Stephon Tuitt’s retirement put the Steelers in a position where they’ll have to make moves to compensate losing him from their roster. But the loss has historical significance for Kevin Colbert and the Steelers’ front office that put together the 2014 NFL Draft class, once was considered one of the team’s strongest draft classes of the decade.
That draft started with Ryan Shazier being selected with the 15th overall pick in the first round, and then Tuitt being selected in the second round. That was followed by the additions of Dri Archer, Martavis Bryant, Shaquille Richardson, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Zumwalt, Daniel McCullers, Rob Blanchflower.
Between Shazier, Tuitt and Bryant, the Steelers found players who became major contributors to their efforts in the mid-to-late 2010s. They were a trio of exceptional athleticism for their positions. At different times, each excelled in ways that made them appear uniquely qualified to be great at their jobs.
But eight years later, none of them are in the NFL. And that is a big void that can’t be overlooked when telling the story of the Steelers over the second half of the 2010s decade and the start of the 2020s.
Shazier’s career ended as tragically as it was bright when he was on the field. In the span of four seasons he had become the pillar to the Steelers’ defense and a rising star linebacker at 25 years old in the 2017 season.
The Steelers were 9-2, favorites to win the AFC North, and legitimate contenders to win homefield advantage in the AFC for the playoffs when they headed to Cincinnati to play the Bengals on Dec. 4 for Monday night football. That was the night Shazier had a horrific back injury that left him paralyzed and ended his NFL career.
Shazier was not only a staple to the Steelers’ defense, he was in the middle of a very strong season. He had 11 passes defensed and three interceptions in eleven games played before facing the Bengals. Those numbers ended up being the most of both categories posted by linebackers in the entire season, beating out players like Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly and C.J. Mosley, who each played 15 or 16 games. Shazier earned what was his second Pro Bowl nomination.
After only allowing three of their first 12 opponents to score more than 20 points in the 2017 season, the Steelers allowed three of their final four opponents to surpass that mark to end the season without Shazier. That also doesn’t include Jaguars scoring 45 points in a playoff loss at Heinz Field.
Losing Shazier was a devastating loss for the Steelers that impacted the team and front office decisions for years. Had he remained healthy, the team would’ve stood a good better chance to beat the Patriots instead of a 27-24 loss in week 15 that pushed the Steelers to the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
Shazier’s terrifying injury not only stopped a potential Super Bowl run, but it also set the front office back at linebacker for years. If he never got hurt, the Steelers most likely never feel the need to trade up to get Devin Bush at the tenth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.
They also would’ve had one of the team’s biggest playmakers of the 2010s decade remain on the team for several more years. Shazier totaled seven interceptions, seven forced fumbles and three recovered fumbles in the regular season during his career. Several of his biggest moments came in major moments, like his forced fumbles of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in the 2016 AFC wild card win over the Bengals that saved the Steelers in a 18-16 win.
Shazier also was a rising leader for a young defense that was looking for an identity. Losing him, despite the impact of Tuitt and Bryant, was easily the most impactful of the class.
Tuitt’s path wasn’t as much an immediate rise as Shazier. After being the 46th overall pick in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Tuitt spent most of his rookie season on the bench with only four starts. But even when he became a starter, Tuitt didn’t rise to become an immediate star defensive lineman. His most sacks in a season during his first six years was 6.5 sacks in 2015.
But during that time he was still an important contributor to the defense who regularly took on double teams and pressured opposing quarterbacks. It wasn’t until his 2020 season that he recorded his first double-digit sack season with 11 sacks in 15 games.
That season, Tuitt turned 27 years old; that’s a year younger than Cam Heyward when he first recorded a double-digit sack season (12) in 2017. Tuitt came into the league at 21 years old and looked to have plenty more seasons to come for his career after his 11-sack season in 2020.
But the unfortunate death of Tuitt’s brother, Richard Bartlett III, in June of 2021, put family first for Tuitt. He was excused from the Steelers’ mandatory minicamp in 2021 and never made his way back to playing for the Steelers.
The loss of Tuitt was coupled with a season-ending injury by Tyson Alualu by the second game of the 2021 season, taking away two starters from the Steelers’ defensive line. The team finished giving up the most rushing yards in the NFL, the first time the organization ranked at the bottom of that category since 1941. While the Steelers still led the NFL for sacks for a fifth consecutive season, an unprecedented feat, the defense obviously suffered from Tuitt’s loss.
Tuitt’s contributions on the team were still significant. But the prospect of what he still had to offer when he finally had put together a big season in 2020 will remain a lingering question in Pittsburgh sports for years.
If Tuitt could’ve made a similar rise in the later part of his career the way Heyward did, and while Heyward was still playing at an All-Pro level, the two could’ve become one of the Steelers’ most legendary pair of defensive lineman in team history. They could even have rivaled that of Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, both who were part of the Steelers Super Bowl XL and XLIII championship seasons.
Losing Tuitt means the Steelers have to figure out a way to replace a stud defensive lineman on a group that had the potential to be the best defensive front in football alongside Heyward, Alualu, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. That’s not just for 2022, but also for the next few years while the offense figures out who its next franchise quarterback is and rebuilds with a roster of players in their early-to-mid 20s.
Bryant’s exit from the NFL wasn’t as tragic as Shazier’s or Tuitt’s, but his fall from being a rising star was still a significant blow to the Steelers’ roster. After being the 118th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Bryant was inactive for the first six games of his rookie year.
But in the 10 games he played, Bryant quickly racked up eight touchdowns off 26 receptions, including a 94-yard touchdown against the Bengals. That play still stands as the team’s fourth-longest touchdown reception in franchise history and second-longest by a rookie behind JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown against the Lions in 2017.
Bryant followed up 2014 with seven more touchdowns scored in 2015 and continuing to improve into one of the NFL’s most explosive highlight-reel-creating wide receivers. His touchdown reception against the Bengals in the Steelers 18-16 wild card playoff win that same season was the only touchdown scored by the team in the game. Just as impressive as the timing of the play was that Bryant caught the pass by pinning the ball to his rear end while maintaining control as he flipped through the back of the end zone.
After 2015, Bryant looked poised to work with Antonio Brown for years to come and make the most dangerous receiver duo in the NFL. But a yearlong suspension due to the NFL’s substance abuse policy and Bryant’s smoking of marijuana removed him from the Steelers’ 2016 campaign that ended with a loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
The suspension was the second of three career NFL suspensions for Bryant. It was also be the warning to the Steelers that led to them selecting JuJu Smith-Schuster with their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Bryant still contributed in 2017 with 603 receiving yards and a 42-yard touchdown in the playoffs, but he was noticeably less involved in the Steelers’ offense with only three regular season touchdowns compared to Smith-Schuster’s seven.
After 2017, the Steelers traded Bryant for a third round pick before he was placed on injured reserve in 2018 by the Raiders before receiving another season-long suspension for substance abuse.
Had Bryant managed to avoid his suspensions, he would’ve put Colbert in an interesting position to pay Bryant alongside Brown as two star receivers for the rest of the 2010s. His speed, explosiveness and catch radius were boons to the Steelers’ offense that gave Ben Roethlisberger one of the most dangerous secondary receivers in the NFL.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Some NFL Draft classes are remembered for nailing multiple superstar players and others are known for being complete busts. But the Steelers’ 2014 class holds a unique place in team history for finding three special talents at different positions who proved to be major playmakers, but with each of them having their careers cut short.
It’s a rare example of a front office doing a great job of finding a collection of talent that could have boosted the franchise to great success, but factors out of their control stunting that potential. While Bryant’s shortcomings could’ve possibly been foreseen for his problems off the field that led to him falling to the fourth round, the nature of how Shazier and Tuitt’s careers ended were unpredictable happenstances.
Both Shazier and Tuitt were players who stayed out of trouble with the NFL while looking like pillar players with several more years to contribute with star potential before their last games in the NFL. Shazier’s absence removed a star player from a team that was on track to be the best team in the AFC. Tuitt’s absence removed a the second-leading pass rusher from a team that made the playoffs mostly off their ability to rush the quarterback in 2021.
There will never be a real way to ascertain just how far the Steelers could’ve gotten with all three of Shazier, Tuitt and Bryant fully available the ways their careers in Pittsburgh ended. That plays heavily into the reloading efforts Colbert and the Steelers’ front office had to undertake to replace Shazier and Bryant, as well as the effort Omar Khan’s front office will undertake to replace Tuitt.
Every NFL franchise deals with shortcomings and unfortunate circumstances that occasionally cut the career short for a promising young player. But rarely does a franchise have such a rich draft class as the Steelers’ 2014 draftees and all have careers with the team end in ways that were out of the front office’s control.