Steelers wrap up busy draft with Day 3 depth
After targeting three perceived areas of weakness — inside linebacker, wide receiver and cornerback — on the first two days of the NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers set about filling in smaller holes Saturday that existed elsewhere on their roster.
They came away with six players who will provide depth at running back, tight end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker (again), defensive line and offensive line — with some suited for special teams duty.
Except for safety, the Steelers appeared to check off every item on their predraft wish list. Did general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin feel they accomplished what they set out to do?
“Yes,” Tomlin said, “but we always do.”
True, but this time the Steelers were coming off a 9-6-1 season and a postseason absence for the first time in five years, so the stakes were a little higher than usual in terms of plugging the gaps on the roster.
Entering the draft, the Steelers hoped they could pick players who essentially could redshirt in their rookie seasons. And with the exception of first-round selection Devin Bush, none of the other eight players they drafted is being counted on to push for a starting job this season.
Wide receiver Diontae Johnson can be eased into a rotation with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Donte Moncrief. He can get work in the slot while handing kickoff and punt return duties.
Justin Layne, drafted as an outside corner because of his 6-foot-2 frame, can be an understudy to Joe Haden and Steven Nelson while he refines a position at which he has only two full years of starting experience after entering college as a wide receiver.
The same theory applies to tight end Zach Gentry, a 6-foot-8, 267-pound target chosen in the fifth round who entered college as a quarterback. Benny Snell, a bruising runner selected in the fourth round, can be a short-yardage back until he is ready to edge out James Conner and Jaylen Samuels for regular carries.
The final four players selected Saturday include a pair of linebackers who can play inside or outside, a defensive lineman who could play end or tackle and an offensive tackle who could be converted to guard.
Sutton Smith was a defensive end at Northern Illinois and projects as an outside linebacker in the Steelers scheme, but he also worked out at inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl. Colbert said the Steelers are open to using him at both spots. Same goes for Akron linebacker Ulysees Gilbert.
Both linebackers, at least initially, will have to win jobs on special teams before they can unseat any of the starters in the second tier of the defense.
Isaiah Buggs, an underrated contributor on the Alabama defensive line, adds depth behind starters Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave. Maryland tackle Derwin Gray can join the depth at tackle in the wake of Marcus Gilbert’s trade to Arizona. Another possibility is Gray adds to the numbers at guard, a position he didn’t play in college.
“We like the versatility of some of the guys that we took today,” Tomlin said.
Colbert entered the day with six picks and never considered trading any away to grab a higher spot in an earlier round. He said the Steelers had 150 players deemed worthy of a draft pick, which he called the “Mendoza Line” in terms of talent in the 2019 class.
“All our players came from above that line,” he said. “We never felt the need to trade up. There were plenty of guys left. We were happy to have those six picks because we got good competition at most positions going into this.”
The Steelers didn’t select a safety after releasing veteran Morgan Burnett. Tomlin said 2018 fifth-round pick Marcus Allen could have a bigger role this year, and Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton can play safety in a pinch. Linebacker Mark Barron can play the position in subpackages.
“We’re comfortable with the number of people we have working there,” Tomlin said, “and we’re also comfortable with the versatility of some of the corners.”
Although the Steelers entered the draft with one experienced backup outside linebacker in Anthony Chickillo, Tomlin and Colbert said Ola Adeniyi’s presence afforded them the luxury to wait until the sixth round to add Smith and Ulysees Gilbert.
“There is going to be good competition there,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers entered the draft with 10 picks and finished with nine, selecting all of their prospects from three conferences — Big Ten (four), Mid-American (three) and SEC (two).
That they dipped into the MAC so heavily could be considered another surprise, but not to Colbert.
“The MAC has been good to us,” said Colbert, noting franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is an alum. “Those players stand out at that level, but they play some bigger schools and bigger conferences, and they usually hold their own and those players show up in their games.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .