It’s the time of year to reflect on the Pittsburgh Steelers past, present and future NFL Draft picks.
With less than two weeks until the 2021 NFL Draft is underway, the hype train for players and teams looking to take them alike is nearly trending off the rails. The NFL Draft provides football lovers with perhaps the greatest guessing game known to man, as the draft board never truly shakes out like anybody expects it to.
As with every NFL Draft, the Steelers again have a difficult decision with the 24 overall pick in the first round. And much like every decision, past, present or future, media and keyboard/microphone critics alike will be there to dissect every aspect of the newest members to don black and gold.
With no first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft thanks to the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers found themselves waiting until the second day of the draft to welcome the newest member of the team, a mystery player that remained precisely that right until the moment the pick was announced.
Filled with highs, lows and a plethora of opinions, we’re able to look back on the Steelers’ 2020 draft class one year later with the ability of hindsight:
Erase the Whole Damn Thing
When you get into this business, one of the best tools to beat the rush and get time-sensitive information out is the tool of anticipation. Everybody had sort of an inkling that the Steelers would either go running back or wide receiver with their first pick (pick 49 in the second-round). The question wasn’t if, but more so, who the pick would be.
With nine receivers off the board and just three picks until Pittsburgh was on the clock, yours truly was extremely convinced Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins would be the newest ball-carrier in Pittsburgh. The further Dobbins slid into the middle of the second round, the more plausible that scenario became.
So, like any self-respecting journalist would do, I began the news article for Dobbins’ arrival in Pittsburgh. Grabbed a slick-looking image, pulled up scouting reports, the whole nine yards. The submit button was begging to be smashed, until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Chase Claypool, wide receiver from Notre Dame, as the pick.
When I tell you readers that very few things have been erased faster in human history than the article we had ready to go for Dobbins, I mean it. The Steelers shocked us, like many others watching the draft. As it turned out, Pittsburgh fell in love with Claypool during the draft process, and were surprised to see he was still on the board.
“When we got down to the Senior Bowl and Coach Tomlin and I got up close on the practice field and watched his physicality and blocking drills, his physicality and special-teams drills, it really stood out,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert to NBC’s Mike Florio following the draft. “Plus he’s a 6’4″, 230-pound receiver that can get deep, and quite honestly we didn’t have that threat last year. We didn’t have that tall receiver that can just outrun coverage. We’ve always had that in the past with Nate Washington, Mike Wallace, or Martavis Bryant. Again, that was very attractive to us in the long term. In the short term we know Chase will be a special-teams contributor right out of the gate.”
As it would turn out, Claypool’s rookie campaign showed a lot of promise. His four-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles early in the season showed just how dominant Claypool could be on the field. “Mapletron” still has some aspects to sharpen, yet despite being a surprise pick to many outside of the Steelers front office, his trajectory after one year looks to ensure he was the right pick made.
Chess, not Checkers
After dealing their third-round pick to the Denver Broncos the year before in a trade that saw the Steelers move up for linebacker Devin Bush, the Steelers were forced to wait until the very end of the third-round, utilizing their compensatory pick with the fifth to last selection of the night.
With a handful of needs that still needed to be satisfied, the Steelers were completely open for business for their second selection of the draft. Six running backs would go before the Steelers would pick again, as well as other talented players such as Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and a handful of starting-caliber offensive linemen.
When Charlotte outside linebacker Alex Highsmith’s name flashed across the screen, the Steelers’ plan became clear: With limited draft capital, we’re here to bolster depth now and plan for the future.
Just as the Steelers didn’t need a receiver in the second round, the team didn’t exactly need an edge rusher in the third, either. It was clear that Highsmith would sit behind Bud Dupree for his rookie season and play a limited role unless injuries called Highsmith to duty. Yet that’s precisely what happened, as Dupree fell to a torn ACL in the latter parts of the season, forcing Highsmith to step in, a mission Highsmith completed quite well with all things considered.
With Dupree departing in free agency, Highsmith now looks to take over starting duties opposite of T.J. Watt. Pittsburgh’s scouting department is consistently hailed for doing their due diligence when it comes to “smaller” schools, and Highsmith was another solid choice despite a rookie campaign that saw him study from the sideline for most of the season.
By this point in the draft, the Steelers were confident in their abilities to draft players that would pay dividends for the future at positions that were already filled. That’s the luxury of playing chess, not checkers.
Diamond in the Rough
On the last day of the NFL Draft, you’ll typically see a lot of movement from teams looking for any valuable player that slipped through the cracks of the first three rounds.
With two fourth-round picks, the Steelers were a popular pick for educated guessers to move up and potentially snag one of those players in the early stages of the fourth round.
Yet the Steelers stayed true to both picks, with their first of two finally addressing the running back stable with Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, a home-run hitting back in college that looked to provide some sense of speed out of the Steelers’ backfield. With James Conner still on the roster (as well as Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels), hindsight proved the Steelers were confident in waiting for a running back when convenient for them.
McFarland’s impact during his rookie season was minor due to minimal chances, and with the Steelers favored to land another running back early in the 2021 NFL Draft, it appears Pittsburgh isn’t willing to bet on McFarland (or Snell) as a three-down back moving forward.
However, the Steelers may just bet the house on their second fourth-round pick (Lousiana guard Kevin Dotson), taken eleven picks later. Pittsburgh needed depth in the interior, yet many that studied the offensive line class for 2020 felt the Steelers found a rare diamond in the rough in Dotson.
The Steelers would quickly find out that Dotson was not only a starting-caliber offensive guard, he would also prove to be the team’s best performing offensive linemen more times than not when on the field.
With the departure of Matt Feiler, Dotson now slides into the starting left guard spot in Pittsburgh, a role Dotson can potentially anchor for the long run if his rookie season projects anything for his future.
Time for Projects
With only a sixth and seventh-round pick left to go, Pittsburgh’s work was nearly finished. The only thing left? Find a handful of players to potentially develop and hope for the best in the last two rounds of the draft.
The Steelers again dipped in the Maryland pond by taking Terrepain safety Antoine Brooks Jr, a versatile guy who played a little of every secondary position through his time in college. His abilities as a tackler near the box could serve as a beneficial backup to Terrell Edmunds, yet Brooks spent his rookie season going up and down from the practice squad.
Pittsburgh’s final pick in the seventh-round came in the form of Nebraska defensive linemen Carlos Davis; an athletic guy thought to potentially be a solid depth piece behind Tyson Alualu at nose tackle. Davis replaced Daniel McCullers on the Steelers’ active roster despite being inactive for the first seven games of the season. With Alualu set to retire within the next few years, Davis has time to refine his craft and will hopefully be ready when the opportunity arises.
Six new players would find themselves as the newest members of the Pittsburgh Steelers when the 2020 NFL Draft concluded. As certain as the Sun rising each morning, reactions to each team’s respective draft class spread through every conceivable medium possible.
Within the organization, the Steelers were ecstatic to turn a draft class without a first-round pick into the collective product they had built. Outside of the city, however, Pittsburgh’s 2020 draft class was met with vastly different responses:
“If you understood what Pittsburgh was doing, fill me in” said Thor Nystrom of Rotoworld following the draft.
“Pittsburgh’s first-round pick is already a success considering it was dealt last year for Pro Bowl free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick,” said NFL analyst Andy Benoit. “That takes a bit of the sting out of the possibility that no one from this draft class will make major contributions in 2020.”
FantasyPros’ Mike Tagliere shared similar feelings:
“If you’ve followed my draft coverage, you’d know that Claypool isn’t someone I liked, especially knowing he would go inside the top three rounds. Highsmith in the third round was a reach, as there were some good edge rushers on the board at that time. McFarland should be a fun player to watch in Pittsburgh, but his selection also makes the draft pick they used on Jaylen Samuels to seem useless. There’s not a signature player from this draft that I can see being an impact player for them, though Dotson could be a piece on their offensive line.”
Hindsight is always 20/20, and that’s no different for Pittsburgh’s 2020 draft class. Nearly a year removed from the chaotic three-day rollercoaster that was the 2020 NFL Draft, Steelers fans are able to reflect on previous picks, takes and articles alike.
So, what’s hindsight tell us?
The Steelers’ 2020 rookie class offers a lot of upside. Chase Claypool has shown he can dominate on an NFL gridiron while possessing the tools to build himself further, while Alex Highsmith and Kevin Dotson both performed admirably well when called upon.
Pittsburgh’s draft was nowhere close to electric. The needle of excitement wasn’t necessarily moved when compared to those in the likes of Dallas, Baltimore or Denver.
Yet the team had one clear goal in mind, and they accomplished it: Find potential replacement pieces at key positions. While Claypool will have to wait at least one more year to be a potential successor to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dotson and Highsmith will see themselves as starters in year two, following in the footsteps of those they once played behind last season.
While the jury will still be out for the long-term success of the 2020 draft, the Steelers have to be satisfied with their short-term returns. Should McFarland, Brooks or Davis contribute to similar levels as the aforementioned starters, the Steelers will have had another strong draft class under their belt.
Looking back at prior comments about Pittsburgh’s draft, it’s easy to chuckle and place clown noses on those who challenged the Steelers’ picks. The reality is, no team has a perfect draft. Players will be hit, missed and merely average on all sorts of scales every draft season. We’re often reminded that players newly drafted will take time to develop, as we saw with Bud Dupree’s late bloom and what we may be witnessing with Terrell Edmunds in the current moment.
Sharing opinions about the draft closely ranks near death and taxes as certainties in life. Content will be needed to be consumed, and thus it will be created. Draft grades, opinion pieces and other articles alike will flood your timelines before we know it.
The lesson to learn from last year’s immediate reactions? Things (and players) take time to adjust. We, as football fans, are so uncertain of how a player will perform thanks to a myriad of uncontrollable factors. It’s unfair to pin either poor words or high expectations on young men who have yet to be thrown in the fire, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin would say.
We at home have the benefit of hindsight. So, as we slowly watch Pittsburgh’s draft unfold, it’s important to remain open-minded with each pick and reserve our true judgments for later down the road.
Unless the Steelers take a player you don’t like, of course.
Donnie Druin is a Deputy Editor with AllSteelers. Follow Donnie on Twitter @DonnieDruin, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.