The Steelers added a potential star to their defense in the 2019 draft. 10th overall pick Devin Bush Jr. has yet to play a single snap in an NFL game, so where does he land in the Steelers IDP tiers?
The Steelers have a proud tradition on defense. Over the last 50 years they have produced some of the best defensive players to ever play the game. Even the casual NFL fan may have heard of Steelers icons such as ‘Mean’ Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Troy Polamalu.
Can any of the current Steelers defensive players measure up to the standards set by these Steelers legends? In this article, I will break down the 2019 fantasy-relevant Steelers defenders into tiers. Hopefully this will provide a little clarity around which Steelers players to target in upcoming IDP drafts. I present the Steelers IDP tiers.
Tier 1 – Draft Targets
OLB/EDGE T.J. Watt
2018 stats: 68 Tackles (50 solo), 13 sacks, 21 QB Hits, 12 TFLs, 6 FFs, 3 PDs.
2019 Projected Stats: 63 Tackles (48 solo), 15 sacks, 23 QB Hits, 14 TFLs, 4 FFs, 4 PDs.
It was difficult choosing a tier for Watt. He plays primarily an an OLB, LOLB to be exact. Unfortunately, in most standard IDP scoring formats, OLBs tend to be devalued relative to ILBs.
However, in leagues which use EDGE positions, and for any sack premium scoring systems, Watt is a valuable asset. As such formats seem to be increasing in popularity, Watt undoubtedly belongs in the Steelers IDP tier 1.
If you need convincing, check out these stats:
- Only 4 players in the NFL registered 65 or more combined tackles and at least 10 sacks in 2018. Danielle Hunter, DeForest Buckner, Calais Campbell and? You guessed it, Watt.
- Per PFF, Watt’s 90.1 pass rush grade over the last 7 games of 2018 ranks 2nd in the NFL.
- Watt registered 13 sacks in 2018, ranking 8th in the NFL. What’s more, every other player who registered 13 or more sacks had more pass rush attempts than Watt did.
- 3 of his 5 best career overall defensive grades came in the last 4 games of the 2018 season. As good as Watt is already, he is still improving.
- Watt forced 6 fumbles in 2018, just one behind league-leaders JJ Watt and Dee Ford with 7.
I expect the 2019 pro bowler to stack successful year after successful year in this league.
ILB Devin Bush
2018 Stats: N/A. Rookie
2019 Projected Stats: 118 Tackles (84 solo), 4 Sacks, 9 QB Hits, 11 TFLs, 4 FFs, 8 PDs.
The former Michigan star was a big need for the Steelers’ defense. GM Kevin Colbert’s excitement was palpable while discussing the process of scouting and ultimately, selecting Bush with the no.10 pick overall. They wanted him badly and even moved up in the draft to make sure they got their man.
Bush provides the sideline-to-sideline presence that the Steelers have missed since the tragic injury suffered by the inspirational Ryan Shazier. Bush exhibits many of the same traits as Shazier, embodying all that is expected of a modern linebacker. Although he is yet to play a down in the NFL, he was a no-brainer for the Steelers IDP tier 1.
So what makes him so special? (No, it isn’t his dress sense)
It begins with elite athleticism. He blew up the combine, going toe-to-toe with fellow linebacker Devin White in almost all disciplines (and beating him in some). Bush’s 4.43 40-yard dash was good enough for 2nd, beaten only by White and by just 0.01s. Bush’s 40.5 inch vert was the best among all linebackers. He was 5th in the 3-cone and 3rd in the broad jump too. Unsurprisingly, his SPARQ score of 144 was among the highest at the linebacker position. You get the idea.
Here is how he compares to other linebackers, courtesy of PlayerProfiler.com:
It is interesting to note that PlayerProfiler list Bobby Wagner as Bush’s closest comparison.
Bush is more than just an athlete. He had a hugely productive college ‘career’. Over the span of the 2017 and 2018 seasons he registered 161 tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, 11 passes defended and 1 interception. His fine play in 2018 led to him earning with the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.
Finally, he seems to have the mental aspect of the game down too. As the son of former NFL player and 2x Super Bowl participant Devin Bush Sr, Bush Jr. appears to be as prepared for the rigors of the NFL as a rookie can be. He had a tough upbringing, his father pushed him hard and demanded excellence at all times. It seemed to instill a mental fortitude and work ethic that should serve him well.
If you’re interested in a deep-dive into Bush’s background, I urge you to read the thoroughly superb article by NFL reporter @JimTrotter_NFL here
Tier 2 – Depth Players
Vince Williams– Linebacker*
2018 Stats: 76 tackles (50 solo), eight tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two passes defended, one interception and one touchdown.
Vince Williams has embraced his starting role with the Steelers and proven to be very valuable. Last season you saw a slight dip in his numbers but I attribute that to him having to play the LB1 role for the Steelers. His first year as a full-time starter he played alongside Ryan Shazier and put up career highs across the board including 88 total tackles, 11 for a loss, and eight sacks. Here is a great clip of how Williams explains how Shazier pushed him to new heights:
The arrival of @RyanShazier pushed Vince Williams to his limits.
What started as a competition turned into motivation.
And a friendship that will last a lifetime.
— NFL (@NFL) January 17, 2018
All Williams hard work is put on display and is now teamed up with yet another rangy linebacker in Devin Bush. I fully expect Williams to be able to blitz much more now as he did in 2017. His work ethic is tremendous and I expect him to keep getting better.
2019 Projected Stats: 90 total tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, six sacks, one pass defended and two fumble recoveries.
Let’s play a game. Before I dig into Heyward’s 2018 numbers, how many tackles and sacks do you think Heyward has in the last 2 years combined?
2017 + 2018 combined stats: 96 Tackles, 20 Sacks.
Were you surprised? Did you guess lower? If the answer to those questions is yes, don’t worry, unless you’re a Steelers fan you’re probably in the majority. I’ll be the first to admit that I probably underrate Heyward, certainly from a fantasy perspective anyway.
The truth is that Heyward has been one of the most productive interior linemen in the NFL for the last 6 years. He toils on what is often a 3-man front and has done so admirably. Although he recently turned 30 he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, he ranks 10th overall in pressures among all interior defensive linemen in the last 3 years:
Highest pressure percentage, interior D-Linemen (2015-18):
1. Aaron Donald 17.8%
2. Geno Atkins 14.8
3. Fletcher Cox 14.2
4. Chris Jones 13.3
5. Sheldon Richardson 12.6
6. Malik Jackson 12.3
7. Mike Daniels 12.1
8. Kawann Short 11.4
9. Jurrell Casey 11.0
10. Cameron Heyward 10.9
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) July 24, 2019
Look for Heyward to have another productive year, putting up high-end DE2 numbers once again. His projections actually lean more towards the upper side of the Steelers IDP tier 2 than they do does the lower end. In fact, I wouldn’t put up much of an argument with anyone who insisted he belonged in the bracket above this one.
2018 Stats: 51 Tackles (29 solo), 8 Sacks, 18 QB Hits, 10 TFLs, 3 PDs.
2019 Projected stats: 53 Tackles, (32 solo), 10 Sacks, 20 QB Hits, 13 TFLs, 2 PDs.
Tier 3 – Rotation Players
2018 Stats: 78 Tackles (55 solo), 1 Sack, 3 QB Hits, 1 TFL, 4 PDs, 1 Int 1 FR.
2019 Projected stats: 82 Tackles (56 solo), 1 Sack, 4 QB Hits, 3 TFL, 5 PDs, 2 Ints.
Edmunds has a bit of an enigma to date. He has the pedigree of a quality safety, yet he was probably drafted a little too highly. Even some die-hard Steelers fans were left puzzled by his first-round selection in the 2018 draft.
In fairness to Edmunds, he improved slightly over the course of the season and showed promise at times. Year 2 will be huge for him. If he continues to play similarly then the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder.
I think he’ll improve as he continues to master the position. Remember, he was moved between linebacker, safety and corner while at Virginia Tech. It is perhaps not surprising that he is still finding his feet a little.
OLB Bud Dupree
2018 Stats: 42 Tackles (30 solo), 5.5 Sacks, 13 QB Hits, 8 TFL, 3 PDs, 1 Int 1 FF.
2019 Projected stats: 38 Tackles (26 solo), 6 Sacks, 16 QB Hits, 7 TFL, 2 PDs, 1 FF.
Dupree was fortunate to make this list at all. Much like Edmunds, he hasn’t necessarily been poor, but he has fallen short of the expectancy that comes with being a 1st round pick. Unlike Edmunds, Dupree has had ample opportunity to improve and yet has still fallen short of what the Steelers hoped they were getting.
The lack of progression is what causes more concern than anything else. Dupree had a promising rookie year, admittedly missed time in his sophomore year, but barely improved on his rookie numbers in years 3 and 4.
The 2019 season will define how Dupree’s career projects going forward. The Steelers bet Dupree’s $9m 2019 salary on the idea that he could take that next step in his development.
2018 Stats: 45 Tackles (27 solo), 5.5 Sacks, 20 QB Hits, 7 TFL, 4 PDs.
2019 Projected stats: 47 Tackles (30 solo), 5 Sacks, 14 QB Hits, 9 TFL, 3 PDs, 1 FF.
Tuitt may be the best player in this Steelers IDP tier 3. He is undervalued in much the same way as Heyward, perhaps because they are both bigger bodied DE’s who play in a base 3-4. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, this doesn’t always translate into fantasy value.
I often find Tuitt on the waiver wire in leagues with smaller roster sizes, I always feel good picking him up as a bye week replacement. He is unlikely to win you a title, but would any DE3? He is ranked the no.30 DE in our IDPGuys consensus July rankings.
Given that Tuitt has performed at a steady rate in each of his 5 seasons in the league, it would be fair to assume more of the same is in store going forward. While that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, there is some reason for optimism that Tuitt’s best days are ahead of him.
Firstly, and perhaps surprisingly for some, he has only recently turned 26, his best years should still be ahead of him. Secondly, and pivoting nicely into my Sleeper section, Tuitt has a better player at NT than he has had at any point in his career to date (a season separated Tuitt’s rookie season and Casey Hampton‘s retirement). That player?..
2018 Stats: 49 Tackles (32 solo), 6.5 Sacks, 8 QB Hits, 6 TFL, 1 PD.
2019 Projected stats: 54 Tackles (35 solo), 5.5 Sacks, 11 QB Hits, 8 TFL, 2 PDs, 1 FF.
Hargrave has the potential to jump a tier by the end of the season.
His PFF Pass rush productive rating ranked 20th among all interior defensive linemen with at least 100 pass rush attempts. What makes that even more impressive is that Hargrave plays predominantly as a nose tackle, whereas almost every other player above him on that list is predominantly a DT in a 4-man front, or an DE in a 3-man front.
It will be very interesting to see whether Hargrave can maintain his 2018 production going forward. He will be given the opportunity to try. Prior to week 9, Hargrave did not register more than 40% of defensive snaps in a single game. After week 9, he never played less than 40% of defensive snaps in a game.
Despite these positives, I still have Hargrave in the Steelers sleeper tier for now. Not because I don’t think he’s a good player but because I have questions about whether he can maintain his sack numbers. While 6.5 sacks is very impressive, 13 hurries is a little on the low side. That sort of ratio would be hard to maintain. That point, together with the fact that NTs are not typically fantasy relevant, means Hargrave remains one to watch for now.
Check out the Steelers Offensive Tiers here by the excellent Jason Kamlowsky of Dynasty Football Digest. Jason is a huge Steelers fan so his article is definitely worth a read. You can also hear Jason’s views on the Steelers 2019 season on this recent IDPGuys podcast.
*contributions by Joseph Haggan
Thanks for reading. If you liked my IDP Guys article, make sure to follow me on Twitter @FFIDP_Jase and share any feedback you have. While there also follow @IDPGuys and @DynastyFBDigest if you aren’t already. Remember to tune into the weekly IDP Guys podcast and check out the IDP Guys Youtube Channel too.