2020 NFL Offseason: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Year: 8-8)

2020 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
FB Derek Watt, TE Eric Ebron, C/G Stefen Wisniewski, DT Chris Wormley.
Early Draft Picks:
WR Chase Claypool, DE Alex Highsmith, RB Anthony McFarland Jr., G Kevin Dotson. Steelers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
TE Nick Vannett, G Ramon Foster, C B.J. Finney, DT Javon Hargrave, LB Mark Barron, S Sean Davis.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
Given the problems the Steelers had at quarterback last year, it was a miracle that they nearly made the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger was never 100 percent, as he struggled mightily in the season opener and then had to leave at halftime versus Seattle the following week. He was never seen again, as the Steelers split their quarterback snaps between Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. Both were woeful in most games, as they were benched for each other on several occasions.

Roethlisberger is expected to return to full strength by the season opener, but that’s far from a guarantee. There’s a chance he may not be fully healthy, and it’s worth wondering how much effort he’s putting into his rehab, given that there have been rumors of him considering retirement in the past. Any sort of Roethlisberger would be an upgrade over what the Steelers had at quarterback last year, but it’s puzzling as to why the team neglected to find a better backup. Signing someone like Jameis Winston or Cam Newton would’ve made lots of sense.

Roethlisberger will return to find that he has a better receiving corps than when he was previously on the field. JuJu Smith-Schuster is still a dynamic threat, but the younger players like Diontae Johnson and James Washington flashed as the 2019 campaign progressed. Johnson is a second-year pro with plenty of potential, while Washington made big strides to emerge as a potent deep threat. The Steelers also used a second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft on Chase Claypool, a huge receiver who may have answered some speed concerns with an impressive combine. There’s a chance Claypool could eventually move to tight end, and he’d displace Eric Ebron, who will drop plenty of passes in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were expected to use that second-round choice on a running back, as reports indicated that they were disgruntled with how James Conner performed last year. Conner is a solid, but unspectacular player, and there’s certainly room for improvement. The same can be said of last year’s third-round pick, Benny Snell, as well as this year’s fourth-rounder, Anthony McFarland Jr. Jaylen Samuels is probably the best athlete Pittsburgh has in its backfield, but he’s mostly a receiving threat.

Luckily for the backs, they’ll be running behind a stellar offensive line with only one weakness. That would be at left guard, as Ramon Foster announced his retirement this offseason. Journeyman Stefen Wisniewski is currently slated to be the replacement, but fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson may win the job.

There are no liabilities on the rest of the blocking unit, though center Maurkice Pouncey’s health is always a concern. David DeCastro is one of the better guards in the NFL. Meanwhile, Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler combine to form a stellar tackle tandem. Feiler thrived in his first year as a full-time starter last year. It’s worth noting that Feiler may slide into guard, meaning the right tackle job would come down to either Chukwuma Okorafor or Zach Banner.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
The Steelers nearly made the playoffs despite abysmal quarterbacking because of their defense. The stop unit was otherworldly at times, as there was a five-game stretch in which it didn’t surrender more than 17 points in any contest.

Pittsburgh already had stellar defensive players, but Minkah Fitzpatrick put the unit over the top. The Steelers acquired Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins for a first-round pick, a move that the Dolphins have since regretted, per a Charlie Campbell report in the NFL Hot Press. Fitzpatrick was a dynamic play-maker in the secondary that Pittsburgh sorely needed since Troy Polamalu’s retirement. Fitzpatrick was a massive upgrade next to fellow safety Terrell Edmunds, who continues to struggle in coverage.

Edmunds appears to be the sole weakness in the secondary. Joe Haden is a stellar cornerback, though his age (31) is becoming a concern. The other starter, Steven Nelson, made a huge leap in his performance last year, and it could be argued that he was better than Haden. Mike Hilton, meanwhile, is solid at covering the slot.

The Steelers’ great secondary works well with the pass rush, which did a great job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks last year. T.J. Watt is one of the top edge rushers in the NFL, as he logged 14.5 sacks in 2019. Bud Dupree also eclisped the double-digit barrier, notching 11.5 sacks of his own. Dupree had previously not lived up to his first-round billing, but 2019 was a breakout year for him. Third-round rookie Alex Highsmith will provide new depth at the position.

Pittsburgh also generates quarterback pressure from its excellent defensive line. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are an amazing tandem of five-techniques. What’s truly remarkable is that Tuitt was lost for the season just prior to the Week 7 bye with a torn pectoral, so Pittsburgh’s defense could be even better in 2020 with Tuitt returning from that injury. He and Heyward will sandwich new starting nose tackle Dan McCullers, who will take over for the Philadelphia-bound Javon Hargrave.

McCullers will have to play well to fill Hargrave’s shoes, and the same can be said of Devin Bush in relation to Ryan Shazier’s former role. The Steelers traded up for Bush in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he had a mediocre rookie campaign. The potential is there for him to make a big leap in his second season. He’ll continue to start next to Vince Williams, who played well last year.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Steelers had some major kicking woes in 2015 – until they found Chris Boswell, who drilled 35-of-38 attempts, including 4-of-4 from 50-plus, in 2017. However, Boswell struggled in 2018, but rebounded last year by hitting 29-of-31 attempts. He drilled every single extra point.

Jordan Berry has regressed in the net-punting ranking, dropping from 15th in 2016, to 23rd in 2017, to 26th in 2018. He bounced back to finish 21st in 2019.

Pittsburgh was mixed on special teams last year, outgaining the opposition on punt returns, but losing on kickoffs.

The Steelers have a mixed schedule. They have some tough games against the Eagles, Cowboys, Colts and Ravens twice. They’ll also get to beat up on the Jaguars, Redskins and Bengals twice.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies:
Go here for the Steelers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2020 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: Because the Steelers didn’t acquire a better backup quarterback, their fortunes hinge on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. If Roethlisberger can return to the field and be at least 80 percent of his former self, the Steelers will have a chance to make a deep run into the playoffs. Conversely, if Roethlisberger is ineffective or injured, Pittsburgh will once again come close to reaching the playoffs because of its stellar defense, but won’t quite get over the hump.

Projection: 10-6 (Tied 2nd in AFC North)

2019 Projection: 11-5. 2019 Actual Result: 8-8.
2018 Projection: 8-8. 2018 Actual Result: 9-6-1.
2017 Projection: 11-5. 2017 Actual Result: 13-3.
2016 Projection: 10-6. 2016 Actual Result: 11-5.

NFL Draft Team Grade: C Grade

Goals Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Steelers don’t have a first-round pick as a result of the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade, so they must somehow find two new players for their backfield: one being a successor (and insurance) for Ben Roethlisberger, and the other being an upgrade over James Conner. Some help for the blocking and edge rush wouldn’t hurt either.

2020 NFL Draft Accomplishments: In a bizarre turn of events, the Steelers didn’t address their backfield until the middle of the fourth round. I thought this was a big mistake. They had several talented running backs fall to them in the middle of the second frame, but they passed on them. One of them, J.K. Dobbins, ended up going to Baltimore. This is something the Steelers may regret for a long time.

The Steelers finally took a running back at No. 124, Anthony McFarland Jr., which was a mediocre pick at best. It was one of two “C” grades the Steelers received in their first three picks, with the other being Chase Claypool. I don’t know if Claypool will transition to tight end, but if not, he’ll be in a very crowded receiving corps. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith was taken in between, and that earned a “B.”

The Steelers had a very lackluster draft overall. Not having a first-round pick played a part, but it’s mostly that they didn’t alter their backfield at all, which is something they very much needed to do.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

49. Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame – C Grade
Meh. Chase Claypool blew up the combine and helped his draft stock, but I’m still not sure if he can separate from coverage or even play wide receiver at the next level. If the Steelers have plans for Claypool to play tight end or H-back at some point, this pick makes more sense. Otherwise, Claypool will be joining a very crowded receiving corps, and I’m not quite sure he can become a top-three player at the position for the Steelers.

102. Alex Highsmith, DE, Charlotte – B Grade
Alex Highsmith’s stock was rising prior to the draft, so it’s not a surprise to see him chosen at this juncture. This makes sense for the Steelers, who could lose Bud Dupree to free agency next year. Highsmith needs one more year to develop, so the timing is perfect because he can take over for Dupree in 2021.

124. Anthony McFarland Jr., RB, Maryland – C Grade
I think this is a bit too high for Anthony McFarland Jr., but he’s not an egregious reach. There were some reports that he has character concerns, but I’m not sure about those. McFarland is athletic and possesses upside, so he should be able to fit into Pittsburgh’s running back rotation somehow.

135. Kevin Dotson, G, Louisiana-Lafayette – D Grade
Bad picks, bad draft coverage. This sucks. Kevin Dotson was a late-rounder or a UDFA talent. He’s strong, but plays with horrible technique. He’s a major project.

198. Antoine Brooks, LB/S, Maryland – A Grade
This is a nice bargain, as I think Antoine Brooks could’ve been chosen in the fourth round. Brooks is a bit of a tweener, but he’s an excellent tackler who should be able to help Pittsburgh in run support. Coverage might be an issue, but he can play two downs.

232. Carlos Davis, DT, Nebraska – B Grade
Carlos Davis offers very little as a pass rusher, but he’s a solid run stuffer. If the Steelers need an extra defensive lineman to clog the trenches, Davis will be able to make the 53-man roster.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

Season Summary:
All hope appeared to be lost when Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the year after Week 2. Mike Tomlin did his best to rally the troops, and Pittsburgh was in playoff contention until the very end, but the horrid quarterback play ruined the team’s chances.

Offseason Moves:
  • Steelers acquire DE/DT Chris Wormley from Ravens
  • Steelers sign TE Eric Ebron
  • Steelers sign C/G Steven Wisniewski
  • Steelers sign FB Derek Watt
  • Steelers announce retirement of G Ramon Foster

    Team Needs:
    1. Quarterback: The Steelers must find a young quarterback to eventually replace Ben Roethlisberger because Mason Rudolph is not the long-term answer.

    2. Edge Rusher: Bud Dupree is coming off his best season yet, but he’s due to hit free agency. Franchised Bud Dupree

    3. Nose Tackle: Javon Hargrave is another player who is set to hit the open market in March, so he’ll need to be retained as well.

    4. Guard: Ramon Foster has announced his retirement. Signed Stefen Wisniewski

    5. Slot Cornerback: Mike Hilton is the key free agent in the secondary. A new slot corner will be needed if he departs.

    6. Interior Offensive Line Depth: Ramon Foster is nearing his mid-30s, while backup center B.J. Finney is entering free agency, so some new reserve interior linemen are needed.

    7. Punter: Jordan Berry has been 21st or worse in net punting over the past three seasons.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2020 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Eric Ebron, TE, Colts. Age: 27.
      Signed with Steelers (2 years, $12 million)

      Eric Ebron is one of the most frustrating players in the NFL. He’s very athletic and talented, but he constantly drops passes, runs bad routes and quits on his team.

    2. Stefen Wisniewski, C/G, Chiefs. Age: 31. — Signed with Steelers (2 years)
    3. Derek Watt, FB, Chargers. Age: 27. — Signed with Steelers (3 years, $9.75 million)

    Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Bud Dupree, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 27.
      Franchised by Steelers

      Bud Dupree was seen as a disappointment since being chosen in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but he had a breakout 2019 campaign, logging 11.5 sacks. There’s a chance Dupree could regress, but we’ve seen what he’s capable of.

    2. Javon Hargrave, NT, Steelers. Age: 27.
      Signed with Eagles (3 years, $39 million)

      Javon Hargrave is a monster nose tackle. He stuffs the run and gets decent pressure on the quarterback. He’s still young, so he could improve his game even more.

    3. Matt Feiler (RFA), OT, Steelers. Age: 28.
      Tendered by Steelers (2nd round)

      Matt Feiler was phenomenal in his first full year as Pittsburgh’s starting right tackle. He’s a restricted free agent, so he should warrant a high tender.

    4. Mike Hilton (RFA), CB, Steelers. Age: 26.
      Tendered by Steelers (2nd round)

      Mike Hilton is a quality slot cornerback. He covers very well, but has a habit of missing tackles.

    5. B.J. Finney, C, Steelers. Age: 28.
      Signed with Seahawks (2 years, $8 million)

      The Steelers didn’t suffer a dropoff at all when Maurkice Pouncey was suspended because B.J. Finney did a solid job as a replacement. Finney could start elsewhere.

    6. Mark Barron, LB, Steelers. Age: 30.
    7. Zach Banner (RFA), OT, Steelers. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Steelers (1 year)
    8. Nick Vannett, TE, Steelers. Age: 27. — Signed with Broncos (2 years)
    9. Sean Davis, S, Steelers. Age: 26. — Signed with Redskins
    10. Anthony Chickillo, DE/OLB, Steelers. Age: 27. — Signed with Saints
    11. Trey Edmunds (RFA), RB, Steelers. Age: 25.
    12. Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Steelers. Age: 27. — Signed with Bills (2 years, $9 million)
    13. Johnny Holton, WR, Steelers. Age: 29.
    14. Roosevelt Nix, FB, Steelers. Age: 28.
    15. Ryan Shazier, ILB, Steelers. Age: 27.
    16. L.T. Walton (RFA), DT, Steelers. Age: 28.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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