There will be times this year that the Pittsburgh Steelers have eight former first-round picks on the field at the same time. Most of the time, they figure to have seven, when the defense is on the field. Some of them were their own draft picks. A handful of them, they’ve managed to acquire through other means.
Their pedigree represents the core of the Steelers’ defense, a unit driven largely by the sheer talent of the players on the field, which has been a process building for some period of time. Pittsburgh as used its first-round pick on a defensive player every year since 2013, beginning with the failed Jarvis Jones. Artie Burns in 2016 represents another miss, now also departed. The other ‘absence’ is Ryan Shazier, a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker who suffered what is likely a career-ending injury back in 2017.
But Cameron Heyward remains from back in 2011, the captain and the leader of that crowd. The newest face is Devin Bush, the 10th-overall pick in 2019, whom they traded up in the first round to get. They used their 2020 first-round pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick, a now first-team All-Pro who was the 11th-overall pick in 2018, the same year the Steelers used their own first-round pick on Terrell Edmunds, now their pair of starting safeties.
All of these men will routinely be on the field together, along with Joe Haden, a longtime Cleveland Browns starter who is now entering his fourth year in Pittsburgh and coming off of a Pro Bowl season with five interceptions. And most notable of all are T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, their edge rushers. Watt was third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season.
During certain times, they will also be joined with Tyson Alualu, who figures to see time at nose tackle this season in the absence of Javon Hargrave. He was drafted in the first round in 2010, the same year as Haden, and was acquired by Pittsburgh in the same offseason, in 2017 (Maurkice Pouncey, their Pro Bowl center, was their own draft pick from that class).
Four of these first-round picks ended up in the Pro Bowl last year. Guys like Bush and possibly Dupree could stand to join them in 2020. Then there’s Stephon Tuitt, a second-round defensive end, and Steven Nelson, a former third-round cornerback. Rounding up their primary defenders are former sixth-round linebacker Vince Williams and former college free agent Mike Hilton as their nickel back.
All of this talent finally coalesced into an elite unit last season that ranked fifth in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed, first in sacks, first in takeaways, sixth in completion percentage allowed, and fourth in opponent passer rating.
And they could be even better this year.