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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, April 21, 2019 1:00 am

NFL Draft: Steelers

Defense might again be Steelers' top pick

WILL GRAVES | Associated Press

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1)

Last season: Late collapse following 7-2-1 start forced Pittsburgh to miss playoffs for first time since 2013 and set stage for wide receiver Antonio Brown's highly public divorce. Though Brown's decision to bail on teammates before Week 17 game against Cincinnati and churlish behavior in aftermath grabbed headlines, there was plenty of blame to go around for Pittsburgh's sluggish finish. Defense failed to create takeaways or get critical stops; kicker Chris Boswell dealt with significant case of “yips”; and while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led NFL in yards passing for first time, his 16 interceptions were also tops in the league.

Free agency: Despite having more money to spend than usual, Pittsburgh again took pragmatic approach on open market. Bolstered secondary by bringing in CB Steven Nelson from Kansas City, took another shot at filling void left by Ryan Shazier's back injury by signing LB Mark Barron from Rams, and added WR Donte Moncrief to take up some of slack created by Brown's departure.

Needs: CB, WR, OLB, OL.

Positions already solidified: QB, DL, S.

Possible first pick: LB Devin Bush, Michigan; CB Byron Murphy, Washington; CB DeAndre Baker, Georgia.

Outlook: While it might be tantalizing to grab wide receiver in first round, Steelers proved last year offense can move even without established stars. James Conner and rookie Jaylen Samuels thrived in absence of Le'Veon Bell. Finding true difference maker in secondary has to be top priority after Pittsburgh's defensive backs combined for just five interceptions. While LSU's Greedy Williams would be best fit, he'll likely be gone at No. 20, leaving Murphy and Baker – Jim Thorpe Award winner in 2018 as best defensive back in nation – as next best options.

PITTSBURGH – Antonio Brown is gone.

The Pittsburgh Steelers hope the drama the star wide receiver produced during his prolific, but occasionally problematic, stay followed him out the door.

And while general manager Kevin Colbert understands it will be difficult to replace such a vital part of one of the NFL's most prolific offenses, he's been around long enough to know that at some point everyone leaves. Finding the next wave is what he's paid to do.

“It's our job to try to make it work and patch it back together so we're not a non-playoff team (again),” Colbert said.

A non-playoff team is what the Steelers became during a late-season swoon that culminated in a 9-6-1 finish and set the stage for Brown pouting his way into a trade with Oakland.

While Pittsburgh's haul for the only player in NFL history with six straight 100-catch seasons – a third-round and a fifth-round selection – was modest, it did give the Steelers some flexibility when the draft begins Thursday.

Pittsburgh has 10 picks, including three in the top 66 and four in the top 83. It's the kind of depth that could allow the Steelers to trade up in the first round if they want or let them stockpile talent in an effort to address the problems that cropped up during a 2-4 finish, particularly an inability to take the ball away when it mattered. Pittsburgh produced just 15 turnovers in 2018, tied for third-fewest in the league.

It's a number that has to climb if the Steelers want to keep pace in a new-look AFC North in which the Cleveland Browns seem to have all the momentum.

Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin stressed the need for more “ballhawks” heading into 2019. Pittsburgh took a step in that direction by signing cornerback Steven Nelson – whose four interceptions in 2018 were just one less than the combined total by the Steelers' entire secondary – in free agency.

Still, more talent is needed, leading to the likelihood Pittsburgh will take a defensive player in the first round for a seventh straight year. The Steelers should have some solid options if they stick at the 20th pick.

While LSU's Greedy Williams figures to be off the board by the time Pittsburgh is on the clock, Washington's Byron Murphy and Georgia's DeAndre Baker – who captured the Jim Thorpe Award last season as the top cornerback in college football – will likely be available.

Of course, taking a cornerback for the second time in four years would be a sign that the Steelers swung and missed on Artie Burns, whom they selected 25th overall in 2016. Burns put together a solid rookie season but has tailed off significantly. He ended 2018 being used almost exclusively on special teams and Pittsburgh declined to pick up his fifth-year option.

Burns' struggle to stick is symbolic of Colbert's uneven track record when it comes to using high picks on defense.

For every T.J. Watt – who has 20 sacks in two seasons – there is a Burns, a Jarvis Jones or a Bud Dupree. Jones, the first-round pick in 2013, lasted just four years. Burns needs a quick turnaround to avoid “bust” status and Dupree has yet to post more than six sacks in a season.

Replacing Brown

The Steelers can afford to keep focusing on defense early in the draft because of their ability to find plug-and-play types in the later rounds on offense. Brown, after all, was a sixth-round pick in 2010.

James Conner, a third-rounder in 2017, and Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-rounder in 2018, were so productive in the backfield last season the Steelers hardly missed Le'Veon Bell, who sat the season out.

Pittsburgh added wide receiver Donte Moncrief as a free agent to play with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington. The Steelers could use another target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but figure to wait until they find a cornerback and a linebacker first.

Inside man

Colbert said the Steelers have yet to find a capable replacement for Ryan Shazier. The linebacker will sit out a second straight season while recovering from spinal surgery in December 2017. Jon Bostic, signed as a free agent last spring, was only so-so alongside veteran Vince Williams.

The Steelers signed longtime Rams starter Mark Barron in March, but Barron – who moved from safety to linebacker in 2015 – turns 30 in October. If the Steelers do opt to be aggressive and move up, it would almost certainly be an attempt to get an inside linebacker such as Michigan's Devin Bush.

Just for kicks

So many picks could give the Steelers some wiggle room late. Kicker Chris Boswell kept his job despite a disastrous 2018. Punter Jordan Berry's numbers were ordinary at best last fall. Using one of their final picks to provide Boswell or Berry with competition in camp is a possibility.