Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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Glad to be Wrong! Steelers Sign Cam Heyward to 5 Year Extension

Count this as another time when a blogger begs to be wrong, but this time gets his wish.

Less than a week ago yours truly suggested that COVID-19 would test “The Steelers Way” like never before. Namely, the expected 2021 NFL salary cap drop salary cap drop would complicate the Steelers ability to do one of the things they’ve always done best – resign their own players before they reach free agency.

  • The implications for retaining a player like Cam Heyward appeared to be ominous.

I wasn’t alone. Just three days ago Ed Bouchette of The Athletic was beating a similar drum of gloom and doom one the prospects of keeping Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh.

  • How good it is to be wrong!

Steelers.com announced that Cam Heyward had signed a 5 year extension, and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports that the deal is for $75.1 million dollars and includes 65.6 million in new money. The deal will make Heyward the highest paid defensive player over 30.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Although Cameron Heyward will turn 31 this year, he is coming off what was arguably his best season thus far. Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew in 2019, registering 9 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, notching 23 QB hits, defensing 6 passes while making a career record 83 tackles.

Signing Heyward a “Win” But Complicated Challenges Lie Ahead

Signing Cam Heyward represents a major win for the Steelers front office, as it keeps their biggest player off the market long before the bidding will ever start. But Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have difficult personnel choices to make.

Starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler will all reach the end of their rookie deals this year, and veteran Alejandro Villanueva is heading into the final year of his contract. Key reserves such as Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are also heading into their final years.

The Steelers already have 40 players under contract for 2021 costing approximately 197 million dollars, putting them 22 million over the projected 2021 salary cap before factoring in Cam Heyward’s new deal or the 2021 draft class.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, but fortunately Cam Heyward won’t be a cap causality.

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Surprise! Turk Visits Ryan Switzer, Daniel McCullers as Steelers Make Initial Cuts

What will perhaps go down as the most unusual cut down day in Steelers history began with a few surprises. The NFL required all teams to cut down to the 53 man roster limit by 4:00 pm on Saturday September 5th, and the Steelers cuts included two names that everyone knows.

First, the Steelers cut Ryan Switzer, who served as their primary kick and punt returner during 2018 and 2019 and who had an extremely close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Injuries limited Ryan Switzer’s effectiveness in 2019 and ultimately ended his season.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Cutting Ryan Switzer was the 1st Steelers surprise on cut down day, 2020.

Still, word out of Steelers training camp was that Ryan Switzer looked good, prompting Ed Bouchette of The Athletic to report that Switzer’s roster spot remained safe, while Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider leaned in that direction.

  • Say one thing about Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh, he has constantly surprised.

Going into the 2018 off season “D” seemed to indicate “disappointment” for Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh has his playing time regressed following his second year. Yet, the transition from John Mitchell to Karl Dunbar opened the door to a 2nd contract for Daniel McCullers, and although he didn’t play much more in 2018, he did well enough to get himself a third contract in 2019.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

Daniel McCullers closes in on RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Word in training camp was that Daniel McCullers had slimed down and was playing his best football yet.

  • Alas, his best wasn’t good enough, as the Steeler cut him.

The other Steelers initial cuts include:

Quarterback
Paxton Lynch

Running backs
Kerrith Whyte Jr.
Trey Edmunds
Wendell Smallwood

Wide Receivers
Saeed Blacknall
DeAndre Thompkins
Deon Cain
Amara Darboh

Offensive linemen
Christian DiLauro
John Keenoy
Derwin Gray
Anthony Coyle
Jarron Jones

Tight Ends
Kyle Markway
Kevin Rader

Defensive Linemen
Cavon Walker
Henry Mondeaux
Calvin Taylor

Linebackers
Tuzar Skipper
Jayrone Elliott

Defensive Backs
Trajan Bandy
John Battle
Antoine Brooks Jr

Special Teams
Punter Corliss Waitman and long snapper Liam McCullough

Of the group above, the only real surprise is the decision to cut Antoine Brooks Jr, the safety who was the Steelers 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Maryland.

However, more surprises were to come…

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin were only getting started.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Steelers Draft Carlos Davis in 7th Round to Close 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Carlos Davis in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, closing the event by added the athletic nose tackle from Nebraska.

Carlos Davis stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 313-pounds. He comes to Pittsburgh as redshirt senior who played in 46 games for the Cornhuskers over four seasons. During that time, Davis totaled 125 tackles, including 16 behind the line of scrimmage, and 9 1/2 sacks. In 2019, he recorded a career-high four sacks.

While those numbers are impressive, another number is a little more impressive. Carlos Davis was clocked at 4.79 in the 40 yard dash. To put that in perspective, Antoine Brooks, the safety the Steelers drafted in the 6th round, posted 4.64 40 time.

  • Speed isn’t the only athletic attribute that Davis brings to the Steelers. He also excelled in and discus at Nebraska.

As Kevin Colbert explained:

So Carlos at 3-plus, 305, 308, could he play inside at nose? Sure. He doesn’t have the great length to be an end in that scheme, but he also can play as a rush defensive tackle like Javon did on the inside. So I’m sure he will line up on the nose, and in the sub-packages he’ll be an inside rusher.

While reading too much into the significance of a 7th round pick is dangerous, Carlos Davis is clearly a nose tackle cut from a very different mold than say, Casey Hampton.

Carlos Davis, C.J. Beathard

Steelers 2020 7th round pick Carlos Davis sacks C.J. Bethard. Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall, AP via WKBN.com

Carlos Davis Video Highlights

Through the magic of Google, even 7th round draft picks get their highlight reels. Here is what Carlos Davis put on tape:

Normally the practices squad is a 7th round pick’s most realistic shot at making their NFL dream real. But the good news for Carlos Davis is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will give him a fair shot. That means that Carlos Davis could very well push Daniel McCullers off the roster. But rookie 7 round draft picks rarely play for the Steelers, Kelvin Beachum being the exception.

Look for Isaiah Buggs, Chris Wormley and/or Tyson Alualu to get the snaps alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. In the meantime, welcome to Steelers Nation Carlos Davis.

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Pittsburgh Terrapins er um, Steelers Draft Antoine Brooks Jr. in 6th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Antoine Brooks Jr. in the 6th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, bolstering their secondary depth by adding the safety from the University of Maryland. Antoine Brooks is the second Terrapin to make its way to Pittsburgh during the 2020 NFL Draft, as the Steelers also drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round.

A Lanham, Maryland native, Antoine Brooks stands at 5’11” and weighs in at 220 pounds. He played for the Terrapins for 4 years and played in 40 games during that time span. Brooks started as a linebacker and moved to safety, amassing 4 interceptions and 3.5 sacks.

  • Kevin Colbert confessed that the Steelers have been watching Brooks for two years, explaining:

He played a unique position at the University of Maryland that’s really relevant to today’s NFL in college football. He’s half a linebacker; he’s half a safety. He will be a safety on our defense with the ability to play in packages, because that’s what he’s done and he’s done well.

The Steelers have been searching for someone to play the position of “Dime linebacker” for the past several seasons, and had someone to fill that slot in the form of Mark Barron. However, Barron is gone. Could Brooks fit that bill? Steelers Senior Defensive Assistant/Secondary Teryl Austin explained that Brooks is:

He’s very, very physical. When you watch him, he has a very good feel for the game in terms of instincts and making quick decision and not being afraid to make a decision. That’s what you’re looking for in a guy back there.

However, when asked about whether Brooks would fill that hybrid linebacker-safety role, Austin hinted that Terrell Edmunds could shift into that role and explained, “We’ll get them in our jar, shake ’em up and see where they fit best.”

Antoine Brooks Video Highlights

Four years of NCAA experience gives a player a chance to put a lot on tape. Here’s a look at Antoine Brooks highlights:

You can certainly understand why Teryl Austin appreciates Brooks’ decisiveness. He won’t find NFL players going down quite as easily as they did on tape, but Antoine Brooks fundamentals appear sound.

Given that Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen are the backups behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, Antoine Brooks has a real shot at both a roster spot and, if he can play special teams, a helmet on game day.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Antoine Brooks.

 

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Answering Need for Speed, Steelers Draft Anthony McFarland in 4th Round of 2020 NFL Draft

The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft, using their first of two 4th round selections to add the running back from Maryland to their backfield.

Anthony McFarland brings just two years of NCAA experience to Pittsburgh. In two seasons with the Terrapins, McFarland rushed for over 1,600 yards, although his production dropped between his freshman and sophomore year due to injuries. With that said, McFarland did break the University of Maryland’s freshman rushing record.

Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner described McFarland as “He’s really explosive.” Faulkner continued, “He sees the crease, and it’s his ability to hit the crease — he gets from 0 to 60 quick.”

  • The highlights video below will bear that out.

What the video won’t show is some of the red or at least yellow injury flags that accompany McFarland’s arrival in Pittsburgh. The Maryland native and DeMatha Catholic graduate missed his senior year of high school with a broken leg, took a red shirt freshman year at Maryland, and then saw a high ankle sprain ruin his second year at Maryland.

Regardless, Anthony McFarland can look forward to seeing familiar faces in Pittsburgh. New Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was his coach at Maryland in 2018, Derwin Gray blocked for McFarland in 2018, and Mike Tomlin’s son Dino played with McFarland at Maryland, although according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, McFarland admits he never had contact with Tomlin.

Anthony McFarland Jr.

Steelers first 2020 4th round draft pick, Anthony McFarland, Jr. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports images, via NBC.com

Anthony McFarland Video Highlights

While he’s leaving College Park after just two seasons, Anthony McFarland Jr. put plenty on tape to establish his pedigree. Here is a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/thlKLUJwvUw?t=9

Anthony McFarland ran a 4.44 in the 40 and his burst of speed is more than evident. For comparison’s sake, James Conner clocked in at 4.65, Willie Parker ran a 4.28, Le’Veon Bell ran a 4.6, Benny Snell timed out at 4.65 while Dwight Stone ran a 4.25 (ah, weren’t expect a Dwight Hands of Stone reference, were you?)

So Anthony McFarland’s 40 puts him in good company, adds speed to the backfield and threatens Kerrith Whyte whose 4.36 40 speed is what made him so enticing to the Steelers last fall when Kevin Colbert did a rare bit of practice squad poaching.

Competition brings out the best and the Steelers backfield certainly must improve on its 2019 performance. Welcome to Steelers Nation Anthony McFarland.

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Steelers Draft Alex Highsmith in 3rd Round of 2020 NFL Draft. Video Highlights OLB from Charlotte

The Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith in the 3rd round of the 2020 NFL Draft, closing out day 2 by using their compensatory selection on the outside linebacker from Charlotte.

IF Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin ignored the “advice” offered to them via the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix, when they drafted Chase Claypool, they stuck to it by picking Alex Highsmith with their last premium pick, as outside linebacker was rated as Pittsburgh’s second most urgent area of need.

  • At least it can be made to appear that way on the outside.

In truth, the Steelers (wisely) are probably sticking to their policy of drafting the best player available, as Kevin Colbert has been high on the depth at outside linebacker in the 2020 NFL Draft. And he didn’t hold back in his praise for Alex Highsmith explaining:

He kind of stood out in the East-West practices. A long, fast, athletic guy, he continued to impress us athletically at the Combine. And when you really looked at his history, what he did as a walk-on, that was a special-teams standout as a young player, to end up putting out the stats that he has this season, we don’t think this kid’s anywhere near where he might be somewheres down the road.

The Steelers have had their eye on Highsmith since last fall, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin openly talked about him backing up T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, something which High Smith relishes, confessing:

I’m so excited to learn from those guys, two of the best pass-rushers in the league. So I’m just ready to soak up everything like a sponge. I’m just ready to learn so much from them and do whatever I can to help this team get back to another Super Bowl.

Its not every 3rd round compensatory pick that arrives talking about helping his team win a Super Bowl, but the ambition and attitude are welcome.

Alex Highsmith, Steelers 2020 3rd round pick

Alex Highsmith, the Steelers 2020 3rd round pick. Photo Credit: Charlotte 49ers.

Alex Highsmith Video Highlights

Alex Highsmith played for four years at Charlotte, appearing in just under four dozen games. As Kevin Colbert alluded to, the Wilmington, North Carolina native had to pull himself up by the bootstraps, making Charlotte as a walk on.

But each year his production jumped, and he soared as a senior, topping out at 75 tackles and 13 sacks.

Here is a look at his highlight tape:

Highsmith’s time in the 40 was 4.7, or .2 seconds better than Jarvis Jones was (oh, but the track was muddy at Georgia the day they timed him…) and you can see he’s certainly has an explosive burst.

While Watt and Dupree are fixed as starters, Alex Highsmith can and should immediately push Tuzar Skipper and Ola Adeniyi for playing time as “The next man” up at outside linebacker, although the key to getting a helmet on game day will be his ability to perform on special teams.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Alex Highsmith.

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Steelers Draft Chase Claypool in 2nd Round of 2020 NFL Draft, Notre Dame Wide Receiver can Sustain Trend

The Steelers drafted Chase Claypool, a wide receiver out of Notre Dame in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin finally got to make Pittsburgh’s first move after 48 players had been taken off of the board.

The Steelers enter the 2020 NFL Draft with limited draft capital thanks to the Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Nick Vannett and Chris Wormley, heightening attention over how the Pittsburgh would use its scare resource.

  • The decision to Draft Chase Claypool suggests the Steelers brain trust is leaning towards best available athlete.

Although the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix suggests that running back, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and safety are all areas of greater need, this is a deep draft at wide receiver. Which isn’t to say that the Steelers can’t use more offensive fire power. They can.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

A Look at Chase Claypool

As Jim Wexell pointed out Steel City Insider, Ben Roethlisberger has never been shy about his love for big wide receivers. He lobbied in vain for the Steelers to resign Plaxico Burress and wasted little time hooking up with Martavis Bryant as a rookie.

Chase Claypool fits that bill, standing at 6’4” and arrives in Pittsburgh with a 40 ½ inch vertical. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner described him as an immediate Red Zone threat. As Fitchner went on to explain:

Some of the small things just grow on you as you watch his tape and you watch his play. He’s a dependable ball-security player. A guy who plays without the football. There’s no job too small. He blocks. He gives effort when balls aren’t coming to him in his routes. He volunteers for special teams. This guy’s just a football player, and he’s grown.

Chase Claypool played for four years for the Fighting Irish, seeing his productivity increase each year, peaking at 66 catches for 1037 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior.

https://youtu.be/4hiyi4y4r8s?t=9

Randy Fichtner is right. Chase Claypool will make for a tempting Red Zone target.

Chase Claypool’s Chance to Sustain a New Trend

As mentioned above, wide receiver is one of the Steelers least needy positions on offense. However, Chase Claypool can still have an impact in 2020. JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely to see his role as number 1 wide receiver threatened.

However, even before this pick came in, the pecking order between James Washington and Diontae Johnson was not established. Chase Claypool could easily push both men. Deon Cain and Ryan Switzer were already going to arrive at Latrobe as roster bubble babies and both men’s standing with the team just became more tenuous.

  • Chase Claypool will also arrive in Pittsburgh with a chance to sustian a new trend.

In the modern era, the Steelers haven’t had much success at drafting players from Notre Dame. (Remember, Rocky Bleier had been drafted by Bill Austin, not Chuck Noll, and Jerome Bettis arrived via trade.) Yet Stephon Tuitt came to Pittsburgh as 2nd round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and immediately made the defensive line better.

So the arrow is pointing up for Fighting Irish joining the Steelers. Welcome to Steelers Nation Chase Claypool.

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Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

The 2020 NFL Draft has arrived. And yes, this one has a different feel to it.

  • The Steelers don’t have a first round draft pick for the first time since 1967
  • Precisely ZERO pre-draft visits have taken place on the South Side
  • They’re no announcements from the podium, no Number 1 jerseys given out

Things are even more different in Pittsburgh. Steel Curtain Rising has been running its Steelers Draft Needs Matrix in some form or fashion since 2009. And never, has the Steelers draft needs analysis been this flat across the depth chart.

The same basic analysis holds for every position area:

  • The starters are solid, if not strong, but depth is lacking.

Things get a little more uneven when you start to account for impending free agency and aging at certain positions, but even controlling for those factors can push the Steelers needs as much as it can pull it in other sectors.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their 2019 pre draft press conference.

The offensive line and safety present prefect examples. On paper, the Steelers have 7 starter capable offensive lineman. So the line is in good if not great shape going into the draft. But four of those offensive lineman are over age 30.

  • At safety, the situation is very different.

Everyone is young. Free agency is years away. The Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are established starters. have two established starters. Yet, the Steelers depth have zero depth behind them.

There isn’t a position area, save for perhaps one, where the Steelers depth chart would justify passing on someone because they’re too well stocked.

And that has made mapping out the Steelers 2020 Draft Need Matrix all the more difficult.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs

Over the last week or so, with the help of Tony Defeo, we have assessed the Steelers need at each position. Here is a summary of the results.

At Running Back, Tony has rated the Steelers need at High, and that’s the only position to earn that rating.

After that, you get Outside Linebacker and Quarterback rated as High-Moderate. But we’ll treat quarterback a bit differently that its rating suggests as you’ll see.

After that, you’ve got Defensive Line, Inside Linebacker and Safety rated as Moderate-High.

Offensive line comes in as Moderate, while Cornerback, tight end and Wide Receiver clock in at Moderate-Low.

How to sort out the needs? Well, that’s what the Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix is all about.

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

Steelers 2020 Draft Needs Matrix

If the Steelers have need for depth across the roster, all needs are not created equally.

While the Steelers have several bodies at running back, only James Conner is proven, and he has has also proven to be injury prone AND is heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Outside linebacker earns the next slot in the pecking order because Bud Dupree is on a one year tender and the Steelers have neither an heir apparent, nor do they have depth.

After that comes inside linebacker. The key difference between the outside and inside linebacker is that the Steelers can still count on the services of Devin Bush and Vince Williams in 2021.

Inside linebacker gets the nod over safety simply because the backups behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds have more experience than those at inside linebacker.

It might seem odd to list defensive line so low, given that there is a starting spot open, unlike at safety and at linebacker. However, the Steelers might not have a true heir apparent at nose tackles, they have an experienced NFL back up and two other younger players with “upside” who could potentially play along side Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

So Defensive line stands in the middle of the Steelers Draft need matrix and gets the nod over offensive line, which in turn get the nod over cornerback because you need 5 starting caliber offensive lineman and only 3 starting caliber cornerbacks.

The decision to prioritize cornerback over wide receiver is an easy one. Wide receivers are easier to find, and even if JuJu Smith-Schuster is heading into his final year in Pittsburgh, the arrow is pointing up on Diontae Johnson and James Washington even if depth drops off of a cliff after you get past that trio.

The Steelers are fairly strong enough at tight end that even if they had their full complement of draft picks, taking a tight end would probably be a “nice to have.” But that gets to nod over quarterback.

The Steelers need at quarterback “High-Moderate.” Ben Roethlisberger is 37, coming off of elbow surgery and not is it not clear that Mason Rudolph could be a successor. But Ben Roethlisberger’s successor isn’t going to be found with the 49 pick, or any pick after that.

The opportunity cost of using a developmental on a quarterback dramatically short-changes the Steelers ability to address other positions who can help them win in 2020. Therefore, quarterback is their lowest need.

As a caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix isn’t intended to suggest that Pittsburgh should draft for need. When you draft for need, Artie Burns and/or Jarvis Jones happen. Instead, its role is to highlight where the Steelers need the most help and, in the abstract, break any “ties” when two players at different positions are equally matched.

Draft Different, Dream the Same

The 2020 NFL Draft is already underway and the differences are already apparent. So be it. COVID-19 is changing the world and the NFL is not exempt.

Yet, for all of the differences, the NFL Draft continues to be the day that dreams come true for hundreds of young men. Let’s give them their day, and wish that those whose names gets call from Mike Tomlin can be difference makers that help Pittsburgh through the closing window that leads to the Stairway to Seven.

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