Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Diontae Johnson, WR, Toledo – Round 2
This is the third straight year I’m selecting a receiver for this designation, but that is a safe selection considering Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert has done an excellent job of drafting wide receiver talent after the first round. Johnson could keep that trend going and quickly insert himself into the starting trio of receivers for the Steelers.

The 5-foot-10, 183-pounder has some explosive play-making to him, having produced some long touchdowns as a receiver and returner during his collegiate career. Toledo had a group of talented receivers, so that kept Johnson’s numbers down, but he is skilled with the ability to get separation from quickness and shifty route-running. Quickly in his NFL career, Johnson could be a good contributor as a slot receiver.

With the Steelers facing life after Antonio Brown, they have their No.1 of the future in JuJu Smith-Schuster. Perhaps James Washington emerges as the other starter on the outside, which would leave the slot as the position for Johnson. Colbert knows receiver talent, so it would not be surprising if Johnson turns into a solid starter for Pittsburgh.

2018: James Washington, WR
2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
2016: Artie Burns, CB
2015: Sammie Coates, WR
2014: Stephon Tuitt, DE
2013: Markus Wheaton, WR

Most Likely To Bust

Justin Layne, QB, Michigan State – Round 3
This was hard to pick because none of the Steelers’ early-round picks scream bust potential to me. However I have to pick someone, and Layne could be the riskiest of their early-round selections. He has a good skill set, but he is raw and needs development. Despite Mike Tomlin starting out his coaching career as a star defensive backs coach, Pittsburgh has not had good success in terms of developing young cornerbacks over recent years. Artie Burns has been disappointing, and other picks. including Senquez Golson. didn’t work out. Thus, Layne might not be in a good situation to be groomed into a solid pro.

The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Layne started out his collegiate career as a wide receiver before being switched to cornerback. The junior totaled 72 tackles with 15 passes broken up and an interception in 2018. Teams really liked his skill set with size, length, and some quickness, but he still could stand to be coached up for the NFL, and that is why a corner with his skill set slipped to the third round. I’m not confident the Steelers will develop Layne into a good starter, so he could have the most bust potential of the their early-round picks.

2017: Mason Rudolph, QB
2017: James Conner, RB
2016: Sean Davis, CB/S
2015: Senquez Golson, CB
2014: Dri Archer, RB/WR
2013: Le’Veon Bell, RB

Potential Boom Pick

Devin Bush, LB, Michigan – Round 1
The Steelers were intent on upgrading their inside linebacker position and were very aggressive to make that happen. One of the surprising moves during the opening night of the 2019 NFL Draft was the Pittsburgh Steelers trading up to the 10th-overall pick to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. Pittsburgh rarely ever trades up in the first round, but the organization was determined to add a difference-maker at linebacker. Not only did the Steelers break from their tradition to move up, they tried to do an even more bold and dramatic tradeup. Team sources say the Steelers were in discussions to move all the way to the third-overall pick with the Jets, and sources believe that if the Steelers had been able to do that deal their pick would have been LSU linebacker Devin White, who went fifth overall to Tampa Bay. The Steelers were essentially lowballing the Jets on the offer and not giving up anything close to what it take to move from 20th overall to third overall, so when the tradeup for White didn’t happen, the Steelers settled to move up 10 spots with the Broncos to select Bush.

For the NFL, Bush is a seek-and-destroy linebacker. His best trait is world-class speed for a 5-foot-11, 234-pound linebacker. Bush can flat out fly, patrolling sideline to sideline with the ability to cover a ton of ground. He has easy speed to close on ball-carriers or receivers running into open territory. On top of his speed, Bush is an agile athlete who can break down in space and get backs to the ground. He is a steady open-field tackler and also will flash some violence by throwing ball-carriers to the ground with authority. As a run defender, Bush is at his best using speed to chase down ball-carriers. He has issues with holding his ground and taking on blocks, so he is not a skilled in-the-box run defender. That is one reason why his tackle total was depressed despite playing in a running conference. Offensive linemen are able to get a push on him and knock him back. Bush will sometimes try to run around blocks, but generally, he is pretty good at holding his gap. Bush does very well at defending perimeter runs and is quick to blast into the backfield when he sees a stretch play developing.

In pass coverage, Bush has the speed and athletic ability to be a real asset. He is fast enough to run with backs, tight ends and receivers. However, he needs to improve his recognition because he will take false steps in coverage that put him in a tough spot of having to close on separation. Bush covers a lot of ground in zone coverage in the middle of the field and has the ability to limit gains downfield. He also is a good blitzer, using his speed to dart by blockers, and is adept at generating pressure on the quarterback.

With a good defensive line in front of him and some safety talent behind him, Bush looks like a great fit for the Steelers’ defense. The ultra fast linebacker could be a boom pick for Pittsburgh due to his ton of upside. If Bush can refine his game some with improvements in pass coverage and taking on and getting off blocks, he could be a special inside linebacker with boom pick potential for Pittsburgh.

2018: Terrell Edmunds, S
2017: T.J. Watt, LB
2016: Javon Hargrave, DT
2015: Bud Dupree, LB
2014: Ryan Shazier, LB
2013: Jarvis Jones, LB

Future Depth Player

Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky – Round 4
I was tempted to project Snell as a future starter, but Pittsburgh will probably push him into a backup role. I think Snell could be one of the steals of the 2019 NFL Draft, as he was a phenomenal back who tore up the SEC over the past three seasons. Snell is a physical runner with a powerful build that makes him tough to get on the ground. He uses his strength, stature, knee bend, and ability to run behind his pads to pick up a lot of yards after contact. On top of natural running ability with good instincts, Snell plays faster than his timed speed; he had no issues to hit the hole and pull away in the SEC. He also is known to be a high-character individual who loves football and works hard. Over only three seasons, Snell set the all-time rushing record at an SEC program, so that tells you that he is not your typical college mid-round back. I think Snell could at least be a good backup, and it would not surprise me at all if he exceeds that in the NFL.

2018: Jaylen Samuels, RB
2017: Cam Sutton, CB
2016: Tyler Matakevich, LB
2015: Doran Grant, CB
2014: Wesley Johnson, OT
2013: Shamarko Thomas, S

Walt’s 2019 NFL Draft 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.

2019 NFL Draft Team Grade: A- . Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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