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Keeanu Benton May Be Young But He is Ready to Become a Leader

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Pittsburgh Steelers DT Keeanu Benton

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Keeanu Benton in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft, they drafted a player that they thought could be an anchor on their defensive line for years to come. After one season in Pittsburgh, Benton is coming into his own as he is still just 22-years-old and has a full year of NFL experience.

While he posted a strong rookie season, Benton only secured one sack and that came in Week 3 of the season, before he even became a full-time starter. While that number should go up, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, and Benton himself, believe that there were sacks left on the field last season. Benton said he will improve in that aspect based off of being more comfortable in the defense.

“I feel like sometimes, I was double teamed and then guys were peeling off because we got a blitzer that in my mind, I’m not thinking about,” Benton told Alan Saunders of Steelers Now. “He comes off, I’m right here to make a sack, boom, I don’t make it, because I’m not ready. Just knowing the defense in general, when I can take those chances, and get after the quarterback.”

Another aspect of his game that will improve is his speed and agility. Benton entered his rookie season weighing more than 310-pounds but now, as he stares down his second season, he shed some weight and weighs 309-pounds. It showed on the field at the team’s minicamp as he chased around the quarterbacks and even batted some balls down.

“Yeah, I lost some weight,” Benton said. “I lost a couple of pounds. I feel good.”

As a rookie, Benton played 484 defensive snaps in 17 regular season games but said that he never hit the infamous “rookie wall” and contributed that to the fact that he got pumped up any time that he was able to put on his Steelers jersey.

“I’m not going to lie, everybody talks about the rookie wall and how hard it is as a rookie,” Benton said. “I [felt] that way mentally, but physically I was just so still in the dream that every time I got to play in the NFL, in this jersey and Steelers helmet, it was amazing, no matter what. So I don’t feel like the physical aspect was a problem for me. Just mentally knowing those plays and taking that next step in the second year.”

As he enters his second season, Benton is already eyeing a more vocal role on the defense and said that he prides himself on his mentoring abilities. At just 22-years-old, Benton is already looking to become one of the leaders on the Steelers defense.

“My leadership, for sure,” Benton said about what he wants to improve on this year. “I feel like I am starting to become one of those guys that younger guys can turn to and ask questions or new guys can turn to and ask questions. I take pride in that and just got to keep it going.”

Benton is almost guaranteed to receive the first-team snaps over Montravius Adams as he usurped the role from Adams last season and never looked back. While he is entering just his second year, Benton is looking more and more like a steal for the Steelers as he is on the fast track to be one of the defenses most impactful players in 2024.

95 • Keeanu Benton, Defensive Tackle, Wisconsin
6-foot-4, 309 pounds, 22 years old, 2nd Season

Acquired: The Steelers drafted Keeanu Benton out of the University of Wisconsin with the 49th overall pick in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Last seasonAs a rookie, Keeanu Benton came into his own as the season progressed. Benton received his first start in Week 5 against the Baltimore Ravens and went onto to start eight of the last 11 games of the season. His lone sack came against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 3 but he was still a force up the middle for the Steelers defense as he combined for 36 tackles and two forced fumbles.

Year GP GS Tackles Sacks FFs
2023 17 9 36 1 2
Steelers DL Keeanu Benton

Pittsburgh Steelers DL Keeanu Benton against the Cleveland Browns, Nov. 19, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

College: Keeanu Benton left high school as a three-star recruit and decided to continue his football career at the University of Wisconsin. As a true freshman, Benton appeared in 13 games and made six starts at the nose tackle position for the Badgers. He made 12 total tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks in 2019. One of his two sacks came against the Ohio State University in the Big Ten Championship.

In 2020, Benton played in seven games and started five of them for Wisconsin. As the nose tackle, Benton tallied eight combined tackles and forced two fumbles. Benton had a season-high four tackles and a forced fumble in the team’s season opener against Illinois.

As a junior in 2021, Benton stepped into the full-time starting nose tackle role as he started all 13 of the Badgers’ games in the center of the defensive line. He finished the season with 25 total tackles, five tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Benton had a career-high six tackles and two sacks against Minnesota. Following the 2021 season, Benton was named second-team All-Big Ten.

As a senior at Wisconsin, Benton enjoyed his best collegiate season to date. He started all 12 games at nose tackle and recorded 35 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and two passes defended. Seven of his 10 tackles for loss and four of his sacks came in the team’s final four games of the season. Benton recorded a season-high two sacks in a game against Illinois. Following the season, Benton was named third-team All-Big Ten by the league’s coaches.

In his Badgers career, Benton appeared in 45 games and recorded 36 of those contests. In his time in Madison, Benton totaled 80 combined tackles, 19 tackles for loss, nine sacks, four passes defended, and two forced fumbles.

Year GP GS Tackles TFLs Sacks PDs FFs
2019 13 6 12 4.0 2.0 0 0
2020 7 5 8 0.0 0.0 0 2
2021 13 13 25 5.0 2.5 2 0
2022 12 12 35 10.0 4.5 2 0

Salary cap and future: Benton is entering the second year of his standard four-year rookie contract with the Steelers. This season, he will cost $1.66 million against the team’s cap space. Of his 2024 cap hit, $1.08 million is in base salary while $583,295 is bonus money.

Benton is signed with the Steelers through the end of the 2026 season when he will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

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