PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-draft wishlist was obvious last year: quarterback, quarterback, quarterback.
This year, it's all about building around Kenny Pickett, whom the club selected with the 20th overall selection in the 2022 NFL draft. The Steelers have seven picks in the 2023 draft, including three in the first two rounds, and they have a laundry list of positions to evaluate at the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis including offensive line, cornerback and inside linebacker.
Just before the trade deadline, the Steelers shipped third-year wide receiver Chase Claypool to Chicago for the Bears' second-round pick.
"It was a tough decision," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "We obviously drafted Chase high and had high hopes for him. But we were at a point where, weighing all the positives and negatives of it, it seemed to make sense. So, we pulled the trigger on it."
Because the Bears finished with the league's worst record, the organization is slotted with the first pick of each round. And, because the Miami Dolphins were forced to forfeit their 2023 first-round pick stemming from the tampering investigation into the organization's efforts to recruit Tom Brady and Sean Payton, there are 31 picks in the first round. So the pick sent to the Steelers for Claypool, who had 14 receptions for 140 yards on 29 targets in Chicago, becomes the No. 32 overall selection, essentially giving the Steelers an extra first-round pick. Pittsburgh also has the Nos. 17 and No. 49 picks.
A year ago, the Steelers' objective was to find their next franchise quarterback, and though coach Mike Tomlin is hesitant to give Pickett that label, all signs point to the 2022 first-round pick being the future of the organization. Now it's all about protecting Pickett and building a team around him that can push the Steelers from a fringe playoff contender to a bona fide threat in a juggernaut conference.
The first step is upgrading the offensive line, particularly on the outside. Tomlin carefully watched the offensive line groups at the Senior Bowl last month, At left and right tackle, Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor were steady presences late in the season and both showed improvement in pass block win rate after the bye week, going from 87.1% to 92% and 87.3% to 92.3%, respectively. But those post-bye week pass block win rates ranked 22nd and 20th among all offensive tackles.
Moore allowed nine total sacks, though four in nine games after the bye, while Okorafor allowed 10, including six in the final nine games. Left guard Kevin Dotson allowed four sacks and had 12 penalties. With two concussions in Pickett's rookie season, protecting the quarterback has to be a top priority and a tackle like Northwestern's Peter Skoronski or Georgia's Broderick Jones could be good fits to get the job done.
The Steelers could also opt to fulfill needs on the other side of the ball and prioritize the cornerback position. Cam Sutton will become an unrestricted free agent after a solid season as a versatile defensive back. The Steelers also lacked a true lockdown corner in 2022 after Joe Haden's departure and retirement. Penn State's Joey Porter Jr. checks that box -- and others the Steelers typically covet. Not only is he a local product, but his dad played eight seasons with the Steelers and helped the team to the Super Bowl XL title. With Porter potentially gone by the time the Steelers make their first pick, a versatile player like Alabama safety Brian Branch could be an intriguing option.
The Steelers could also be in the market for inside linebackers and defensive linemen -- and potentially even a wide receiver with Pickett's former college teammate Jordan Addison up for grabs.
Yes, but -- and it's an interesting but to consider -- the organization could explore trade options for Mitch Trubisky and evaluate Day 2 or 3 quarterbacks at the combine. Trubisky is a valuable asset to the Steelers' quarterback room, both as a veteran leader and a solid insurance policy in case of injury to Pickett. When Pickett missed time with concussions, Trubisky filled in well, despite throwing three interceptions in a December loss to the Ravens. But in the final year of his deal, Trubisky is set to cost the Steelers $8 million against the cap. That's an expensive tab for a backup, and the Steelers could find a cheaper option while flipping Trubisky for a mid-round draft pick.
With an intriguing free agent quarterback class that includes Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold -- and possibly Lamar Jackson or Daniel Jones, franchise tags pending, there are a number of quarterbacks available. Trubisky wouldn't be in the top tier of that group, but he could command interest from a team like the New York Giants after they figure out the franchise tag situation with Jones and running back Saquon Barkley.
Though Kevin Colbert was still around the Steelers organization in his first year of retirement, this is Omar Khan and Andy Weidl's show now. Of course, Tomlin will still play a significant role in the draft process, too, but his dance partners are changing even as the Steelers try to keep playing the same song.
"We're seeing changes already in the way Omar and Andy [Weidl] are preparing for the draft," Rooney II said, coy about specifics. "Those guys have their own ways of doing things that are a little different from Kevin [Colbert]. Everybody's a little different. Certainly, we'll see some changes in the approach to the draft. Just some of the things we're doing already this time of year are different. Having said that, Kevin had a pretty successful run. So, there are a lot of different ways to get it done, right? I like the way Omar is going about it so far."
The first-year assistant general manager Weidl previously helped construct the roster that would eventually get the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl. As the VP of player personnel, Weidl was the No. 2 behind Howie Roseman and was largely responsible for the last three Eagles' draft classes that saw the addition of players like quarterback QB Jalen Hurts, DT Jordan Davis, WR DeVonta Smith and G Landon Dickerson.
In nearly two decades with the Steelers, Khan has mostly earned a reputation as a cap whiz, though he stressed upon his promotion to general manager that he would be involved in the talent evaluation, too, and was the lone general manager to attend the second annual HBCU Combine prior to the NFL combine.
With agents, coaches and front office staff from all across the league gathered in one central location over the next week, the groundwork for some of the biggest moves often happens in Indianapolis. The Steelers aren't an organization that typically makes much noise in free agency, but there are a handful of moves the front office could explore.
Several former Steelers are hitting the market again, including defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Neither appear likely for a reunion with the team that drafted them, though. Hargrave has likely priced himself out of Pittsburgh, while Smith-Schuster, fresh off a Super Bowl in Kansas City, would rejoin a team that looks dramatically different from the one he left prior to last season.
There's also linebacker Bud Dupree to consider. While he isn't a free agent, he carries more than a $9 million 2023 cap hit for the Tennessee Titans, who are already cutting players because they're short on cap space. Dupree, who signed with the Titans in 2021, hasn't matched the production he had in his final years in Pittsburgh. Dupree has seven sacks in two seasons and played in 11 games each year.
Even in an injury-shortened 2020, Dupree recorded eight sacks for the Steelers after racking up 11.5 the year before. Cutting him would save the Titans a significant amount of money, and the Steelers could fill a need with a reunion signing. The Steelers have undeniable talent at the position with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, but Watt's lengthy injury absence last year showed a lack of depth that adding Dupree would help remedy.
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