Power Ranking The Pittsburgh Steelers Last 7 Draft Classes

To many Pittsburgh Steelers fans, it seems Omar Khan can do no wrong. He has brought an element of excitement to the Steelers offseason that hasn’t been seen before. Known as being an organization that’s rather uninterested in free agency and the trade market and focused on building the team in the draft, Khan has changed course. There’s a bigger emphasis on finding impact-free agents and using the trade market to improve the team as well.

This has caused many to compare his approach to former Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. While Colbert, for most of his career was praised for his work, many are now questioning his style and the decisions he made in his last few years. His draft classes in the last few seasons have come under fire with many feeling like he wasted picks on bad players. So, the question becomes were these classes that bad, and if so, how do they stack up to each other and the most recent one by Khan?

Power Ranking The Pittsburgh Steelers Last 7 Draft Classes

1. The 2017 Draft Class

Unfortunately, only one player from this class remains on the team (a recurring theme that will apply to many of these draft classes) but that doesn’t mean this class wasn’t good. The Steelers had eight picks in this draft, four being in the first three rounds of the draft.

The Steelers used those four high picks wisely as they got a generational pass rusher in outside linebacker T.J. Watt and solid-level play from wide receiver Juju Smith Schuster, running back James Conner, and cornerback Cameron Sutton. While the other three players didn’t stay as long as Watt, they all were starters for a good portion of their time there and routinely made big plays. The talent they found in this draft doesn’t only extend to their top four picks as their fourth-round draft pick Joshua Dobbs has been able to stick around the NFL as a playmaking backup quarterback who can occasionally start.

While it would have been nice if a few more of these players could’ve stayed longer, the Steelers did a great job of evaluating talent in this draft. Some may find this draft class a little high since Watt is the only one from here still on the team. The amount of players retained from this draft is not the criteria being evaluated as it was about seven years ago so naturally some of these players wouldn’t be on the team anymore.

Also, many draft classes on this list barely have more than two players from the class still on the team so it would be unfair to knock this draft based on Watt being the only one left. So, this draft is graded on how the players played for the Steelers and whether they were picked at the right spot or drafted too highly. All the top four picks excelled at being good players (with one of them being exceptional). Not every pick is going to turn out to be a good player (such as the fifth, sixth, and seventh-round selections the Steelers made in this draft) but finding four of them great is and should be acknowledged. It was a great overall draft, and the best of the last few years Colbert was the general manager of the team.

2. The 2023 Draft Class

Some may find it early to rank this class second in this power ranking but this class already looks like it has the chance to be great compared to some of the other classes on this list. The Steelers addressed various needs such as tackle and corner and found valuable players that had fallen in the draft. They were able, for example, to get an offensive tackle in the first round and draft cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (who some had going in the top 15), in the second round.

The game-changing players they found weren’t only limited to the early rounds as they found a speedy pass rusher in the fourth round in Nick Herbig.  There’s even hope that seventh-round pick Cory Trice Jr. can become a decent role player as he looked terrific in training camp last year before getting injured. Not much is expected of players who get drafted in the sixth or seventh rounds, so getting any type of contribution out of him would be great. Now it will take some further time to evaluate this class since they were just drafted last year. But the future is looking bright for many of them as a lot of the players showed promise and had a very positive effect on the team.

Three players from this class also started for the team: Broderick Jones, Porter Jr., and Keeanu Benton. All of them contributed mightily to the team’s success and will probably become star players in the next few seasons. Porter Jr. was the best out of the three starters and immediately became the Steelers’ number one and best corner when he entered the starting lineup.

Jones, while not as good as Porter Jr., provided an upgrade in athleticism and run blocking compared to Chukwuma Okorafor and has the potential to become the Steeler’s best offensive lineman. Benton was good as a run defender and was able to generate a solid amount of pressure as a pass rusher. He played the least out of the three starters though due to his position being nose tackle which sees fewer snaps than the other positions.

The other two who didn’t start who played last year, such as Herbig and tight end Darnell Washington, still saw significant playing time and found ways to make an impact. So, this class so far was great and the only reason why it isn’t ranked number one is it’s only been one season and these players’ production could drop off come next season.

3. The 2021 Draft Class

The offensive line was supposed to be a priority coming into this draft. The offensive line’s play as a unit was bad during the 2020 season and needed to be improved. Getting another offensive tackle and a center would have helped and there were plenty of options to get both early. The Steelers took a risk and decided to not draft players for those positions until the third and fourth rounds.

They instead spent their first and second-round picks on a running back (Najee Harris) and a tight end (Pat Freiermuth). Harris and Freiermuth are starters and good players but choosing to pick them first left very few options in the third and fourth for the offensive line. The guys they found were not good enough.

Dan Moore was one of those guys as he was drafted in the fourth round at offensive tackle. While his play is mediocre at best, he is at least a starter and is still on the team. The other guy was Kendrick Green who was a guard who had some experience playing center. He was drafted in the third round with the hope that he could become the starting center. Unfortunately, he didn’t become a great player and only lasted one season as the starter. He constantly fell to the ground, was run over trying to block, and had a lot of snapping issues.  He was benched the next season and was traded in the following offseason.

So the decision to wait to address the offensive line turned out to be disastrous and the consequences of those decisions are still being felt today. A few years have passed, and the Steelers are still looking for a starting offensive tackle and center and will probably be picking both positions highly in this year’s draft. Now, setting back two positions of need would usually result in a draft class being considered terrible. What is keeping this class as the third-ranked one is the fact that four players from this draft remain on the team with three of them being starters.

The other player not mentioned in this section who is still playing for the Steelers is Isaiahh Loudermilk. He was a fifth-round pick and is a defensive end. He isn’t good but he is at least an alright backup. This draft overall gets credit for getting two good players in the first two rounds (even though they should’ve drafted different positions) and having a decent retention rate of the players drafted.

4. The 2022 Draft Class

This draft class is very uneven. On the one hand, they found a dynamic wide receiver, George Pickens, in the second round of the draft. He’s looked great in his first two seasons and should improve as he’ll become an even bigger focal point of the offense this season. Fourth-round receiver Calvin Austin has been able to contribute as a gadget player so far and sixth-round pick Conner Heyward has been a solid third tight end. While many would like Austin to be more than that at least he is making positive contributions to the team, the same cannot be said about the first-round pick or the third one, and therein lies the problem.

Demarvin Leal was considered an odd fit for the Steelers as he is too big to be an outside linebacker and too small to play defensive end. He added 15 pounds hoping that would make him more effective as a defensive end but that hasn’t happened. The first-round pick, quarterback Kenny Pickett, was a bust, no other way to put it. He performed terribly during his time with the Steelers and was traded before he could even play a snap of his third season. No one expected him to become the hall-of-fame player that former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was, but many expected him to be a good player and the quarterback of the future, a guy who could at least start for the next 12 years and provide top-12 quarterback play.

That type of quarterback play, while not spectacular, is good enough to win games in the regular season and playoffs. Recent teams that have shown this are the Lions and the 49ers. Neither team has a top-10 quarterback, but both are good, and their teams can make up for any deficiency their quarterbacks have. The Steelers didn’t even get that out of Pickett as he looked like a top-20 quarterback at best and third-string quarterback at worst.

The Steelers didn’t support him well as Matt Canada was his offensive coordinator for most of his time there. His play calling was very predictable and some of the plays themselves were bad, featuring awful spacing and overall design. Despite this, great or even good players can overcome bad coaching and it’s not like everything Canada called was bad. Pickett struggled at times to operate even decent plays correctly and the flaws he had during his rookie season never improved.

If not for the success of Pickens, this draft would be considered a failure for wasting the first and third-round picks. Here’s hoping the other two players who have the potential to become more, Heyward and Austin, continue to improve. Because if not, this draft class will be a bust.

5. The 2020 Draft Class

The Steelers didn’t have a first-round pick in this draft and only had six picks in total. So, the Steelers would have to make the best of what they had. They did this in the third round finding a steal in outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. He’s an elite run defender and a highly-skilled pass rusher who has a versatile array of pass-rush moves. He’s an excellent complement to Watt and is one of the best players on the team.  He is also the only player from this draft still on the team as everyone else didn’t live up to their potential for the Steelers.

The Steelers’ sixth and seventh-round picks get an excuse as safety Antoine Brooks Jr. and defensive lineman Carlos Davis weren’t expected to be good. But the other players that were drafted don’t get off so easily. Second-round pick wide receiver Chase Claypool was brought in to be a fast and physical wide receiver who excelled at making plays down the field. He burst out onto the scene his rookie year but was never able to capitalize off it. Statistically, his second season was similar to his first in the number of yards (877 to 860) but his touchdowns dropped from nine to two. He also struggled with contested catches and was not as consistent as a deep threat as he was the previous year. He moved to more of a slot receiver role in his third season but that didn’t work out and he was ultimately traded to the Chicago Bears for a second-round (33rd overall) pick for last season’s draft.

Kevin Dotson, the fourth-round pick also showed he had the potential to be great, but the Steelers shifted him from right guard to left after his first season.  He struggled in his new role and didn’t start playing well again until he got traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Anthony McFarland, the other fourth-round pick had the hope of being a change-of-pace back who could make plays as a receiver.  He didn’t see the field much and when he did, he had a hard time making an impact as a rusher or receiver.

A draft where only one player turned out to be good would probably be considered by many to be the worst on a list such as this. This draft’s saving grace is how good Highsmith turned out to be and the fact they evaluated Dotson properly. It’s just they used him incorrectly and it’s a shame since he looked like a top-10 offensive guard with the Rams this season. If only he could’ve been that for the Steelers.

6. The 2018 Draft Class

This draft and the 2019 draft share one thing in common. There are no more players from the draft class remaining on the team. None of the players from this draft turned out to be good but they contributed for at least some of the time they were there. All the top four picks from this draft,  first-round strong safety Terell Edmunds, second-round wide receiver James Washington, third-round quarterback Mason Rudolph, and fourth-round offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor all saw playing time as starters at some point.

Okorafor and Rudolph lasted the longest out of the group as Okorafor stayed as a starter until he was benched for Broderick Jones last season and Rudolph has mostly been a backup (besides the 2019 season when Roethlisberger got injured) but ended up starting during the end of this season. Washington had a breakout second season as a deep big playmaking threat but never played well after that season and left the team after his contract was up. Edmunds wasn’t bad and improved in his coverage ability every season he was with the Steelers. It’s just that he rarely created turnovers and was never able to elevate his play to the level of a 1st-round player.

Finding an okay starter is more of the purpose of the third round. In the second, you should be able to find a good starter. In the first, though, the expectation is the player drafted will become a great one and a top-10 player at his position at least. Edmunds’ play fits more of the description of a third-rounder and therein lies the problem. A first-round pick can’t be wasted on a player that is just okay. Many thought the Steelers reached for Edmunds in the draft and they ended up being right.

The Steelers also had two fifth-round picks and one-seventh. The best out of them was inside linebacker Marcus Allen who was originally a safety. He only made an impact on special teams though and didn’t have any usefulness anywhere else. Looking at this class the Steelers got some use out of a few players but none of them stayed for a significant amount of time and their contributions were average at best.

7. The 2019 Draft Class

The trade of Diontae Johnson leaves the Steelers with no more remaining players from this draft class. That is embarrassing as this class wasn’t that long ago. There were some terrible misses in this draft class such as cornerback Justin Layne in the third-round who couldn’t even become a good backup-level player and the first-round bust that the Steelers traded up for in Devin Bush Jr. The failure of Bush was disappointing as there was hope he could become the explosive and athletic middle linebacker the Steelers had been missing since Ryan Shazier got injured in 2017.

Unfortunately, he never lived up to the hype. He was an okay player during his rookie season but suffered an ACL injury in his second year and came back worse than before. The only player worth talking about in this draft is third-round receiver Johnson (more on him later) as the other players drafted after him in the fourth round and beyond were bottom-of-the-roster special teams players at best.

As alluded to earlier in this article, the lower you get in the draft, the expectation a player has to become great decreases as well. Still, it would be nice if one of them became good, especially if most of the early picks didn’t work out. Sadly, there wasn’t any hope for that for any of the players they drafted in the lower rounds. Fourth-round pick Benny Snell Jr. was at least good on special teams but wasn’t effective as a chain-moving backup running back and Zach Gentry the fifth-round tight end only offered value as a blocker, and he was only average at that.

The other picks (three in the sixth round and one in the seventh round) barely lasted on the team for more than 2-3 seasons. And as for Johnson, he was a great receiver while here. While he wasn’t the same level of player that Antonio Brown was, he was the closest thing the Steelers had to someone with a similar skill set. He was an X receiver who could beat press cornerbacks with a variety of releases and had good quickness and route-running ability. Now he’s gone from the team and his presence will be missed. Not every pick is supposed to be a home run, but the fact that besides Johnson, none of these players became good starters with many struggling to stay on the roster, turns this class into a disaster.

Main Image: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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