The Pittsburgh Steelers will report to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe for the start of their 2019 training camp next Thursday and with that monumental annual event now on the horizon, below is a look at the expectations for this year’s draft class ahead of the first practice getting underway.
ILB Devin Bush – The Steelers first-round draft pick this year has lived up to all expectations so far during the team’s football in shorts sessions. Not only has Bush received quite a bit of work with the first-team defense to date, he’s also done some defensive play calling throughout the spring and early summer. If Bush continues to stay healthy and continues to show a firm grasp of the Steelers defensive playbook throughout training camp and the preseason, there’s no reason to think that he won’t play a huge amount of snaps in the Week 1 opener against the New England Patriots and beyond. As for how quickly Bush can become the full-time defensive play-caller and communicator in the Steelers defense, that’s yet to be seen. However, by Week 5 of the regular season, at the latest, Bush should be an every-down defensive player for the Steelers. If the Michigan product plays extensively and well right from the start, he could make a legitimate run at the NFL’s annual Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
WR Diontae Johnson – Johnson, the Steelers first of two third-round draft picks this year, also reportedly had a great football in shorts season that include him getting some limited work with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and impressing him in the progress. Johnson, a Toledo product, also impressed Steelers veteran cornerback Joe Haden during the unpadded practices. Johnson is being groomed to be the Steelers new X receiver and while it might take a full season before he plays that position full-time, he’s still likely to get some extended playing time on offense as early as Week 1 and slowly start seeing more snaps every week as his rookie season progresses. Completely learning the Steelers offense and being able to play fast and without thinking is likely to be Johnson’s biggest hindrance early in his rookie season. However, if he stays healthy all season, he might just supplant veteran wide receiver Donte Moncrief in the starting lineup by the end of the 2019 regular season. Johnson proved to be a very talented college wide receiver and now he’ll be tasked to prove he can be one in the NFL. 40 receptions during his rookie season isn’t totally out of the question. Will Johnson also be allowed to return kickoffs in 2019? We’ll have to wait and see but he did do that in college and with some success.
CB Justin Layne – While the Steelers first of two third-round draft picks this year appears headed for quite a bit of rookie season playing time, the same can’t be said about the second of those two selections, Layne, who played his college football at Michigan State. Not long after Layne was drafted, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert essentially said that the young cornerback wouldn’t be rushed along in his development. In short, that likely means a lot of Layne’s rookie season will be spent playing on special teams and proving he deserves a helmet every week. Barring a few injuries occurring at the cornerback position in 2019, it’s hard to imagine Layne seeing the field much on the defensive side of the football in his rookie season. If he hits the 125 snap mark in 2019, it will be a huge surprise.
RB Benny Snell Jr. – The Steelers appear to be very set at the running back position ahead of their 2019 training camp getting underway. James Conner should be expected to be the bell cow again in 2019 with second-year running back Jaylen Samuels once again serving as his backup. As Snell gets more and more acquainted with the Steelers offense, he might just start seeing some snaps as his rookie season progresses. This assumes he can be trusted in pass protection as well. Snell figures to be a good short-yardage running back at the NFL level so the Steelers might can carve out a few snaps on offense for him that way and maybe use him to spell Conner for a series a game at some point. While Snell will likely see some limited offensive use during his rookie season, don’t expect his total snaps to come close to 150 barring injuries. He’ll likely be asked to play a lot of special teams early on as well.
TE Zach Gentry – While odds are strong that Gentry, a Michigan product, ultimately makes the Steelers initial 53-man roster out of training camp, don’t bet your life savings on such a thing happening. Gentry remains very green when it comes to knowing the ins and outs of playing the tight end position and that’s not surprising with him first arriving at Michigan as a quarterback. Becoming a very reliable blocker will be a chore for Gentry as him being nearly 6’8″ actually works some against him. Gentry’s upside in the NFL is probably close to the tight end that just left Pittsburgh via free agency, Jesse James, who developed into a much better player than most thought he would ever become when he was a rookie. While Gentry does have some good upside to him as an all-around tight end, his development will likely take some time. If the Steelers don’t find a suitable and better No. 3 tight end option prior to the start of the 2019 regular season, Gentry will likely be asked to play that role. Such a role will include playing some on special teams.
OLB Sutton Smith – The Steelers first of three sixth-round draft picks this year, Smith, who collected 30 sacks at Northern Illinois is considered to be undersized for the 3-4 outside linebacker position upon entering the NFL. Even so, Smith is a very intriguing player and his 30 college sacks showed that he can get around tackles to the outside and in a hurry. With several other outside linebackers currently ahead of Smith on the depth chart, the young player will have to be a special teams demon during training camp and the preseason if wants to have a shot at making the team’s initial 53-man roster. If Smith does manage to stick and ultimately dress for games during his rookie season, it’s unlikely that we’ll see him play any defensive snaps in 2019 barring multiple injuries. Smith did get to show what he can do at the fullback position during the team’s offseason practices so perhaps he can also serve as a backup at that position during his rookie season. Should Smith fail to make the Steelers initial 53-man roster, he’ll be a prime candidate for the practice squad. Look for smith to get a ton of playing time during the preseason and potentially in all three phases.
DL Isaiah Buggs – Buggs, the Steelers second of two sixth-round draft picks this year, is an Alabama product so defensive line coach Karl Dunbar is already very familiar with him. Buggs has a shot at winning a roster spot as the team’s sixth and final defensive lineman this year during training camp. He can play up and down the defensive line and showed that he can get after the quarterback in college. Even if Buggs ultimately makes the Steelers initially 53-man roster out of camp, it’s likely he would be a weekly inactive player for several weeks of his rookie season barring injuries. The Steelers already have a nice group of starters on their defensive line and it already looks as if veterans Tyson Alualu and Daniel McCullers will make the team again as the top two backups. Can Buggs grab the final spot? I like his chances.
ILB Ulysees Gilbert – Bush wasn’t the only inside linebacker drafted by the Steelers this year as the team also selected Gilbert, an Akron product, with their third of three sixth-round picks. Gilbert, however, seems almost certain to land on the Steelers practice squad after the preseason is over barring several injuries from occurring at the inside linebacker position. Gilbert’s only real shot at making this year’s roster includes him needing to stick out on special teams during training camp and the preseason. That’s going to be a tough task for him and especially if everybody else ahead of him on the inside linebacker depth chart remains fully healthy. Should Gilbert wind up on the Steelers 53-man roster at any point during his rookie season, don’t expect him to log any defensive snaps. Gilbert should get quite a bit of playing time during the preseason late in games and like Sutton, it will be fun to watch him compete. Gilbert should easily clear waivers should he find himself on the outside looking in at the end of the preseason.
OL Derwin Gray – Barring a few injuries, Gray might just find himself on the Steelers practice squad to start his rookie season. we’ll find out during training camp and the preseason if he can play tackle or not. That said, he might be better suited to play guard at the NFL level and it will be interesting to see if he gets pushed inside at any point during the next month and a half. A lot needs to happen for Gray to make the Week 1 53-man roster and most of those things are negative in nature and concern other offensive linemen. It;’s hard to imagine Gray dressing for a game during his rookie season if he winds up spending any time on the 53-man unit.