By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
Most people know that the Steelers had some very big needs heading into this years draft, namely in the secondary and along the defensive line. Although the team didn’t blow anyone away with their selections, they made very smart selections, addressing needs from top to bottom while adding tremendous upside through each round. After largely ignoring the secondary in recent drafts, the Steelers have been clearly invested in improving their defense over the past three drafts to regain the dominance that the team has always been known for on that side of the ball. Last year, the team used 6 of their 8 picks on defensive players and this year was nearly identical, using 5 of 7 picks on defense. This year also was the first draft since 1987 when the team drafted a defensive back in the first two rounds. After making cornerback Artie Burns their 1st round selection this year, they didn’t stop their defensive onslaught, as they drafted safety Sean Davis in the 2nd round and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round. By using their first 3 picks on their biggest needs, the Steelers really followed their gameplan and made strides in improving their defense, which should help lead to a defensive resurgence.
With these young players, it is unlikely that any of them will be elite players this season. However, these players are not the only ones that have the chance to make a huge impact this season and make the step to elite status.
For starters, this is the season that the 2014 draft class could (and should) make huge strides as players and that starts with 1st-round pick Ryan Shazier and 2nd-round Stephon Tuitt. Last season, both players appeared to be on the verge of absolute greatness and many people will be riding on their ability to make the next step. Whether people recognize it or not, Shazier has become one of the leaders of the Steelers defense. After Lawrence Timmons led the defense for a large part of his tenure with the Steelers, Shazier has taken the helm by being the one who makes the calls for the defense every play. Many NFL analysts believe that Shazier has Defensive Player of the Year potential this season, which is tremendous news for Steelers fans. After being a highly criticized selection by the Steelers in 2014, Shazier has all but silenced his critics and has the potential to make the next step as being one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. He is already the most athletic and one of the hardest hitters.
Stephon Tuitt, on the other hand, was one of the steals of the 2014 NFL Draft. He was widely considered to be a potential top 15 draft pick with tremendous upside and versatility. However, after concerns about the length of time he spent recovering from a hernia surgery, the massive defensive end fell all the way to the 46th pick, where the Steelers wasted no time to snatch up the Notre Dame standout. Tuitt plays with extraordinary leverage and athleticism and has some of the heaviest hands in the NFL. After the retirement of the beloved Brett Keisel, the selection of Tuitt made a lot of sense and while Cam Heyward is the heart and soul of the Steelers defense, it is in fact Tuitt that has the potential to be the best defensive lineman in Pittsburgh. And now is the time for that to happen.
Alongside Shazier is 2015 1st-round draft pick Bud Dupree. Dupree had a solid start to his career in Pittsburgh, tallying 4 sacks in 8 games last year. As the season progressed, his play substantially cooled off as he hit the stereotypical rookie wall. The 22nd pick of the 2015 NFL Draft checked off all of the boxes that you look for in a prototypical pass-rusher: great height, weight, length, strength, and athleticism. Measuring in at 6’4″, 269 lbs. with 4.56 40 speed, Dupree seemingly has it all. One issue that he ran into as the season progressed was his increased weight, where he recently admitted was up to the upper 270’s by seasons end. Knowing the pressure that Dupree has on him to perform well this season, he took matters into his own hands and has cut 20 lbs. since last season to now weight in at around 255 lbs. and it shows. He is showing an improved burst off the line, better leverage at the point of the attack, and seems to have also increased his playing strength. The Steelers outside linebackers have not performed up to the standard that has been set by the generation before them but a good start to getting back to that way would be by Dupree emerging as a legitimate pass-rusher. If he can come close to even 10 sacks this season, the Steelers defense would be greater for it.
Opposite of Dupree is the former 1st-round pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, who has admittedly not lived up to the hype that was associated with his selection. Saying this year is a do-or-die season for Jones would be an understatement; the remainder of his career will be largely dictated by how this season goes for the underwhelming outside linebacker. Although this could potentially be Jones’ last season with the franchise, the Steelers would benefit from having effective play from both of their young outside linebackers.
Although the Steelers used their 3rd-round pick this year on the stout and versatile defensive lineman Javon Hargrave, they still have a young player who looms large above all of the rest of the team (except for Alejandro Villanueva). Literally. Daniel McCullers was an extremely raw prospect when the Steelers selected him in the 6th-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Standing 6’7″, 352 lbs., McCullers is the definition of a behemoth. The primary issue with McCullers has been his inability to stay low coming off the ball (which is hard for most players that stand at 6’7″) and his atrocious conditioning. McCullers has reportedly lost 12 lbs. this offseason, which should substantially help his ability to stay on the field when needed. The disappointing part of McCullers game is his lack of versatility, with his only true calling on the team being the nose tackle for the base 3-4 defense. The 3-4 defense has taken a bit of a back seat since Casey Hampton wore the black and gold, especially when considering that former Steeler Steve McLendon was far from your stereotypical nose tackle. The Steelers defense would greatly benefit from having the base 3-4 defense on the field just as often as their various sub-packages (where Hargrave will likely see most of the time on the field as a versatile pass-rushing defensive lineman). How often they use their base 3-4 will likely come down to how much progression McCullers shows throughout training camp.
Speaking of Hargrave, the rookie class has a chance to begin their journey in helping usher in the new era of the Steel Curtain. While 1st-round pick Artie Burns has a little ways to go before he is ready to make a true impact, early indications point towards Hargrave and 2nd-rounder Sean Davis having an impact right away this season. Most of this speculation will depend on how the preseason goes, but the Steelers seem content in giving the two players every opportunity to make their marks next to the other rising stars of the Steelers defense.
The defensive resurgence is coming. It’s only a matter of time.