5 things we learned about 2019 Steelers from draft
Ten picks turned into nine players but only one projected immediate starter. So, after the annual frenzied three-day draft of this past weekend, where do the Pittsburgh Steelers stand?
It will take years to give a full evaluation to how the Steelers did. But barring a nuanced dive into each pick, drafts are often remembered solely by one of two criteria:
• Did the first-round pick become a very good player?
• Is there a late-round steal who turned into a gem?
The first question will be further emphasized for the Steelers because of the trade up 10 spots to get inside linebacker Devin Bush. If Bush becomes a perennial Pro Bowler whose dynamic athleticism transforms the Steelers defense, let’s face it, if every one of the other eight picks flops, what general manager Kevin Colbert did will be looked back upon fondly.
But if Bush, for whatever reason, is a bust, there had better be an Antonio Brown-type mined from Day 3.
A look at five other things that can be taken from the Steelers 2019 draft:
1. Replacing Ryan, Take II
Over the first offseason following Ryan Shazier’s serious spinal injury, the Steelers were rather lukewarm in their pursuit of options to replace their dynamic inside linebacker. This year, they have taken a much different tact.
In the spring of 2018, the Steelers spent a paltry $2.2 million (guaranteed) to sign journeyman Jon Bostic. Then, they went into a draft in which everyone expected them to target an inside linebacker early… but the Steelers did not take one at all.
This offseason, they poured $12 million into a two-year deal for Mark Barron in free agency. Then in the draft, not only did the Steelers trade up to take Bush, they took two other players on Day 3 who potentially add to the position in Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert. (Though Smith projects more as an edge rusher, the Steelers did not rule out him playing on the inside).
In their search for a Shazier replacement, the answer probably begins and ends with Bush. But the Steelers were taking no chances and decided to flood themselves with options.
2. Not afraid to move
Part of the Steelers focus at inside linebacker manifested itself in the rare trade-up in the first round.
The Steelers have a reputation of being relatively conservative when it comes to roster-building. It’s an earned one – but their history in the draft under Colbert is aggressive, albeit marginally so.
Last week marked the third time the Steelers moved up in the first round since the most recent occasion they moved down (2001). Counting all rounds, they have traded up seven times and down four times during in-draft deals.
The Steelers most often just stand pat. But they’re not afraid to move if they see a player they’re infatuated with. That’s often worked out well (Troy Polamalu, Santonio Holmes, Kendrell Bell). But the Steelers also have traded up for the likes of Ricardo Colclough, Daniel Sepulveda and Alameda Ta’amu.
The selection of Bush made it seven in a row for the Steelers in the first round for defense. At least, though, they used their second pick on offense for the third consecutive year after going defense in the first and second rounds from 2014-16.
Still, that’s 9 for 12 for the defense when it comes to Steelers top-70 overall picks since 2014. Of the nine defensive players taken that high since 2013, five start for the team and another, Artie Burns, remains on the active roster.
That’s a lot of draft capital expended on the side of the ball that has not in that time finished ahead of the team’s offense in terms of NFL ranking in either points scored/allowed or yardage gained/allowed. Will Bush help to get the defense to pull its weight?
4. No sure things
After Bush, the rest of the Steelers draft was mostly a combination of projects and depth picks. Perhaps one of the group of Smith, Gilbert, receiver Diontae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, running back Benny Snell, tight end Zach Gentry, defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs or offensive tackle Derwin Gray will surprise, seize the moment at Saint Vincent and make an immediate impact.
But if Johnson is the slot receiver, Layne a dime DB, Snell a change-of-pace back, Gentry the No. 2 tight end and Buggs, Smith and Gilbert rotational players who contribute on special teams in 2019, that’s probably a win for the Steelers this season.
That’s not to suggest some of that group can’t or won’t become starters — or even stars — down the road. It’s just that when it comes to this season, it’s probably Bush or bust for this rookie class.
5. Call to MAC-tion
Two of the Steelers’ best players over the past decade hailed from Mid-American Conference schools (Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown). This past weekend once again proved the organization isn’t averse to adding talent from the often-unheralded mid-major conference.
The Steelers took three players (Johnson of Toledo, Smith from Northern Illinois and Gilbert from Akron) from the MAC, more than they took from the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 — combined. It also extended a streak of consecutive Steelers drafts featuring MAC picks to three; five of the past six drafts have had at least one MAC player going to the Steelers, eight players in all.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .