If you’ve played poker for any amount of money, even a twenty-dollar game among friends, you know that sometimes folding is the best move.
I don’t know if Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert play cards, but collectively they displayed some sound instincts, and did some cold, hard math where linebacker Devin Bush was concerned.
The Steelers declined to pick up Bush’s fifth-year option this past Monday, making him one of just three players selected in the top 10 – Las Vegas’ Clelin Ferrell and the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones were the others – to not have his option picked up.
It was the right move, and probably the obvious move among Steelers fans, but it couldn’t have been easy for Tomlin or Colbert to make the call, which makes it all the more impressive that they did.
Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the Steelers used the draft-capital equivalent of the second-overall pick to take Bush. That takes into account the picks they dealt to move up to the 10th spot, and the 10th pick itself.
Given the sheer amount of resources that went into the selection, it would have been reasonable to assume that Tomlin and Colbert would have wanted to keep the faith on Bush. They certainly seemed to think that his knee injury was the real reason his play faltered; every time Tomlin spoke about him during and immediately after the season, he cited the injury as at least a partial explanation for Bush’s poor play.
Bush checked several boxes Tomlin in particular loves in young prospects; he had football bloodlines in the form of his father, who himself was a first-round pick, and he was an accomplished player at a college football blue blood. The fact that he was able to put all of those things aside and make the right decision speaks volumes about how bad Bush looked.
Speaking earlier this week on 93.7 The Fan, Colbert was blunt in his assessment of Bush. “To us, there are two Devins,” he said. “Before the ACL tear. And after.”
That’s quite a bit different than using an injury to excuse poor play. It suggests that the Steelers feel fundamentally different about Bush moving forward, and not picking up his option suggests that they don’t expect pre-injury Bush to show up again. Barring a massive turnaround by Bush this season, 2022 will be his last with the Steelers.
There are only two realistic reasons why he might be better. One is that his knee injury will be nearly two years in the rearview mirror. If his speed and confidence to make sharp, decisive cuts doesn’t return this year, it never will. The second is that the Steelers will presumably have a healthy Tyson Alualu at nose tackle, and possibly (probably?) have Stephon Tuitt back as well.
Those two occupying blockers and making plays on their own should help make Bush’s job easier. He should be able to play with the kind of speed and decisiveness he flashed in college; traits that made the Steelers so eager to move up and draft him.
Giving Tomlin and Colbert credit for their realistic approach to Bush’s future does not mean that their original mistake should be forgiven. Even if Bush had never gotten hurt and turned into a very good inside linebacker, there’s an argument to be made that drafting that position in the top 10 is rarely, if ever, a good idea, and trading up for it is even worse. The position simply doesn’t have the inherent value of quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher, cornerback or wide receiver, which are all spots on the field that tend to have a more direct impact on the game.
Former Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who went 9th overall in the 2012 draft, was the gold-standard at the position during his concussion-shortened eight-year career. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, then one-upped himself by winning Defensive Player of the Year the following season.
The Panthers were an up-and-down team during Kuechly’s career, and while he played the position at a Hall-of-Fame level before he had to retire, the best team he was part of – the 15-1 squad that made it to the Super Bowl – was more carried by Cam Newton’s MVP-winning play.
Bush was probably never going to reach Kuechly’s level, and so the Steelers would have been better-served drafting a different position and trying to find Ryan Shazier’s replacement in a later round. They took a big swing based on obvious need, and they whiffed. Not compounding that mistake is good, but praise for folding a losing hand is hardly praise at all.