Seven days to Latrobe: Room for rookies? ☕


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Diontae Johnson -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

No team ever comes out of a draft talking badly about its most recent class. It's always rainbows and butterflies, future Pro Bowl trips and Super Bowls.

But after trading up to the 10th pick to acquire Devin Bush in this year's draft, the Steelers are more bullish than usual about their 2019 rookie class.

And that bullish feeling goes way beyond Bush, the Steelers' highest drafted defensive player since they took Rod Woodson 10th in 1987. The Steelers feel good about this draft class from top to bottom.

It's a given Bush will be a contributor on this team in 2019 and beyond. The bigger question is what we can expect from the rest of this year's rookie class.

The Steelers will start to figure that out a week from today when they report to training camp at Saint Vincent College.

The team had nine draft picks this year and draft picks equal cheap labor. A team that finds itself tight against the salary cap as it heads to training camp can use all of the cheap labor it can get.

But finding spots for nine draft picks? That might be a bit much to ask.

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"We're going to cut some guys this year that will wind up playing somewhere else this season," special teams coordinator Danny Smith said.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. It means the Steelers feel they have a deep roster. But it also means not all of their nine draft picks are going to make it in Pittsburgh, as well.

What's the prognosis for this class beyond Bush? Let's take a look.

The Steelers didn't have a second-round draft pick. That went to the Broncos in the trade up to acquire Bush. But they did have two third-round selections thanks to the Antonio Brown trade.

They used their first third-round pick on receiver Diontae Johnson of Toledo, then addressed a need at cornerback later in the round with Justin Layne of Michigan State.

Both are assured roster spots, but regular playing time could be a different matter.

Johnson has drawn raves from teammates for his route running and explosiveness on the field, but figures to begin the season as no better than the No. 4 receiver and return man, unless he has an unprecedented training camp and preseason.

"He runs some really crisp routes," corner Joe Haden said. "He is natural. He is fast. He comes out of his breaks really well. He has been impressive.”

The same could be said of Layne, a 6-foot-2 corner, who several draft analysts gave a first-round grade. Layne got his hands on a lot of passes during the offseason workouts. But because of his size, he's strictly worked as an outside corner, where Haden and free-agent signing Steven Nelson are the starters and former first-round pick Artie Burns and third-year corners Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen also line up.

Where Layne falls in the pecking order after Haden and Nelson will provide a big storyline in this camp, as the Steelers declined to pick up a fifth-year option on Burns, who will now be playing out the final year of his rookie contract. Allen, a former fifth-round draft pick, also has size, but little in terms of playing experience.

Sutton can play the slot, as well as outside, giving him the position flexibility the Steelers covet, but the team doesn't figure to keep more than six cornerbacks, with nickel man Mike Hilton also guaranteed a roster spot.

Benny Snell, a running back taken in the fourth round, also would seem to be guaranteed a roster spot, if only because of the position he plays. The former Kentucky star would really have to flop in training camp to not have a spot along with starter James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and fullback Rosie Nix.

Snell showed better-than-advertised receiving skills in offseason workouts and is a powerful runner, much like Conner. The idea could be for him to be the true No. 2 back behind Conner, while Samuels serves as more of a third-down back to take advantage of his skills as a receiver.

After those four, things get really interesting for the remaining five draft picks: Fifth-round tight end Zach Gentry, sixth-rounders Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert, both linebackers, and defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, and seventh-round selection Derwin Gray, an offensive lineman.

Gray would seem to have the longest odds to make the roster, as he joins an offensive line group that goes nine deep in players who have at least been on the team's active roster for a season. An offensive tackle at Maryland, Gray worked primarily at guard in the offseason and would seem to be destined for the practice squad, where he can gain more seasoning.

The player with the best shot of making the roster might be Buggs because of the position he plays, though Gentry also has a solid shot at tight end.

With the Steelers not bringing back L.T. Walton this offseason, they have a roster opening along their defensive line. The position is crowded with contenders, most of whom have bounced around the league for a year or two. They include holdover Lavon Hooks, who spent last season on the practice squad, and Casey Sayles, who was released at the end of camp last year, and newcomers Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Winston Craig and Conor Sheahy.

Craig and Sayles are nose-tackle prospects, though if they can show they can play outside, it could give them a leg up on Buggs. But they are more competition for Daniel McCullers than they are Buggs.

Gentry was drafted to help replace Jesse James, who signed as a free agent with the Lions. Gentry, a former Michigan quarterback before converting to tight end, has outstanding size at 6-foot-8, 265 pounds, but needs to quickly learn the nuances of blocking in the NFL. He won't simply outsize people as he did in college.

Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble have the top two tight end spots locked up. But first-year pro Kevin Rader, a Youngstown State product who went to camp with the Packers last season, also opened some eyes in the offseason program. International player Christian Scotland-Williamson and tight end/longsnapper Trevor Wood also are hanging around to give Gentry competition. And the Steelers also could choose to simply use an additional offensive lineman to make some of their multiple tight end packages work, if Gentry doesn't show well.

The two linebacker prospects, meanwhile, are tied closely to what they can do on special teams, though Smith also took snaps as a fullback in the spring. Though Smith is technically an outside linebacker and Gilbert an inside, they could be fighting for the same roster spot.

Both Smith and Gilbert are undersized, speedy players who have the potential to be good covering kicks.

"There’s a key word there, potential," Danny Smith said. "And a guy told me a long time ago about potential, it means you aren’t worth a (thing) today. Don’t let them put that potential tag on you. In all seriousness, we’ve got a lot of prospects. We really do. Our draft was outstanding. We got a lot of guys that lack experience, but they have the ability and talent level. It’s my job to coach them and teach them. It’s their job to learn the skill level. We got a lot of guys in that draft that can help."

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