AFC North - Pittsburgh Steelers
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Round 1 – Linebacker, Devin Bush, Michigan
Round 3a – Wide receiver, Diontae Johnson, Toledo
Round 3b – Cornerback, Justin Layne, Michigan State
It may have cost Pittsburgh their first and second-round picks in the 2019 NFL draft and a third-round draft pick in 2020 to move up 10 places in round one to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, but if he turns out to be everything both the scouts and the Steelers seem to think he could be, the price they paid will be a bargain. Possessing the kind of speed the defense has lack since the unfortunate injury to star linebacker Ryan Shazier, the highly rated young prospect is expected to be a day one starter in the Steel City.
The selection of Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson was something of a surprise to the more casual observers, but for publications like Pro Football Focus, he was one of the better wideouts available this year. And given the team’s track record drafting receivers, there is every reason to believe that Johnson could be as good as advertised. Comparisons to a young AB might be somewhat overboard, but the early reports coming out of minicamp were certainly encouraging. Johnson should compete for playing time in the slot during his rookie season and is likely to see his snaps increase as the season goes on.
Projected as second-round pick by most experts, Justin Layne was something of a steal for Pittsburgh in the middle of round three. At 6-foot-2 and around 195 pounds, Layne has the prototype size many look for in a cornerback, with the coverage skills that most NFL team covet. Perhaps lacking the top end speed of others, the converted former wide receiver will need some time to develop before being thrust into a starting role.
The biggest move of the offseason by far for the Steelers was the trade of disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders. And while it would be fair to say that Pittsburgh barely got anywhere near his true value in the deal, they did at least manage to rid themselves of a player who was at the heart of much of the drama that had plagued them as of late.
The loss of Le’Veon Bell via free agency to the New York Jets should not be as acutely felt as the loss of Brown given that he held out for all of 2018, but there can be no question that the Steelers were a more intimidating offense when he was on the field. Pittsburgh will be hoping that the departure of both Bell and Brown results in a rare instance of improvement by subtraction in 2019.
The Steelers were quick to release two of their 2018 free agent signings in linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Morgan Burnett during the offseason and also parted ways with veteran offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert. Traded to the Arizona Cardinals in return for a sixth-round selection, the right tackle will be replaced by Matt Feiler this year.
Former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Donte Moncrief will do his best to make up for the loss of AB, while fellow free agent signing Mark Barron is expected to add more speed to a linebacking group that struggled in coverage last year. Should Bush not be ready to start come Week 1, Barron will assume the starting role and should also see playing time as a sub package linebacker on passing downs.
The most notable free agent signing of the offseason came in the shape of former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson, an addition made to replace 2018 starter Coty Sensabaugh after his contract expired. Four interceptions for Kansas City last year drew Pittsburgh to Nelson during free agency, a total that no Steelers cornerback has achieved in each of the past eight seasons. Nelson is expected to start opposite Joe Haden.
Brown and Bell might have gone, but Pittsburgh is still home to one of the NFL’s more notable names at quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. But at 37-years-old, it is reasonable to question how much longer the veteran passer can keep playing at an elite level. The new three-year deal he signed during the offseason suggests the Steelers are hoping he at least has a few more good years left in him.
JuJu Smith-Schuster does not have the pedigree to claim star status quite yet, but his efforts in 2018 indicate it will not be long before he is included in that conversation. His popularity with fans and his name recognition outside of the sport certainly qualify him as one of the bigger names in the game today.
Perhaps lacking the glamor of the skills positions, Pittsburgh’s offense line is flush with star talent in perennial Pro Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, part of a unit that is arguably one of the best in the NFL.
For a team that built its reputation on defense, the Steelers continue to struggle to find defensive playmakers capable of living up to the standard of iconic names of the past. Defensive captain Cameron Heyward is the unquestioned leader of the group and one of the more underrated players at his position, but the next great Steelers defensive player looks likely to be third-year outside linebacker T.J. Watt, a player who recorded 13 sacks last season.
Following an offseason of turmoil, fuelled in part by the departure of their star wide receiver to Oakland, there has been a lot of criticism directed at the team since the end of the season. But while the national media narrative seems to suggest that Pittsburgh will be chasing the heels of the Browns in 2019, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Steelers will be better than advertised.
As much as some observers want to talk about how the loss of Bell will impact Pittsburgh this season, the reality is that he essentially left the year before. James Conner was voted to the Pro Bowl in only his second season after starting in his place and Smith-Schuster had more receptions and yards than Brown on his way to the Pro Bowl as well.
Replacing Brown will not be easy, but Pittsburgh has given themselves options with the addition of Moncrief and Johnson. 2018 second-round draft pick James Washington also figures to be more involved after slow start to his rookie season.
Defensively, there is a lot to like about the changes the team has made this year, the additions of Nelson, Bush and Barron expected to notably improve team speed and help with their recurring issues in pass defense.
The Steelers may not win a Super Bowl in 2019, but they look good value to win the division. An over/under of 9 wins is a solid bet for those considering the over.
Oddschecker spokesperson Pete Watt: “The Steelers are very much being thrown into the new season at the deep end with an opener against the Patriots, in what will be an acid test of their mettle.
“Following Brown’s acrimonious switch to the Raiders, the barbs have already begun between him and Smith-Schuster on social media, but a more intriguing battle will take place throughout the season for the wide receivers.”
“Brown is slightly favored by the books to come out on top in terms of touchdowns and yards, but only time will tell whether bettors agree. Pittsburgh have actually lengthened steadily since the book opened in February, with the Steelers then as short as +1300 to win the Super Bowl.
“However, by no means does this mean they should be written off, with a good result against New England sure to see their price slashed”
Based on the 2018 record of their opponents, Pittsburgh will theoretically have the 19th ranked schedule in terms of difficulty in 2019. They will face teams that accumulated a combined record of 126-128-2 last season for a winning percentage of .496.
A season opener against the New England Patriots is the stuff of nightmares for a team that has only beaten New England once in their last six meetings, even if that one win did come during their last encounter. Potentially challenging games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams are mixed in with a number of easier contests against teams like the Miami Dolphins. And while three of their last four games of the year are on the road, they will face the Cardinals, Bills and Jets during that stretch.