Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Targets: Nakobe Dean

(Tony Walsh/Georgia Football website)

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For all of Brian's 2022 Steelers' Draft Targets, click here: Steelers' 2022 Draft Targets

In the first two parts of my Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Draft Targets series, I've focused on players that would upgrade the offense.  There has been a lot of turnover on that side of the ball, so naturally it seems like that would be the team's priority with their first round pick.  However, the Steelers have shown a knack over the years to draft defense early in the draft and there's one position that could use some bolstering for the future.

While the Steelers' defenses of the 1970s were known for their defensive line (does the Steel Curtain ring a bell?), the Steelers' defenses of the 2000s have been very linebacker-centric.  James Farrior, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and now T.J. Watt are some names that come to mind immediately.  And while Watt is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he does most of his work on the outside.  Inside linebacker was a big weakness on this team last year, so I wouldn't put it past the Steelers to address that with their first-round pick.

Nakobe Dean is a name that college football fans should be familiar with.  Dean captained the Georgia Bulldogs defense to a National Championship last season and he's a name that should get Steelers fans excited.  He's the type of hard-nosed inside linebacker that Steelers teams of the past thrived with, and one that the current team could certainly use to sure up the defense.  While his name seems to be falling down teams' draft boards, many of the experts believe it isn't justified.  In his last two seasons with Georgia, he recorded 143 tackles, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.  Stats are nice, but it's also the intangibles with Dean that make him so attractive.

Georgia was best defense in all of college football last year and Dean was the leader of it.  His leadership should be one of his biggest draws to teams looking his way in the draft, especially the Steelers.  Defensive lineman Cam Heyward is the current captain of the Steelers defense, but he's not getting any younger.  The team could really use a fresh face that is ready to command a defense and learn under Heyward in the time he has left in the league.  Dean seems like the perfect guy to fill that role, given how he was able to lead Georgia to a championship last season on the best defense in the nation, in arguably the toughest conference in the sport.

In addition to the leadership role, Dean would also help solve the inside linebacker issues that the Steelers have been having.  Since Ryan Shazier was horrifically injured in a 2017 game against the Cincinnati Bengals with a spinal contusion that effectively ended his career, the team has had difficulty filling his role and the dynamism he brought to the defense.  The Steelers thought they had done so when they traded up to the 10th pick in the 2019 draft to select Devin Bush, but he has yet to live up to those expectations.

Coming off of an ACL injury during the 2020 season, the poor 2021 season Bush had last year has really soured Steelers fans.  Although still only 23 years old, fans would like to see the Steelers move on from Bush and they may get their wish following this season.  Bush is due $10.9 million if the Steelers opt in to his contract ahead of the 2023 season.  With them unlikely to pick that up unless his play drastically increases, Bush's days in the black and gold could very well be numbered.  This is even further reason why a young inside linebacker in the first round could be the Steelers' solution.

Some people may point to the Steelers' offseason for why they wouldn't draft Dean with their first selection.  In free agency, Pittsburgh signed former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack to help the linebacker problems they've experienced.  And while Jack looks like a big splash signing, there's still reason for concern that he may not be the long-term solution.  Jack has had a number of injury issues over his career and his numbers have been declining the past few years.  While that could be a result of the injuries, and the terrible Jaguars play over that span, linebackers of Jack's previous caliber haven't had great success when switching teams in the offseason at this stage of their careers.

So while there's reason on the surface to believe that the Steelers are set at linebacker going into the 2022 season, I see it as the stars having to align perfectly for that to truly be the case.  Jack has to avoid the injuries that have plagued him and return to his old form, while Bush also needs to resurrect his career by doing much of the same.  Not to mention, Dean brings a little more tenacity and grittiness than these two guys, especially on a team that could really use it in the middle of the field.  The Steelers' run defense was downright ugly for vast stretches of the season last year, so Dean could help return that to a team whose calling card was stopping the run in recent years.

There may be more pressing needs that the Steelers could fill with their first-round pick, but if the talented Nakobe Dean does indeed fall down the board to them at the 20th spot, I could really see the Steelers going this route.  They've shown an affinity for drafting linebackers in the first round, and their eyes could light up if they're able to get one that fits the mold of the "Steelers Way" in the 2022 draft.  With the leadership and tackling qualities that Dean possesses, this could be a prime opportunity for the Steelers to set themselves up perfectly up the middle defensively for years to come.