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Steelers 2024 NFL Draft Preview: Will the Steelers draft Cam Heyward’s replacement?

Will the Steelers look to find Cameron Heyward’s heir in the 2024 NFL Draft?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 LSU at Kentucky Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2024 NFL Draft is still far in the distance, but as we mull through these dog days of the football calendar, what better time than now to look ahead at next year’s NFL Draft landscape?

Coming off a historically weak draft class from top to bottom, the 2024 class is sure to provide much better depth, while also boasting multiple elite prospects at the top. The quarterback class this past year was strong overall, but the 2024 class could potentially beat it. Caleb Williams and Drake Maye are the consensus QB1 and QB2, with Michael Penix, Jr., J.J. McCarthy, Quinn Ewers, and several others in the first-round conversation as well.

Receiver is another position expected to be stronger next year, with a potentially generational talent, Marvin Harrison, Jr., leading the pack. Interior defensive line looks surprisingly juicy on paper, while the safety class should also be set for a bounce-back year. No safeties were selected in Round 1 of the 2023 draft.

Today, we are going to break down a position the Steelers have been strong at for years, but may need to replenish talent at: defensive line. The Steelers brought in Keeanu Benton to fill the hole in the middle of the defensive line, but Cameron Heyward is not getting any younger, and DeMarvin Leal is still an unknown. Could the Steelers go this direction in Round 1? We will take a look at the top prospects in the class and determine which ones, if any, make sense for the Steelers.

Note: EDGE rushers will be covered in a separate article.

Potential first-round prospects

Maason Smith | LSU

I gave Smith to the Steelers in my way-too-early 2024 mock draft, but his measurables will likely determine how interested the Steelers will be. He is listed at 6’5”, 300 pounds, which is the prototypical mold of a Steelers 3-4 end. I’ve seen other places listing him closer to 6’3 1/2”, which, in this case, makes a huge difference. Nonetheless, Smith is a premium talent who, if not for a Week 1 ACL tear in 2022, may have been on a Jalen-Carter-esque trajectory for the 2024 class. If he can bounce back and fully recover from the injury, his services will be in high demand next April.

Jer’Zhan Newton | Illinois

Illinois is going to depend on Newton’s production much more in 2023, as the team lost just about everyone in the secondary. Coming off a year in which Newton recorded 14 tackles for loss, expectations could not be higher. Despite measuring in at just 6’2”, 280 pounds, Newton succeeds as a penetrator by outstanding quickness of the snap, allowing him to gain leverage as well as shoot gaps. As of now, I see him as a mid to late first-round pick.

Fringe first-round prospects

Michael Hall, Jr. | Ohio State
Fabien Lovett | Florida State
Ruke Orhorhoro | Clemson

Options for the Steelers

As I stated earlier, I gave Smith to the Steelers in a recent mock draft, and I consider him a viable option in Round 1, as I expect the Steelers to prioritize finding a Cameron Heyward replacement. Unfortunately, there are not many players in the 2024 class that are in the mold of what the Steelers typically like in a 3-4 defensive end. Perhaps they opt to convert to a 4-3 base front and change philosophy on defense, but ultimately, the options are limited for the Steelers until we see the direction they go in free agency. Until then, Smith appears to be the frontrunner at the position if the Steelers choose to address it early on.

Which defensive linemen are you eyeing in the 2024 NFL Draft? Be sure to light up the comment section below with your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers!