The reason why Steelers revealed last use for first-round pick..

Steelers use NFL Combine to scout players who could provide help on aging defensive line

Thirteen years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers last used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman to fit into their 3-4 scheme.

Cameron Heyward is still chugging along as he approaches 35 years old, but he is coming off a core muscle injury that cost him six games early last season and is entering the final year of his contract – and possibly career.

In recent years, the Steelers have taken baby steps toward drafting Heyward’s successor – just not with their first pick.

In 2021, the Steelers used their third-round pick, No. 84 overall, on DeMarvin Leal, who is more of an edge rusher than prototypical tackle. Last year, the Steelers used their second pick of the second round, No. 49, to acquire Keeanu Benton, who has the frame and disposition to play inside.

As well as Benton played as a rookie – he had one sack and 36 tackles while playing in all 17 games – the Steelers might be inclined to end their streak of not using their top pick to address the defensive line.

Heyward had his groin muscle repaired in September, then had another procedure done in February.

“The reality is he’s going to be 35, so we have to be careful with how we manage his reps,” general manager Omar Khan said earlier this week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “We’re going to be smart about it. … He doesn’t need to learn the defense.”

Khan is committed to having Heyward return for another season despite a $22.4 million salary cap hit that the organization will try to reduce via a restructured deal or contract extension with voidable years. Other pieces of the defensive line, however, also could be in flux.

Larry Ogunjobi turns 30 in June and is a year removed from cashing in with a three-year, $28.75 contract. For that money, the Steelers got three sacks, eight quarterback hits and 43 tackles. Two years earlier, before he sustained a foot injury while playing for Cincinnati, Ogunjobi had seven sacks.

The Steelers also have two interior role players ready to test free agency in Montravius Adams and Armon Watts. Leal regressed in his second season, and former fifth-rounder Isaiahh Loudermilk is entering the last year of his rookie contract.

Free agency can be used to fill some of those holes, but if the Steelers want to get younger on the defensive line, they likely will have to use a first- or second-round pick to address the position.

A sticking point is that the defensive tackle draft class isn’t viewed as being as deep — or possessing elite players – as, say, offensive tackle, wide receiver or quarterback. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has four defensive tackles listed in his overall top 50, the highest coming in at No. 22. also has four in its top 50 but has a different player occupying the bottom spot in that grouping.

By holding the No. 20 overall pick, the Steelers could be in line to get one of the top d-line prospects. Jeremiah has Texas’ Byron Murphy at No. 22 overall. has Illinois’ Johnny Newton at No. 18.

Ranked behind that duo are Murphy’s teammate, T’Vondre Sweat, Missouri’s Darius Robinson and Michigan’s Kris Jenkins.

Newton, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 302 pounds, has traits that led the league’s draft analysts to compare him to former Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave. He was the Big Ten defensive player of the year and the only defensive tackle to be a finalist for the Nagurski award.

“Teams schemed away from me every game,” Newton said at the combine. “I feel like it’s just that patience that I grew throughout the season, learning to make plays that came to me.”

The 6-foot-1, 297-pound Murphy confirmed he met with the Steelers in Indianapolis.

“I really loved it,” he said. “I really enjoyed the interview with Mike Tomlin. I feel like I could relate to him in so many ways – him and his staff. And I just like Pittsburgh as a whole.”

On the Texas defensive line, Murphy literally was overshadowed by Sweat, who measures 6-foot-5, 366 pounds. After bragging that he would record one of the fastest times in the 40-yard dash for a defensive tackle, Sweat finished last in his position group at 5.27 seconds. He makes no apologies for his size.

“We’ve got to grow into our bodies,” he said. “This is me, as y’all can see. I’m a big guy, a big frame. That’s just how it is. I grew into my body, man.”

The 6-5, 285-pound Robinson was listed as a defensive end at the combine, but he said he played every spot on the Missouri defense and is ready to line up inside if required. He played on the defensive interior until 2023 when he spent his final season at end.

“I decided I wanted to play both positions, show my versatility to the NFL, give me an opportunity,” he said.

Michigan’s Jenkins could be available in the second round when the Steelers hold the No. 51 pick. Coach Mike Tomlin favors bloodlines and Jenkins’ father, also named Kris, was a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. He measured 6-3, 299 pounds.

Jenkins also met with Tomlin during his stay in Indianapolis.

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