Tim Benz: A history lesson for those doubting the Steelers' 2021 draft class

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Tim Benz, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·4 min read
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May 4—In Monday's "First Call," I pointed out that ESPN's Mel Kiper gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a C+ for their 2021 draft class.

Based on the visceral reaction I saw to that story in my email inbox and on my Twitter feed, the good folks of "Stiller Nation" have a — shall we say — slightly higher opinion of their team's new collection of players than that.

However, before we jump down Kiper's throat, understand that he was being kind compared to some of his peers. Here are a few more examples.

NBC Sports: C-

Draft Wire: C

The Draft Network: C

Pro Football Focus: C

CBS Sports (Pete Prisco): C

Sports Illustrated: C+

Yahoo! Sports: C+

So Kiper was hardly alone in his lukewarm response to the selection process of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert.

Between those reads and what I heard over the weekend on ESPN and NFL Network programs, critiques of the Steelers' draft picks usually relied on three points.

—They shouldn't have taken a running back in the first round, even one as good as Alabama's Najee Harris.

—They should've found Ben Roethlisberger's clear successor.

—They didn't address major areas of need for 2021 early enough in the draft and focused too much on developmental prospects.

The first two points aren't worth rehashing again. I endorse drafting Harris. And I think once the decisions were made to keep Roethlisberger, sign Dwayne Haskins and extend Mason Rudolph, the second debate was rendered moot.

But if you believe one side of either argument, you'll never come over to the other. They are Republican versus Democrat. Communism versus capitalism. Star Trek versus Star Wars. "Less filling" versus "Tastes great."

Not only is it time to stop beating those dead horses, but they have already been turned into glue. So I won't engage further.

The final discussion is a little more nuanced, though. There's some middle ground to be found.

As you read at "Breakfast With Benz" in the wake of the draft, I agree with those who wince at the franchise's failure to address defensive back until the seventh round (Tre Norwood/Oklahoma) or pass rushing depth (Quincy Roche/Miami) until the sixth.

Despite the talent of second-rounder Pat Freiermuth (TE/Penn State), I'm also dubious of skipping over a few excellent centers until Round 3 when the Steelers drafted a player who isn't as experienced at the position in Kendrick Green (Illinois).

And all three picks in the fourth and fifth rounds — Dan Moore Jr. (OT/Texas A&M), Buddy Johnson (ILB/Texas A&M) and Isaiahh Loudermilk (DE/Wisconsin) — are all likely to be just special teams players or emergency injury replacements in 2021.

So aside from Harris and a potential new punter (Pressley Harvin III/Georgia Tech) in the seventh round, everyone else is probably starting the season no better than second string on the depth chart.

Here's one thing to remember, though. The fabled 1974 Steelers draft class is the barometer by which all other drafts are measured. Not just in Pittsburgh, but throughout the league.

It yielded four Hall of Famers. Receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth in the first and fourth rounds. Linebacker Jack Lambert in the second round and center Mike Webster in the fifth.

A fifth inductee to Canton, safety Donnie Shell, was an undrafted free agent that year. As was four-time Super Bowl Champion tight end Randy Grossman.

Of that group, only Lambert was a significant contributor in 1974, starting all 14 games and winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The remaining five players combined for all of seven starts.

I'll faint if this collection of Steelers rookies even sniffs that level of career achievement. But if that '74 group was allowed to develop into what it eventually became, the same luxury can be afforded to this batch.

Although I supposed the Steelers did bring some criticism onto themselves by appearing to load up for one more run at the Super Bowl by retaining Roethlisberger. Not to mention other veterans who were on the free-agent market such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu.

It's a confusing message to then present a draft class that may be much more about 2022 than it is 2021. But I've been confused about the Steelers ever since they lost to Tim Tebow in Denver in the 2011 playoffs. Steelers confusion is nothing new to me.

Nor is waiting for a draft class to develop through a transition year that perhaps no one is willing to admit we are witnessing. I'll be patient.

For a change.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.