Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

The Steelers think they’re going to be pretty good in 2019.

How do we know this?

Look at what they did in the NFL Draft this weekend.

By trading their second-round pick this year along with a third-round selection next year for a swap of first-round picks with Denver to take linebacker Devin Bush, they showed they believe they are one player away from competing for a Super Bowl.

It also showed they realized their mistake of a year ago when they were unable to move up in the first round – they did try – to acquire one of the top inside linebackers in that draft.

The result of that mistake was a 9-6-1 record that saw the Steelers on the outside looking in at the playoffs for the first time since 2013. And it hasn’t sat well with the team from the top on down.

So, the Steelers made sure they addressed that glaring need Thursday night, price be damned.

In Bush, they get a player capable of making plays at all levels of the defense. They get a linebacker with excellent speed. They get a player capable of replacing Ryan Shazier.

It was a bold move and one that needed to be made.

“Devin was very high on our board,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “And as we said the other day when we did the pre-draft conference, if a player is high on your board and he gets within reach, then you make the necessary moves to go up and get him. Fortunately, we found a trade partner in Denver. But, really, it was where Devin was on our board. We thought that highly of him. I don’t want to say it was an easy trade to make, but it was easy in our minds to pick him with the 10th pick.”

The question has already been raised if Bush will be the starter on opening day when the Steelers play in New England against the Patriots. The answer, of course, is yes.

You don’t spend the draft capital the Steelers did and select a guy as high as they did to have him sit on the bench, even when you have a competent replacement in free-agent signee Mark Barron.

Bush is the highest-drafted defensive player taken by the Steelers since Rod Woodson went 10th overall in 1987. How did that work out?

Bush was rated as one of the top players, regardless of position, in this draft. Given what the Steelers gave up, he’d better be.

Despite being 9-6-1 last season, the Steelers didn’t have holes in their starting lineup. They took care of that in free agency, signing Barron, cornerback Steven Nelson and wide receiver Donte Moncrief.

The picks they made this weekend were for depth – or upside – with the exception of Bush.

• How did the Steelers do after taking Bush?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. The Steelers had some needs, and they do draft for need, regardless of what they say.

They did that in Rounds 2 and 3, taking wide receiver Diontae Johnson out of Toledo and cornerback Justin Layne of Michigan State.

Draft analysts might not have known a lot about Johnson, but NFL teams certainly did.

He’s got Antonio Brown-like qualities – the good ones.

And Layne is a big, physical cornerback who’s a very competitive athlete. He was expected to go in the late first round to early second round by the same draft analysts who didn’t have Johnson rated as high as where the Steelers took him.

Given the Steelers’ track record with receivers, you’d think they have a better idea than the pundits about how to judge players at that position.

  • Layne isn’t going to play much right away, but he gives the team a developmental cornerback with size in case Joe Haden starts to break down. Haden is, after all, 30 and heading into the final season of his contract. And he had injury issues in Cleveland, which is the reason the Browns released him right before the start of the 2017 season.
  • This won’t be popular, but running back Benny Snell, a fourth-round pick, could be James Conner’s eventual replacement.

As hard as it is to believe, Conner is already heading into his third season, so the Steelers will have a decision looming regarding his contract at this time next year.

Chances are, they’ll try to sign Conner to a new deal. But, as we saw recently, signing running backs to contract extensions can get dicey.

  • One thing the Steelers didn’t do was create more competition at the slot cornerback position.

The Steelers were unhappy with the production of Mike Hilton last season, believing he got picked on quite a bit late in the season. That’s where Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick in 2017, will compete for playing time.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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