Where Do the Steelers Go From Here?

Writer: Andrew Carlisle

The early talk of the NFL offseason has been Antonio Brown vs. the only team he has ever played for, the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the dust settles on this drawn out and overblown story, we should all take advice from a very wise Aaron Rodgers and “R-E-L-A-X.”

The Steelers have long been known as one of the most professional and well run franchises, not just in football, but in all of sports. However, back-to-back off seasons have seen the franchise struggle to maintain control over two of the top playmakers in the game, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. After allowing Bell to walk, and shipping Brown out of the Steel City, the question for the Steelers becomes: What’s next?

The Steelers handled the Antonio Brown saga about as well as they could have, with the receiver publicly criticizing multiple people within the organization including general manager Kevin Colbert, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers did what any sane and knowledgeable person would do and backed the most important position in the NFL, the quarterback. The fallout has left the Steelers without two of the NFL’s top playmakers, but the outlook does not look as gloom as the fans might think.

The Steelers have already survived the Le’Veon Bell saga, and have seen two young and hungry playmakers emerge in James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels. Over 14 games last season, James Conner totaled 270 touches for 1,470 total yards, and 13 touchdowns. Jaylen Samuels started in the three games that James Conner missed due to concussion recording 54 touches, totaling 328 yards, and a single touchdown.

These two playmakers are primed and ready to form a one-two punch that can wear down defenses with explosiveness and power. With Conner being 23, and Samuels being 22, they should both be in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.

The more recent saga that has been carried out over the Steelers heads revolves around the best wide receiver in the NFL today, Antonio Brown. Brown has recorded six straight 100 catch, and 1,000 yard receiving seasons, while leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns this past season with 15. His insane pace of production has been a focal point of one of the leagues most potent offenses over the last few seasons.

Now with Antonio Brown out of the picture, who is going to step up? Enter in Juju Smith-Schuster.

The former second round pick out of Southern California will enter his third NFL season with more expectations than ever before. However, there is no need to worry. Smith-Schuster has the speed, strength, athleticism, and swagger that a number one receiver needs to thrive in the NFL.

Take that and match it with his focused demeanor that recently said, “I think everyone has to stop being divas. I think we need to stop being the Kardashians and just play ball.” Smith-Schuster, along with the Saints Michael Thomas, Texans DeAndre Hopkins, and Buccaneers Mike Evans, are some of the most quiet and level headed receivers in the NFL. The distractions are gone, and Smith-Schuster is ready to help Ben Roethlisberger lead the Steelers through the AFC once again.

Of course all of Antonio Brown’s production cannot be replaced by just one player, it will be a group effort. James Washington, a former second round pick out of Oklahoma State, will have to pick up some of the slack in his second season, while tight end Vance McDonald should also see an increased target share. The Steelers should also look to add another receiver or two through the draft, now that they have 10 picks after trading Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders.

The real issues for the Steelers lie in the same place they have been for the last five seasons, the defense. It’s not even the entire defense that has been a problem, namely the inside linebacker position and the secondary.

However, I fully expect the Steelers to address these areas in the NFL Draft this April. The secondary should look very different a year from now, as Artie Burns has been a first round bust, and safety Morgan Burnett voiced his frustrations with how he was used late last year, and early in the offseason.

The inside linebacker positions weren’t a problem for the Steelers two years ago with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams in the fold. However, after Shazier’s spinal cord injury, which has likely ended his career, the Steelers have to be realistic and look to add to their inside linebacker depth in this years draft.

Some notable draft prospects that could be available for the Steelers at their first round selection, pick 20, are Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, and Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker. Any of these three could help revitalize a Steeler defense that has been in the ashes since Troy Polamalu retired in 2015.

Whichever route the Steelers choose to go in the first round will ultimately tell us where they plan the spend their draft pick in the second round. Potential second round picks for the Steelers could and should include Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson, Notre Dame linebacker Te’Von Coney, Delaware safety Nasir Adderley, Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love, and Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. All should be in play around pick number 52 of the draft as the Steelers look to build upon a disappointing 2018 campaign and turn around their fortunes this upcoming season.

The Steelers shouldn’t panic, or worry at all. They have done away with all of the distractions that have plagued them over the past two seasons and now have a clear focus, and that is to win.