Apologize for this article being published a little later than usual. Know several of you guys really like this series, now in its 6th year, and I never want to rush writing it. Like always, my caveat to this article is that it’s just for fun. As close to a fiction article you’ll get from me, an attempt to imagine the ceiling – and floor – from each of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft picks. Obviously, every player could be the next Hall of Famer or the first rounder one of the franchise’s biggest busts. Generally, I look at something in-between because it’s honestly more interesting and less repetitive.
Here’s the link to the best/worst scenarios of the 2018 class if you’re interested in checking those out. Skimmed through it and you’ll see I
predicted guessed the Steelers drafting Benny Snell. Let’s see if I’m that lucky this time around. Probably not.
Round One – Devin Bush
Best Case: Just as history proved after the Steelers traded up for Troy Polamalu, Bush was worth giving up the extra picks. Heck, Kevin Colbert could’ve dealt three first rounders and this still would’ve been the right move. Bush doesn’t even have quite the turbulent rookie season Polamalu did. His speed is crystal clear right away. On the third day of practice at St. Vincent, first in pads, he scrapes across the left side of the formation, ducks past a pulling Ramon Foster, and blows up James Conner with a loud thud for a two yard loss. One of those moments where you smile and know the pick is going to work out.
Still, the Steelers are still a bit conservative in their Week One approach. Much like Mike Hilton did with William Gay, Bush and Mark Barron split snaps in the opener at New England. By Week Two, the home debut, Bush is the starter. Barron replaces Vince Williams as the third down signal caller until Week Four, when Bush supplants him and truly becomes the every-down player. He shines two weeks later against the Los Angeles Chargers. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler relentlessly sends him after the immobile Philip Rivers. Bush finishes with 1.5 sacks, 11 total tackles, and even breaks up a throw over the middle for Keenan Allen (linebackers are still covering receivers because this is a best case scenario – I don’t work miracles).
It’s more of the same the rest of 2019. Just like Ryan Shazier, who didn’t pick many passes off in college, Bush’s athleticism translates to making plays in coverage. He records two interceptions down the home stretch of the season; a 4th quarter dive off Andy Dalton in Week 12 and two weeks later, hauls in a Cam Heyward tipped attempt from Kyler Murray against Arizona in a blowout 34-10 Steelers’ victory.
All told, he ends his rookie campaign with 73 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 picks, and one ecstatic fan base.
His progression is similar to Shazier, too. ILBs coach Jerry Olsavsky works with him to improve his hand use and defeat blocks, overcoming his lack of size and strength. It makes him just as much an asset against the run as he is in coverage and blitzing.
Bush becomes the centerpiece to a face-lifted Steelers’ defense. It takes a year and another high draft pick in 2020 (Clemson safety K’Von Wallace 25th overall) and finally, the organization is on equal footing offensively and defensively. It leads to one last Super Bowl run, Ben Roethlisberger and company knocking off the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Title game before, sadly, losing SB LV to the New Orleans Saints, 27-21.
In all, Bush has a dominant Steelers’ career, one spent almost entirely with the team. He spends 2031 with the London Spitfires – Jacksonville crossed the Atlantic in 2027 – but his career will also be remembered in Black and Gold. He’s named to five Pro Bowls, three All-Pro Teams, ending his Steelers’ career with 1108 tackles (163 starts), 29 sacks, and 14 interceptions. Not quite the career of Derrick Brooks, Bush isn’t a Hall of Famer but inducted into the Steelers Hall of Honor in 2033, the 100 year anniversary of the franchise.
Worst Case: Two things work against Devin Bush. His lack of size, obvious, yes, but ever-present. And the harsh reality that if you don’t have huge production in college, odds aren’t great you’ll turn the tide in the NFL against elite competition.
While Bush still shows top level athleticism, his lack of strength and underdeveloped hand use are tough to ignore playing in such confined spaces. With Mark Barron being the veteran who can move in space and Vince Williams the trusted, steady signal caller, Bush doesn’t have a role out of the gate. Instead, he’s kept to special teams work, rolling as the left tackle on the punt teams and L4 running down kicks.
As so often derails talented players, injuries play their role, too. Hosting Miami on Monday night, Bush pulls a hamstring running down a Jordan Berry punt that knocks him out for three weeks. It’s a theme that follows him throughout his career and one the team could’ve seen coming. He spent chunks of his final season at Michigan exiting games with soft tissues problems and the Steelers have been too eager to ignore the medical side (see Green, Ladarius).
Falling behind on the moving train, his rookie year is largely a wash. It ends with 23 tackles and a sack, coming from his lone spot start in Week 16 against the New York Jets after Mark Barron suffers a concussion the week before.
The team remains confident and patient in Year Two, making Bush the starter for the 2020 opener against the Cleveland Browns. The athleticism is there, he can flow well sideline-to-sideline but gets caught up in the wash against the run too often, making him a liability for a team still holding an old-school philosophy of stopping the run first.
Bush loses his every down role Week 6 after Joe Mixon rolls the front seven for 171 yards and two scores in a 30-16 Bengals win. His role is reduced to something akin to LJ Fort, playing in sub-packages on 3rd and forever. That’s the part he plays going forward, stepping into the starting lineup when injuries call for it, but his play is only average. His ability to defeat blocks is never quite where it needs to be and on Twitter, fans muse if he should move to safety.
The worse aspect for Bush’s career in Pittsburgh is what happens to Kevin Colbert. Heading into Year Four, with his option ready to be accepted/declined, Colbert – now 65 – retires. Pittsburgh, as they did in 2000, go outside the organization to hire his replacement, choosing Detroit Lions’ executive Jimmy Raye III. His background as player, coach, scout, and personnel director all being attractive to lead the Steelers, making him their guy. Without having that attachment to Bush, Raye didn’t draft him, he declines that 5th year option, and Bush plays out his final year in Pittsburgh.
He isn’t a bad player, still carving out a better career than Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns, and if the injuries weren’t so nagging, it would’ve been better. But the hype misses the mark while the players the Denver Broncos took at #20, tight end Noah Fant, becomes the next Travis Kelce and makes five Pro Bowls. Hard not to look back and feel disappointed.
Bush’s athleticism and pedigree allows him to stay in the league for, in total, eight years. Two years in Chicago, one in Miami, and a final one in Green Bay. As a Steeler, he makes 13 official starts (being that sub-package player lowers that number the way it does a slot corner) with 203 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions.
Round Three – Diontae Johnson
Best Case: This is not James Washington’s 2.0, even if Johnson doesn’t quite nail JuJu Smith-Schuster levels of production. Johnson has the advantage of facing press coverage in college while playing all around the formation, two elements Washington didn’t experience at Oklahoma State. It eases his transition to football and makes him a threat right away.
In camp, he dazzles, routinely getting the best of Justin Layne in one-on-ones. In his preseason debut, Johnson rolls up the Buccaneers’ secondary in the second half, catching four passes for 105 yards, including a 53 yard touchdown, running a quick slant and outracing the entire defense.
He looks good in the return game too, earning starting punt return duties to begin the regular season. He doesn’t start over Donte Moncrief right away, Moncrief’s tenure wins out as it often does in this city, but Johnson has a role right away. Vance McDonald deals with a turf toe injury and Xavier Grimble doesn’t make much of a jump, compelling the team to use even more four receiver sets. That means more playing time for Johnson.
In Week 6, Johnson shows his special teams chops against the Chargers, getting some revenge from what they did to the Steelers’ coverage unit last year with a 64 yard punt return score on Sunday Night Football.
Throughout the season, highlighting his versatility and more NFL readiness than Washington, his role expands. Johnson starts at the X receiver spot in Week 13 when Moncrief cracks a rib, helping to complete a sweep of the Cleveland Browns with a 5/63/1 performance. He keeps that starting gig the rest of the way, ending his rookie season with 39 receptions for 488 yards yards and four touchdowns.
The progress he showed throughout the year makes the team confident in moving forward with him as the starter and they release Moncrief the following March. As the every down player in 2020, his production spikes. He learns to run harder in scramble drills to mesh well with Ben Roethlisberger and while he’s the #2 behind Smith-Schuster, Johnson offers a different, special skillset. He’s not the next AB but the traits are similar. Effectiveness in the quick game, the run-after-catch ability, a receiver who plays bigger than his size.
His best season comes in 2021, it helps that Smith-Schuster misses five weeks with a foot fracture, finishing with 90 receptions, 1143 yards, and seven touchdowns. The era of football and its gaudy numbers puts Johnson on the outside looking in when discussing the top receivers in the league, playing in JuJu’s shadow, but he’s just another “hit” by Colbert and the front office when it comes to receivers.
He lasts eight years in Pittsburgh, playing in black and gold until he’s 30. His Steelers’ stat line? 562 receptions 6,889 yards, and 31 trips to the end zone. In the return game, he averages 9.4 yards per punt with two career runbacks and a more middling 21.2 average on kicks, though exposure there is limited to just 29 attempts.
Johnson plays two more years in the league, both with the Atlanta Falcons, recording an additional 52 receptions and five touchdowns.
Worst Case: We’re not in Toledo anymore. The MAC certainly isn’t Division III football but it’s also a far cry from the weekly elite competition Johnson faces in the NFL.
While he profiles like AB, there is one distinct difference between the two. Strength. Brown was 195 pounds – all muscle. Helps beat press, helps run after the catch. Right away, it’s clear Johnson needs to get stronger. Corners routinely lock him up in press man, making for a quiet training camp and preseason. He shows some run after ability when working in space, making him a fit in the slot, but the competition there is fierce with JuJu, Ryan Switzer, and Eli Rogers.
Without much of a role offensively, the Steelers look to carve out a home on special teams. But rookies, man, they can be difficult to trust. Johnson begins the year as the starting punt returner, Switzer remains on kicks. Week 1 at New England, tied 20-20 in the 4th quarter, Johnson muffs a punt at his own 23 – he’s not used to fielding attempts from left footed punters like Ryan Allen, and Matthew Slater recovers. Tom Brady fires to N’Keal Harry on the next play for the game-winning touchdown and Johnson, even if a little unfairly, is the fan and media scapegoat.
Fast forward three weeks later and it nearly happens again, this time versus the Bengals on Monday night. He loses a 2nd quarter punt in the lights and though he’s able to fall back on it, Mike Tomlin removes him from that role, inserting Switzer back into that spot.
Donte Moncrief plays as expected, serving as a quality deep threat and someone the offense isn’t interested in taking off the field too often. Johnson sees some work in four receiver sets and occasionally, Randy Fichtner looks to get him onto the field – Johnson takes a jet sweep for nine yards against the Colts, for example – but with the offense clicking, averaging 28.1 points per game, no one is dying to get the rookie out there.
His debut season ends quietly with just 15 receptions for 177 yards and no scores, a stat line somehow worse than Washington did last year, though with a much smaller snap count. Five of those catches came in a blowout Week 15 win over the New York Jets.
All the receivers in front of him play well. Moncrief, Washington, JuJu (of course), and Switzer picks up where they left off last year. When Johnson does see more time on the field, again, his lack of size hurts him and drops become an issue too. Some of it is focused related, too anxious to get upfield and make a play, especially after seeing all the talent around him, and some of it is his small-ish, 9 inch hands. So even when he gets more chances as he does in 2020, the trust and production isn’t there. He does, however, carve out a niche as a dual threat returner with moderate success, including a 98 yard score versus Baltimore in Week 12.
What ails him is a lack of a dominant trait. Lacks the size, lacks the athleticism. Some players can get by. But not everyone and Pittsburgh finds that out pretty quickly. His best fit comes in the slot, and while JuJu is playing more on the outside, Washington’s strong development makes playing time tough to come by.
Two changes in 2021 do a number on his career. Roethlisberger’s retirement in 2021 and the NFL abolishes kickoffs later in the offseason, sapping Johnson of some crucial value.
He’s a far cry from Willie Reid but certainly not the answer the Steelers were looking for post AB. Johnson finishes out his rookie contract and hits free agency, inking a low-level deal with the Denver Broncos, who brought him in for a pre-draft visit.
He ends his time in Pittsburgh with 71 receptions for 774 yards and three touchdowns, plus that aforementioned kick return score.
Round Three – Justin Layne
Best Case: It may have taken about a decade but the Steelers finally develop a corner. Drafting one teeming with talent sure helps. Layne is a little rough around the edges but Pittsburgh is a perfect fit, an organization starving for big-time talent in the secondary.
Out of the gate, Layne looks like the steal draftniks projected him to be. In Latrobe, he picks off three passes, headlined by a one-handed snag during the Friday Night Lights practice, bringing fans to their feet. The beginning of his first season is similar to Artie Burns, seeing a handful of snaps early in the year. After the bye, Layne earns his first start against the Miami Dolphins. Newly signed Steven Nelson kicks to the slot in nickel, sending Mike Hilton – toasted the game before versus LA – to the bench.
Layne holds his own, breaking up an end zone jump ball for Mike Williams and the Steelers walk away with some payback from 2018, a 21-20 win. He keeps his job the rest of the year. He finds a hot streak towards the end of the year, notching his first interception against Josh Allen Week 15 and another in the finale against Baltimore, helping the team clinch the AFC North with a 10-6 record.
That successful rookie season makes him the starter moving forward. His size and physicality lets him match up against elite, big receivers like A.J. Green, holding him to just seven receptions for 56 yards in their two matchups come 2020, while his receiver background kicks in when the ball is in the air. There aren’t a ton of interceptions, never more than three in a season, but he routinely makes big play after big play on the football.
None were bigger than what he did in 2022. In Roethlisberger’s final year, the Steelers make one last march to the playoffs. Leading Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs 24-20 in the AFC Title game, Layne dives in front of Mecole Hardman on a 4th and goal slant, sending Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl, where they go on to defeat the Seattle Seahawks 27-17.
Though there are moments of inconsistency in his game, showing some struggles against the league’s fastest receivers, and Layne isn’t a top five cornerback, he’s always in that top ten conversation. He plays nine years in Black and Gold, the Steelers not wanting to get rid of the one corner they finally identified in the draft, making 134 career starts and 17 interceptions. Comparisons to a slightly slower version of Ike Taylor are more than apt.
Worst Case: Same hype. Same results. At this point, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Steelers couldn’t mold a lump of clay. Layne has some elite traits but the Steelers lack elite coaching. He’s a big body who can bump and run while supporting the run game, but the combination of average speed with stiffness in his hips is too much to overcome.
Layne spends his rookie season on the bench, not posting impressive play in the preseason and the team having two established starters on the outside. The most playing time he receives on defense comes in mop up duty against Arizona late in the season. But he struggles, getting burned by Christian Kirk for a 64 yard touchdown while allowing a 33 yard gain to Andy Isabella on the next possession.
Nelson plays well and in the offseason, the team re-signs Hilton – who has a strong, bounce back season – and Joe Haden to a two-year deal. That leaves Layne without a home but in the Steelers’ mind, a good problem to have with plus cornerback depth on paper.
Tom Bradley is let go before the 2020 season. Writing was on the wall once Teryl Austin was brought in and seemingly took over. The plan is for Austin to become the full-time secondary coach again but in mid-March, the Jets come calling and steal him away to be their defensive coordinator. Austin can’t turn the chance down.
Pittsburgh hires Kevin Ross to coach the secondary, a new voice in the room that only slows Layne’s transition down all the more. On the field, he wins when he’s able to do so early in the route. But if he can’t disrupt the receiver’s timing, they regularly burn him with better straight-line speed and creating space at the top of the route. He struggles filling in for Haden in a game against Jacksonville in 2020, allowing a touchdown and flagged twice for pass interference, scuttling him back to the bench as soon as the team can do so.
The Steelers go to the well again, knowing Haden will depart after the 2021 season, and draft Florida State’s Stanford Samuels III in the 1st round of the draft. Layne becomes another assumed miss, still producing on special teams as a better version of Brian Allen but the floor here was low and Pittsburgh knew it. Layne was raw and needed to be developed. The organization’s woes continue.
Layne re-ups for one year after his rookie contract expires, the Steelers taking one last stab at it and Layne’s dad doesn’t want to repaint the bathroom again, but it’s more of the same. Decent depth but not much more. He leaves after 2023, spending two more years in the league before falling out. His career with the team that drafted him finishes with just six starts and one interception, a Hail Mary heave he picks off against Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns in 2022.
Round Four – Benny Snell
Best Case: It’s Benny Snell Football, baby. From the outset, it’s unclear how much he’s going to play but one thing’s for sure. Steelers’ Nation adores him. He signs every autograph in training camp, even on Family Day when players tend to duck out early, and hams it up for the crowd during every practice, running full speed to the end zone on each carry, regardless if it’s a two or 20 yard gain.
Predictably, he begins the year as the #3 behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, but quickly finds his niche. The Steelers use him as a short-yardage back. Conner can obviously do the same but bringing Snell in with fresh legs makes the most sense. He, of all people, scores the first Steelers’ touchdown of the season, banging his way in from two yards out late in the 1st quarter against the Patriots.
Fantasy players hate Snell because of his penchant to rob Conner of touchdowns but Steelers’ Nation is all-in. He finds the end zone four times in the first nine games. Conner goes down again, unfortunately becoming all too routine with him, suffering a broken collarbone in a Thursday night win over the Browns. One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity and Snell makes the most of the chance as “next man up.” He starts against the Cincinnati Bengals, Samuels kept on pass downs, and rolls over a still relatively weak run defense, racking up 111 yards on 22 carries. True to form, he’s the cog in their four minute offense to close out a 21-14 win, carrying the ball six times for 22 yards and a 3rd and 1 conversion to set up the final two kneeldowns.
Conner doesn’t return until the Wild Card, letting Snell run out the rest of the regular season. Literally. Though he’s not a dynamic player, he’s an ideal yin to Samuels’ yang and his hands and pass protection prove to be better than most rookies. He records his first receiving touchdown against the New York Jets, running over Jamal Adams at the goal line that sends Twitter into a viral frenzy.
Pittsburgh is bounced in the Divisional Game but Snell has a strong season, carrying the ball 119 times for 466 yards (the short yardage role hurts his average as does his lack of game-breaking ability) and nine total touchdowns.
With that in mind, it becomes a full-blown committee in Pittsburgh. Three-headed attack of Conner, Snell, and Samuels. Snell never establishes himself as the every down guy, he isn’t dynamic like Le’Veon Bell was or as explosive as Conner, but he’s a great back to pair someone else with and the whole offense feeds off his energy.
His production oscillates depending on game circumstances and health of the team, never getting too low or too high. His year-by-year production from 2019 to 2021.
2019: 119 carries, 446 yards, 9 TDs
2020: 170 carries, 697 yards, 6 TDs
2021: 156 carries, 670 yards, 7 TDs
Conner re-ups after his rookie deal but after the 2021 season, Samuels bolts to ink a contract with the Chargers, looking for a more concrete role. Couple that with Roethlisberger’s retirement and much more run-centric attack and Snell takes a step in 2022, setting career highs across the board: 189 carries, 831 yards, and 10 TDs.
That turns out to be the best season of his career, the mileage and 2023 preseason meniscus tear slow him down but it’s hard to be mad at that type of production for a 4th round pick. Snell has a clearer reserve role but an effective one, returning to that short-yardage role. He scores the game-winning touchdown against Cleveland to clinch another AFC Title berth in 2024.
He spends seven years in Pittsburgh, running backs simply don’t last long in the league, especially in the Steel City. He retires despite offers to continue playing elsewhere, telling reporters he didn’t want to go to another organization that passed up on him way back during the draft. A hearty NFL career, one that ends with 784 carries, 2852 yards (3.6 average) and 43 trips to the end zone. The touchdowns rank 3rd in history, edging out Conner, who finishes with 41 of them.
Worst Case: Snell is a fan favorite but that turns out to be the most memorable part of his career. Snell brings energy, leg drive, and by extension, some power, but he’s a one-note back that’s easy for defenses to clue in on. There’s success as a short-yardage back, converting on a late-game 3rd and 4 to knock off the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2, but a lack of dynamic ability the times he reaches the second level really hurts him.
Conner reminds fans of the damage he did to opposing defenses the first half of 2018, a pair of 100 yard performances in the first three weeks while Samuels takes a reasonable leap into his second year, having comfort as a defined running back. It leaves Snell without much a bite at the apple.
His rookie year has a couple of memorable moments, dragging three Ravens’ defenders across the goal line but in most games, he’s an afterthought. By a minor miracle, Conner and Samuels stay healthy all year, ending Snell’s rookie season with a 45/135/1 stat line.
Moving forward, with two young backs, there isn’t much wiggle room. Conner eagerly re-signs a 3 year, $25.7 million contract while Samuel remains the affordable backup on a rookie deal. Samuel rolls an ankle in 2020, opening the door for Snell to see some serious action. But he’s not explosive enough as a runner like Conner or a capable enough receiver like Samuel. At best, he’s a jack-of-all-trades player.
His 2020 season is an improvement but not significantly so. 64 carries, 244 yards, and three scores. That’s basically how the next two years go. Not great. Not terrible. Just fine. Snell, as big a football fan as you’ll find, carves out a role on special teams, playing a bit like Fitzgerald Toussaint. Only better.
He suffers a high ankle sprain in the preseason finale of 2022. As a backup, he tries to gut the season out but becomes ineffective, getting stuffed twice at the goal line in a loss against the Buffalo Bills. He’s phased out of the offense and goes on IR in Week 9 to open up a roster spot elsewhere. That ends his rookie contract, the team letting him test free agency, and he signs with the Green Bay Packers on a one-year deal. He plays two more seasons with slightly more success, including a 500 yard campaign in 2023.
But for Pittsburgh, he wraps things up with just 177 attempts, 585 yards, and seven touchdowns.
Round Five – Zach Gentry
Best Case: He’s what Matt Spaeth was supposed to be. Big body, eventual blocker, but a threat as a receiver too. Not just a glorified offensive tackle. Gentry begins his career as a receiver. He opens the year as the team’s #3, predictably so behind McDonald and Grimble. His first reception is a memorable one. On 4th and 2 on their own 47 against San Francisco Week 3, he catches a playaction pass for 38 yards that sets up a Steelers’ score, the icing on the cake in a 38-14 blowout victory on the West Coast.
He’s never anything close to a #1 tight end but does his strongest Jesse James impersonation. His blocking improves, embracing his size and ironing out his leverage issues, and becomes an effective red zone threat. As a rookie, he catches a pair of touchdowns, both inside the five.
By 2020, he surpasses Grimble as the #2. When McDonald goes down – drink – with a broken hand in Week 3, Gentry earns the start. He can’t replicate what McDonald brings but works well enough as an in-line tight end capable of standing up in the slot and creating some mismatches. He ends his sophomore year with a 31 receptions for 359 yards and four touchdowns.
Like James, he’s a strong #2, developed well by coach James Daniel and benefiting from catching passes via Roethlisberger’s arm. Consider him only an emergency one but the game on the raw former QB in the 5th round pays off. His steady play lasts six years in Pittsburgh before linking up with the tight end needy Cardinals for a chance to start. Gentry’s Steeler career ends with 174 receptions, 1914 yards, and 15 touchdowns.
Worst Case: What does Zach Gentry do well? That’s the question fans ask themselves all throughout training camp. A receiver? He runs a slow 40, turns at the same rate as an oil tanker, and drops too many passes. A blocker? He’s 6’8 and played quarterback four years ago. Now he’s trying to base block 4-3 ends. It doesn’t go well.
That rawness is clear as day in training camp, from the first time he hit the sleds, popping up, feet stopping, forced to redo the drill three times on Day One under Tomlin’s watchful eye. He drops two passes in as many weeks in the preseason. With his problems and Grimble’s sub-standard play, leaving fans wanting more, the Steelers make a move for tight end as they did in trading for McDonald.
This time, it’s a more low-key move, trading a 7th round pick for Lions’ TE Michael Roberts (Colbert flips Jerald Hawkins to the Giants for a 7th to recoup the pick). That sends Gentry to the practice squad. He gets a brief call-up mid-season when McDonald misses two weeks but logs only six snaps before getting shuffled back down. Gentry spends the rest of the season on that taxi squad.
There’s some improvement by the time he returns for his next training camp. But Daniel finally hangs up his straw hat and worse yet, the team invests in the position again after letting Grimble go in free agency, drafting Oregon’s Jacob Breeland in the 3rd round. At best, that puts Gentry as the #3 entering camp and he loses his spot to a UDFA blocker. Gentry is released outright at final cutdowns. He bounces around five teams over the next three years, appearing in only four more games, catching two passes for 12 yards in the 2021 regular season finale for the Dallas Cowboys.
Round Six – Sutton Smith
Best Case: Special. Teams. Demon. That’s what Steelers’ Nation quickly finds out about Smith. He wins as a pass rusher in training camp, his speed doing well in lower-intensity practices and one-on-one battles, all of which earn rave media reviews, but on gameday, his special teams impact is most valuable. In the preseason opener against Tampa Bay, he records two tackles there and forces a fumble on a punt return. In the finale, shades of Roosevelt Nix, he blocks a Carolina Panthers’ punt, cementing his spot on the 53 man roster, bumping fellow 6th rounder Ulysees Gilbert III to the practice squad.
He quickly earns a hat, beating out Ola Adeniyi most weeks (who lacks special teams value), and teams up with Tyler Matakevich to make for one heck of a duo. With Adeniyi down, Smith is the #4 OLB, and occasionally pokes his head into the line up. He records a hurry and TFL against the Miami Dolphins and picks up his first sack on November 24th against the Bengals, sacking Jeff Driskel on the final play of a blowout Steelers’ W.
Chickillo is released in the 2020 offseason and Bud Dupree tests free agency as well. The front office spends another high pick on the position, selecting Michigan’s Josh Uche 27th overall, but Smith enters the year as the Steelers’ #3 outside linebacker. He uses his speed and effort to make impact plays, ending 2020 with 4 sacks rotating in behind Watt and Uche.
He never elevates to starter status, the opportunity never really arises and his play isn’t so good that it commands it, but it’s a fine 6th round selection. He spends six years in Black and Gold, known for a special teamer with a tremendous motor and threat off the edge defensively. He even earns a Pro Bowl nod as a special teamer in 2021 and leaves the Steelers with 11 career sacks. Smith spends another three years in the league in a similar role, though the Arizona Cardinals, Steelers West strikes again, use him as a situational rusher, allowing him to rack up another 5 QB takedowns.
Worst Case: While Smith is a fun prospect to watch on tape and his Northern Illinois’ stats worth taking a flier on, he’s not an NFL linebacker. Simply too small to play the edge, he’s a little like Aaron Maybin, minus the heavy draft investment. Offensive tackles swallow him up against the run, Zach Banner flat out pancakes him during one training camp rep, and the Steelers value run defense too much to allow Smith to get on the field.
Smith has his moments on special teams but Gilbert III shows more progress and beats him out for the final linebacker spot on the 53. Smith is demoted to the practice squad until Week 5, when a season-ending injury to Matakevich opens the door for him to come up. It takes him two weeks to get a helmet but when he does, he performs reasonably well.
Unfortunately, special teamers are largely dime a dozen and even the best ones aren’t typically long for the game. Coming into 2020, the Steelers attempt to make him an ILB, playing the Mack, but the issues are similar. Too small to bang around against the run, easily chewed up and spit out. Pittsburgh again adds him to the practice squad but gets cut Week 3 in a practice squad shuffling. The Chicago Bears sign him to a futures contract that winter and he makes the 2021 team, logging his first NFL defensive snaps, but his career ends with just 1/2 a sack. For Pittsburgh, he logs 84 career snaps, making six tackles, and never stepping onto the field defensively.
Round Six – Isaiah Buggs
Best Case: For a 6th round pick, it’s hard to envision a better landing spot for Buggs than Pittsburgh. He feels assured of making the 53 given the team’s lack of depth and reunites with DL coach Karl Dunbar, giving him a leg up for most end-of-draft rookies. Two years in college combined with poor athletic testing caused him to fall he’s a technican and a 40 time can’t measure that.
He shows more snap off the football than many expected coupled with good hand use, power, and football IQ. Buggs has no issue making the 53 with scant competition. Ditto with getting a hat on gameday. Buggs becomes the backup nose tackle though with how much sub-package is played, it’s not much of a concern.
Playing time is irregular, of course, being the #5. Four snaps here, seven snaps there. He’s elevated into the #3 defensive end role when Cam Heyward spends a week in concussion protocol, logging 30 effective snaps against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, holding Lamar Jackson and company to just 97 yards rushing and 3.2 per carry.
For his rookie year, Buggs finishes with 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery. A small but positive first step. It’s a similar role in 2020 but midway through, he passes up a declining Tyson Alualu and is a heavy part of the team’s rotation. It ends with 30 tackles, 3 sacks, and a deflection that leads to a Devin Bush interception. He’s still stuck behind Heyward and Tuitt. Those guys aren’t going anywhere.
In fact, Buggs become a little like Alualu with more pop as a pass rusher. By the time his rookie contract is up, Heyward decides to retire, and the Steelers re-sign him. He’s not a full-blown starter, think the team keeping a better version of Grimble in anticipation of losing Jesse James, but his playtime shoots up in 2023.
In total, he finishes a strong seven year career with 164 tackles, 20 sacks, and five forced fumbles, including one on Andrew Luck in the 2023 Divisional matchup, which the Steelers win.
Worst Case: Buggs makes the 53 out of camp, if only because there aren’t any other options to turn to, but begins the year as a gameday inactive. His lack of athleticism is notable. So is the lack of length, too easily swallowed up in the run game with his 31 inch arms. The coaching staff remains high on Daniel McCullers, who impresses with another solid training camp, and is the more viable candidate at nose tackle.
While Buggs sees a bit of playing time his rookie year, they’re forgettable snaps. He’s a better pass rusher than LT Walton but a worse run defender. If you’re going to be a reserve tackle, you have to be reliable against the run. Even with schemes blurred and evolving, the team can’t find a home for him. Not strong enough to bang around as the one tech, not long and athletic enough on the outside. Just a bad fit across the board.
He’s not even that lucky after his rookie year. His second training camp is middling, Dunbar takes the job as the Texans’ defensive coordinator doesn’t help (Romeo Crennel retires) earlier in the offseason, and he loses out a spot on the 53. Pittsburgh carries him on the practice squad a la Brian Allen but he never gets back onto the active roster. After the season, he passes up a futures deal from Pittsburgh and follows Dunbar to Houston. There, he makes the 53, playing in four games, making five tackles in otherwise limited action.
His Steelers’ career ends with three tackles, one for a loss.
Round Six – Ulysees Gilbert III
Best Case: Think of Gilbert as the next LJ Fort. Similar build, similar story, similar playstyle. Gilbert plays so well he compels the Steelers to go heavy and keep ten linebackers on the roster out of the gate, battling Sutton Smith – two dogs, one bone, Tomlin again notes – for a hat each week. Ultimately, Gilbert is active for 11 games. All his work comes on special teams thanks to the now solid depth established at ILB, but he’s third on the team with seven tackles there, despite not playing every single game.
His role expands defensively 2020 when Mark Barron misses three weeks with a sprained knee. In obvious pass situations where the Steelers want to stay in nickel. Gilbert plays the Fort role, taking Vince Williams off the field now that Devin Bush is entrenched as the team’s signal caller and every down player. He picks off his first pass in Week 11, sealing the win over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
His ceiling is capped with Williams being a coaches favorite, Barron’s presence, and of course, the investment in Bush, but he’s sturdy depth and an excellent special teamer, becoming the new, more athletic Tyler Matakevich, who elects to test free agency after 2019.
Unfortunately, Gilbert takes the same path, a desire to become a starter somewhere, and signs with the rival Ravens when his contract expires prior to 2023. He starts 13 career games for Baltimore. A respectable career though his size and lack of elite athleticism makes him someone teams don’t mind replacing, even if they definitely don’t mind having him on their side, too.
As a member of the Steelers, he records two starts, recording 68 tackles, four sacks, and a pair of interceptions. Again, very similar to Fort.
Worst Case: Though Gilbert tested well, he doesn’t quite play like a near 4.4 player on tape. His size works against him, even knowing how important athleticism has become as the position, and he falls off tackles too often, even if he can get to the spot quicker than others. Sutton Smith is a much better special teamer, in part thanks to his pass rush/block shed background, and Gilbert end up on the practice squad. That’s where he spends the entire year.
Returning for his sophomore season, his play is basically the same. He’s kinda like the ILB version of Keion Adams. A good athlete, has some traits, but it never comes together. The jump to the NFL is difficult too. He suffers a preseason knee injury, landing on IR, and then released with a failed physical designation in the winter of 2021, never playing a down for the team.
Round Seven – Derwin Gray
Best Case: Gray surprises out of training camp, making the roster as the 9th offensive linemen. The Steelers stick him at tackle, his most natural position, and he shows comfort at RT that gives him a bit of versatility. He’s the Zach Banner of 2019, not dressing for the entire year, but remains on the roster.
After losing the RT job to Chukwuma Okorafor, Matt Feiler decides to bolt as a now-unrestricted free agent. That elevates Gray to the swing tackle role and for the next two years, he makes five starts. They’re about average, his size and strength his best assets, but turns into a good-enough backup linemen. Especially for a 7th rounder.
But the team reinvests in the position after 2022, drafting a tackle in the 3rd round, and his Steelers’ career ends as a reserve. He spends another three years in the NFL, making eight starts for the Seattle Seahawks in 2023 and 2024.
Worst Case: The competition for the 9th offensive line spot is fierce. Jerald Hawkins puts together an impressive, and more importantly, healthy preseason and easily earns his spot back on the roster. Patrick Morris is kept as the 9th linemen, sending Gray to the practice squad.
There, the team tries to work with him as a guard but it’s a harder transition that it looks after never playing there before. Though Shaun Sarrett is a good coach, there’s definitely a downside in not having that Mike Munchak Hall of Fame resume for outside players that weren’t carried over into the Sarrett era. At guard, Gray is asked to pull but he struggles making contact in space. In the 2020 preseason, he whiffs on a trap block, letting Ralph Webb get blown up in the backfield. Webb suffers a separated shoulder, ending his season before it starts, and coaches sour on Gray with so many options around him. He’s cut outright after 2020, bouncing around on a couple practice squads before hanging up his cleats.