Steelers have two of eight players on PFF’s second-year breakout list

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Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images /

The Pittsburgh Steelers got some promising production out of a few of their rookies in 2019. Here’s why Pro Football Focus believes Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson will be breakout candidates this year.

When the Steelers trade up to nab the 10th overall pick from the Denver Broncos in 2019, we knew exactly what they were doing. Pittsburgh had their eyes set on Devin Bush, but with a lack of quality linebacker prospects and a terrific showing at the NFL Combine, there was little chance that Bush was going to fall much further.

Fortunately, the Steelers were able to execute a trade. Though Bush had his mental lapses as a rookie and struggled in coverage at times, he showed plenty of promise as a former 10th overall pick with his ability to chase down ball carriers down behind the line of scrimmage.

Pro Football Focus recently released its list of eight candidates to break out in their second NFL sesaon. The Steelers had two of them.

We know that Devin Bush has loads of upside. He was a terrific team leader and college football player at Michigan and the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. In addition, his otherwordly athleticism indicates that the sky is the limit for him in the NFL.

Here’s some of what PFF’s Sam Monson had to say about him:

"Again, depending on how you measure these things, you may believe Devin Bush has already hit the ground running in the NFL. He led all rookie linebackers with 84 solo tackles and 22 assists (by PFF’s more accurate, double-checked count), but his overall grade was just 62.9. This is in large part due to the onerous responsibilities the Steelers place on their linebackers, which can expose them to consistently tough situations. Bush acclimated well in his first year, and so well, in fact, that with a full year in the system, he could kick on and look like one of the best in the league in 2020. Bush surrendered five touchdowns in coverage, two more than any other rookie linebacker, and was also penalized twice as much as any other first-year linebacker. But the plays he did make suggest he could develop into something special, maybe as soon as Year 2."

In addition to Bush making the list of breakout candidates next sesaon, his teammate Diontae Johnson joins him as one of just eight NFL players to do so.

Johnson exceeded all expectations as a rookie with his savvy route running and wiggle after the catch. He finished number one in the league among receivers in separation per route run (3.6 yards), according to Next Gen Stats.

Here is what Monson had to say about Johnson as a year-two breakout candidate:

"Diontae Johnson had 680 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a third-round rookie last year, so you could make the case that he’s already broken out. But when you consider what the quarterback situation was like in Pittsburgh with no Ben Roethlisberger, you will soon appreciate how much more there is to come. Johnson is an extremely slick route-runner and was regularly open only to see the ball miss him completely. He snagged 91% of the catchable targets thrown his way and broke 18 tackles after the catch, second among all rookies. Mason Rudolph (53.0) and Devlin “Duck” Hodges (45.8) each posted lowly PFF grades, so if Johnson gets a full season of quality passing play from a healthy Roethlisberger, we could see him evolve into one of the better receivers in the game."

Johnson was arguably Pittsburgh’s best receiver in 2019 and was their most consistent option in the passing game, despite being a third-round rookie and playing alongside two former second-round picks.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to return in 2020, it’s not hard to see how Johnson could take a significant leap forward in his second sesaon. However, he will be fighting for targets with a deep group of weapons with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Chase Claypool, and Vance McDonald.

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Still, the fact that the Steelers had two players make this list is pretty impressive in itself, and it speaks for just how good this 2019 rookie draft class could end up being. If both Bush and Johnson could take another big step forward in 2020, Pittsburgh could be in for a very good season this year.