Steelers targeting playmaking defenders in 2019 NFL Draft
For a team that lost Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spinal cord injury, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t address the position in the NFL Draft last spring and, surprisingly, used only three of seven selections on defensive players.
First-round pick Terrell Edmunds was a contributor, starting 15 games at safety and playing more than the team originally anticipated. But Marcus Allen, another safety, was inactive for all but two games, and the third defensive player picked, lineman Joshua Frazier, didn’t even make the practice squad.
The shortage of defensive players wasn’t reflected in the total defense. The Steelers finished sixth, one tick lower than in 2017, but it was creating turnovers where the Steelers lacked a big playmaker in the middle and back end of the defense. After forcing 22 turnovers, including 16 interceptions, while going 13-3 in 2017, the Steelers created only 15 turnovers last season. The interceptions total was cut in half, with the Steelers tying a franchise low of eight.
And with only two NFL teams generating fewer turnovers, is it any wonder the Steelers went 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons?
Can those deficiencies be fixed? That will be a priority in this draft, which is expected to focus on defensive playmakers starting with the first round Thursday night.
“I think they can be addressed,” team president Art Rooney II said in January. “Number one, on defense we just have to be aggressive in taking the ball away and finding players that can do that. So I think that’s something you can improve, and we need to do that.”
The first phase of that correction started in March when the Steelers signed defensive players at positions of weakness in 2017: cornerback Steven Nelson, who will replace Artie Burns, and inside linebacker Mark Barron, who will replace Jon Bostic in the base defense and likely stay on the field as a hybrid player in subpackages.
The next phase will take place over the ensuing three days. The Steelers entered the draft with 10 selections in seven rounds but could reduce that number if they try to move up Thursday night to acquire a premier inside linebacker prospect.
LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush are the only prospects with first-round grades at inside linebacker, and each could be gone in the top half of the round. The Steelers also are expected to target outside linebacker, cornerback, safety and possibly defensive line in order to create depth and find players with a knack of creating what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call “splash plays.”
“Look, we sacked the quarterback at a very good rate,” general manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL Combine, referring to the team’s 52 sacks that tied for the NFL lead. “But our takeaways were not very good at all. It’s really reflective on the players that we have back there.
“What we want to look at, what we want to value looking forward, is let’s value the takeaway-capable guys who have shown they’ve been able to do that in college.”
If the Steelers are unable to get White or Bush in the first round, they could target a corner such as Washington’s Byron Murphy, who had seven interceptions in his two seasons as a starter.
He also had 20 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. If it’s another pass rusher the Steelers seek, they could find Florida State’s Brian Burns, who had 23 sacks and seven forced fumbles, awaiting at No. 20.
On offense, the Steelers will look to add a wide receiver after trading All-Pro Antonio Brown to Oakland, a tight end after losing backup Jesse James in free agency and perhaps a running back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels.
Colbert said the Steelers scouted more than 400 players, with 150 of those being prospects they would consider drafting.
“The group itself, it’s really pretty much as we thought,” Colbert said. “It’s deep numbers-wise in corners and wide receivers and tackles. And that’s been the trend over the last two or three years based on what’s going on in college football.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .