Immediately following the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, things looked rather promising for the Pittsburgh Steelers and General Manager Kevin Colbert, as the Steelers came away with a haul that included linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, running back Benny Snell Jr., and more.
Four years later though, that promising 2019 NFL Draft class for the black and gold looks like a major disappointment, especially after trading up for Bush, who was injured in 2020 and came back in 2021 and struggled mightily. That doesn’t even begin to mention Layne, who’s been a relative disappointment at cornerback (though he’s been very good as a gunner on special teams), and Snell Jr., who showed flashes as a rookie before falling off, holding onto a special teams role overall.
Tight end Zach Gentry has worked his way into a No. 2 role at tight end and has provided valuable snaps, while Johnson has emerged into a star at receiver. Defensive tackle Isaiah Buggs was able to give the Steelers some decent snaps along the defensive line before being cut last season, while linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III has stuck around on special teams over the last few years, providing some value overall.
Linebacker turned fullback Sutton Smith never cracked the roster, and offensive lineman Derwin Gray was eventually waived and lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, rounding out the draft class.
According to CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco though, the draft class as a whole borders on failure for the Steelers overall, largely due to the amount of draft capital sent to the Denver Broncos that year to move up from No. 20 to No. 10 to draft Bush, who was thought to be the man to replace Ryan Shazier as the athletic linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 system.
At the time following the draft, Prisco gave the Steelers a B. Now, with heading into Year 4, Prisco’s grade drops to a C-.
“Of their nine picks in the draft, two are projected starters next season. First-round linebacker Devin Bush hasn’t played like expected, so this will be a proving season for him. Second-round receiver Diontae Johnson was the best pick. They didn’t get much else out of this draft and missed so far on third-round corner Justin Layne,” Prisco writes. “I totally blew this evaluation. I liked the pick of Layne in the third and questioned taking Johnson in the same round, but did say the Steelers usually hit those types of receivers. They were right. I liked the move to go up and get Bush, but it hasn’t worked out so far since they declined his fifth-year option.”
Four years later, it’s not looking great overall, and that’s largely tied to Bush’s play, rightly or wrongly.
When a team trades away the type of capital it did to acquire Bush, the success or failure of that draft class will hinge on that player’s development. Bush had a strong rookie season and was off to a good start in 2020 before tearing his ACL against the Cleveland Browns. He was able to come back for the start of training camp last summer without any restrictions, but once on the field in live action he struggled mightily, especially against the run, eventually leading to the Steelers declining his fifth-year option, throwing the future of the inside linebacker position into flux.
Johnson is the one true saving grace of the class to date. He’s an elite-level route runner that creates ample separation everywhere on the field. His drops issues tend to rear its ugly head at some of the worst possible times, but he’s a high-usage No. 1-caliber receiver in today’s game.
It’s tough to truly say that the nine-player class is bordering on failure though. Gentry has developed rather nicely and will form a good 1-2 punch with Pat Freiermuth at tight end, which is a huge win for a fifth-round draft pick. Snell is a solid special-teamer and No. 2 running back behind Najee Harris, and Gilbert has been one of the leading tacklers on special teams the last two seasons when healthy.
That’s not flashy or headline-worthy, but getting that type of production from Day 3 picks shouldn’t be overlooked.