PITTSBURGH STEELERS POST-DRAFT TEAM GUIDE
The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the offseason as a team with no true identity. They had Super Bowl aspirations in 2020 and started off the year looking like a true contender. The Steelers opened the season with an 11-game winning streak and looked like a team that was ready to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC throne. The defense, which was led by T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Bud Dupree, was among the best in the NFL and made life hell for opposing offenses with the speed and athleticism they played with. Unfortunately, injuries hit this unit hard with Bush and Dupree both suffering season-ending knee injuries.
After starting the season 11-0, Ben Roethlisberger was enjoying an excellent season back from missing the entire 2019 season due to injury. Even at the ripe age of 38, Roethlisberger looked great getting the ball out of his hands with urgency and decisiveness and was able to spread the ball out to the team’s abundance of playmakers. This didn’t last long, however, as the team would end up losing four of its last six games and that was largely due to the play of its quarterback. Roethlisberger’s arm appeared to die on him toward the end of the season and he really struggled to drive the ball into tight windows. Because of that, he forced a lot of bad throws. It wasn’t all on Roethlisberger, as both the offensive line and running game severely let this team down as well.
The Steelers would wind up getting blown out at home in their first playoff game against the Cleveland Browns and they had a ton of questions they needed to answer. Pittsburgh needed to figure out if they were going to attempt to fill holes on this roster and run it back with Roethlisberger, who was still under contract for 2021, or the team could release him with no dead money at all and begin the rebuild. In the end, Pittsburgh restructured Roethlisberger's contract and decided to try and compete for a Super Bowl in what is likely to be the quarterback’s last year with the team.
Pittsburgh entered the draft with a slew of needs both on offense and defense and if there is any hope in competing this season, they’ll need some year-one contributors.
Let’s take a look at their 2021 class:
Round 1: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
This was arguably the most popular mock draft pairing of this year’s class aside from Trevor Lawrence to the Jaguars. It was extremely clear that the Steelers were going to get a running back at some point in this year’s draft as they only had Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, and Jaylen Samuels as their top backs after James Conner walked in free agency. While I love the player and team fit, I am a bit surprised they elected to go running back in the first round. Now, let me be clear, I am not an anti-first round running back guy, but I just feel like this football team has more significant holes along the offensive line and secondary they could have filled.
That being said, Harris is an outstanding running back who will remind Steelers fans of prime Le’Veon Bell with his blend of size, power, patience, and versatility as a pass-catcher. Harris slots in as the team’s undisputed three-down back and his play will take a lot of pressure off of Roethlisberger, which will be key if this team is going to compete. Much of Harris’ success will be determined by the play of the team’s offensive line, as Harris isn’t the most explosive of backs to burst to the outside if there is no hole, but Harris’ vision, instincts, and lateral agility should allow him to be productive very early in his professional career.
Round 2: Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
This pick was head-scratching. I appreciate Freiermuth’s game, and I do think he will be productive as a pro, but this team isn’t a tight end away from competing, and when you consider the age of the quarterback and the fact that the Steelers could be facing a long-term rebuild, why wouldn’t you address a position that has more value? Tight ends never produce in year one anyway, so to justify this pick by saying it’s to help Roethlisberger doesn’t make much sense.
The team elected to pass on players such as center Josh Myers, center Creed Humphrey, tackle Brady Christensen, and corners Aaron Robinson and Paulson Adeebo for a tight end who's likely a few years away from seriously being a factor. Overall, while I do like Freiermuth as a player and I appreciate his athleticism and physicality he brings to the position, I just can’t see the reasoning behind this pick.
Round 3: Kendrick Green, C, Illinois
This is easily my favorite pick of the Steelers' draft class. The team redeemed themselves after passing on Myers and Humphrey in the second round by nabbing the athletically gifted center out of Illinois. Green tested very well at his pro day running a 4.85s 40 at 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds. That type of movement ability routinely shows up on film, as he is able to get out and win the outside on shoulder on reach blocks and also climbs to the second level with ease. Green is a versatile football player who can play both guard and center, but he will undoubtedly be a center for the Steelers.
With Maurkice Pouncey retiring this offseason, there is a very real chance that Green opens OTAs with the ones. He is an experienced player, having started 33 games in his career, and he would instantly be this football team's most athletic interior offensive lineman. He projects as the team’s center for years to come.
Round 4: Dan Moore Jr., OT, Texas A&M
It was a little surprising that the team waited until the fourth round to take a tackle. Long-time left tackle Alejandro Villanueva walked in free agency, leaving a massive hole at left tackle. Heading into the draft, the team’s starting tackles were Chuks Okorafor, who started most of last season at right tackle for the Steelers but will slide over to the left side, and Zach Banner, who actually won the starting right tackle job out of camp but tore his ACL in Week 1. Banner will start at right tackle this year, but his play is a major question mark coming off an injury. While I do believe both of these young players have upside, neither were a particularly high draft pick and are both somewhat unknowns heading into 2021.
Moore was pretty good value in the fourth round and was pick No. 128, which coincidentally was the exact number we had him ranked on TDN’s big board. Moore is a smooth tackle who can move and bend well and has very good length. He has a ton of experience starting at left tackle for 35 straight games facing off against the best pass rushers the SEC has to offer. While he can stand to improve his technique with his hands and can improve his functional strength, the Steelers did well get an upside tackle here in the fourth. Moore projects as the team’s swing tackle for 2021, but can develop into a starter in due time.
Round 4: Buddy Johnson, LB, Texas A&M
This was another very solid pick by Pittsburgh. Inside linebacker was a sneaky big need for this team as Bush is coming off an injury and Vince Williams is just an above-average player at this point. As a matter of fact, Williams was released early in the offseason before being re-signed on a one-year deal. Johnson is an athletic linebacker who offers good size and strength. He’s outstanding in the run game with a quick trigger and can scrape down the line and make plays. I wish he was a little more instinctive in coverage, but his athleticism allows him to get by. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him eat into Williams' snaps as a rookie and he has a shot to be a long-term starter alongside Bush inside.
Round 5: Isaiahh Loudermilk, DT, Wisconsin
This was another pick I wasn’t the biggest fan of. I understand getting some depth 5-technique behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, but Loudermilk was a bit of a reach for me. Loudermilk’s best trait is his motor and effort, and while I appreciate that aspect of his game, I just wish he had some more impact traits to hang his hat on. Loudermilk also comes with a bit of injury history having missed games with both knee and ankle injuries over his career in Wisconsin—so again, while I like the positional value, I just don’t necessarily love the player here. Loudermilk will have to battle for a roster spot this year and projects as serviceable depth at 5-technique at best.
Round 6: Quincy Roche, EDGE, Miami
One of the biggest surprises of the draft was how far Roche fell. Once considered a potential first-round pick, Roche fell all the way to the sixth round. I understand that Roche is a bit undersized and lacks elite physical traits to project as a three-down defensive end or outside linebacker, but he still offers a very good first step and plays with his hair on fire. I love this pick for the Steelers, who could use some more manpower at outside linebacker to get after the quarterback after the departure of Dupree in free agency. Roche is an experienced player who I wouldn’t be shocked to see have a role in his rookie year as a subpackage edge defender who can get after the quarterback.
Round 7: Tre Norwood, CB, Oklahoma
Pittsburgh needed some depth in the defensive backfield and Norwood offers them some positional versatility as an end-of-the-roster player. Norwood primarily played corner for the Sooners but transitioned to free safety in 2020 where he recorded five interceptions. While his size and athleticism leave a lot to be desired, he flashes instincts and excellent ball skills to be a center fielder in this Steelers defense. Norwood’s best shot at a year-one impact is to carve out a role on special teams while developing his craft as a safety behind Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Round 7: Pressley Harvin III, P, Georgia Tech
Harvin will likely be the Steelers' starting punter in 2021. It’s just a matter of if the team will make him compete with Jordan Berry in camp or if they’ll just cut Berry prior to camp and allow Harvin to get all the reps. Harvin has a huge leg and some good upside as a punter.
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