With the 140th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Texas A&M inside linebacker Devodrick “Buddy” Johnson. Johnson and the Steelers’ other eight picks could be packaged up into one quick, overall grade. But why not take a detailed look at each individual pick from a number of different viewpoints, before determining a final grade for the player, and later on the entire class?
I designed this exercise to look at and give letter grades based on six specific ways to view the pick (listed below), before taking all that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Team Need: Does the player fill a weaker spot on the roster?
Team Fit: Does this player and his skillset fit what the team likes to do offensively and defensively?
Immediate Contributor: Will the player be able to play a big role as a rookie?
Long-Term Contributor: Will the player be a significant part of the team’s future in some capacity?
Pick Value: Did the team reach on this player? Did they pick up a steal who should have gone earlier?
Other Options: Who were the other players still available at that selection, both overall and at that specific position?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made. For example, teams expect immediate contributions from a first round selection, while a seventh-rounder is fortunate to just make the roster.
Some factors do, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to. Steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 4, Pick 35: Buddy Johnson, ILB, Texas A&M
TEAM NEED: B
This is the first pick of the team’s draft where you don’t immediately see it and respond, ‘Yep, obvious need, one of their biggest.’ In fact, inside linebacker is a position where the Steelers were fairly well-stocked. Devin Bush returns from injury with franchise defensive cornerstone potential, and Vince Williams was retained on a cheap deal this offseason. Even Robert Spillane I thought played admirably in injury relief this season, and could be a running mate for Bush. Add in safety/linebackers Marcus Allen and Miles Killebrew, and it is a crowded room on the inside.
It doesn’t stand up to tackle, center, running back, or cornerback, but inside linebacker was a small need for the team. Specifically, depth. Bush is the locked-in No. 1 and a star. Williams nearly wasn’t back this year, and post-playing plans are on the immediate horizon. Spillane showed promise, but is far from a guaranteed thing as the No. 2 next to Bush. Allen and Killebrew are more project than player at ILB. Johnson may never be needed as a starter, but a player like him was needed on the roster this season.
TEAM FIT: B+
First and foremost, Johnson is an athlete. A linebacker who runs a 4.58 40, 4.07 shuttle, and 7.09 three-cone, and posts a 38.5” vertical and 10’8” broad jump checks the overall athlete box Pittsburgh loves to see in its inside linebackers. One of his biggest detriments should be his size — 6004, 229 lbs. — but Pittsburgh doesn’t mind smaller inside linebackers, as long as they can cover some ground. Bush is 5’11”. Williams and Spillane are 6’1”. All weigh 229-234 lbs. Pure profile standpoint, Johnson is right at home.
Johnson loses a bit off the top of his grade here because of his college performance. He would rack up the tackles and plays aggressive and with a fighter’s nature. That is all, again, right in line with a Steelers’ linebacker. But Pittsburgh also asks their ILBs to work extensively in pass coverage, and that is where Johnson’s game is weakest, and he is a project. Nearly everything about Johnson profiles as a Steeler. But that is a big enough hole in his game that is required by the franchise that it drops his grade slightly here.
IMMEDIATE CONTRIBUTOR: B-
Devin Bush is coming off a serious injury. Vince Williams is closing out his career. Robert Spillane spent time injured in 2020. Pittsburgh is going to want to spell its linebackers throughout games, and that will lead to snaps for Johnson as a rookie. Not significant snaps, mind you, and he has to beat out Allen and Killebrew to earn them. But I believe we will see Johnson get some looks throughout the season at the position, particularly on early downs on likely running plays.
There won’t be a ton of snaps — it would take an injury or incredible camp for Johnson to jump above Williams or Spillane. But Johnson could be a special teams ace immediately with his aggressive style of play, athleticism, and willingness to deliver hits or fight blockers. There is where his biggest contributions as a rookie will come.
LONG-TERM CONTRIBUTOR: B
There is an incredible degree of variance for this specific grade. On one hand, Williams retires, Spillane doesn’t work out, and Johnson becomes a starter. On the other, Spillane plays well, Johnson can’t improve his weaknesses, or the Steelers decide to just invest an early pick in a starter next to Bush, and Johnson doesn’t get a second contract.
Whether Johnson earns a starting role or whether things don’t line up for that opportunity, he has what is needed to be a long-term special teams warrior and important depth as an ILB back-up for Pittsburgh. This grade reflects that, but also the upside that I see there for him to become at least a regular part-time contributor among the Steelers’ front seven, specifically as a run defender. Working on his coverage skills would go a long way to making him a legitimate contender for an every-down starting spot. But that’s a 2022 situation at the earliest.
PICK VALUE: C
Grading the selection yesterday of Johnson’s A&M teammate, Dan Moore Jr., I noted that Moore was taken higher than projections, but tackles were being prioritized throughout the draft to that point. That is not the case at inside linebacker, one of the most overlooked positions in the class through four rounds.
Johnson projected to be a pick in the final couple rounds, and the rate at which linebackers were being selected indicated he may have made it there. Without a fifth-round pick at the time, it is understandable why Pittsburgh pulled the trigger on a player they valued rather than gamble he would fall a full two rounds to their next selection. That nuance helps the grade slightly. But it in pure value, it is still a reach.
OTHER OPTIONS: C
Pittsburgh targeted most of its high-priority needs with its first four picks, allowing the rest of the draft to skew more heavily toward best player available rather than specific positions. You’ll recognize names such as Tyree Gillespie (S), Shaun Wade (CB), and Daelin Hayes (EDGE) from yesterday’s grade of Moore, because all were options at his pick, and remained on the board when Pittsburgh selected Johnson. I didn’t hold it against that pick because it filled a major need. I will hold it a little more against this one, because the need filled wasn’t as crucial.
Gillespie and Wade stand out specifically, as do fifth-round safeties Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson. The secondary had yet to be addressed in the draft, and entered as one of the bigger needs short-term (Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton gone) and long-term (Joe Haden getting older, Terrell Edmunds option likely being declined, as was two days later). Wade is the only one I look at and say was a definitively better pick, but I’m not giving an F to a Day 3 pick because of one specific player left on the board elsewhere. For their defense, the Steelers did take about the best inside linebacker remaining, though Tony Fields II from WVU and K.J. Britt from Auburn had great Senior Bowls.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
Selecting Johnson is the definition of a solid Day 3 pick. He fills a need somewhere on the roster, fits what the team does well enough to play some snaps as a rookie, and provides at least some upside as a long-term contributor to the franchise. Johnson even goes above that, with a profile that does project as a potential starter next to Bush down the line.
Should Pittsburgh have addressed its secondary? With some Day 2 talent falling to them at the end of the fourth round, probably. The need there is big enough that it warrants mentioning here. But again, on Day 3, need becomes a little less important in favor of drafting some of your best available players, and Pittsburgh clearly liked Johnson enough to pull the trigger on him in the fourth and earlier than projections, rather than risk him failing to slide to its next pick (at the time) in the sixth. Overall, a solid pick that should earn a positive grade on Day 3.