Kevin Gorman: After top pick, Steelers played it too safe with draft choices
The contrast of the two words repeated often by the Pittsburgh Steelers about the NFL Draft — comfortable and competition — represented the conflict of an organization at a crossroads.
They found no comfort in missing the playoffs last season, so the Steelers sent a message by creating competition with nine draft picks. Here is the problem: Only their top selection, inside linebacker Devin Bush, projects to make an immediate impact.
Steelers coaches spent so much of their time this weekend talking about how the new picks will add depth at positions and help on special teams that it should have served as a warning to those who comprise the bottom of their 53-man roster.
Somebody should have reminded the Steelers that they started last season as a Super Bowl contender but finished it as fodder for talk shows after missing the playoffs, allowing All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell to leave in free agency and acquiescing to All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown’s trade demands.
Instead, coach Mike Tomlin downplayed the idea of making players uncomfortable by creating competition: “That’s always our intentions, not because of the result of last season.”
This draft started Thursday with an aggressive move, one that signaled the Steelers had read some self-help books. They traded up 10 spots to address their greatest need by taking an inside linebacker, the dynamic Devin Bush of Michigan.
After that, they went into cruise control.
The rest of their draft either raised eyebrows or drew a yawn. The Steelers dealt their second-round pick and a 2020 third-rounder to Denver to move to No. 10, but did nothing to jump back into the second round. Instead, they used eight picks to draft players at seven positions.
It was almost as predictable as the Steelers warning us that signing free agents in Mark Barron, Donte Moncrief and Steven Nelson wouldn’t preclude them from picking an inside linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback. They did just that — in that order — by taking Bush, Diontae Johnson of Toledo and Justin Layne of Michigan State with their first three picks.
So, let me get this straight: The only players facing serious competition for starting jobs are three guys who weren’t on the team last year? Only to the Steelers does that make sense.
They were almost as excited about taking Johnson in the third round as they were about getting Bush at No. 10, as both bring a boom-or-bust proposition because of which players they are expected to replace for the Steelers.
For Bush, it’s filling the tremendous void left on defense by Ryan Shazier. Within hours of the draft ending, the Steelers released incumbent starter Jon Bostic. For Johnson, it’s about continuing the magic of turning a draft-day trade into a Super Bowl MVP, turning a trade of that player (Santonio Holmes) into the sixth-round selection of a seven-time Pro Bowler (Brown) and turning his trade into third- and fifth-round picks.
No pressure, fellas.
Ask yourself this: Are the Steelers better today than they were when the season ended? They are worse on offense without Brown, but should be better on defense with Bush. They are betting big that the difference in winning the AFC North is by improving the bottom of their roster, especially with backups and on special teams.
The Saturday selections of Kentucky running back Benny Snell in the fourth round and Northern Illinois linebacker Sutton Smith in the sixth were two choices that were interesting. That Snell fits the mold of a Steelers back — a bruiser who scores touchdowns — should get the attention of backup Jaylen Samuels. That Smith is a quick but undersized player who was incredibly productive should put backup linebacker Tyler Matakevich on notice.
But tight end Zach Gentry, a 6-foot-8, 265-pounder from Michigan, sounds like a project. Defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs was recruited to Alabama by Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. But it’s worth remembering Dunbar also coached last year’s seventh-round selection Joshua Frazier, who didn’t make the roster or practice squad.
Even general manager Kevin Colbert deadpanned about the beauty of the draft, a contradiction if there ever was one: If Bush helps the Steelers win the Super Bowl, he was a good pick. If he doesn’t, it’s a disappointment.
But picks are merely predictions, and even that doesn’t always add up. Whether a player overachieves or underachieves, Colbert said, is a reflection on their scouting and evaluation.
“Time will tell,” Colbert said, “if it was a good pick or not.”
So it’s all just a crapshoot, yet the Steelers played it safe.
Time will tell if this draft will be viewed as safe or sorry, and that shouldn’t leave anyone feeling comfortable.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .