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Steelers’ young defensive players must reach their potential in 2018

All eyes will be on Bud Dupree this season. The Steelers exercised their fifth-year option on the outside linebacker, banking on a breakout season in 2018 after 14.5 combined sacks in his first three years.

There are tons of “Breakout Candidates” articles flying around the blogosphere for each team this time of year. We could do one for the Steelers, but their biggest breakout candidate isn’t necessarily one player. It’s half the defense.

And that’s the problem.

The Steelers could use a breakout season not only from Dupree, but from several other defenders who were early-round draft picks. These players haven’t been flat-out busts, but they’re not exactly standouts, either.

After taking Dupree in the first round of the 2015 draft, the Steelers took Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave in the first three rounds of the 2016 draft. Now’s the time for that draft class to bloom.

All three of those players already have turned out better than first-rounders such as Jarvis Jones and Ziggy Hood, but none of them are Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor or Casey Hampton.

Now it’s a lot to ask anyone to match the skill of players like Polamalu, Taylor and Hampton, but it would be nice to see just a few more game-changing tendencies out of Burns, Davis, Hargrave and even 2014 second-round pick Stephon Tuitt.

Tuitt, who played with a torn bicep for most of last season, has 14.5 career sacks in four seasons, the same total that Dupree has amassed in three seasons.

Burns and Davis both have four interceptions in their first two seasons. Burns has broken up 26 passes and Davis has broken up 13.

Perhaps all these contributions are fine with Ryan Shazier in the middle of the defense. But without Shazier, the Steelers’ defense collapsed last season.

To address their hole at inside linebacker during the offseason, the Steelers signed free-agent journeyman Jon Bostic and undrafted free agent Matthew Thomas, who has a history of injuries and off-the-field baggage at Florida State.

Will that be enough?

It says something that Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2014, is the most recent player the Steelers drafted at any position who’s made the Pro Bowl. For the Steelers’ defense to patch up its holes and make up for the loss of Shazier, at least one player among Dupree, Burns, Davis, Hargrave and Tuitt will have to do something that at least earns Pro Bowl consideration.

Dupree is the poster child for all this untapped potential on the Steelers’ defense. He did have a career-high six sacks in 2017, and this year he and fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt are switching sides, with Watt moving to the left side and Dupree on the right.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers hope that Dupree will be more effective coming on the quarterback’s blind side. He missed out on some sacks because the quarterback saw him coming and was able to move up in the pocket.

The only problem is that Dupree now will be going up against left tackles rather than right tackles. Left tackles are normally better pass blockers, which is why they’re stationed on the quarterback’s blind side.

Maybe if Watt builds on the momentum of his seven-sack rookie season, he’ll see some double teams and that will free up Dupree to get after the quarterback.

Watt is exempt from this discussion of middling defensive players. He made the 2017 Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. Perhaps if one or more of this year’s defensive rookies has the type of year that Watt had as a rookie, there won’t be as much urgency for growth from players like Burns and Dupree.

The Steelers drafted safeties Terrell Edmunds in the first round this year and Marcus Allen in the fifth round. Even cornerback Cameron Sutton, a third-rounder last year, could compete with Burns for a starting job. The Steelers thought enough of Sutton to start him against the Patriots last year.

Edmunds is the sixth straight defensive player the Steelers have drafted in the first round. They had never even drafted a first-round defensive player three years in a row before that. It’s time for this early-round defensive investment to pay dividends.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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