After the Pittsburgh Steelers selected defensive lineman Carlos Davis out of the University of Nebraska in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft, I started to recall the Steelers other late-round draft picks at the position in recent seasons. After further study, I found the Steelers have drafted at least one defensive lineman in all but one draft over the last 12 years. The only year the Steelers did not address the position was 2017.
In the last 12 drafts, the Steelers have taken 13 defensive lineman. There were two seasons in which the Steelers drafted two players— in 2009 with Ziggy Hood and Ra’shon Harris, and in 2014 with Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers.
Of the 13 defensive lineman drafted over the last 12 years, eight of them were selected in either the sixth or seventh rounds. Of those eight players, four did not play a single game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of those players is obviously this year‘s draft choice Carlos Davis. The other three players who did play with the Steelers were McCullers, L.T. Walton, and Isaiah Buggs. Of those eight players selected, the only players to start a game for the Steelers were Walton with four and McCullers with three. Additionally, McCullers is the only defensive lineman drafted by the Steelers outside of the first two rounds who received a contract beyond their rookie deal since Brett Keisel.
With the Steelers generally taking a defensive lineman late in the draft, they have basically been taking a flyer on the position in order to add depth. No player they have taken in the last 12 drafts has ended up being the answer as a long-term starter with the Steelers.
When it comes to the five players not drafted in the final two rounds of the last 12 NFL drafts for the Pittsburgh Steelers, none were drafted in the fifth round. The Steelers did make one selection in the fourth round in 2012 when they drafted Alameda Ta’amu. After some legal trouble, the Steelers cut ties with Ta’amu as he never appeared in a game for the black and gold.
The other four selections by the Steelers were in the first round of 2009 with Ziggy Hood and again in 2011 with Cameron Heyward. The Steelers also selected Stephon Tuitt in the second round in 2014 followed by Javon Hargrave in the third round in 2016.
In looking at the pattern when it comes to the defensive line, it appears when the Steelers are in need of a starter and are not addressing the position through free agency, they use higher draft capital on the player. Specifically, the Steelers have found starters on the defensive line every time they have drafted one in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2009. The same trend goes back even farther to 2002 when Brett Kissel was drafted in the seventh round and ended up starting 114 games for the Steelers. Otherwise, every draft pick on the defensive line beyond the third round has not been a regular starter for the Steelers.
Why is this history lesson important? Perhaps it may ease some expectations of Steelers’ rookie Carlos Davis. While some feel he was drafted because the Steelers need a starting nose tackle, it is not the expectation for Davis to fill this role in 2020 or even beyond. For now, Davis is merely a depth piece who is questionable to make the roster come September. Perhaps someday the Steelers can find another Brett Kissel and get a genuine starter on the defensive line late in the NFL draft. But this wouldn’t be another glorious exception, because it is definitely not the rule.