Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

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

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers 2020 Offensive Line Draft Needs: Time to Focus on Foundation for Future

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and by default offense. But 2nd most important position on offense is the line.

A good offensive line can compensate for deficiencies at the skill positions and even, for a limited time, allow a mediocre quarterback to elevate his play. (See Mike Tomczak during the middle of 1996. Yeah, I’m that old.)

While it’s true that the Steelers did win Super Bowl XLIII and appear in Super Bowl XLV in spite of suspect offensive line play, there’s no question that outstanding offensive line play was a cornerstone to the Steelers return to contender status during their four year playoff run from 2014 to 2017.

As core of the line is now over 30, how important is it for the Steelers to reload in the 2020 NFL Draft?

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line in action vs the Rams. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

Times are a changing. With a few tweaks here and there, the Steelers starting lineup on offensive line has been stable since about 2014. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

  • While the Steelers will field many familiar faces in 2020, this season begins a period of transition for the unit.

Maurkice Pouncey returns as a starter. Maurkice Pouncey’s is a perennial Pro Bowler and 2019 was no exception even if his low snaps are a bit of a concern. David DeCastro will return on Pouency’s right side, while Alejandro Villanueva will return at left tackle.

After that things get murky. Matt Felier will start on the line, but it isn’t clear whether that will be a right tackle or at left guard. Newly signed free agent Stefen Wisniewski could be an option at guard, which would likely mean that Felier will remain at right tackle.

However, both Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor could both be in the mix at right tackle. While Zach Banner played as the swing tackle in 2019, the Steelers started Chukwuma Okorafor at tackle against the Rams, just as they’d started him against the Broncos in 2018.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

The addition of Stefen Wisniewski important flexibility at offensive line, and depending on how roster battles pan out, could give the Steelers two starter-capable offensive lineman on the bench.

Which is good, because they don’t have a lot of other developmental prospects in the pipeline.
Derwin Gray, their 2019 7th round pick returns and is listed as a tackle but has experience at guard, and J.C. Hassenauer who did an apprenticeship with Gray on the practice squad will return to fight for roster spots in 2020.

The Steelers 2020 Offensive Draft Needs

The Steelers play at offensive line slipped in 2020. The run blocking was suspect early in the season, and while that did improve a bit, the pass blocking was lacking for much of the year.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

As D.I. Davis has suggested on Steel City Insider, the fact that instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were calling out the pass protections at the line of scrimmage could have a lot to do with that.

  • But so could the unit’s age.

Ramon Foster was 33 and has begun his “Life’s work.” Maurkice Pouncey will be 31. Alejandro Villanueva will be 32. David DeCastro will be crack the big 3-0 this year.

Assuming that either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor starts at right tackle, the average age of the Steelers offensive line should drop, but their three best starters are still another year into their race with Father Time.

  • Quality offensive lineman don’t grow on trees.

The offensive line that led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL “got old” together, and it took several years to rebuild. Barring injury, the Steelers are fortunate in that they don’t have to try to draft offensive lineman who will need to play immediately in 2020.

But you need to start 5 lineman, and you need quality backups. So the Steelers offensive line needs going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

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Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career Helped Shape Offensive Line Transformation in Pittsburgh

All good things come to an end. And so it is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ramon Foster.

While most expected this parting of the ways, Ramon Foster threw everyone a bit of a curve last week by announcing his retirement. Today we take time to step back, look at Ramon Foster’s Steelers career and the role he played during his time in Pittsburgh.

Ramon Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Ramon Foster, ever the class act and always willing to talk to the media, released this statement:

When the time comes, you just know, and now is the time for me to take a bow. I’ve made some friends for a lifetime, had some moments that I’ll never forget and seen some things I never thought I would because of this game. I’m glad to say I was a Steeler for life, and there is no other organization I would have rather played for in my career.

Ramon Foster’s retirement sets in motion a shakeup on the Steelers offensive line that has been remarkably stable for that last several seasons. With B.J. Finney having signed with the Seattle Seahawks in free agency, Foster’s slot will almost certainly be taken by moving Matt Feiler from tackle to guard, opening the way for either Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor to start at right tackle.

In a way, it is fitting that Ramon Foster’s departure will spark changes on the Steelers offensive line because Foster’s arrival, unhearded that it was, started the stabilization process.

Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career – From Transition to Transformation

When the book The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line is written, Ramon Foster’s name won’t earn mention alongside guards from the Super Steelers like Sam Davis and Gerry Mullins. He won’t be seen in the same light as colorful figures like Craig Wolfley, nor will he be considered a peer of should be Hall of Famer Alan Faneca. Objectively speaking, Ramon Foster probably wasn’t as good as the talented, but deeply troubled Carlton Haselrig.

  • But those omissions mask the role that Ramon Foster played authoring a critical transformation of the Steelers offensive line.

One fact that the “Mike Tomlin only won with Bill Cowher’s players” crowd conveniently ignores is that Tomlin didn’t enjoy continuity of Cowher’s offensive line. Jeff Hartings retired in 2006, and Tomlin enjoyed a one year rental from Alan Faneca. Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons performed well in 2007, but both men’s bodies fell apart in 2008.

  • You can best describe the Steelers strategy on offensive line at that point as “Plug and Patch.”

Opportunity would grant 15 minutes of fame to obscure players like Darnell Stapelton and Doug Legursky, who started in Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV respectively.

Out of both necessity and choice, the Steelers would sign players, guys like Justin Hartwig, Chris Kemoeatu, Trai Essex and Max Starks to multi-year deals, only to cut them midway through the contract. Indeed, when the Steelers signed Willie Colon in 2011, La Toalla Terrible joked that the Steelers planned to cut him in two years.

Ramon Foster, who arrived in Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was very much a piece in that plug and patch offensive line strategy. Foster started four games as a rookie, then started another 8 in his second year including Super Bowl XLV.

  • By the 2011 season, Ramon Foster was starting 14 of 15 games.

Yet, the Steelers still saw Foster as a transitional figure, as evidenced by their simultaneous decisions to draft David DeCastro in 2012 and move Willie Colon to guard.

But injuries to both men allowed Foster to stake his claim as permanent starter, and since 2012 Ramon Foster has started 119 regular season and 7 playoff games for the Steelers. And during that time, the offensive line has transformed itself from being a perennial liability, to an area of undisputed strength. And make no mistake about it:

  • Ramon Foster wasn’t simply present for that transition, he actively participated in authoring the the transformation.

And through it all, Ramon Foster has served as a source of stability, helping protect Ben Roethlisberger while opening holes for Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and James Conner. Through it all, Ramon Foster was a locker room leader, whose work ethic on the field and commitment to physical football set an example for all.

  • That’s not a bad resume for an undrafted rookie free agent out of Tennessee.

Suffice to say, Ramon Foster will be missed as he beings his “Life’s Work.” Steel Curtain Rising thanks Ramon Foster for his service and wishes him the best.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

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