The Pittsburgh Steelers, and particularly the defense, is currently stocked with first-round players. So far, all that’s gone on to show is that your draft stock isn’t that important, because their defense hasn’t played like a unit full of talent. With an emphasis on unit.
But following the trade acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was the 11th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft a year ago by the Miami Dolphins, it’s hard not to take notice of all the first-round talent that’s on the defensive side of the locker room, the majority of whom have starting roles, and who were drafted by Pittsburgh.
That tends to happen when you use seven consecutive first-round picks on defense, starting with Jarvis Jones in 2014, followed by Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, and Devin Bush. Jones, of course, is no longer in the league. Shazier was a Pro Bowl inside linebacker, but whether or not he’ll ever play again is a complete mystery.
The other five remain with the team, four of them in starting roles, Burns the reserve. Then there’s the OG, Cameron Heyward, their first-round pick in 2011 and the oldest representative on the defensive side of the ball from their own draft picks. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler with 20 sacks in the past two seasons from the defensive tackle position (which is where he’s now officially listed).
But the team has supplemented them with signings and trades from the outside. Obviously there’s Fitzpatrick, the newest face, but we can’t forget about Joe Haden, who’s in his third season here already. He was a top 10 pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2010. Also from that same top 10 group that year is Tyson Alualu, in his third season as the first defensive lineman off the bench.
The Steelers acquired yet another former first-round pick in free agency, Mark Barron, at inside linebacker, giving them 10 total former first-round picks on the defensive side of the ball currently on the 53-man roster, eight of whom are in the starting lineup right now, Vince Williams notwithstanding.
The only starters or regular contributors who are not first-round picks are Stephon Tuitt (second round, 2014), Javon Hargrave (third round, 2016), Steven Nelson (third round, 2015), and Mike Hilton (undrafted 2016).
The message? It’s time to start playing up to your talent level. This unit is stacked in theory, but too often looks like scrubs when it comes to executing a defensive call as a group. Sure, they make their fantastic individual plays, but that doesn’t matter when they convert on third and long after a sack and a run stuff because of a communication breakdown in the middle of the field.
Three first-round picks in your nickel front four. A pair of first-round inside linebackers. Three first-round picks in the secondary. It’s time to get going.