2019 NFL Offseason: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Year: 9-6-1)

2019 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
WR Donte Moncrief, LB Mark Barron, CB Steven Nelson.
Early Draft Picks:
LB Devin Bush, WR Diontae Johnson, CB Justin Layne, RB Benny Snell, TE Zach Gentry. Steelers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown, TE Jesse James, OT Marcus Gilbert, LB L.J. Fort, CB Coty Sensabaugh, S Morgan Burnett.

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
The Steelers have possessed one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL this decade, and a major reason for this was Antonio Brown. A special talent, Brown has logged 100-plus receptions every season since 2013. He’s been unstoppable over the years, but Brown self-destructed in his final year in Pittsburgh. He and Ben Roethlisberger got into a spat, prompting Brown to miss the season finale despite not being injured. The rift between Roethlisberger and Brown was irreparable, prompting a blockbuster trade that occurred prior to free agency. Brown was dealt to the Raiders for third- and fifth-round picks.

The consensus belief is that Pittsburgh’s offense will regress without Brown. While that may be true, it may not be a vast decline. The Steelers still have Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a legitimate chance to out-produce Brown if they were on the same team this year. Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards last season. He’s only 22, and the sky is the limit for him. He’s a stellar player who could lead the league in receiving yards in 2019. The question is whether someone will step up across from Smith-Schuster. James Washington, chosen in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, will have first crack at the job. Washington didn’t do much as a rookie last year, but he’s reportedly in great shape at the moment. If Washington fails, third-round rookie Diontae Johnson will have a chance to start across from Smith-Schuster. Inconsistent veteran Donte Moncrief will also be given a chance, but he’s not very good.

The Steelers also said farewell to Le’Veon Bell, though Bell didn’t even play for them last year because of his ridiculous holdout. The Steelers offered Bell more than he’s worth, yet Bell sat out and eventually took less money from the Jets. Pittsburgh didn’t miss Bell very much, as James Conner had a fantastic season. The Steelers will use Conner and pass-catcher Jaylen Samuels in dual sets this year to mix up their offense in the wake of Brown’s departure.

Though the Steelers won’t have Brown and Bell anymore, they’re at least stable at quarterback and the offensive line. One blocker departed, and that was right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was traded to the Cardinals. Gilbert was a good player when healthy, but he missed too much action for Pittsburgh’s liking. Gilbert won’t be missed very much because replacement Matt Feiler did a good job in relief last year. He’ll be the bookend for Alejandro Villanueva, a rock-solid blind-side protector.

Pittsburgh’s interior front is stout as well. David DeCastro is one of the better guards in the NFL, while center Maurkice Pouncey, despite his checkered injury history, is a quality protector as well. The weak link on the line could be left guard Ramon Foster if he declines even further. Foster turned 33 this offseason. He used to be a stellar guard, but is now past his prime.

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
Heading into December of 2017, it appeared as though the Steelers possibly should have been considered the favorites to win the Super Bowl. That completely changed in a fateful Monday night game against the Bengals. Ryan Shazier suffered a horrendous back injury that threatened his ability to ever walk again. Shazier has thankfully walked since, but it seems very unlikely that he’ll play football ever again. Pittsburgh greatly missed him last year, as the team had major difficulty covering the middle of the field. The Steelers lacked a do-it-all defensive leader at linebacker.

That would explain why the front office moved up from No. 20 to 10 in the 2019 NFL Draft for Devin Bush. The Michigan product is extremely athletic and fast, which described Shazier when he was coming out of Ohio State. Bush figures to be a perfect replacement, and his presence will take care of many problems the Steelers endured without Shazier. Newly acquired Mark Barron figures to play alongside Bush as a two-down run stopper.

Bush won’t have to worry about a lack of protection from his defensive line. The Steelers have one of the top fronts in the NFL. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are excellent at defensive end, while nose tackle Javon Hargrave does a great job of clogging running lanes, all while putting some heat on quarterbacks. Pittsburgh has received a well-deserved five-star rating for this area of its defense.

That said, defending the pass might still be an issue, thanks to some problems in the secondary. Artie Burns has been a disappointment as a former first-round cornerback, so the Steelers signed Steven Nelson to play across from the talented Joe Haden. Nelson figures to be an upgrade, but he can be beaten in coverage, so this area should still be considered an area of weakness.

The same can be said for the safety situation. The Steelers reached for Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Edmunds predictably didn’t perform very well, routinely whiffing on tackles. Still, Edmunds is young and could improve. He’ll start next to Sean Davis, a 2016 second-round pick who has been mediocre in his career.

Pittsburgh’s defensive backs will be hoping for the team to generate tons of heat on opposing passers. T.J. Watt will be able to do that, as he collected 13 sacks in 2018. The problem is that Pittsburgh lacks a reliable second edge rusher. Aside from Watt, no Steeler edge player registered more than 5.5 sacks in 2018. Bud Dupree notched that number, but he hasn’t shown any signs that he’s capable of taking the next step.

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
Excluding New England, no one in the AFC has a better road record than Pittsburgh since 2004; the Steelers are 76-50-1 as visitors in that time frame. They’re not bad at home either (94-36).

The Steelers had some major kicking woes in 2015 – until they found Chris Boswell, who drilled 35-of-38 attempts, including 4-of-4 from 50-plus, in 2017. However, Boswell struggled last year. He was just 13-of-20, and he missed five extra points. He’s expected to have competition in training camp.

Jordan Berry has regressed in the net-punting ranking, dropping from 15th in 2016, to 23rd in 2017, to 26th in 2018.

Pittsburgh must improve on special teams, as it was outgained on both punt and kickoff returns in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The Steelers have a tough start to their season, as they have to battle the Patriots (road), Seahawks (home) and 49ers (road). Their slate gets easier in the second half of the year.

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies:
Go here for the Steelers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2019 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: The Steelers are usually overhyped because they’re such a public team. However, given the departures of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, as well as the rise of the Cleveland Browns, it seems as though most expect Pittsburgh to fail to reach the playoffs again. However, the Steelers’ defense has improved, and if one of their young receivers steps up, their offense will still be explosive. Ben Roethlisberger is still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, while the Steelers boast a tremendous offensive line. Pittsburgh, despite public belief, is definitely a viable contender to win Super Bowl LIV.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in AFC North)

2018 Projection: 8-8. 2018 Actual Result: 9-6-1.
2017 Projection: 11-5. 2017 Actual Result: 13-3.
2016 Projection: 10-6. 2016 Actual Result: 11-5.

NFL Draft Team Grade: A- Grade

Goals Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Steelers will be hoping for Devin Bush to fall to them at No. 20, as they’ll be able to replace Ryan Shazier’s production. They must also find other players to take over for departed Pittsburgh players. Wide receiver (Antonio Brown), right tackle (Marcus Gilbert), safety (Sean Davis, eventually) and edge rusher (Bud Dupree, eventually) are other prominent areas of need, as is cornerback.

2019 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Steelers may have hoped that Devin Bush would drop to them, but they were realistic about it. They were well aware that they had to trade up to obtain a new defensive leader, and that’s exactly what they did. Trading up for players is often unwise, but it was completely necessary in this instance. Pittsburgh’s defense has been a shell of its former self ever since Ryan Shazier suffered his horrible spinal injury. Now, the Steelers can return to their former glory with Bush as a replacement.

While Bush earned an “A” grade, another selection of Pittsburgh’s was marked even higher. Justin Layne at No. 83 could’ve been constituted as grand larceny, as there was some speculation that he could be chosen late in the opening frame. The Steelers obtained a major steal with Layne, who figures to solve the problems his new team had at cornerback. Conversely, Pittsburgh was guilty of some minor reaches when it took wide receiver Dionate Johnson and tight end Zach Gentry too early.

Aside from the two reaches, the Steelers had a great weekend. They filled several needs with talented prospects for the most part, and as a result, Pittsburgh could be back in playoff contention after being absent from the postseason last year.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

10. Devin Bush, LB, Michigan A Grade
I love this move. The Steelers have needed a replacement for Ryan Shazier ever since he suffered his horrible spinal injury on that fateful Monday night. There was no way in the world Devin Bush was going to fall to No. 20. Pittsburgh recognized that and made the jump for Bush. The Michigan product is extremely athletic and was highly productive at Michigan. He was also a team captain. He’ll instantly establish himself as a team leader for Pittsburgh. I know the Steelers gave up resources to get Bush, yet the 2020 first-round pick wasn’t included, which is huge. This was a move the Steelers had to make to restore their defense to its former dominance.

66. Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo C Grade
The Steelers used the pick they acquired for Antonio Brown on a receiver. Diontae Johnson is an explosive downfield threat, but I think this is a round too high for him. Johnson still doesn’t know how to run routes well, so I can’t see him contributing consistently as a rookie. He has tremendous upside, but the Steelers could’ve traded down or waited a bit for Johnson.

83. Justin Layne, CB, Michigan State A+ Grade
Wow, I forgot Justin Layne was still available. Layne got some late first-round buzz at some point, but was expected to be chosen in the second frame. Layne is an excellent cornerback with terrific ball skills. He’s an absolute steal for the Steelers, who needed someone like Layne to upgrade their poor secondary.

122. Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky B Grade
Benny Snell was once slotted in the second round of my mock drafts, but I dropped him because teams had speed concerns about him. However, Snell is a very tough runner who could have a nice NFL career. I think he’s a bit redundant with James Conner, but he’s a fine choice.

141. Zach Gentry, TE, Michigan C- Grade
I didn’t think there was a good chance Zach Gentry would be drafted. I had him slotted in the seventh round in the end, but I excluded him from my mock at times. He’s a raw player with poor athleticism, so he offers a low ceiling and a low floor. This isn’t a very good pick.

175. Sutton Smith, DE/OLB, Northern Illinois B+ Grade
Based on his production and 3-cone time, Sutton Smith would be a first-round prospect. Unfortunately, he’s extremely undersized. He’s just 6-0, 233, so it’s difficult to envision where he’ll fit in as a pro. However, I could see him being a third-down specialist, and I think this is the correct time to select him; I had him slotted two picks earlier in my mock.

192. Isaiah Buggs, DE/DT, Alabama B+ Grade
The Steelers were expected to find depth for their defensive line, and they did so with a player who could have been chosen a couple of rounds earlier. I suppose his horrible showing at the combine hurt him, but he was a better player on film. His short arms aren’t ideal, but Buggs should become a solid backup for Pittsburgh.

207. Ulysees Gilbert, LB/ST, Akron C+ Grade
Ulysees Gilbert seems like too much of a tweener to ever be able to contribute on defense, but he projects as a special-teams ace. It’s fine to use a pick past No. 200 on a player like that, though there were more exciting options available.

219. Derwin Gray, OT, Maryland B Grade
I once mocked Derwin Gray as high as the third round, but that was before his severe lack of athleticism was exposed at the combine. Gray could become a strong run blocker in the NFL, but he’s going to have severe problems blocking speed pass rushers.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

Season Summary:
The Steelers had control of their own destiny as far as winning the division was concerned. Then, they lost to the Broncos and Raiders, all while enduring some major drama between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh may part with the latter this offseason.

Offseason Moves:
  • Steelers cut S Morgan Burnett
  • Steelers sign LB Mark Barron
  • Steelers sign WR Donte Moncrief
  • Steelers sign CB Steven Nelson
  • Cardinals acquire OT Marcus Gilbert from Steelers for 6th-round pick
  • Raiders acquire WR Antonio Brown from Steelers

    Team Needs:
    1. Inside Linebacker: Ryan Shazier was once one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. Unfortunately, he suffered a horrible injury that paralyzed him for a while. Shazier was never replaced, so perhaps the Steelers will do that this offseason. Signed Mark Barron

    2. Cornerback: Pittsburgh’s pass defense was poor this past season. Cornerback was a big problem, as the Steelers desperately need an upgrade across from Joe Haden. Signed Steven Nelson

    3. Edge Rusher: Bud Dupree continues to be a disappointment across from T.J. Watt. The Steelers will have to think about bringing in someone who can challenge him.

    4. Wide Receiver: The Steelers have two great receivers at the moment, but that won’t be the case if Antonio Brown is traded. If that happens, the Steelers will need a new wideout, though James Washington might be able to step up. Signed Donte Moncrief

    5. Guard: Two of Pittsburgh’s top three guards – Ramon Foster, B.J. Finney – happen to be impending free agents, so one will need to be retained. Re-signed Ramon Foster

    6. Punter: Punter Jordan Berry is hitting the free agent market as well.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2019 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Steven Nelson, CB, Chiefs. Age: 25.
      Signed with Steelers (3 years, $25.5 million)

      Steven Nelson was Kansas City’s best outside cornerback last year. That’s not saying much, but Nelson played on a high level. He has improved each season, and at just 25, the sky’s the limit for him.

    2. Mark Barron, LB, Rams. Age: 29.
      Signed with Steelers (2 years, $12 million)

      Mark Barron has never been a very good player, but he’s coming off his worst season yet. That might be because he was dealing with an ankle injury he never fully recovered from. However, Barron turns 30 soon, so further regression could be coming.

    3. Donte Moncrief, WR, Jaguars. Age: 26.
      Signed with Steelers (2 years)

      Donte Moncrief proved that he was just a byproduct of Andrew Luck’s elite passing, as he really struggled without him in 2017. He then did nothing in Jacksonville last year. However, he still has some potential, and at 26, he has time to improve.

    Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers. Age: 27.
      Signed with Jets (4 years, $52.5 million)

      Le’Veon Bell is a bad presence to have in the locker room, but there’s no questioning his talent. His legs will be fresh following a year off, so he could have a huge 2019 campaign.

    2. Morgan Burnett, S, Steelers. Age: 30.
      Signed with Browns (2 years)

      Morgan Burnett was once the centerpiece of Green Bay’s defense, playing numerous positions. He joined the Steelers last year, but struggled, as Pittsburgh did not use him optimally for some reason. Burnett has the talent to have a nice, rebound 2019 campaign. He turned 30 recently, but he should still have two high-end seasons.

    3. Mike Hilton (RFA), CB, Steelers. Age: 25.
      Mike Hilton has been a solid slot cornerback for the Steelers the past couple of years. At just 25 (in March), he has plenty of potential.

    4. Ramon Foster, G, Steelers. Age: 33.
      Re-signed with Steelers (2 years, $8.25 million)

      Ramon Foster turned 33 this offseason, but he did a solid job yet again in the interior of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. Unfortunately for Foster, age is beginning to become a factor.

    5. Jesse James, TE, Steelers. Age: 25.
      Signed with Lions

      Jesse James is known for his non-catch/catch against the Patriots in 2017, but he’s an excellent blocking tight end with some plus receiving ability. He’s also just 25 (in June), so he has a decent amount of potential to improve in the latter regard.

    6. B.J. Finney (RFA), C/G, Steelers. Age: 27.
      Tendered by Steelers (2nd round)

      B.J. Finney hasn’t had a chance to start because he’s behind some talented offensive linemen in Pittsburgh. However, he’s looked very good when replacing one of the starters, so a team may want to give him a chance to be a starting center or guard.

    7. L.J. Fort, ILB, Steelers. Age: 29.
      Signed with Eagles (3 years, $10 million; $1.9 million guaranteed)

      L.J. Fort is a solid run defender, but should only play two downs because he tends to be a liability in coverage.

    8. Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Steelers. Age: 30.
    9. Anthony Chickillo, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Steelers (2 years)
    10. Tyson Alualu, DE/DT, Steelers. Age: 32. — Re-signed with Steelers (2 years)
    11. Eli Rogers, WR, Steelers. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Steelers
    12. Jordan Berry, P, Steelers. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Steelers (2 years)
    13. Xavier Grimble (RFA), TE, Steelers. Age: 27. — Tendered by Steelers (original)
    14. Stevan Ridley, RB, Steelers. Age: 30.
    15. Nat Berhe, S, Steelers. Age: 28.
    16. Leterrius Walton, DE/DT, Steelers. Age: 27.
    17. Justin Hunter, WR, Steelers. Age: 28.
    18. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Steelers. Age: 32.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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