With starting DL set, Steelers likely to pass on top talent in NFL Draft
The Steelers entered the offseason knowing they needed to make improvements at linebacker and in the secondary, and they have taken steps to do so in free agency, with reinforcements expected to come in the NFL Draft.
The defensive line, with starters Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt playing under lengthy contract extensions, figured to be more stable. Sure enough, the Steelers have made no changes so far there. All six players who were on the 53-man roster at the end of the season will return when offseason practices begin next month.
Still, given the way the 2017 season ended, the Steelers wouldn’t be blamed if they provided more beef to the defensive line with one of the seven picks they hold in this week’s draft. In the stunning 45-42 divisional-round playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Steelers defense was shredded for 164 yards rushing, and a unit that led the NFL in sacks during the regular season produced zero in the biggest game of the year.
Tuitt and nose tackle Javon Hargrave were slowed by injuries they suffered in the week leading up to the playoff game. Heyward, named to the All-Pro team for the first time, was a nonfactor against Jacksonville.
The only offseason change made along the line was off the field: the departure of longtime assistant coach John Mitchell, who was replaced by former Steelers draft pick Karl Dunbar. He was coaching the Alabama defensive line when he was offered a chance to return to the NFL.
Asked by the team website what he needs to make the line successful, Dunbar said succinctly, “You still need hostile, mobile, agile players.”
Heyward emerged as one of the league’s best at his position, leading the Steelers with 12 sacks. He has three seasons remaining on his contract. Tuitt was limited to three sacks as he missed nearly three full games with a biceps injury and two more with a back issue. The Steelers thought enough of him, though, to sign him to a six-year deal before the start of last season.
Hargrave has started since his rookie season in 2016 and has two more years remaining on his deal. Top backup Tyson Alualu returns, as does L.T. Walton. Underachieving nose tackle Daniel McCullers was re-signed for one more season.
“Watching these guys on film, they did a lot of outstanding things,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar spent the past two seasons at Alabama helping develop one of the most productive defensive lines in the nation. One of his former players, Da’Ron Payne, is expected to go in the middle of the first round on Thursday night. Another Crimson Tide lineman, defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, is projected to be taken on the second day of the draft.
Payne said he met formally with the Steelers at the NFL Combine.
“Coach Dunbar taught me a bunch of things, a bunch of technique things,” Payne said. “I love him. He teaches more outside of football, like life things.”
The consensus top defensive lineman in the draft is N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb, who could be among the top five picks. His college teammate, B.J. Hill, could be on the Steelers’ radar.
The Steelers hosted the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Hill on a pre-draft visit. They also met with LSU interior defensive lineman Greg Gilmore, who was not invited to the NFL Combine. The 6-3, 318-pound Gilmore had 71⁄2 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in 2017. In a 3-4 defense, he is capable of playing nose or on the end.
By the time the Steelers make their initial selection with the No. 28 overall pick, Chubb will be long gone and so will another defensive end, Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport.
Interior defensive linemen with first-round grades are Payne and Washington’s Vita Vea. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst and Florida’s Taven Bryan also are high on most draft lists and could be available when it’s the Steelers turn.
“I think the interior defensive line at the high end is outstanding,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.