PITTSBURGH (AP) – The high-powered offense is in place. The Pittsburgh Steelers know this. The defense coming off its worst statistical season in nearly a quarter century, not so much.
So the Steelers spent the NFL draft throwing young athletic bodies at the problem, hoping something sticks. It might not take much for a team that finished two games shy of the Super Bowl last winter. Pittsburgh used its top three picks and five of its seven overall selections in the draft to revamp a unit that ranked 30th against the pass and 21st overall in 2015, well off the club’s typical spot in the top 10.
“If we get our defense back to where we used to be, we’ll have the pieces to do something special,” outside linebackers coach Joey Porter said.
The Steelers believe they took another significant step during the draft, grabbing cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, safety Sean Davis in the second, defensive lineman Javon Hargrave in the third, linebacker Travis Feeney in the sixth and linebacker Tyler Matakevich in the seventh.
While they all played in different schemes and systems – including Hargraves, who played at South Carolina State – they all had one thing in common: they were highly productive when they were on the field. Burns led the ACC in interceptions, Davis is one of the top tacklers in Maryland history, Hargraves had 37.5 sacks in his college career, Feeney was third in the Pac-12 last fall in sacks and tackles for loss for Washington while Matakevich is Temple’s all-time leading tackler.
There will be plenty of opportunities for them to make an immediate impact in Pittsburgh. Burns and Davis will be in the mix to start as part of a new-look secondary while Hargraves could be a key reserve on the defensive front as the Steelers search for opportunities to provide a rotation deep enough to give ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt an occasional breather.
The team that used to bring rookies along slowly has become more willing to let them learn on the job. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree, the team’s top pick in 2015, started five games last year. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, the 15th overall choice in 2014, started five games that fall and a dozen last season.
While Tomlin isn’t quite ready to write in Davis or Burns atop the depth chart, he’s not ruling it out either.
“It’s realistic,” Tomlin said. “That’s why they were chosen where they were chosen.”
Pittsburgh also grabbed LSU tackle Jerald Hawkins in the fourth round, more impressed with Hawkins’ potential than the NFL draft advisory board, who told the 22-year-old to return to the Tigers for his senior season. Instead, Hawkins will be in Pittsburgh in a few weeks at the team’s rookie minicamp.
“In all honesty he came out ahead of schedule,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We understand where he is. There’s tremendous upside … he’s not complete by any stretch.”
Hawkins, like most of the players in Pittsburgh’s 2016 draft class, is versatile. He worked at both right tackle and left tackle at LSU. He’ll likely serve as a “swing” tackle for the Steelers, who have Marcus Gilbert entrenched at right tackle but will enter organized team activities with the job of protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side decidedly more unsettled.
Alejandro Villanueva – a former Army Ranger who spent time in Afghanistan before beginning his NFL career – filled in quite nicely over the second-half of the 2015 season when Kelvin Beachum went down with a knee injury. The Steelers also signed veteran Ryan Harris to a two-year deal in March while Beachum signed as a free agent with Jacksonville.
The Steelers picked up Houston wide receiver Demarcus Ayers in the seventh but it’s unlikely Ayers will crack a group that includes All-Pro Antonio Brown. Ayers’ best chance to make the team will be as a punt returner, a job that’s gone to Brown off and on over the years, mainly because Pittsburgh can’t find a capable replacement.
Pittsburgh relies heavily on the draft rather than throwing money around on the open market. The Steelers also love finding under-the-radar talent (Brown was a sixth-rounder, Beachum a seventh-rounder). They believe they’ve done the same with the 6-4, 226-pound Feeney, whose quickness wowed Porter almost as the fact he was still available so late.
“I was sitting at home thinking nothing was going to come,” Feeney admitted.
When Tomlin called to break the news Feeney was heading to Pittsburgh, Feeney thought it was a prank. It wasn’t.
“It’s freaking awesome,” Feeney said.
The joy will soon be tempered by the reality of joining a team where the faces change but the expectations don’t. The Steelers weren’t that far off from being a Super Bowl team in 2015.
“If these guys help us win a championship, they worked out,” Colbert said. “It’s the only way we can evaluate every class. We’ll see come February if it worked out.”
(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)