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  • It's onto the NFL draft for the Packers and the Steelers after losing in their respective conference championships. What positions and players will each team be eyeing in the first round come April?
By Chris Burke
January 23, 2017

Two more teams eliminated from the NFL playoffs Sunday means two more slots filled in the 2017 NFL draft.

The Packers, a couple months removed from looking like they may have a top-12 selection, landed at No. 29 following their NFC title-game loss to the Falcons. The Steelers will slot in just below them, at No. 30.

What will Green Bay and Pittsburgh be looking for come April 27? An early look at their draft needs:

Green Bay Packers (pick No. 29)

1. Edge rusher: Maybe Clay Matthews Jr. gets healthy this off-season and comes back as his dominant self in 2017. At the moment, though, the $26 million that Green Bay owes him over the next two seasons (none of it guaranteed in ’18) looks pricey. He had just 5.0 sacks in 12 games this season.

Even if the Packers are counting on a bounce-back year from Matthews—and they likely are—both Nick Perry and the 37-year-old Julius Peppers are set to be free agents. Peppers said last month that he wasn’t sure about his retirement plans, but that is a possibility. Datone Jones, who has bounced between DE and OLB, also is weeks away from his contract expiring.

Green Bay figures to hold on to at least one of Perry/Peppers/Jones, but there’s still a pressing need to get younger and more athletic off the edge. Take the 18.5 sacks Perry and Peppers combined for this season out of the mix, and there’s not much left.

Possible targets at 29: Charles Harris, Missouri; Carl Lawson, Auburn; Takkarist McKinley, UCLA; T.J. Watt, Wisconsin; Dawuane Smoot, Illinois

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2. Running back: Ty Montgomery’s shift into the backfield helped free up the entire Green Bay offense this season. However, his nagging injuries will make it difficult to depend on him as a 16-game, bell-cow back. So, who fills that role?

Option No. 1 is Eddie Lacy, who’s about to be a free agent. Option No. 2 is Christine Michael, who also is about to be a free agent (again) and remains more myth than man as a back. Option No. 3 is James Starks, who’s never—save for maybe the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run—shown the capacity to handle that sort of responsibility.

Shy of Le’Veon Bell or LeGarrette Blount becoming available (both are on expiring contracts), there is no real help to be had via free agency. The Packers have to draft, at minimum, depth for this position.

Possible targets at 29: D’onta Foreman, Texas; Samaje Perine, Oklahoma; Wayne Gallman, Clemson

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3. Cornerback: The Packers used a 2015 first-round pick on Damarious Randall and a 2015 second-rounder on Quentin Rollins, plus added Ladarius Gunter as an undrafted free agent that same year. None of those developments should stop the Packers from addressing their DB situation again this coming draft.

Green Bay certainly cannot count on Sam Shields for next season. The 29-year-old landed on I.R. this year with a concussion, then was charged with marijuana possession in January. Releasing him would save $9 million (with a $3.1 million dead-money cap hit).

Possible targets at 29: Desmond King, Iowa; Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Tre’Davious White, LSU; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson

As always, the focus will depend on what Green Bay does between now and the start of free agency. Will standout guard T.J. Lang, who injured his leg in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, re-sign? How about TE Jared Cook, who emerged as a preferred target of Aaron Rodgers this season? Should either head elsewhere, the Packers would be left with a hole that needs addressing.

Otherwise, GM Ted Thompson could steer into the skid and try, again, to fix his team’s defense. The Packers have used their first-round pick the past three seasons on that side of the ball (Kenny Clark, Randall, HaHa Clinton-Dix), but they have yet to find enough help for those rising young playmakers.

Expect to see the Packers-Watt pairing mentioned quite a bit between now and April. Watt is a rising, local kid at a position of need.

Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 30)

1. Linebacker: Think more outside linebacker than inside—James Harrison could give it one more go, at age 39, but there’s not much else outside of he and Bud Dupree when it comes to edge presences. Jarvis Jones will be a free agent, and the Steelers likely will let him walk.

What could change the focus in a hurry is if the Steelers cannot get starting ILB Lawrence Timmons re-signed. Timmons and Ryan Shazier (when Shazier is healthy) form a potent 1–2 punch, especially against the run; there’s a little depth behind them in Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. But put Timmons in another uniform, and the Steelers would be shy a clear starter next to Shazier.

Possible targets at 30: Takkarist McKinley, UCLA; T.J. Watt, Wisconsin; Ryan Anderson, Alabama; Jarrad Davis, Florida; Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State

2. Cornerback: Transitioning Sean Davis to safety helped that position group and the Steelers’ defense as a whole, but it leaves an area of need at cornerback.

Rookie Artie Burns is key to the long-term plans. The Steelers would love Ross Cockrell to prove himself as being in that same class moving forward. Beyond those two youngsters, it’s 32-year-old William Gay, who has two (cheap) years left on his current contract, Browns cast-off Justin Gilbert and little else.

Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan against New England—heavy on passive, zone looks—was indicative of a group that didn’t necessarily believe it could win man-to-man battles. The Steelers have to continue bringing in pieces in the secondary.

Possible targets at 29: Desmond King, Iowa; Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Tre’Davious White, LSU; Jourdan Lewis, Michigan; Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson

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3. Quarterback/running back: Is it more a priority to develop a young QB behind Ben Roethlisberger or to make sure there’s a fallback behind Le’Veon Bell? In the long run, both spots have to be addressed. For the 2017 season, running back could take the spotlight.

Let’s assume Bell, a potential free agent, remains in Pittsburgh—the franchise tag is a very viable option, if the two sides can’t strike a deal. Bell is one of the best players in football, but injuries and suspension have prevented him from playing the full 16 regular-season games in three of his four seasons. The Steelers also stand to lose reliable backup DeAngelo Williams, who turns 34 in April, two months after he can reach free agency.

Roethlisberger’s current backup, Landry Jones, also can depart as a free agent this off-season. With Zach Mettenberger already on the roster, the Steelers may let him. While Jones played well enough in Roethlisberger’s stead this season, he hardly has convinced anyone he can be Big Ben’s eventual replacement. Now might be the time to start investigating those who can fill that role, rather than waiting until Roethlisberger’s ready to call it a career further down the road.

Possible targets at 30: D’onta Foreman, Texas; Samaje Perine, Oklahoma; Wayne Gallman, Clemson; Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech (QB)

Add to the above list that it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Steelers go with a wide receiver or tight end early. Jesse James performed well in the latter role, but he’s not the field-stretching TE threat so popular these days. Martavis Bryant would help the former, but are the Steelers willing to count on him as their No. 2 receiver moving forward?

Beyond that, drafting a linebacker has to be in the plans. Perhaps multiple linebackers—one to replace (in 2017 or ’18) Harrison off the edge, another to make sure the Steelers are well-stocked inside. This is a good draft to need a pass-rushing DE/OLB early. There will be a bevy of choices at 30.

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