Times have changed in the NFL, a league that now has far more high-octane passing attacks than dominant running games. And while this may be true, you still need a solid running game to win a Super Bowl. No one knows that more than the Steelers, who saw their once promising 2020 campaign end with a loss to the Browns in the wild-card round. While the loss was a team effort, the Steelers' 32nd-ranked rushing attack was one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh's championship drought has reached a dozen years.
With a limited salary cap, the Steelers will lean on the draft to bolster their running game in preparation for the 2021 season. Pittsburgh has several other holes it will look to fill, and with eight picks in the '21 draft, the Steelers have the ability to fix most -- if not all -- of their holes heading into training camp. Let's take a look at how the Steelers can pull off the perfect draft, starting with the position that is in most need of an upgrade as they give Ben Roethlisberger one more shot to win it all in 2021.
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Get a featured back
While no team solely relies on one running back anymore, it's no secret that Mike Tomlin likes having a featured running back who can close out a game. Tomlin had the luxury of having Le'Veon Bell on his team during the 2010s, and the result was four consecutive playoff berths that included a trip to the AFC title game in 2016.
The Steelers are expected to find their next featured running back in either the first or the second round. With the 24th overall pick, Pittsburgh should be in position to draft either Alabama's Najee Harris, Clemson's Travis Etienne, or North Carolina's Javonte Williams. Harris and Williams are bruisers, while the versatile Etienne would be a more natural fit inside new offensive coordinator Matt Canada's offense. Depending on what the Dolphins and Jets (owners of the 18th and 23rd selections, respectively) do with their picks, the Steelers could possibly have their choice of all three backs when they are on the clock.
The Steelers will also have several good options if they choose to wait until the second round to take a running back. Oklahoma's Rhamondre Stevenson, North Carolina's Michael Carter and Memphis' Kenneth Gainwell are among the top running back prospects who may still be available when the Steelers are on the clock with the 55th pick. And if Pittsburgh wants until the third round, Ohio State's Trey Sermon and Jaret Patterson might be available with the 87th overall pick. But given how big of a need this is, don't expect the Steelers to wait too long to solidify their running back position.
Strengthen the offensive line
As team president Art Rooney II recently stressed, the running back position is only part of the Steelers' plan to strengthen their game. The team also needs to add pieces to an offensive line that lost perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement) and right tackle Matt Feiler (who signed a multi-year deal with the Chargers). The Steelers will have a new starting left tackle, as Alejandro Villanueva is still on the open market. Pittsburgh did help strengthen their line during free agency by re-signing tackle Zach Banner and guard/center J.C. Hassenauer. The Steelers also signed former Buccaneers tackle Joe Haeg and guard/center B.J. Finney, who started his career in Pittsburgh before spending the 2020 season in Seattle and Cincinnati.
While Hassenauer, Banner, guard Kevin Dotson and tackle Chukwuma Okorafor will likely move into the starting lineup, the Steelers desperately need depth at the guard and tackle positions. Luckily for the Steelers, there should be several high-rated tackles available for them in the first round. Those players may include Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw, Oklahoma State's Tevin Jenkins, Michigan's Jalen Mayfield, and Northwestern's Dillon Radunz. USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker is the top-rated guard in the draft, but he is expected to be off the board by the time Pittsburgh is on the clock. Alabama's Landon Dickerson would be the choice if the Steelers want to select a center with their first-round pick.
Possible second-round options on offensive line include Alabama guard Alex Leatherwood, Tennessee guard Trey Smith, Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey and Ohio State center Josh Myers. Third-round options include Cincinnati tackle James Hudson III, Alabama guard Deonte Brown, Texas tackle Samel Cosmi, Middle Tennessee State guard Robert Jones, Wisconsin-Whitewater center Quinn Meinerz, and Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks.
Expect the Steelers to use at least two of their first three picks on the offensive line. Pittsburgh will probably use at least one Day 3 pick to add more depth to its line.
Replenish the linebacker corps
No position on Pittsburgh's roster was hit harder than this one during the offseason. Sack artist Bud Dupree penned a lucrative multiyear deal with the Titans. Following him to Tennessee was backup Ola Adeniyi. The Steelers somewhat stopped the bleeding by re-signing Robert Spillane to a one-year deal. They have also reportedly brought back Vince Williams, who was released earlier this offseason.
Pittsburgh needs some reinforcements at both inside and outside linebacker for the '21 season. While the thought is that the Steelers will first address their running game, don't be overly surprised if the Steelers grab a linebacker with one of their top two picks if the right one is available. The linebacker that would make the most sense in the first round is Georgia's Azeez Ojulari, who tallied three sacks, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in the Bulldogs' Peach Bowl victory over Cincinnati. If the Steelers decide to wait, former University of Pittsburgh pass rusher Patrick Jones II could be an early Day 3 steal.
The only inside linebacker that would make sense in the first round is Jamin Davis, who filled up the stat sheet during his final season at Kentucky. Day 2 options at inside linebacker include Alabama's Dylan Moses, Missouri's Nick Bolton, Ohio State's Baron Browning and LSU's Jabril Cox. The Steelers have shown considerable interest in Browning, a big hitter who has drawn comparisons to Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack.
Add depth in the secondary
Pittsburgh lost two key members of its secondary this offseason with the departures of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson. The Steelers have confidence that Cam Sutton and Justin Layne can replace Nelson and Hilton, but they still need to add a piece or two to the cornerback room before the start of the regular season. Don't be surprised if Pittsburgh takes a cornerback in Day 2 and another on the final day of the draft. Michigan State's Shakur Brown, Georgia's Eric Stokes and Ohio State's Shaun Wade would be good options in the third round. Day 3 options at corner include Cal's Camryn Bynum, LSU's Kary Vincent Jr., and Washington's Keith Taylor, among others.
Here's the prospects CBS NFL Draft writer Josh Edwards has the Steelers taking in his mock draft:
Round (Overall pick)
Teven Jenkins (OL)
Quinn Meinerz (OL)
Trey Sermon (RB)
Shakur Brown (CB)
Shaka Toney (EDGE)
DJ Daniel (CB)
Avery Williams (CB)
Tarron Jackson (EDGE)