‘Historically good’ defensive lineman class could tempt Steelers on draft day
Few positions on the Pittsburgh Steelers offer as much stability as the defensive line.
While the Steelers have added first-round picks at outside linebacker, safety and cornerback in recent draft classes, in addition to signing free agents to fill other starting spots, they have maintained the status quo in the trenches.
Cameron Heyward is entering his ninth NFL season and seventh as a starter. Stephon Tuitt is preparing for his sixth season and fifth as a starter. Javon Hargrave is entering his fourth season starting at nose tackle.
Even the backups never seem to change. Tyson Alualu signed on for a third (and possibly fourth) season, and Daniel McCullers was brought back for a sixth (and potential seventh).
The continuity exists mainly because the Steelers haven’t whiffed on the high-round picks they have used on the defensive line. Heyward was a first-round selection in 2011, Tuitt came aboard as a second-rounder in 2014 and Hargave joined the organization as a third-round choice in 2016.
Three years after the addition of Hargrave solidified the front three, the Steelers may find it the appropriate time to add a defensive lineman in this week’s draft. The decision wouldn’t be based out of necessity; rather, it would be a chance to add a player from arguably the deepest position group on the NFL Draft board.
“Premier talent and depth at the defensive line position — inside, outside,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “It’s outstanding, and it carries deep into the draft.”
In his latest iteration of top draft prospects, Jeremiah had eight defensive lineman, including edge rushers who may eventually find homes as outside pass rushers, among the first 17 selections. He had 14 in his overall top 50.
“It’s a historically good defensive line group,” Jeremiah said, “and I think we’ll see that reflected in the first 15 picks of this year’s draft.”
The class is especially promising on the interior of the defensive line. Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons and Clemson’s Christian Wilkins could be selected before the middle of the first round.
Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa is the cream of the outside pass rusher crop, and Kentucky’s Josh Allen isn’t far behind. They both are top-five picks, which further bolsters the depth of the overall defensive line class that includes other potential first-rounders such as Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery.
“There are so many really good players,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I don’t envision teams moving up to get a defensive lineman when you can get one a little later.”
The Steelers hold the No. 20 pick unless they move up presumably to acquire one of the two top inside linebackers in the draft. If they still have that pick when it is time to make a selection, defensive line is the least of their worries on that side of the ball.
They didn’t host any of the first-round prospects for top-30 visits and had only one official visit with a defensive lineman — Texas end Charles Omenihu.
Still, if one of those top prospect slides to No. 20, it might be too tempting for the Steelers to pass.
“I do think you’re going to get solid value-type guys in the 20s, just really, really good football players,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t think you’re getting some top-10 type of player, but you’re going to be able to find a really solid football player.”
If the first round plays out as most analysts believe, with the defensive linemen going early and often, the Steelers could find a serviceable run stuffer or big-bodied pass rusher in later rounds. Options should be available.
“I think it’s fun to watch that come about,” Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We go in stages over the year where you see a good group of defensive linemen, and then you see a dearth in the next year. This year, it’s a strong year.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .