The Pittsburgh Steelers had their fifth consecutive winning season in 2018 with a 9-6-1 record. However they missed the playoffs for the first time since finishing 8-8 in 2013. Offensively, the Steelers were very good, averaging 26.8 points, sixth best in the NFL. Normally among the best defensively, the Steelers were a mediocre 17th in points allowed at 22.5 per game. Going with a mixture of selections on both sides of the ball, we examine the Steelers top six picks in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Round 1 (10th) Devin Bush (ILB) Michigan
After playing mainly on special teams in 2016, Bush started in 2017, making 102 tackles with five sacks and an interception. His efforts got him selected first-team All-Big Ten. He was then named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten last season after leading Michigan with 80 tackles, 9.5 for loss of yardage and five sacks.
The Steelers traded up ten spots in order to secure the selection of Bush. A very physical player, Bush has good size at 235 pounds and excellent 4.4 speed. He immediately fills a glaring need at the inside linebacker position. The Steelers also love Bush’s versatility, should be an every down player and could be used at any of the linebacker spots.
Round 3 (66th) Diontae Johnson (WR) Toledo
Johnson averaged 22.8 yards on 33 kickoff returns as a freshman and added 14 catches and three touchdowns as a receiver. The 2016 was a loss for Johnson after suffering a lower-body injury. He returned the following season with 74 catches for nearly 1300 yards and 13 touchdowns. Johnson added two touchdowns via punt and kickoff returns. Last season, Johnson earned first-team All-MAC honors after hauling in 49 passes and eight touchdowns, as well as a combined 653 return yards.
Looking to fill the shoes of Antonio Brown, the Steelers opted for a player with very similar traits with the pick obtained in Brown’s trade. While Johnson’s 4.53 speed isn’t blazing, the Steelers feel he plays faster than that and has the ability to elude tacklers in the open field. Combine that with versatility to play any receiver position and good hands and Johnson should start immediately and be productive.
Round 3 (83rd) Justin Layne (CB) Michigan State
As a freshman, Layne moved from wide receiver to corner and recorded 18 tackles and an interception in seven starts. He was named honorable-mention All-Big Ten the following season after compiling 40 tackles and an interception. Last season, as a junior, Layne registered 72 tackles, an interception and among the best in passes broken up with 15. His efforts landed him a spot on the second-team all-conference.
The Steelers felt fortunate to land Layne in the third round. He has good size and the physicality to play press coverage on the outside. Layne will likely be asked to use his skills and physical style of play on the special teams, but look for him to work his way into the defensive secondary on a regular basis sooner instead of later.
Round 4 (122nd) Benny Snell Jr (RB) Kentucky
Snell was off and running as a freshman, gaining 1091 yards on 5.9 per carry with 13 touchdowns. As lead back in 2016, Snell was second-team All-SEC after gaining 1333 yards with 19 touchdowns. The following season, Snell increased his production to 1449 yards rushing to go along with 16 touchdowns., earning first-team All-SEC honors.
Snell comes from a football background. His father played with the Ravens and his great uncle, Matt Snell, was a key component to the Jets win over the Colts in Super Bowl III. Snell displays grit and physicality, with the ability to run between the tackles. He wont run away from players as his speed is quite average for a running back, however Snell has the style of play that fits into the Steelers’ scheme.
Round 5, (141st) Zach Gentry (TE) Michigan
Gentry played in seven games as a back up in 2016 without a reception. A starter in 2017, Gentry had 17 catches and two touchdowns, averaging nearly 18 yards a catch. Last season, Gentry’s production increased again to 32 catches for 514 yards, earning him third-team All-Big Ten honors.
First thing one notices about Gentry is his huge size at 6’ 8”. This is an intriguing pick for the Steelers and likely a project for down the road. Gentry needs work in getting off blocks but has the kind of size that would be great for the red zone and catches in tight coverage. Given time, Gentry could develop into an effective pass catching tight end.
Round 6 (175th) Sutton Smith (OLB) Northern Illinois
Smith was a back up as a redshirt freshman, recording 15 tackles and a sack. Coming into his own in 2017, Smith finished with 63 tackles, three forced fumbles, 29.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. He was MAC Defensive Player of the year last season after registering 15 sacks, 26.5 for loss of yardage, three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
Smith’s eye opening sacks totals and the ability to get into the backfield regularly was one of the reasons the Steelers made this selection. He doesn’t have prototypical size for and NFL linebacker at this point. Clearly with ability, Smith will likely be used on special teams this season with the chance to develop and see time at linebacker down the road.