4 Insights the Steelers 2020 Draft Class Gives Us Now

The 2020 NFL Draft is now history. The Steelers 2020 Draft Class is set and the assessments of Pittsburgh’s most unusual draft class in over a half century are already beginning.

  • Defining “Winners” and “Losers” two days after the draft is as understandable as it is silly.

It is understandable because in every draft a select few teams lay foundations for future championships while the rest undermine their shot at a Super Bowl.

  • The silliness comes in pretending to know which team falls on which side of the fence days after the draft.

Vito Stellino is one of the best NFL journalists there’s ever been, but he famously panned the Steelers 1974 Draft class. As Tony Defeo reminds us, it’s the nature of the beast that so many are already second guessing Steelers 2020 picks of Claypool and Highsmith. But how many of those voices rushed to declare Antonio Brown as a “steal” of the 2010 NFL Draft or call out Kelvin Beachum as 2012 NFL Draft’s true sleeper?

  • You get my point.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Draft Class

Steelers 2020 Draft Class. Image Credit: Steelers Twitter Feed

The Steelers 2020 Draft class is getting a B- in a lot of circles, but those grades are about as accurate as an early April batting average. However, Steelers picks nonetheless tell us something important about how Pittsburgh’s brain trust sees it the team.

Steelers 2020 Draft Class at a Glance

2nd Round – Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver from Notre Dame
3rd Round – Alex Highsmith, Outside Linebacker, Charlotte
4th Round A – Robert McFarland, Jr., Running Back, Maryland
4th Round B – Kevin Dotson, Guard, Louisiana
6th Round – Antoine Brooks, Safety, Maryland
7th Round – Carlos Davis, Nose Tackle, Nebraska

That’s 6 picks, evenly divided between offense and defense with an early emphasis on offensive skill positions. Here are some conclusions that we can make now:

1. The Steelers Remain “All In” on a Roethlisberger Rebound

This has been true since the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade and is nothing new. Everything decision the franchise has made since that loss against Seattle suggests it is banking on a full recovery from Ben Roethlisberger. Taking Chase Claypool with their only pick in the top 100 players in the 2020 NFL Draft confirms the trend.

2. Steelers are Sold on Benny Snell Jr.

Before the draft Mike Tomlin was non-committal about whether the Steelers would draft a running back early. But he did commit running better in 2020 regardless of who the Steelers picked. A lot of folks are up in arms over the Steelers decision to leave J.K. Dobbins on the board in the 2nd round.

  • They may be right.

But the Steelers are giving a huge vote of confidence in Benny Snell’s  ability to carry the load should James Conner succumb to injury (again.)

3. The Steelers are Comfortable with Inside Linebacker Depth

Going into the draft with just six picks forced Pittsburgh to prioritize more than normal. Outside of tight end, every other position area could use a shot in the arm.

Yet, after making their first pick, the Steelers chose to address outside linebacker, running back, offensive line and safety at the expense of inside linebacker.

By implication, that suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with Ulysees Gilbert serving as “The next man up” at his position than they are with Jordan Dangerfield, Ola Adeniyi and/or Tuzar Skipper at theirs.

4. Steelers are Hedging on Dupree and JuJu’s Returns

Let’s look at some objective facts:

  1. The Steelers had no first round pick
  2. They have no obvious starting spots to be won
  3. Pittsburgh’s highest profile free agents for 2021 will be Bud Dupree and JuJu Smith-Schuster
  4. The Steelers first two picks were at wide receiver and outside linebacker

Coincidence? Perhaps. But during the 1990’s the Steelers would routinely drafted with an eye towards replacing future free agents. (The strategy worked, for a while.) Could they be doing the same thing here?

Time will tell, but judging by how the a lot of different stars are lining up, the Steelers appear to be hedging their bets when it comes to the prospect of keeping JuJu and Bud Pittsburgh beyond 2020.

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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 Needs @ Outside Linebacker–How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh?

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree teamed up to form one of the fiercest outside linebacker duos in the NFL in 2019. For Watt, it was a continued ascension up the ladder towards superstar status. For Bud Dupree, a number one pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, it was a breakout season after four shaky editions that had fans questioning why he was even still on the roster in Year 5.

With the pair back together and ready to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks again in 2020, just how high of a priority will the outside linebacker position be for the Steelers as they prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft?

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

After spending his first two seasons establishing himself as the Steelers best defender, T.J. Watt raised his game even further in his third year. With a stat-line that included 55 tackles, 14.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, a whopping eight forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, Watt not only earned Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors, he put himself firmly into the mix for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, ultimately finishing third behind Stephon Gilmore and Chandler Jones, respectively.

As for Dupree, after coming into 2019 with 20 career sacks in four seasons, a number that was more respectable than his “bust” label warranted — albeit one that was a bit underwhelming for a former first-round pick — Bud Dupree seemingly figured things out in his fifth year, as he recorded 11.5 sacks, to go along with 68 tackles, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Dupree’s season was so impressive, the Steelers decided to retain his services for 2020, placing the franchise tag on him to the tune of just under $16 million.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

The depth behind the Steelers top dogs is rather thin, albeit kind of intriguing.

Ola Adeniyi, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2018, impressed coaches and fans with his ability to get after the quarterback that preseason. Unfortunately, he was injured before the start of the regular season and spent the majority of his rookie year on Injured Reserve. After making the roster as a backup last season, Adeniyi had a hard time cracking the lineup on defense behind Watt, Dupree and veteran backup Anthony Chickillo. All-in-all, Adeniyi recorded just eight tackles.

Tuzar Skipper, a 2019 undrafted free agent and, like Adeniyi, a Toledo alum, wowed coaches and fans even more than his old college teammate, recording five sacks in his inaugural preseason. But to the surprise of many, Skipper was waived just before the start of the regular season and subsequently claimed by the Giants, who also waived him halfway through the year and signed him to their practice squad. The Steelers signed Skipper from New York’s practice squad late in the year and inked him to a two-year deal shortly after the season.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at outside linebacker is University of Pittsburgh alum Dewayne Hendrix.

The Steelers 2020 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

Can the Steelers ink Dupree to a long-term deal? If they don’t by the deadline to do so this summer, will they try the franchise tag again next offseason? After their experience with Le’Veon Bell, that doesn’t seem likely.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Besides, Watt is nearing the end of his rookie deal, one that is set to expire after the 2021 season, provided the Steelers pick up his fifth-year option–an absolute certainty at this point. Given Watt’s current career arc that should soon place him in the same rarefied superstar air as his brother J.J. Watt, the Steelers will likely make T.J. the highest paid defensive player in franchise history.

  • It just doesn’t seem realistic that Pittsburgh can pay both Watt and Dupree superstar money without it severely compromising the salary cap.

With the departure of Chickillo, who was released as a cap casualty at the onset of free agency, again, the lack of proven depth behind Watt and Dupree has to be a major concern. Therefore, the draft priority for the outside linebacker spot can only be considered High-Moderate

 

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