The Steelers had a winning record in each of Mike Tomlin's first five years as head coach. They made the playoffs four times, went to two Super Bowls, and won the whole thing in 2008. But in the last two years, the team has been the definition of mediocre, going 8-8 in back-to-back seasons.
You'd have to go back to the 1998-1999 seasons for the last time the Steelers had two consecutive seasons of .500-or-worse football. Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak quarterbacked offenses that ranked 19th and 20th, and while those defenses were good, they weren't great.
Unlike those teams, however, these Steelers have a franchise quarterback. And in today's NFL, that's the most important ingredient for any playoff team. So what's missing?
Depending on who you ask, the answers range from "Just about everything else" to "This group is probably two or three players away from getting back in the postseason conversation." Not surprisingly, we fall in the latter group.
A quick glance at the roster and the needs are glaring: Wide receiver, cornerback, defensive line, depth at linebacker and, reflexively, the offensive line.
But here's the thing: The offensive line could be a strength. No, seriously. One of the team's biggest offseason additions wasn't safety Mike Mitchell or whomever they end up drafting with the 15th pick next month, it's Mike Munchak, the former Titans coach who will be the offensive line coach in Pittsburgh. He's a Hall of Fame lineman who knows the zone-blocking scheme as well as anyone. He'll be tasked with getting the most out of a young group that features David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey, but also includes second-round picks Marcus Gilbert Mike Adams and and seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum, who more than held his own at left tackle for much of the 2013 season.
Put another way: Don't expect the Steelers to draft an offensive lineman in the first round. Same holds for defensive line and linebacker. Veterans Brett Keisel and James Harrison could be post-June 1 signings to add experience and depth for near-veteran-minimum salaries. There are just too many other needs, and depending on whether Todd Haley or Dick LeBeau is doing the talking, it starts with wide receiver or cornerback.
One argument for the Steelers targeting a cornerback with the 15th pick is that the wide receiver class is deep. Some evaluators are talking "the best bunch of pass catchers we've seen in decades" deep. Meanwhile, the top cornerbacks only have a few names: Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert, Bradley Roby, Kyle Fuller and Jason Verrett.
Most mock drafts have Gilbert going off the board first, before the Steelers go on the clock, leaving Dennard as the obvious choice. But there have been murmurs that Dennard's aggressive style at Michigan State won't transfer particularly well in the NFL, where pass interference is called without much hesitation. Then again, this is the time of year where every nitpick, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is brought to the fore, usually anonymously, and as indisputable evidence that [insert player] isn't worthy of his (mock) draft position.
That brings us to Roby, the Ohio State corner who will forever be known as "that guy who got toasted by Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis last fall" but now appears to be moving up draft boards because his overall body of work -- and where teams project him in the future -- is impressive (In fact, in his latest mock draft, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah has the Steelers taking Roby at No. 15.)
The Steelers also have a knack for finding big, physical corners later in the draft. Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen were fourth-rounders and Keenan Lewis, now starring with the Saints, was a third-rounder.
(This is where you point out that the Steelers dropped the ball, Ike Taylor-style, when they let Lewis walk, and this is us agreeing with you.)
If the top of the draft doesn't shake out to Pittsburgh's liking, one name to watch is Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, whose 6-3, 218 pounds and is projected to go in the second or third round.
That's worth keeping in mind in the unlikely event that someone like Mike Evans finds his way to the middle of the first round. Frankly, it seems impossible; the hype surrounding the Texas A&M wide receiver isn't quite Manzielian but it's close. At 6-5, 230 pounds and with 4.45-40 speed, there's a lot to like. And with the constant talk of Ben Roethlisberger wanting -- needing -- a tall downfield threat, Evans makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers, Rams and Giants have similar needs and all pick before No. 15.
Which means the Steelers should probably shift their focus elswhere. Possible targets could include another huge player, 6-5, 240-pound Kelvin Benjamin. Most experts don't consider him a top-15 pick, and everyone has Evans rated higher ... everyone but NFL Films' Greg Cosell, who might watch more film than anyone not affiliated with an NFL team.
He said recently that he prefers Benjamin to Evans because Benjamin is slightly more fluid, and also noted that Benjamin had more experience with the traditional NFL route tree at Florida State than Evans did in the Aggies' wide-open offense.
There's also LSU's Odell Beckham, who, at 5-11 wouldn't solve the tall wideout problem, but is an explosive playmaker and dangerous returner. Like Antonio Brown? How about two of them?
Another strategy: Take a tall, fast, athletic tight end and kill two birds with one stone. UNC's Eric Ebron is 6-5 250 and runs a 4.5. He creates matchup problems wherever you put him -- inside or outside -- and he would be the obvious successor to Heath Miller, who enters his 10th season.
The SidelineView.com's Lance Zierlein has Ebron going to Pittsburgh in his latest mock draft. It's an unconventional pick, one that would no doubt cause gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from some fans (especially with Gilbert and Dennard still available), but one that would also fill several needs.
Tall(ish), physical wideouts that could be considered after Round 1: Allen Robinson, Davante Adams, Donte Moncrief, Jordan Matthews and Jarvis Landry.
But again, it's worth remembering that none of these names mean a thing if they don't contribute next season and beyond. The Steelers drafted wideout Troy Edwards 13th overall in 1999 and he was with the Rams three years later. In 2000, they selected Plaxico Burress eighth overall, and he had a successful career in Pittsburgh and later New York. Second-round defensive backs Scott Shields (2000), Ricardo Colclough (2004) and Bryant McFadden (2005) ranged from monumental busts to below average.
Just more proof that the draft, by its very nature, is more inexact art than science.
A year ago, we wrote that we'd be happy if the Steelers' 2013 draft haul included wide receiver Tavon Austin in the first round, running back Johnathan Franklin in Round 2 and safety T.J. McDonald in Round 3.
Austin ended up going eighth to the Rams, nine picks before the Steelers took Jarvis Jones. Franklin lasted until the fourth round, and although McDonald was, in fact, a third-round pick, the Steelers drafted wideout Markus Wheaton and safety Shamarko Thomas.
The point: No matter how sensible a draft seems in the hours and days after the names are called, the reality is that, two years from now, it could be '08-Steelers-draft laugh-out-loud ridiculous. That's the nature of the beast.
It also reinforces the razor-thin difference between success and failure in the NFL. The Steelers haven't had a losing season in 11 years. Whether they can return to the playoffs for the first time since Tim Tebow crushed their hopes and dreams back in January 2011 will depend, in part, on what happens in the coming weeks. Tomlin is fond of saying, "The standard is the standard," but the reality is that you're only as good as your players.