Their general plan for this offseason was to depend upon this draft to reinforce their defense, and the Steelers certainly took a run at accomplishing that. They ended up making seven picks during the three days of the 2016 NFL Draft, and five of them play defense.
The Steelers' class of 2016 numbers one cornerback, one safety, one interior defensive lineman, one pass-rushing outside linebacker, one inside linebacker, one slot receiver/returner, and one offensive tackle. It was the first time in the 10 years of the Colbert-Tomlin era that the team's first three picks were used on defensive players.
Putting names to the positions, and listing them in order of selection, the Class of 2016 is: cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis, defensive lineman Javon Hargrave, tackle Jerald Hawkins, outside linebacker Travis Feeney, receiver/returner Demarcus Ayers, and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
"I mean, if these guys help us win a championship, it worked out," said General Manager Kevin Colbert about this draft class. "That's the only way we can evaluate any class. We'll see come February if it worked out. On paper, yes. There's no grey area. We either win or we lose. If we win a championship with these guys, great."
If the Steelers win a championship in the immediate future, they figure to be able to point to this draft class as helping to push the defense to a level required for a team to attain something like that.
"I'm really excited about it," said Coach Mike Tomlin about what the Steelers hope they were able to add to their defense via this draft. "Speed is just an element of it. I like the production of all the guys. We talked about Burns' production with the six interceptions in 2015. Sean Davis has been highly productive, not only over the course of 2015, but also just his career at Maryland. Matakevich's production is well-documented. Speed is an element of it – something that we covet – but speed without production is less attractive than these guys who have done it."
A look at the picks the Steelers made during Rounds 4-7, and how they fit in:
FOURTH ROUND – JERALD HAWKINS
The Steelers danced through the raindrops to some degree through the final portion of the 2015 season when it came to their situation at tackle. Alejandro Villanueva was starting at left tackle, with Marcus Gilbert having the best season of his still-developing career at right tackle. Kelvin Beachum was on the injured reserve list, and Mike Adams never had gotten off the physically unable to perform list. What that meant was that the No. 3 tackle on a team planning to depend on its offense to contend for a spot in the Super Bowl was Byron Stingily, and the emergency in-game option at tackle was guard Chris Hubbard.
The Steelers have been doing their best to make sure they have some better options in place for the 2016 season. Beachum left via free agency, but the Steelers still have Gilbert and Villanueva, plus they added veteran starter Ryan Harris as an unrestricted free agent. Adams is back for another season, and Brian Mihalik and Matt Feiler will see what they can do once training camp opens. To this, the Steelers used a fourth-round pick to add Hawkins, a three-year starter on the offensive line at LSU, where he made 25 starts at right tackle and 12 starts at left tackle.
"For me, I'm excited because I have a lot of options on what we can do," said offensive line coach Mike Munchak. "There's no plan right now on who is playing where. It's more or less just bringing them in, letting them compete, getting them reps and kind of see who rises to the top, who pushes the envelope. I think when you have good players, you get better. I think the fact that we have the guys we have and bringing a guy like this in, will help that room. It adds to what we have at tackle."
SIXTH ROUND – TRAVIS FEENEY
He posted Combine best numbers among all outside linebackers in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and the 60-yard shuttle, but Feeney was more than a workout warrior. Identified as the University of Washington's best pro prospect this year, Feeney went from being named the Huskies' scout team Defensive MVP in 2011, to an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick the following year after making 76 tackles and four sacks, to a nine-game starter and Washington's Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014, to a senior season that included 17.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
At outside linebacker, the Steelers have veterans Ryan Shazier and Arthur Moats, plus second-year pro Bud Dupree all committed for the 2016 season, with William Gay's official decision on a 14th NFL season still pending. Anthony Chickillo, another second-year pro who was the team's sixth-round pick last season also ins in the mix. That means Feeney is one of at least six outside linebackers, as long as Harrison decides to play another year, and the Steelers never have kept that many on a season-opening 53-man roster.
But those kinds of numbers don't figure to be as critical to Feeney's chances at an NFL career as the numbers he has posted when his speed was tested. "He is a smaller guy, but he runs really fast. He's an easy runner," said outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. "He really strikes you when he puts a hit on you. I think he adds to our special teams depth, and hopefully our pass rush. And yes, he can run. That's one of the things that jumps out at you on tape is how easy he runs. You can never have enough speed on defense."
SEVENTH ROUND – DEMARCUS AYERS
Ayers, 5-10, 190, finished sixth in the nation with 98 catches for 1,222 receiving yards in 2015. His 98 catches were eighth-best on the school's single-season list and his 1,222 receiving yards were ninth-most. Ayers added 28 punt returns for 290 yards (10.4 average) and a touchdown.
"Demarcus is more of a slot receiver, and we liked him as the best punt return candidate in this draft," said Colbert. "It was an area where we wanted to make an addition, and of course, when Antonio Brown does it, he's the best. But Demarcus Ayers has the ability to compete and maybe contribute as a punt returner."
Ayers can expect to have a much tougher time of it trying to crack the Steelers roster as a receiver than as a punt returner, because the team is stocked with proven veterans. Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates occupy the top of the depth chart at wide receiver. And even though both Coach Mike Tomlin and special teams coordinator Danny Smith said there is no real interest in removing Brown as a punt returner, the Steelers at least seem willing to consider Ayers for that job.
Smith explained his evaluation process when it comes to return guys. "I look at their hands, their quickness. Do they muff? Are there fumbles? What's their decision making? What's their vision? What's their ability to avoid? Do they break tackles? Are they fearless? Are they tough? Will they outrun coverage? Do they have touchdown speed? Are they sideline returners? Are they middle returners? Can they make cuts at full speed? Are they a must gather guy? Can they make the first guy miss? Do they only get what's blocked? Do they have the ability to create? And I plus and minus all of those qualities. Then after I plus and minus those qualities, I reach a conclusion. This kid had more of those qualities as a punt returner than anyone else I evaluated (this year)."
SEVENTH ROUND – TYLER MATAKEVICH
Matakevich, 6-1, 235, was a four-year letterman and finished as Temple's all-time leading tackler with 493. In 2015, Matakevich won both the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nargurski Trophy, given to the nation's most outstanding defensive player. Also in 2015, he was the only player in FBS to lead his team in tackles in every game, and he is only one of two players in Temple history be a three-time captain.
"He is easy to track," said Tomlin about evaluating Matakevich on video. "You watch Temple play, he makes all of the tackles. I think he won the Chuck Bednarik Award this year. They don't hand that out to anyone, particularly not to a guy who comes from a smaller program like Temple. I have a lot of respect for the tape he put out, the quality of his play, and it's football justice when a guy like him gets an opportunity."
There is a ready-made opening or two for Matakevich on the roster following the departures of Sean Spence and Terence Garvin during free agency. Both of those veterans were backup inside linebackers on defense and core components of the Steelers kick coverage. Spence started four games at inside linebacker in 2015 when Ryan Shazier was injured, and Garvin finished third on the team in special teams tackles with nine.