Ranking the 2019 Draft Class Headed Into Year 2

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By: John Walker, @realjohnwalker

With the 2020 season approaching quickly, the Pittsburgh Steelers are hard at work at Heinz Field during this unconventional training camp experience. With the rookie class being at such a disadvantage due to the absence of the usual offseason programs, it’ll be interesting to see how that effects the second year players who attempt to build on their rookie campaigns as well. The Steelers will be relying heavily on several of their second year players entering this upcoming season. But who stands where? Now with their first full season in the books, let’s take a look at that highly anticipated draft class from last year and currently rank them accordingly.

9. Sutton Smith (6th Round, 175th Overall)

Being the only member from this draft class that is no longer with the team, Smith lands at #9 by default. The Steelers thought they may have had a diamond in the rough with Smith, but an injury early in training camp put him behind from the start and created a deficit that was too big to make up. He was eventually brought back for a brief one week stint on the practice squad, but was released again. He also spent some time on Seattle’s practice squad, but has since been released yet again and is currently a free agent.

8. Derwin Gray (7th Round, 219th Overall)

The final pick of last year’s draft, Gray didn’t get to make an impact on the offensive line in his rookie season. He battled an injury early and spent the entire year on the practice squad. Gray is back fully healthy and is looking to compete for a 53 man roster spot as part of a unit that said goodbye to both Ramon Foster and BJ Finney this offseason, but welcomed rookie Kevin Dotson and veteran Stefen Wisniewski.

7. Zach Gentry (5th Round, 141st Overall)

Gentry didn’t contribute much last season, and based off this offseason’s key addition of Eric Ebron, it makes you wonder how many opportunities he’s going to get this year as well. He totaled just 1 catch for 4 yards, and was stuck at 3rd on the depth chart. He will spend this season there again barring an injury to either Vance McDonald or Ebron, but he’s worth keeping around for exactly that reason. This is an important camp for Gentry’s growth.

6. Justin Layne (3rd Round, 83rd Overall)

The third player the Steelers took off the board, Layne didn’t play a single defensive snap last season. However, he did play on special teams and replaced former 1st round pick Artie Burns as the gunner on that unit where he totaled just 3 tackles. Unfortunately for Layne, he found himself on the NFL’s COVID19 list to start the year. With already no training camp, OTA’s, or preseason, it’s going to be very hard for Layne to make a leap and be anything more than a special teams player again this year. Luckily for him though, Pittsburgh didn’t add any corner backs to their roster this offseason.

5. Isaiah Buggs (6th Round, 192nd Overall)

Buggs appeared in 8 games last season for the Steelers. He totaled 3 tackles as a rotational player on a defensive line that lost a very talented Stephon Tuitt with a season ending injury. With Tuitt back this year, it’ll be interesting to see where Buggs remains in the shuffle. He has great mentors in front of him, and Buggs is a guy that I think will stick around for a awhile. The depth on the defensive line is better now than it has been in several years.

4. Ulysees Gilbert III (6th Round, 207th Overall)

One of my favorite players on the team and a guy I’ve been very high on since the Steelers selected him in the 6th round last season. Gilbert flashed all preseason, and quickly carved out a key role on special teams once the season got started. Up until he suffered a season ending back injury, no player had more special teams snaps than UG3. With the departure of Mark Barron, it’s a safe bet that Gilbert will take the next step and become a contributor on the defensive side of the ball this season. Training camp will be very important for him, and there’s nobody I’m more excited about. Gilbert has a chance to be one of the best value picks of his entire draft class.

3. Benny Snell Jr. (4th Round, 122nd Overall)

The Kentucky product is the prototype of a Pittsburgh Steeler running back. He earned more playing time down the stretch last season and finished the year with 426 yards rushing with 2 touchdowns. Injuries to some other guys gave him the opportunity to even make a couple starts. Although assuming he’ll start the year as the primary backup, I’m not exactly sure exactly how the touches will be spread between the crowded running back room in Pittsburgh. Aside from signing free agent Wendell Smallwood, the Steelers also drafted another running back in the middle rounds this offseason in Anthony McFarland Jr. He and Snell (who should improve in the passing game) have very different styles however, and I don’t think either of these guys’ roles in the offense will effect the other’s. I’m banking on him taking the same noticeable leap in year two like both LeVeon Bell and James Conner recently have. With durability issues being a concern in that running back rotation, we may get to see another large dose of Benny Snell Football this upcoming year. I’m here for it.

2. Diontae Johnson (3rd Round, 66th Overall)

Despite the disrespect from the national media when compared to the other rookie wide receivers last year, Johnson had a better season than most of the other guys in his draft class. DJ did it all for the Steelers. He totaled 59 catches, 680 yards, and 5 touchdowns despite subpar quarterback play for majority of the season. He also tallied 41 rushing yards and took over as Pittsburgh’s punt returner in which he returned one for a touchdown. He was named a 2nd-Team All-Pro for his performance as a returner. Johnson is absolutely electric. He led all wide receivers in the league in both average separation yards and forced missed tackles. With Ben Roethlisberger’s return to Pittsburgh’s offense, the ceiling for Diontae Johnson is sky high. He’s poised to break out for a huge year and I’m confident that DJ will take his game to the next level here in his sophomore season. Johnson is a budding superstar.

1. Devin Bush Jr. (1st Round, 10th Overall)

The Steelers made the decision to trade up to draft Bush, and it’s one that paid immediate dividends for Kevin Colbert & company. It appears as one that will continue to pay them for years to come. Bush came in and made an immediate impact for the Steelers. The star linebacker was everything as advertised and notched 109 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 4 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, 4 fumble recoveries, and 1 touchdown. He was the speedy difference maker the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense has been missing since it lost Ryan Shazier. Bush flashed on tape on a consistent basis, and with a full year under his belt, his second season has potential to be even better. I’m expecting to Bush to take the next step and create a buzz for himself that puts him in the top echelon of linebackers. No doubt Bush is trending towards becoming an All-Pro and being the centerpiece of a great Steelers defense for years to come.

So there we have it. Headed into the 2020 season that is where I believe the players of our 2019 draft class rank amongst each other. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds here in the upcoming weeks and I look forward to seeing them all contribute here in year two. But now we want to hear from you! Tell us #SteelerNation, how would you rank them?

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