Ron Cook: Steelers draft offers optimism, but it still all depends on QB

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It has been a good offseason for the Steelers. Thanks to a surprisingly aggressive approach to free agency despite salary-cap issues and, by most accounts, a decent draft, they are much better today than there were on this day a year ago. But are they good enough? Did they do enough to catch up to the Baltimore Ravens and hold off the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North Division? I’m not ready to go there.

Nothing really has changed.

It all depends on Ben Roethlisberger’s health.

At this point, there is reason for much optimism. Roethlisberger played with severe pain early last season before seeking elbow surgery after the second game to re-attach three flexor tendons. “I have no doubts I’m going to be able to come back and play well — none,” Roethlisberger told me last month. “I have complete confidence in that. To be able to throw without pain now? That feels nice. That’s a nice feeling. I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain.”

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin gave Roethlisberger a couple of new receiving targets by signing tight end Eric Ebron and drafting Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool in the second round Friday night. The team had nothing at tight end last season after often-injured Vance McDonald, and the receiving group, though young and productive at times, will be better with Claypool. Ebron and Claypool are big men who will make Roethlisberger better as red-zone options. Roethlisberger will make receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington better just by being Roethlisberger.

The offensive line also should be better because of Roethlisberger’s ability to throw the ball and take pressure off the running game. Stefen Wisniewski, who was good enough to start on two of the past three Super Bowl-winning teams, replaces Ramon Foster or B.J. Finney. Fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson also will have a big chance to make the team.

The defense will be better because Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick will be more comfortable in the Tomlin/Keith Butler scheme. The team gave up an average of 30.5 points and 445 yards in the first two games last season before trading for Fitzpatrick, who went on to become a first-team All-Pro. It allowed an average of 16.5 points and 282.5 yards with Fitzpatrick, throwing out the mail-it-in-loss to the Ravens in the final game. Bush was brought along slowly as a rookie and will see plenty more playing time with Mark Barron gone.

It hurts to lose Javon Hargrave as a free agent, but Stephon Tuitt will be back healthy after missing much of last season with a torn pec muscle. The team also brought in defensive line depth by trading for Chris Wormley.

There is a lot to like about the 2020 Steelers.

But they are far from a perfect team as of now, April 26. When you go 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, as they did last season, you have a lot of needs. Free agency and the draft solved only so many.

The biggest concern is at running back. The Steelers had a chance to take Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins in the second round Friday night but went for Claypool. Colbert and Tomlin say they believe James Conner will stay healthy and that Benny Snell Jr. will be productive in a feature-back role, if necessary, but that seems like quite a gamble with both players. Good luck with that. Conner hasn’t been able to stay on the field and Snell is largely unproven, although he had moments as a rookie last season in wins against the Los Angeles Chargers, Bengals and Browns.

It would have been nice if the Steelers had been able to work out a deal for San Francisco’s Matt Breida, who was traded to Miami Saturday for a fifth-round pick. They know all about Breida, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season and ripped off 68 yards on 14 carries against them in a 49ers win last season. Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette still is available in a trade, apparently, and free agent LeSean McCoy also is out there. It would make sense for the Steelers to get one of them, but if they had any interest, why did they draft Maryland’s Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round Saturday? The intel on McFarland is that he has high-end talent and serious maturity issues. Maybe he’ll get around Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and Conner, see what a real pro is and grow up. Or maybe not. I’ll take Fournette or McCoy.

The Steelers have depth issues at inside linebacker and safety. Third-round pick Alex Highsmith from Charlotte could provide help at outside linebacker if T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree misses time because of an injury — he also looks to be the long-term replacement for Dupree — but who is behind Bush and Vince Williams with Barron gone? And do Tomlin and Butler really want to play Williams more than the 36.5% of the snaps they used him last season? There also isn’t much at safety after Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. The defense looks to be among the best in the NFL but could be devastated with an injury to the wrong player or players.

As is, the Steelers look good enough to make the playoffs, especially now that a seventh team from each conference will be in. They would have made it in each of the past two seasons as the seventh seed. But did they make up enough ground on the Ravens, who were 14-2 last season? Are they better than the Browns, who had a strong draft? And what happens if they sleep on the Bengals, who added No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, bringing the third Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback into the division along with Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield?

It is worth repeating.

It depends on Roethlisberger.


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