Kevin Gorman: In Devin Bush, Steelers draft for present, not future
The Pittsburgh Steelers went for broke by trading up 10 spots to draft Devin Bush, a pick that has boom-or-bust potential and one they are hoping leads them to another Lombardi Trophy.
The Steelers decided that the reward outweighed the risk, as they know there’s no chance for a championship without a dominant defense. They weren’t in position to play it safe.
That much was obvious: The Steelers weren’t going to win anything by staying put at No. 20 in the NFL Draft and hoping that an inside linebacker dropped to them. They did last year, slipping into sub-package purgatory and missing the playoffs.
There was too big of a hole in the belly of their defense, too small of a window to win a seventh Super Bowl to not trade up.
“When we’re not 32, anything’s too high,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in response to making the Michigan inside linebacker the team’s first top-10 pick since selecting wide receiver Plaxico Burress eighth overall in 2000.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin turned toward Colbert and agreed emphatically: “You’ve got that right.”
Whether the Steelers got the right guy remains to be seen. The top inside linebacker, LSU’s Devin White, went fifth overall to Tampa Bay. So the Steelers targeted Bush.
They hit a bull’s-eye by selecting Bush. A playmaker with pedigree as the son and namesake of a former first-round pick at safety and a Super Bowl champion with the St. Louis Rams. The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder from Michigan ran a 4.43-second 40-yard and had a 40.5-inch vertical at the NFL Combine.
The Steelers surrendered a bounty by swapping first-round picks with the Denver Broncos. By throwing in their No. 52 pick this year and a 2020 third-rounder, the Steelers were left without a second-round choice on Friday. That could force another trade, especially with cornerbacks Greedy Williams of LSU and Byron Murphy of Washington still on the board at a position of need.
They attempted to spin that by pumping up that the third-rounder (No. 66) they received from Oakland in the Antonio Brown trade is just two spots outside the second round. They also noted that they expect to receive compensation next year for losing Le’Veon Bell in free agency.
The Steelers drafted for now, not the future.
By signing Ben Roethlisberger to a three-year contract on Wednesday, the Steelers put a timeframe on their Super Bowl window. The precedents for trading up under Colbert paid off, as safety Troy Polamalu clinched an AFC championship with an interception and receiver Santonio Holmes made a Super Bowl-winning touchdown catch.
“We’ll see,” Colbert said of the comparison. “If Devin helps us win a Super Bowl, it will be very similar.”
There was an admission by Tomlin that a defense without speed at inside linebacker is regarded as slow.
“I think that’s a fair statement,” Tomlin said. “By virtue of their positioning, be it in the rush and in coverage, the ability to play what’s in front of them and from sideline to sideline, their speed is impactful probably on a larger percentage of plays than people who don’t play in the middle of the field on the second level of play.”
That’s Tomlin’s roundabout way of saying that the Steelers were too slow at inside linebacker since Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal-cord injury at Cincinnati in December 2017.
They tried to finish that season with a platoon of Sean Spence and L.J. Fort, only to see their weaknesses exploited in unfavorable matchups. They tried to survive last season by signing inside linebacker Jon Bostic and strong safety Morgan Burnett in free agency, only to see that Bostic couldn’t cover slot receivers and tight ends and Burnett couldn’t stay healthy.
We were forewarned by the Steelers that the signing of Mark Barron wouldn’t preclude them from taking another inside linebacker. Then again, they changed their tune about not wanting to start their first-round pick as a rookie.
“Obviously, we feel like he’s capable of helping us and helping us rather quickly with his talent and his skill set,” Tomlin said of Bush, who had 80 tackles, six pass breakups and five sacks last fall. “I want to underscore his blitzing capabilities, too. That was as exciting to me as his coverage. I mean what I said when I said he’s an all-situations type of linebacker. To have that type of athleticism in the second level of defense, I think, is critical in today’s NFL.”
To be critical, the Steelers haven’t had that type of athleticism at inside linebacker.
Now they do, thanks to a trade that was a good gamble, a great one if they win the Super Bowl. The Steelers paid a steep price, but anything is too high when you’re not 32.
Isn’t that right?
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .