Steelers followed JuJu draft blueprint: Everyone can help now

PITTSBURGH -- With their first five picks in last week's NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers added a quarterback who won't play for a while if everything goes right, an offensive tackle who is considered raw and two safeties to fill out a crowded positional room.

At least on paper, second-round receiver James Washington might be the only draft pick who would see the field early and often, depending on how first-year safety Terrell Edmunds develops, though Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis will have the inside track on starting jobs there.

These moves raised questions about how much the Steelers were looking toward the future with this draft. And though general manager Kevin Colbert admitted the selection of quarterback Mason Rudolph is a nod to the post-Ben Roethlisberger era, the Steelers brass makes clear it's not drafting projects for the sake of development.

If a player earns the right, coach Mike Tomlin says, he'll compete for a spot. It's that simple.

"We don't discount any contributions or make any assumptions regarding division of labor or roles," Tomlin said. "These guys will be given an opportunity to carve out roles for themselves this year. And if they do and it's significant, great. If they don't, we've got quality people that are working and they're in an environment that's conducive to them growing.

"We sat here a year ago last year and speculated that maybe JuJu [Smith-Schuster] was a luxury pick and maybe it wasn't necessarily a driven need there. That guy made a lot of plays for us in 2017."

Smith-Schuster was drafted in the second round despite a receiver roster that included Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant coming off suspension, third-round pick Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers, who had 48 catches the year before.

Fast forward to now and Smith-Schuster broke all rookie expectations with nearly 1,000 receiving yards, Bryant's been traded, Coates' been traded and Rogers is a free agent coming off an 18-catch season.

Rosters churn, always.

Third-round tackle Chukwuma Okorafor joins a Steelers offensive line with five established starters. But two of those starters are 30 or older, and if Jerald Hawkins isn't the answer at tackle, Okorafor will be playing valuable snaps if Marcus Gilbert or Alejandro Villanueva get hurt.

The Steelers seem to understand that a good draft will address the present and future simultaneously. Colbert said he won't mortgage the future to "sell out and win" because one critical injury leaves you without developed young players.

"You have to protect the future as well because not all these guys will play, especially because we've got a pretty good team," Colbert said. "So to add some young folks into it, this roster will change. So we've just got to keep adding guys to create competition and some day they may be starters, some of them more quickly than others."

Colbert follows the mantra "progression over regression," meaning he wants players in their primes taking Heinz Field. The draft accounts for how they feel about that track.

Vance McDonald, 27, has the inside track on the starting tight end job after the team failed to draft one.

Smith-Schuster, 21, will likely pace for 100-plus targets this year.

Le'Veon Bell, 26, is still the guy at running back after the team did not use a high draft pick on a workhorse back.

Conversely, J.J. Wilcox, 27, might be the odd man out at safety after the team has added four new ones through free agency and the draft.

The only true roster void is inside linebacker. But between free agent add Jon Bostic, veterans Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort and safeties who can play sub package linebacker, the Steelers are getting creative in addressing the Ryan Shazier void.

There wasn't a player capable of replacing Shazier in free agency or the draft, and the Steelers decided "respecting the (draft) board" meant not reaching for a player at that point.

Fair enough. But as Colbert sees it, the Steelers can view the big picture while maximizing 2018.

"We go all in every year," he said.