For each and every day of this NFL offseason, Steelers fans have vilified Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for being culprits in a 9-6-1 season that ended with no playoffs. But now it’s time to thank them. Both of them. Because if it wasn’t for them, the Steelers never would’ve been able to get themselves into position to draft Devin Bush.
Ever since Ryan Shazier sustained an injury to his spine in that Dec. 4, 2017 game in Cincinnati against the Bengals, the Steelers have been trying to find a way to replace what Shazier was able to give them on the second level of their defense. In basic terms, that would be a three-down linebacker capable of moving sideline-to-sideline to make plays, a guy who is asset against the run, can cover, and can be effective attacking the quarterback on a blitz.
In Bush, the Steelers believe they got what they needed/wanted.
“Succinctly, he’s an all situations linebacker,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “Really a three-down type of guy vs. the run, vs. the pass, being in coverage, or in pressures. And those are just the tangible things. We are equally as fired up about his intangibles. He comes from a football family. He’s a football guy. Everyone speaks very highly of him, not only as a player, but as a person. His leadership skills are unquestioned. We interviewed a lot of Michigan players through the draft process and it was unanimous in terms of who their unquestioned leader was, and that was attractive to us as well. The position he plays is like a defensive quarterback, and I think that’s something that comes very natural to him.”
Going all the way back to the college all-star games, it became apparent to the NFL talent evaluators that there would be only two top-tier linebackers fitting that description, and their names were Devin White and Devin Bush. Or as the Steelers viewed them all along: Devin Bush and Devin White.
Tomlin is known as a coach who whole-heartedly embraces the getting-to-know-them phase of the pre-draft process, and he and Colbert log thousands and thousands of air miles crisscrossing the country attending college pro days and gathering information wherever and however they can. Talking to candidates over dinner. Talking to last year’s players about who were going to be this year’s guys. And in Bush’s case, getting a chance to watch him warm-up and play in a game the year before he became eligible for the draft.
Tomlin was in Ann Arbor with his oldest son on a recruiting trip, and while the trip didn’t result in a scholarship offer from the Wolverines it did give the Steelers coach something of an advance look at a player who would end up very high on his wish list. As it turned out, Dino Tomlin ended up with a football scholarship to the University of Maryland, and Dino’s dad ended up with his three-down linebacker.
“Coach had a handle on him really coming into this season,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “We scouted him extensively. We had four different people go in during the fall, myself included. We saw him play live games, we visited with him at the Combine, we visited with him the night before his pro day and of course attended his pro day. Again, this is a quality young man who’s really an excellent football player. As an inside linebacker, his game is really predicated on what is needed to play the position in modern day NFL football because he can not only play the run, but he’s got exceptional cover abilities, and he can also rush the passer. So we’re very, very exciting that we were able to move up and to be able to get a young player, a young man, like Devin Bush.”
Identifying the guy they wanted was only one part of the Steelers’ job, because as Colbert mentioned the other part was getting up high enough to have a chance to pick Bush. What Colbert knew for sure was that there was no chance they would have that chance if they stayed at No. 20 in the first round.
That teams have come to covet defensive playmakers, and the limited number of certain difference-makers available again was showcased during Thursday’s first round.
Of the first five picks, one was a quarterback and four were defensive players, with one of those four being White from LSU, which meant Bush was the lone all-situations inside linebacker left just five picks into the three-day draft. Of the first nine picks, two were quarterbacks, one was a tight end (huh?) and the other six were defensive players. Clearly, there weren’t enough quarterbacks left, there weren’t enough tight ends left, there weren’t going to be enough what-are-they-thinking picks to push Bush down to No. 20.
And so the Steelers knew they had to make a move, and thanks to AB and Le’Veon, they had the ammunition they needed to have a chance to make something happen when they decided to pull the trigger.
“Fortunately, we found a trade partner in Denver,” said Colbert, “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. So we did what we had to do.”
Colbert said the Steelers wanted to make the trade, but they wanted to make the trade and still have two picks on Day 2 of this draft, which is when the second and third rounds are to be conducted.
The trade of Brown to the Raiders netted the Steelers a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, and since the Raiders have the second pick in the third round, that third-round pick is the 66th overall and the Steelers’ second-round pick was scheduled to be the 52nd overall. Their own third-round pick is the 83rd overall, and there is some belief that the loss of Bell, plus Jesse James and L.J. Fort, all as unrestricted free agents could net the Steelers a third-round compensatory pick in 2020.
With that bounty to work with, the Steelers felt capable of using their second-round pick this year and their third-round pick next year as bait to trade up into the 10th overall spot in this first round to get Bush, while essentially still having what amounts to a very late second-round pick – 64th overall is officially the last pick in the second round – and a third-round pick this year, plus what they expect will be a third-round compensatory pick next year. There was a cost to doing business with the Broncos to move up to pick Bush, but because of the trade with the Raiders and the anticipated return for losing Bell, they didn’t see the cost as prohibitive.
“When we gave away the second-round pick, the thing that allowed us to do that was having that high third-round pick,” said Colbert. “We actually gave up 14 spots between that No. 2 and that high No. 3, which really enabled us to do it because we said under no circumstances would we go into (Friday) with fewer than two picks. That was our criteria. Surely we’ll look into trading up, but we want to have two picks (Friday) because there are good players still left. So being able to do it with this year’s No. 2 and next year’s No. 3 (made it doable), because we believe at this point we’ll have some type of compensatory pick in 2020. So that gives you a little bit more justification for trading away the future pick.”
And that, boys and girls, is how a wide receiver who quit on his team and a running back who refused to accept the best contract offer he got helped the Steelers get Devin Bush, the guy they believe is the best three-down linebacker in this draft.