Over the course of the past four draft classes, the Pittsburgh Steelers have used every one of their first-round picks on a defensive player. The last time that the team devoted four consecutive picks to one side of the ball in the first round was in the 50s, when they actually used six consecutive first-rounders on the offensive side of the ball.
In more recent years, the Steelers have tended to prefer to alternate between the two sides of the ball with their first-round draft picks, but with the level of talent diminishing on the defensive side of the ball while the offensive side has begun to flourish, it has been the defense receiving most of the attention.
Just this past draft, they used their first three draft picks on defensive players, something that also has not happened in the modern era. Both of their top two picks in 2015 and 2014 also went to the defensive side of the ball, giving them seven players drafted in the first two rounds added since 2013.
The Steelers have clearly added pedigree to the defense in recent years, but of course it is all a matter of actually putting it together and creating a cohesive and productive unit, which perhaps we began to see glimpses of last season, ranking well in terms of points allowed per game, sacks, and turnovers.
With the influx of talent such as Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers are potentially putting together one of the highest-pedigreed defensive units in football—theoretically.
The goal is at some point to field a defense that consists of 2011 first-round draft pick Cameron Heyward and Tuitt as the two down linemen, Jones and Dupree at outside linebacker, Shazier and 2007 first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker, William Gay, Burns, and Golson at cornerback, and Davis and (Raiders) 2009 second-round draft pick Mike Mitchell.
Simply putting draft numbers to the names, that is a defense consisting of six first-round draft picks, four second-round draft picks, and a fifth-round draft pick. Add in a third-round draft pick in Hargrave as a 3-4 nose tackle to the mix as well.
Of course, we all know that draft picks don’t always live up to their draft value, either positively or negatively. Gay is clearly an example of a player who has easily surpassed his value as a former fifth-round draft pick, while Jones is a former first-round draft pick that has not come close to living up to his pedigree, as ascertained by the Steelers’ choice not to exercise his fifth-year option.
These players all have to get on the field first before they can contribute, and before they can do that, they will be tasked with not only learning the defense, but demonstrating that fact to their coaches, and the fact that they can execute that defense at a sufficiently high level. But the first step in improving the defense had to be making the investment in it, and they’ve clearly made the effort to do that.