Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since drafting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, the Steelers have gone 137-71 in the regular season, the 3rd best record in the NFL over that time period, behind the Patriots (162-46) and the Colts (138-70). The Steelers also have 13 playoff wins, 3 Super Bowl appearances, and 2 Super Bowl victories over those 13 seasons. Roethlisberger has completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.89 YPA, 301 touchdowns, and 160 interceptions in his career and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of his last 10 seasons. Last season, he finished 13th among quarterbacks.

Given all of that, Steelers fans must have had a mini heart attack this off-season when reports broke that Roethlisberger was considering retirement. Roethlisberger did not decide to retire, but is going into his age 35 season and could definitely decide to hang them up in the next couple of seasons, especially since he’s suffered a lot of injuries throughout his career. Roethlisberger has only missed 23 games in 13 seasons in the league, but has played through injuries in countless others and only has made it through three 16-game seasons without missing a game.

To prepare themselves in case Roethlisberger does decide to retire soon, the Steelers used a 4th round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Dobbs has intriguing tools, but is very raw and could easily not pan out. He was worth a shot in the 4th round, but he’s not necessarily going to be their starting quarterback of the future. As a rookie, he might not even be the primary backup, as the Steelers like veteran Landry Jones, who they re-signed to a 2-year, 4.4 million dollar deal this off-season. A 4th round pick by the Steelers in 2013, Jones has a 82.8 QB rating on 141 career pass attempts (4 starts) and would likely make starts again if Roethlisberger misses any time in 2017. For now, the Steelers are set with Roethlisberger under center, but their long-term quarterback situation is concerning.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As important as Roethlisberger is to this offense, he does have an incredible supporting cast and running back Le’Veon Bell is arguably just as important to this team. Between Bell’s 3-game suspension, the week 7 game Roethlisberger missed against the Patriots, and their meaningless week 17 game where they rested their starters, Bell and Roethlisberger were not on the field together at the time as much as the Steelers would have liked last season, but when they were on the field together at the same time, this offense was one of the best in the league.

In the 11 games they played together, they moved the chains at a 39.83% rate, which would have been 4th best over the full season. By comparison, Roethlisberger played 3 games without Bell and the Steelers moved the chains at a mere 32.50% rate in those 3 games. That would have been just 25th best over the full season. When Bell left the AFC Championship with a groin injury, the Steelers didn’t stand a chance against New England, losing by a final score of 36-17.

Despite only playing in 12 games last season, Bell still finished 3rd in the league in yards from scrimmage with 1884. He finished the season #1 among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He also finished #1 at the position in 16-game season in 2014 then was #1 through 6 games an injury plagued 2015 season. Last season, he especially caught fire down the stretch and carried this team during their 9-game win streak, until he was injured in the AFC Championship. Bell didn’t play in their week 17 win, but, in 8 games, he rushed for 1172 yards and 8 touchdowns on 220 carries and added 34 catches for 259 yards and another 1 touchdown through the air. That extrapolates to slash lines of 440/2344/16 and 68/518/2 over a full 16 game season. That would break all sorts of records.

They’re unlikely to give him that many touches in an effort to keep him healthy and they used a 3rd round compensatory pick on a running back, selecting the University of Pittsburgh’s James Conner at #105 overall. That being said, if Bell stays healthy all year, 400+ touches isn’t out of the question. Conner is likely to be a pure backup and only see a few touches per game at most. He was mostly drafted as insurance for Bell, with Bell scheduled to play on the franchise tag this season and no long-term deal in place.

The Steelers likely want to see him make it through a full season without getting injured or suspended for marijuana before committing a long-term deal to him. He’s played all 16 games just once in four seasons in the league, is starting to pile up injuries, has already been suspended twice, and could be another failed drug test away from a season long suspension. He could easily prove himself in 2017 though, still only his age 25 season. When on the field, he’s the best all-around running back in football.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The Steelers might have the best all-around wide receiver in football to, in Antonio Brown, and they get a big boost with Martavis Bryant returning from a season long suspension. Brown has been a top-3 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 4 straight seasons and has caught 481 passes for 6315 yards and 43 touchdowns over those 4 seasons. That’s an average slash line of 120/1579/11 per season. Those numbers all lead the league over that time period. He incredibly has 81 more catches and 862 more receiving yards than any pass catcher in the league over the past 4 seasons and is still in his prime, going into his age 29 season.

Bryant, meanwhile, looked on his way to breaking out in 2016, but then failed another drug test and missed the whole season. He’s back now and last we saw him he had 50 catches for 765 yards and 6 touchdowns in 11 games in just his age 24 season in 2015. That’s a 73/1108/9 slash line over 16 games. The 2014 4th round pick also averaged 2.75 yards per route run on 200 routes as a rookie. A 6-4 211 pounder with legitimate 4.3 speed, Bryant is dripping with talent is could easily put it all together in 2017.

That’s far from a guarantee, considering he could be rusty after not playing all year, but he has 1000+ yard potential opposite Brown. The Steelers threw 143 balls to Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, and Cobi Hamilton last season, all of whom finished below average on Pro Football Focus, so there’s definitely room for Bryant to get targets. He and Brown might be the best wide receiver duo in the NFL by season’s end. Brown will work as a possession receiver and likely lead the league in catches, while Bryant will be a big play deep threat.

The Steelers also added a wide receiver in the 2nd round of the draft, taking USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster with the 62nd overall pick. Smith-Schuster doesn’t have a huge upside, but was a great pick because he’s an NFL ready slot receiver. He’ll compete for the slot receiver job with 2015 undrafted free agent Eli Rogers, who was underwhelming on 539 snaps in his first significant career action in 2016. Smith-Schuster is likely the favorite and could have a big rookie year role.

The only real weakness in this receiving corps is at tight end. Ladarius Green flashed on 140 snaps last season, but couldn’t play anymore than that because of ankle and concussion problems. He was let go this off-season and is currently unsigned and reportedly considering retiring. Jesse James made 13 starts last season and, without a better option added this off-season, will open the season as the starter in 2017. A 5th round pick in 2015, James is a solid blocker at 6-7 261, but doesn’t provide much in the passing game, averaging just 8.38 yards per catch on 47 career catches.

The Steelers other options are veteran blocking tight end David Johnson, who is going into his age 30 season with 31 career catches, and Xavier Grimble, a 2014 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming in the first 197 offensive snaps of his career in 2016. The Steelers may use more 3-wide receiver sets to offset their issues at tight end. This receiving corps is helped significantly by the additional receiving depth they now have and they still have Le’Veon Bell as a threat out of the backfield, though their lack of a good receiving tight end could be a bit of a problem for them.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Tight end might actually be their only real weakness on this entire offense, as they also have one of the best offensive lines in football, with no real weaknesses upfront. The Steelers have had strong offensive line play for years, but it looked like they would have a problem at left tackle in 2016, after Kelvin Beachum signed with the Jaguars as a free agent. Alejandro Villanueva was penciled in as his replacement, but he struggled in the first 10 starts of his career in 2015 when Beachum was injured and didn’t look like a good starting option. However, he took his game to a whole new level in 2016, making all 16 starts and finishing 26th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.

Originally not even signed as an undrafted free agent out of the US Military Academy, Villanueva has a very interesting story. He served 3 tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger and earned a Bronze Star for valor. After that, he was signed by the Eagles as a defensive end in 2014 when he impressed them in a tryout, but he didn’t make the final roster. The Steelers then snatched him up and tried converting him into an offensive tackle. Villanueva played offensive tackle some in college, in addition to linebacker, tight end, and defensive end, but needed to gain 90 pounds to play the offensive tackle position in the NFL.

He didn’t play at all in 2014, as he transitioned to the new position, but the Steelers’ experiment worked out very well, as the 6-9 330 pounder is now locked in as a starter. He might regress a little bit in 2017, already his age 29 season, but he should be a solid starter again. He’s probably the league’s best value salary wise, owed just $615,000 on an exclusive rights tender in 2017. Unhappy with his pay, Villanueva has yet to sign that tender, but the Steelers are working on locking him up on a long-term deal that pays him more fairly.

Villanueva might still be their worst starting offensive lineman, because they are strong across all 5 starting positions. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is coming off of an even better season than Villanueva, finishing 11th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. That was easily the best season of his career, but the 2011 2nd round pick has finished above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, including 23rd in 2014 and 28th in 2015. He should have another solid season in 2017, though it’s a concern that he’s missed 20 games in 6 seasons in the league and has played all 16 games just twice. He missed 3 games in 2016, which hurt this offense.

The Steelers also have arguably the best guard duo in the NFL. Right guard David DeCastro was a first round pick in 2012. He missed most of his rookie season with a bad knee injury, but has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 seasons since, finishing among the top-19 guards on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Last season, he finished a career best 8th and he’s still right in the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season. He was well paid on a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension last off-season, but he’s well worth it. He’s the 4th highest paid guard in average annual salary as of this writing, but he is coming off of such a strong season.

Left guard Ramon Foster is coming off of an even stronger season though, not allowing a single sack in 14 starts last season and finishing 2nd among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s not nearly as well paid, re-signed for just 9.6 million over 3 seasons last off-season, and he’s also not as young, going into his age 31 season. Last season was easily the best of his career, so he’s likely to regress. However, he’s made 89 of 96 starts in 6 seasons as a starter, finishing above average in 5 of those seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-18, so he probably has a couple more strong seasons left in the tank. He’s one of the best bargains in the NFL.

Completing this offensive line is center Maurkice Pouncey, who was fortunately healthy last season. He missed 31 games with injury from 2013-2015, but made 15 starts in 2016 and finished 14th among centers on Pro Football Focus. The 2010 1st round pick has finished above average in every healthy season in his career and is still only going into his age 28 season, so he could be a solid starting center for several more seasons, if he can continue to stay healthy. That’s not guaranteed though. His long-term durability is the only real issue on what looks like arguably the best offensive line in football.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Steelers’ offense is definitely their stronger unit, but they have some talent on defense as well. They finished last season 13th in first down rate allowed, despite arguably their top defensive player, defensive end Cameron Heyward, missing 9 games with injury. In Heyward’s absence, 2014 2nd round pick Stephon Tuitt broke out in his 3rd season in the league, finishing 9th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus and leading the defensive line with 765 snaps. Tuitt has gotten better in all 3 seasons that he’s been in the league, finishing 40th at his position in 2014, 14th in 2015, and 9th in 2014. Still only going into his age 24 season, it’s very possible his best play is still ahead of him. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Tuitt is an obvious extension candidate and could be franchise tagged next off-season if nothing gets agreed to.

Heyward returns from injury and should form a dangerous duo with Tuitt. Both will play defensive end on this 3-man defensive line in base packages and then terrorize offensive linemen from the interior in sub packages. Prior to last season, Heyward made all 48 starts in the previous 3 seasons and finished in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in all 3 of those seasons. Only in his age 28 season, Heyward has obvious bounce back potential. He and Tuitt will play basically every down, but nose tackle Javon Hargrave will also probably rotate in on some sub package snaps.

A 2016 3rd round pick, Hargrave didn’t play much at the start of the season, but took on a larger role in the 2nd half of last season with Heyward out and ended up playing a total of 494 regular season snaps. He flashed potential, finishing slightly above average, and should continue having a bigger role in 2017. The 6-2 305 pounder is not a traditional nose tackle because he can also rush the passer a little bit in sub packages, in addition to playing as a pure base nose tackle. He could easily take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Tuitt, Heyward, and Hargrave will command the majority of the snaps, but Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers may have situational roles. Alualu has been terrible throughout his career though and is going into his age 30 season, while McCullers has never played more than 215 snaps in a season and isn’t useful outside of jumbo packages because he doesn’t move well at all at 6-7 352. McCullers complements Hargrave well though and Alualu is unlikely to have to play much. Despite their lack of depth, this is still a strong unit because of how good their 3 starters are.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Outside linebacker in this 3-4 defense has been a problem position for the Steelers for years. They spent their 3rd first round pick on the position in 5 drafts when they drafted TJ Watt 30th overall back in April. Jarvis Jones, selected 17th overall in 2013, never became anything more than an adequate run stuffer and is no longer with the team, signing with the Cardinals as a free agent this off-season. Watt is more or less his replacement and should have a solid rookie season in a rotational role.

Additionally, Bud Dupree was the 22nd pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 109th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and then was limited to 7 games in 2016 by injury. He was noticeably improved when on the field last season, but still needs a lot of improvement and finished below average for the 2nd straight season. He still has a high upside, so the Steelers are obviously hoping he can stay healthy and have a breakout 3rd season in the league. That is a possibility, but far from a certainty.

Dupree will rotate snaps with the rookie Watt and the ultimate veteran James Harrison, who is going into his age 39 season. A former Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer, Harrison has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 10 straight seasons and is still playing at a very high level, despite his age. He finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 7th last season. He’s on a snap count, playing just 587 snaps last season and likely playing fewer in 2017, and his abilities could go south at any point at his age, but he could easily still be a useful player this season.

The Steelers lost long-time starting middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons in free agency this off-season, but his best years were several years ago and he finished last season 70th among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so he won’t really be missed. The Steelers will replace him internally with Vince Williams. Williams has always been a valuable reserve and special teamer and was re-signed last off-season to a 3-year, 5.5 million dollar deal, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016. The 2013 6th round pick has been serviceable in limited action thus far in his career (17 starts in 4 seasons) and will be a full-time every down player for the first time in his career in 2017. He’s not a bad player, but probably isn’t much more than a low end starting middle linebacker. He’s solid against the run, but has issues in coverage.

Fellow starting middle linebacker Ryan Shazier is a much better player. Also a former first round pick, Shazier struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league and missed 11 games with injury over those 2 seasons combined, but had a mini breakout season in 2016. He finished 24th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, though he did miss another 3 games with injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best years could still be ahead of him and he could have his best season yet in his 4th season in the league in 2017. His injury history is concerning and he’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s plenty talented and the arrow is pointing up for him. He’s part of a solid, but unspectacular linebacking corps.

Grade: C+

Secondary

In addition to the three former first round picks the Steelers have in their linebacking corps, they also used a first round pick on a cornerback in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking the University of Miami’s Artie Burns at #25 overall. In fact, the Steelers have used their last 5 first round picks on defensive players, as their offense has been strong for years and has rarely had pressing needs. Burns came into the league very raw and was better than most expected as a rookie, finishing 39th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 810 snaps. Still only 22, Burns could take another step forward in his 2nd season in the league and has a huge upside long-term.

Burns may be their de facto #1 cornerback in 2017, but the Steelers have a trio of solid cornerbacks. In fact, Burns was the lowest rated of the three last season, as Ross Cockrell and William Gay finished 28th and 15th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Cockrell figures to keep his starting job and play outside opposite Burns in base packages, as Gay is best on the slot and going into his age 32 season. A 2014 4th round pick that the Bills gave up on too quickly, Cockrell has been a top-28 cornerback in 2 seasons as a starter with the Steelers, making 23 starts. Only in his age 26 season and going into the final year of his rookie deal, Cockrell will get a big contract from someone in the next year.

Gay, meanwhile, is coming off the highest rated season of his career, but is unlikely to repeat that kind of season again in 2017, given his age. Still, he’s made 107 starts over the past 8 seasons and has finished above average in 6 of those 8 seasons, so he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in the tank, especially if he is a pure slot cornerback. The 5-10 183 pounder is one of the best slot cover cornerbacks in the NFL. He completes a talented trio of cornerbacks and the Steelers have 3rd round rookie Cameron Sutton for depth purposes.

Starting safety Malcolm Mitchell is also a solid defensive back, finishing last season 31st among safeties on Pro Football Focus. A late bloomer, Mitchell struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, but has made 62 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has finished above average in 3 of those 4 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Mitchell could start to decline over the next couple of seasons, but he could easily be a solid starting safety again in 2017. He’ll start opposite second year player Sean Davis, who is hoping for a better season in 2017, after finishing 68th out of 90 eligible safeties in 14 starts as a rookie in 2016. He’s the one weakness in an overall solid secondary and he has the upside to be better now that he has a season under his belt.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

With Martavis Bryant returning from suspension and Le’Veon Bell hopefully available for the whole season, the Steelers have one of the most complete and most talented offenses in the NFL. Their defense isn’t bad either and could be better in 2017, with Cameron Heyward returning from injury. This is one of the best and most complete teams in the entire league and they should be considered one of the top few Super Bowl contenders. They will be a real threat to the Patriots in the AFC if they can stay healthy. 

Final update: The Steelers made some moves in the secondary before the start of the season, signing ex-Browns cornerback Joe Haden, trading cornerback Ross Cockrell to the Giants for a late round pick, and then flipping a late round pick to the Buccaneers for JJ Wilcox, who fills a hole at safety. They enter the season healthy and are one of the most talented and complete teams in the league. They should win a lot of games in a weak AFC.

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in AFC North

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s