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Post-Draft Stock Report: For the Steelers, Ryan Shazier cannot be replaced

The Steelers found a potential franchise player in Devin Bush, but they can never replace the man who preceded him

NFL: NFL Draft Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday evening, the Steelers vaporized my brainstem by packaging together a triad of draft picks and sending it westward to acquire Denver’s first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They subsequently used this pick, the 10th overall selection, to draft Devin Bush, a dynamic and multi-talented inside linebacker from Michigan who a non-zero number of Draft Knowers proclaimed to be one of the two or three most talented players in the entire prospect pool. Naturally, Bush’s inherent dynamism drew—and to this point has repeatedly drawn—favorable comparisons to Ryan Shazier; a player who, if we’re using sheer athletic prowess as a measuring stick (and it’s my blog, so I’m gonna), was among the league’s uppermost echelon of inside linebackers.

He “was” as in “when he was healthy” as in “before he suffered a brutal and catastrophic spinal injury during a game, which was broadcast to a national audience.” Shazier, as you are undoubtedly aware, has spent the past year and a half laboring intensely in order to re-learn the various physical mechanisms that made him such a covetable NFL prospect in the first place. The fact that he’s now walking at all is a testament to the marvels of modern medicine, but that he’s performing dead-lifts and box jumps a mere 18 months after being rendered temporarily paralyzed—and I say this without a shred of hyperbole—is remarkable and awe-inspiring.

Ryan Shazier is hellbent on one day returning to professional football, and, if that’s truly what he desires, I hope he does. The Steelers, to say nothing of the NFL more broadly, almost certainly feel likewise, as Shazier’s return would punctuate the comeback tale to end all comeback tales, a story of heartbreak, perseverance, and redemption. (In other words, there is profit to be made in leveraging Shazier’s heroics.) But the Steelers are nothing if not pragmatic, and on draft night they kept the grim but probable eventuality that Ryan Shazier may never return to professional football at the forefront of the decision-making process, which in turn led them to trade up in order to draft the player they wanted.

This is more than fine. Being adept in coverage is a baseline job requirement for inside linebackers, so drafting Bush would’ve made sense even if Shazier had never gotten injured in the first place. Much like pass rushers and cornerbacks, you can never have too many hybrid linebackers. But what kinda rubs me the wrong way is the way the word “replacement” is being used to discuss the circumstances that led to Bush’s recruitment. Ryan Shazier cannot be replaced, not his corporeal presence nor his specter. Devin Bush understands this as well as anyone.

“I think Ryan Shazier was a great player, still is and I hope to see him soon,” said Bush. “I wish all the best to Ryan Shazier with his recovery and I know he’s going to do well. I know he has the heart to and has the will to – he will be back.”

“I’m just ready to be Devin Bush. I’m not trying to compare myself to Ryan Shazier or anybody else. I’m going to come in and be Devin Bush.”

(That’s a PR-engineered response, of course, but the sincere candor with which it was delivered leads me to believe that Bush is a genuine and thoughtful young man.)

I know that Devin Bush has yet to play a single down, but I’m already impressed.

[Steps down from soapbox]

Stock report!

Stock up: The linebacking corps

Some actual analysis: Bush is awesome. Nearly everyone who regularly visits this blog had Bush on their wishlist, so the Steelers trading up 10 spots to get him feels like the pre-preseason equivalent of winning the Super Bowl.

What’s so great about Bush is that, in all likelihood, we’ll get to see him make an immediate impact. It’s easy to envision the Browns or Ravens or whoever pitching the ball outside on 3rd and 3, Bush diagnosing the play, selecting his angle of attack, and walloping the back into another plane of existence well short of the line to gain. I can imagine Bush feigning blitz, only to drop back in coverage and snare an interception, a tangible reward for his exemplary deceit. I can picture, vividly, Bush running downfield stride-for-stride with some beefy tight end and swatting the pass safely away at the last second.

With Bush, along with incumbent Vince Williams and newcomer Mark Barron, the Steelers finally have a respectable-looking inside linebacker corps, one that is versatile enough to do everything that Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator will ask them to do.

Stock down: Safety depth

Notably absent from Pittsburgh’s draft haul was a safety, which is a frightening development when considering that the depth chart includes Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Jordan Dangerfield (horrendous), and Marcus Allen (who has never played a down in the NFL). (They signed someone called Dravon Askew-Henry as an undrafted free agent, but that hardly counts as “addressing the position.”)

What’s interesting, though, is that Tomlin suggested that both Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton can play safety. I am totally into this idea! The Steelers currently find themselves with a surfeit of cornerbacks, so it makes sense that they’d toy with the idea of moving them around. Artie Burns is trash as a cornerback, but maybe he totally rules as a safety. It could be that Artie Burns is the next Ed Reed!

Of course, there exists the possibility that the Steelers neglecting to draft a safety was them hedging their bets that a veteran safety from another team will be released down the line.

Stock up: Big Ben

Diontae Johnson is an undersized and under-recruited but nonetheless talented and explosive receiver from the MAC. Hmmm...

Stock down: Benny Snell

I love that the Steelers picked Benny Snell, but I am very dubious of his enlistment yielding any observable results. Since 2014, when Le’Veon Bell emerged as a superstar, Mike Tomlin has steadfastly refused to adopt a running back by committee approach, instead opting to let one lead dog handle the bulk of the backfield duties. James Conner is a lesser version of Bell, but he’s still capable of doing a little bit of everything extremely well, so as long as he’s healthy, he will handle an overwhelming majority of the backfield touches. Snell is a nice player; I just question his utility.

What I would like to see happen is this: Conner remains the lead back, responsible for maybe 60 or 70 percent of the touches out of the backfield; Snell, meanwhile, handles the remaining 30 or 40 percent and Jaylen Samuels is moved to H-back or tight end. This will not happen.

Stock down: Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry

Not surprisingly, the Steelers signed a pair of specialists from the post-draft scrap heap. Boswell and Berry are gonna have to earn their jobs this summer.

Stock down: The Steelers

I’m not really in the business of handing out draft grades, but I think the Steelers did pretty well. Not drafting a safety, in my opinion, is completely bonkers and irresponsible (I look to round four, in which the Steelers passed on highly-regarded safety Deionte Thompson in favor of Snell, a player who, as mentioned above, may struggle to find playing time in his rookie season), but trading up to snag Bush was a home run and both Johnson and fifth-round pick Zach Gentry could play very prominent roles in 2019. This isn’t about what the Steelers did or failed to do, but more about what the Ravens and Browns, the Steelers primary competition in the AFC North, managed to do.

The Browns, despite not having a first-round pick, got a player in Greedy Williams who a number of pundits and Draft Knowers pegged as first-round talent. They did well to address other positions of need with their remaining picks (their fifth-round pick, Mack Wilson, is a player I loved a whole bunch) and built promisingly on what on paper is one of the three or four most-talented rosters in the AFC. The Ravens, meanwhile, rounded out their offense by drafting two potential starters in Marquise Brown and Ben Powers as well as big-bodied receiver Miles Boykin and speedy running back Justice Hill. I was disgusted by the Hill pick, because he working in concert with Lamar Jackson is going to present some logistical difficulties. For good measure, the Ravens drafted Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who some analysts suggested could play a Julian Edelman-type role for Baltimore. That’s the worst sentence I’ve ever written.

The Steelers’ foremost concern obviously should be getting back on track after falling apart down the stretch last season and making the most of Big Ben’s fleeting prime years, and that’s a mighty task in an of itself, but the Ravens and Browns made it that much harder.