 (128)
Round 4 (140)
Round 6 (216)
Round 7 (245)
Round 7 (254)
Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
By Rich Hribar
The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger re-worked his deal for him to return to the organization for 2021 while saving them some cap space in making one more push as his career in Pittsburgh appears to be nearing the end of the line.
Roethlisberger turned 39 years old this March and is coming off a season where he and the Pittsburgh passing game declined as the season wore on. Roethlisberger had plenty of volume, attempting 40.5 passes per game (second in the league), but he averaged just 6.3 yards per pass attempt (38th), which was a career-low. That went along with a career-low depth of target of 7.4 yards, which was 32nd in the league.
We have been waiting for the Steelers to draft an heir to Roethlisberger, but Mason Rudolph is as close as they have come and he enters the year in the final season of his rookie deal. The team does not have any quarterback under contract as of now in 2022, but does have the restricted rights to Dwayne Haskins after this season.
With Roethlisberger playing again in 2021, it is doubtful they truly bottom out this season to be in a spot to land a top quarterback in 2022, while they are obviously not in a position to land a top quarterback in the 2021 draft. The best they can do short-term is select an option from the secondary tiers of passers here to roll over into a competition for 2022.
Derek Watt (FB)
The Steelers had transitioned to a pass-first team several years ago in Roethlisberger’s late stages of his career, but this running game has completely flatlined the past two seasons as they have finished dead last in expected points added via rushing in each of the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Entering this offseason, James Conner is gone (although still technically able to return as he has yet to sign elsewhere), leaving the Steelers with three backs they have drafted in Rounds 4-5 over the past three drafts in Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, and Jaylen Samuels to go along with Kalen Ballage, who they added a one-year deal this offseason.
Snell increased his touches from 111 as a rookie to 121 in year two, but with 4.0 and 3.5 yards per touch to go along with just 13 receptions, Snell is a replaceable asset. Despite both Conner and Snell being largely ineffective, McFarland played a complete ancillary role as a rookie, receiving just 39 touches for 167 yards. His 4.3 yards per touch were higher than Benny Snell’s, but nobody in the Pittsburgh backfield currently has any stability heading into the 2021 offseason. Pittsburgh has long been rumored to be interested in the top of this running back class, but there are not many options to choose from if they do not jump in early.
The Steelers have been the best team at drafting and developing wide receiver talent and in 2020, the Pittsburgh wide receiving corps collectively led the league in targets per game (28.7), receptions per game (18.6), and receiving touchdowns (30), while ranking seventh in yardage per game (193.5) due to the nature of the quick passing game.
The Steelers struck again in the rookie wideout marker in 2020 with Chase Claypool in the second round. Claypool led all rookie wide receivers with 11 touchdowns in his first season, catching 62-of-109 targets for 873 yards and nine scores with an additional pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Also still only two years into his rookie contract, Diontae Johnson was fifth at the position in targets per game (9.6) and 11th in receptions per game (5.9) while being forced from two games early after just 19 and six snaps played.
The Steelers retained JuJu Smith-Schuster on a one-year deal this offseason in which the young wideout will look to improve his market for 2022. After a down 42-552-3 line in 12 games in 2019, Smith-Schuster bounced back with 97 receptions in 2020 and was the WR24 in points per game (14.6). The downside is that he turned all those receptions into just 831 yards as he averaged a career-low 8.6 yards per catch and had a career-low depth of target 6.0 yards.
Only Claypool and Johnson are under contract beyond the 2021 season from the entire list of wideouts currently on the roster, so the Steelers should be expected to go back in on another rookie wideout contract this April.
The Steelers were 26th in the NFL last season in success rate targeting the tight end position (51%) and were just 24th in target allocation (17%) to the position.
Eric Ebron closed his first season with the Steelers catching 56-of-91 targets for 558 yards and five touchdowns. With 37.2 yards per game, Ebron has hit 40.0 yards per game in just one of his past four seasons and is in the final year on the two-year deal he signed last offseason.
With Ebron’s deal expiring and the retirement of Vance McDonald, the lone tight end they have under contract beyond 2021 is 2019 fifth-round pick Zach Gentry, who has played 69 snaps over his first two NFL seasons.
LT: Chukwuma Okorafor/Jarron Jones
LG: Kevin Dotson/Brandon Walton/ Rashaad Coward
C: JC Hassenauer/B.J. Finney
RG: David DeCastro/Aviante Collins
RT: Zach Banner/Joe Haeg*/Anthony Coyle/John Leglue
The Pittsburgh offensive line aged and deteriorated quickly, which is a larger component of their identity change and inability to run the football the past two seasons, even with Roethlisberger returning a year ago.
The Steelers finished the season 24th in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate metric (69%) and 28th in Pass Block Win Rate (51%). Pittsburgh allowed a league-low 14 sacks, but it had everything to do with their quick passing game as Roethlisberger had the fastest time to delivery (2.17 seconds) among all quarterbacks per Pro Football Focus.
Pittsburgh lost center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and tackle Alejandro Villanueva is still an unsigned free agent that will be 33 years old in 2021 to go along with losing left guard Matt Feiler leaving via free agency this offseason.
Pittsburgh has Feiler’s replacement in-house already in Kevin Dotson, who they selected in the fourth round last season. Dotson only played 358 snaps last season, but was credited with just one pressure and hurry allowed on his 219 pass blocking snaps.
31-year-old David DeCastro is locked in at right guard, but is also in the final year of his current contract. Left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor is also in the final season of his contract and graded out dead last at Pro Football Focus among 104 qualifying tackles last season.
Both centers JC Hassenauer and B.J. Finney are also only under contract for 2021. There is a low bar for the Pittsburgh offensive line to clear based on their 2020 performance, but there are immediate competition and contractual needs nearly across the board here.
Pittsburgh Steelers Defense
By Dan Pizzuta
Interior Defensive Line
Stephon Tuitt was one of the league’s best pass-rushing interior defenders last season. He ranked eighth in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate among defensive tackles and finished the year eighth among all defenders with 25 quarterback hits. Tyson Alualu had a stellar season up the middle for the Steelers and after initially deciding to sign with the Jaguars in free agency, he changed course and re-signed with the Steelers on a two-year deal. Cameron Hayward remained a top interior defender with a 12% pressure rate that ranked behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.
Tuitt will be 29 years in for the 2021 season but Hayward will be 32 and Alualu will turn 34. This line only ranked 21st in Run Stop Win Rate, so some youth and depth could be added somewhere in the draft.
T.J. Watt had a legitimate case to be defensive player of the year. He was tops in Pass Rush Win Rate among edge defenders and led the league in quarterback hits (41) with nine more than the second-ranked player. As a team, the Steelers ranked first in Pass Rush Win Rate. Bud Dupree was a big part of that in his breakout season when healthy.
Dupree was lost in the middle of the season with a torn ACL and left for the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Alex Highsmith filled in admirably and flashed with a pressure rate that ranked 26th among edge rushers last season. Highsmith is slated to start opposite Watt, but as currently constructed, there isn’t much depth behind those two.
Edge has been the third-most mocked position to the Steelers in the first round, but well behind offensive tackle and running back, according to Grinding The Mocks. No individual edge rusher is among the top-5 most mocked players.
The Steelers also had the third-highest blitz rate in the league, which helped add more pressure from the second level and the secondary. Pittsburgh led the league in pressure rate at 56.5% per SIS. No other team was above 50%.
Devin Bush was thriving before a torn ACL ended his season five games in. Vince Williams played the most snaps at inside linebacker but was released in the offseason and remains a free agent. Robert Spillane filled in admirably with seven starts in 12 games played and is now penciled in as the No. 2 linebacker.
With a healthy Bush, Pittsburgh can use depth to fill in around him but they were one of the league’s highest users of base defense with their 35% of defensive snaps ranked third in the league last season.
Joe Haden allowed the 10th-lowest completion rate against him in coverage among 142 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps in 2020. There were rumors the 32-year-old Haden could be a cap casualty earlier in the offseason, but he was kept as the Steelers made their moves elsewhere. Steven Nelson, who played 88% of the defensive snaps, was released and Mike Hilton, who played 45% of the defensive snaps and was an excellent slot blitzer who also ranked fifth in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snaps, was allowed to leave in free agency.
Cam Sutton was re-signed as a free agent this offseason. The 25-year-old played both the slot and outside last season and he indicated the Steelers want to give him a shot to play outside more in 2021. That leaves a question for who will man the slot. 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne and 2020 undrafted free agent James Pierre got time as fill-ins last season, but neither played the slot. Trevor Williams was signed on a futures deal, but he hasn’t played defensive snaps since the 2018 season.
Minkah Fitzpatrick could play more in the slot, but that adds questions at safety…
Antoine Brooks Jr.
Fitzpatrick was again a big play-making safety when he was on the field, which was all the time — 99.1% of the defensive snaps. While Fitzpatrick has moved around the defense in his career, he spent a majority of his snaps as the deep safety on the 2020 defense. Terrell Edmonds was the safety who bounced around more with a nearly equal share of snaps between the box, slot, and deep. Edmunds played 84% of the defensive snaps.
There wasn’t much rotated in behind the two starters, but the Steelers did still play the 10th-highest rate of defensive snaps in dime personnel (20%). With questions for depth at both corner and safety, the Steelers are likely to add a defensive back somewhere in the middle rounds, and likely a player who could fill multiple roles.