Following the conclusion of the NFL draft, and after a lot of reflection, I’m prepared to give my thoughts on the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers draft class.
I’m not a fan of “grading” players or “grading” drafts on the onset, because I truly like to believe each of the young men entering the NFL were selected because the team giving them an opportunity has said opportunity available.
Whether or not that will work out? We won’t know for years – which is why I avoid draft grades.
That’s why I simply wanted to give my evaluation on how each of the Steelers draft picks fits a need… now!
I believe each of the rookies coming in can make in impact in years to come, but I also have a gut feeling that some of them may start contributing right off of the bat. Each pick should fill a role, even if it’s unclear what that role may be at the moment.
Here are my thoughts on each of the nine Steelers draft picks and how they can contribute in 2019.
Round One Pick 10: Devin Bush - LB - Michigan
The no-brainer of this draft class when it comes to instant contributions should be Devin Bush. Ever since Ryan Shazier went down with a spinal injury everyone has knocked the Steelers for not replacing him.
While Shazier is irreplaceable, the team has lacked a player with side-to-side speed, capable of covering in the middle. They also lacked a playmaker the caliber of Shazier, or safety Troy Polamalu, who could change a game in an instant.
Devin Bush projects to be that game-changer, and the Steelers moved up to get him. He will be given every chance to start Day 1. If for any reason he doesn’t, I don’t anticipate it taking long before Bush is on the field and cutting his teeth as a full-time player and the starter opposite Vince Williams in the center of the defense.
Round Three Pick 66: Diontae Johnson - WR - Toledo
There were some groans about this choice, but the Steelers went between picks 10 and 66 without a selection after giving up their second-round pick to Denver to move up to acquire Devin Bush.
Johnson looks like a potential Antonio Brown clone: so much so, the Steelers claimed to have a first round grade on him when others were confused and said “who?” when his name was called at 66.
However, just one look at Johnson tells you everything you need to know. He’s a shifty receiver who has sticky hands and runs every route on the tree. He can play in the slot, or outside, adding position flexibility that should see him cut into the other receivers’ playing time by the bye week.
I say this because most NFL receivers do not make an immediate impact, including those who are taken in the first round. Even JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t truly breakout until Week 8 of his rookie season – and James Washington, last year’s second-round pick, had trouble staying on the field as well.
It’s JuJu and Washington’s growth, paired with that of two seasoned slot receivers (Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer) plus a larger target in veteran free agent signing Donte Moncrief that will prohibit Johnson from running right onto the field and making any mistakes. He’ll be given time to learn and grown, but should eventually start seeing splits in situational packages as soon as mid-October.
I would also keep an eye on a Rogers/Switzer/Johnson battle for kick and punt return duties during camp. Johnson is a more than capable special teams player and may end up making his money there much like the players he has been compared to (Brown and former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders).
Round Three Pick 83: Justin Layne - CB - Michigan State
Very Little Impact*
I’m putting an asterisks on this one because I don’t see Layne getting on the field outside of special teams this season. That’s not due to any lack of talent, but I see him as a developmental player at a position where he isn’t needed to contribute from the start.
With Joe Haden and Steven Nelson entrenched as the starters, as well as Mike Hilton as the go-to slot corner, Layne won’t even jump the depth chart in the event of injury – Cameron Sutton should be the main backup to all three while Artie Burns will still stick around at least through camp. That makes Layne a CB5 at best in 2019.
Round Four Pick 122: Benny Snell - RB - Kentucky
Benny and the… not Jets!
While it appears Snell will replaced “Bell” on the back of the #26 jersey this season, I see a similar pattern of a workhorse back workload in Pittsburgh as in the past. James Conner should see 90% or better of the snaps, with Jaylen Samuels proving he can be a situational weapon in Conner’s absence over a few game span last season.
When Le’Veon Bell was in town, the only way LeGarrette Blount saw snaps was when Bell was pulled from the game. The latter quit the team.
DeAngelo Williams was signed as a backup after, and only saw playing time when Bell was suspended or hurt. Ditto for Conner too, who only got on the field in Bell’s absence.
Therefore, as much as I love Snell’s addition to the team, he’s here as a backup only until someone steps aside. With Conner’s integrity, I don’t see off-field issues landing Snell some snaps anytime soon.
Round Five Pick 141: Zach Gentry - TE - Michigan
The only way I can see Gentry on the field is if Vance McDonald is injured and the Steelers plan to run two tight end sets. The other scenario would be if backup TE Xavier Grimble gets hurt, or fails to play well – both are possibilities, but as for now Gentry is entrenched as a TE3 that won’t see the field often, if at all… mirroring the same situation the similarly built Jesse James faced as a rookie playing behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
Round Six Pick 175: Sutton Smith - LB - Northern Illinois
Let’s be honest: the Steelers need pass rushers.
If Smith stays as an outside linebacker, he has the opportunity leap frog Anthony Chickillo or Ola Adeniyi on the depth chart. His speed and ability to avoid blockers makes him a dangerous pass rusher, but he must also prove he can drop into coverage and not be a one-trick pony.
There’s some speculation that due to his size, he could be moved to inside linebacker. That is hard to envision right now based on the Steelers selections of Bush and Gilbert, plus the signing of Mark Barron.
Therefore, look for Smith to make his most impact on special teams this upcoming season.
Round Six Pick 192: Isaiah Buggs - DT - Alabama
Buggs appears to be cut from the same cloth as Javon Hargrave: a defensive lineman that can play all along the line, shifting to different spots and offering pass rushing prowess at the same time.
He will still figure to be no more than the Steelers fifth defensive lineman behind Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Hargrave and Tyson Alualu – but if he flashes ability to make splash plays during the preseason, coaches may test him out for a snap here or there.
Otherwise also look for Buggs to cut his teeth on special teams.
Round Six Pick 207: Ulysees Gilbert - LB - Akron
Gilbert is born to be a Steeler: he hits hard and just knows where to be on the field. That makes up for his lack of athleticism, which with the arrival of Barron and Bush, and incumbents Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich, places Gilbert as the lower of the inside linebackers on the roster.
Look for him to make his mark most on special teams, should he earn a helmet on game days.
Round Seven Pick 219: Derwin Gray - OT - Maryland
Gray was drafted as insurance after the Steelers traded away starting RT Marcus Gilbert, and have been patient with former fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins who has been snakebitten with injuries. However, that patience is running thin for Hawkins and if he can’t show he belongs, his spot may be in jeopardy, leaving only second-year Chukwuma Okorafor as a backup tackle.
Gray is a mammoth man who needs seasoning and experience. He will likely be in a battle for a roster spot and should stick to the team as one of the last offensive linemen on the final 53-man roster, or on the practice squad.
The top four picks (Bush, Johnson, Layne, and Snell) should all be major players in the Steelers teams to come, but 2019 shapes up to have room for only Bush to start the season. Johnson should see playing time eventually, with Layne and Snell getting in for rest, injuries or blowout games.
I wouldn’t anticipate seeing Gilbert, Gentry or Gray (Triple G’s) this season, as they get coached up into their respective future roles.
Sutton Smith could be the surprise pick if the Steelers end up thin at outside linebacker or attempt some form of rotation once again in 2019. Bud Dupree is in a contract year and Anthony Chickillo, signed for two seasons, has never ascended to the starting position full-time. The staff may want to see what they have in Smith sometime before the close of the season in order to make their plans accordingly at this position in the near future.