Yes, I know, draft grades are meaningless and do not deserve to be graded for at least another three seasons. Still, the process behind the results has to matter at some point as well. The NFL draft and free agency are the only times that NFL teams are truly honest and we get a peek into the decision-making process behind these moves.
With that in mind, how did the Pittsburgh Steelers fare? What kind of draft did they have, and if the players missed was it a good process with an unlucky result, or was the process flawed with a need to be reworked?
Round 1: Devin Bush, LB, Michigan
The Steelers had a need and they went and got one of the best possible options for it. What makes the trade up for Devin Bush so noteworthy is that is showed that the Steelers likely did not think any other linebacker in this draft had a chance to start in the near future, and they also were not sure if anyone they took at 20th overall would have been worth that selection. These two factors, along with extra picks from Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown helped make the decision easier.
Round 3: Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo
The Steelers spent one year looking for a Ryan Shazier replacement, but they were very quick in finding a player who profiles as the next Antonio Brown. With the kidding aside that he can live up those lofty expectations, the comparisons are uncanny, and it almost felt as if they were trying to prove a point by using the Brown pick on him.
Johnson is a great fit because as a rookie he can return punts, and at times play outside. Whether it be Johnson or Washington shuffling with Donte Moncrief on the outside, these players will help keep JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot, where he plays best.
Round 3: Justin Layne, CB, Michigan State
The Steelers missed on Artie Burns in round one three years ago and found themselves signing Steven Nelson and drafting an outside option as well. Layne has serious upside but is raw with limited cornerback time. Still, as a former wide receiver, he is a smart player who knows the position and can read offenses from the cornerback’s point of view.
With the addition of Steven Nelson across from Joe Haden, the Steelers can ease along the high upside cornerback. Still, with the uncertainty of Nelson, and the age and injury history of Haden, they could not go much longer without a cornerback.
Round 4: Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
Benny Snell fits the Steelers mold. A bigger back who does not have great speed, but has good vision, can catch and can pass protect. Knowing the Steelers he will follow the footsteps of James Conner and Le’Veon Bell by losing some weight, adding a step of speed, and becoming a reliable option in the NFL by year two. They clearly value similar abilities in these three backs and even Steven Ridley.
Speaking of Ridley, he fumbled twice in 29 carries with the Steelers last season, and failed to convert a controversial 4th and 2 against the New Orleans Saints. Benny Snell has five fumbles in 738 carries and was a goal-line force, as shown here.
Steelers fans you want toughness near the goal line? Benny Snell goes down when he says he’ll go down. The #Steelers got a TOUGH runner to compliment Conner and Samuels.
— Donnie Druin (@DonnieDruin) April 27, 2019
If all they get is an upgrade from Steven Ridley, that may have been the difference between the playoffs last season.
Round 5: Zach Gentry, TE, Michigan
The Detroit Lions signed Jesse James for an average salary of $6 million per year. Everyone in Pittsburgh, even the biggest James fans, knew that was going to be too much to keep him in Pittsburgh. In similar fashion to Antonio Brown, the Steelers tried to find themselves a carbon copy of the player they lost.
Drafting Zach Gentry to replace Jesse James is what the Spiderman Meme was made for. They lost their 6’7″ tight end with long arms and added a 6’8″ tight end with long arms. Heck, even like Brown and Johnson being MAC standouts, Gentry was a Big 10 performer like James, a round five pick from Penn State.
Round 6: Sutton Smith, OLB, Northern Illinois
Sutton Smith was the most exciting pick of the third day. Smith is a highly productive player who put up 29 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. However, he was an outside linebacker who weight 233 pounds. For comparison T.J. Watt is over 250 pounds, Bud Dupree is over 260 pounds, and Devin Bush weighs 234 pounds.
Is Sutton Smith an outside linebacker or an inside linebacker?
It does not matter in today’s NFL. He can rush the passer and defend players with size in space. That is exactly what you want. At the very least Sutton Smith can run downhill and hit and that gives him special teams value. If he took the Vince Williams route to a starting role, it would not surprise.
Round 6: Isiah Buggs, DL, Alabama
Buggs is a technically sound defensive lineman who doesn’t have great length or athleticism which limits his ceiling. While he was aided by playing next to the likes of Quinnen Williams, Da’Ron Payne and Josh Allen, he got on the field with those players and can compliment those players. It is also worth noting that NFL.com compared him to Tyson Alualu, a player he will be competing with.
Round 6: Ulysses Gilbert: LB, Akron
The Steelers had enough with being too slow in the middle of their defense. Even with the addition of Devin Bush, that was not enough. The team doubler-dipped and added Ulysses Gilbert from Akron. Gilbert is undersized, weight 224 pounds. Still, he could be looked at as an oversized safety in today’s NFL. What the Steelers know is that he hits hard, and similarly to Sutton Smith can find a job special teams.
He also is a versatile chess piece who can be matchup specific. Drafting Gilbert to ensure speed in the middle of the field was likely the tipping point that causes the team to move on from Jon Bostic.
Round 7: Derwin Gray, OT, Maryland
Gray is a road grader of an offensive lineman who is expected to move to guard in the NFL due to his forceful run blocking and questionable pass blocking.
This was one of the most Steelers like drafts that you can possibly find. Each player shows shades of another player currently on the roster, or that they may need to be directly replacing. Kevin Colbert has been in the game so long he clearly has a type.
The Steelers addressed their needs, and they showed that they are gearing up for what modern NFL football is going to look like. At times it felt as though some picks were forced, but the Steelers could not go into another year with the speed that they lacked in the middle of the field. That was their number one priority and they not only hit it, but they also hit it with all hands on deck by trading for Devin Bush and drafting an undersized outside linebacker, and an undersized linebacker who can play as an off-ball linebacker and over-sized safety respectively.