2017 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh Steelers: Top needs, suggested picks, current outlook

2017 NFL Draft: Steelers rebuffed in free agency, gear for draft
By Frank Cooney, NFLDraftScout.com  |  April 5, 2017 at 12:38 PM
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The Steelers stepped out of character and tried to spend big money in free agency, but linebacker Dont'a Hightower eschewed the offer and opted to stay with the New England Patriots.

So the Steelers returned to form with their mundane free agency routine and selected backups for depth.

The Steelers brought in Hightower for a visit after their 10-year veteran Lawrence Timmons signed with Miami, but a nearly eight-hour visit did not end in a deal with Hightower.

The Steelers now will probably have fifth-year linebacker Vince Williams step in for Timmons.

The Steelers did sign four free agents. Among them, cornerback Coty Sensabaugh has the best chance to challenge for a starting position, either outside at cornerback or in the slot.

After addressing the depth issues on the 53-man roster, the Steelers are now full-speed ahead on preparations for the draft, considered their stock in track, so to speak. An edge rusher and a cornerback proficient at man coverage are at the top of the list.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said at the NFL league meetings the lack of quality depth at those two positions were costly in the AFC Championship Game loss to New England.

"Our inability to play man-to-man effectively and our inability to apply pressure on the quarterback without blitzing were issues in that game," Tomlin said.

Here is a closer look at where the Steelers are, how they got here and a shot at what they should do with their first pick in the draft, No. 30 overall.

THE BREAKDOWN

2016 finish: 1st AFC North (11-5)

STATISTICS

TOTAL OFFENSE: 372.60 (7th)

RUSHING: 110.0 (14th)

PASSING: 262.6 (T5th)

TOTAL DEFENSE: 342.6 (12th)

RUSHING: 100.0 (13th)

PASSING: 242.6 (16th)

TEAM NEEDS

1. Outside linebacker: The Steelers return James Harrison and Bud Dupree as starters, but Harrison is turning 39 later this spring and the front office has to find his long-term replacement as well as a player capable of spelling him next season. The Steelers recorded 38 sacks last season, but they need a more consistent pass rush, especially from the edge. Harrison led the outside linebackers with five sacks last season.

2. Cornerback: The Steelers signed Coty Sesnabaugh to a two-year contract to bolster a position group that has to be upgraded, but that free-agent signing won't prevent the Steelers from drafting a cornerback high in the draft. The Steelers want to play more man coverage and need another talented player to pair with Artie Burns, last year's first-round pick. The Steelers have improved their pass defense the past two seasons, but they remain middle-of-the-pack when it comes to pass defense statistics.

3. Running back: Le'Veon Bell will play on the franchise tag in 2017 if the Steelers don't sign him to a long-term deal by July 15. They need a strong backup behind him because DeAngelo Williams is not expected to return after spending the past two seasons in that role. He'll turn two days before the draft, and the Steelers want to get younger at the position. They accomplished that in part by signing Knile Davis, 25, to a one-year free-agent deal, but they still need another young back to help relieve Bell's workload.

KEY PERSONNEL TRACKER (As of April 5)

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

LB James Harrison: Potential UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

TE David Johnson: UFA; $2.05M/1 yr, $235K SB.

LB Steven Johnson: Potential UFA; terms unknown.

QB Landry Jones: UFA; $4.4M/2 yrs, $600,000 SB.

LS Greg Warren: Potential UFA; $1M/1 yr.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

DE Tyson Alualu: UFA Jaguars; $6M/2 yrs, $1.25M SB/$1.75M guaranteed.

RB Knile Davis: UFA Chiefs; $775K/1 yr.

WR Justin Hunter: UFA Bills; $855K/1 yr, $30K SB.

CB Coty Sensabaugh: UFA Giants; $2.6M/2 yrs, $425M SB.

PLAYERS LOST

CB Justin Gilbert (released).

T Ryan Harris (retired).

LB Jarvis Jones: UFA Cardinals; $2.25M/1 yr, $1M SB.

LB Lawrence Timmons: UFA Dolphins; $12M/2 yrs, $5.5M SB/$11M guaranteed.

WR Markus Wheaton: UFA Bears; $11M/2 yrs, $1.5M SB/$3M guaranteed.

MOCK DRAFT

NFLDraftScout.com analysts suggest (No. 30 overall)

Rob Rang:

Obi Melifonwu, SS, Connecticut. Two years ago, it was former Husky Byron Jones who wowed scouts at the Combine with his sheer athleticism, earning a first-round pick by Dallas. Melifonwu was one of this year's brightest stars in Indianapolis, producing a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, 44-inch vertical and 11-feet-3-inch broad jump at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds. Better yet, Melifonwu's athleticism translates onto the field and the Steelers could use his range in the deep patrol.

Dane Brugler:

T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin. Whether he is lined up inside or outside, Watt is a versatile linebacker with the athleticism and competitive drive that will help him make plays on the football field.

Agree? Disagree? Still shopping?

Based on the team's current status, those are our suggestions for that first pick. To double check or find another candidate see NFLDraftScout.com's full mocks and ratings.

--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX team insiders contributed to this article.

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