With the NFL draft approaching, there is a lot of debate over what positions the Steelers should prioritize. In order to make an informed decision, we first need to evaluate the players, and following the 2019 season, that is particularly hard to do.
Lets go through each position group really quickly and cover some of the issues that haunt would-be talent evaluators.
Ben Roethlisberger is returning from injury, and he’s not young. Will he return in top form, will he be okay, will he be unable to last the season? These are all questions that put more importance on the backup QB position, and that’s not easy to evaluate either.
Mason Rudolph won games, and until that dreadful Cleveland game had a 93 passer rating and a very good 11/4 TD/INT ratio. Here’s a chart of the QBs that threw between 100 and 285 passes last season. I included Mason Rudolph’s totals and his pre-Cleveland numbers. These are Mason Rudolph’s competitors for backup QB in 2019 that actually played.
Mason Rudolph rates pretty well on this chart until that Cleveland game. his film is all over the place too. I think his best film was the week before he faced Cleveland, the Rams game, when he was getting passes out on time and moving the ball against a very good defense. But we all saw how he played the following week.
Devlin Hodges made the incredible leap from FCS to NFL starter with very little investment put in him, and he kept his head above water for weeks before teams figured him out. If Mason Rudolph didn’t get injured in the Jets game where he was playing better again, Hodges doesn’t look as bad. Can he turn moxie and a few NFL quality traits into a career as a backup QB, or is the story of Hodges’ NFL career already over?
You can’t even just draw conclusions from their production alone either, in large part because of what was going on with their receivers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster started the season hot, when the entire rest of the team was cold, accounting for 23.7% of the teams yards through week 5, and that includes the Cincinatti game where the WRs combined failed to account for even 1⁄4 of the team passing yards. That percentage of team offense is matched by only two of Antonio Brown’s seasons. JuJu was pulling an Antonio Brown sized load of the offense through 5 games. After that. . . not so much. Returning to the team toward the end of the season, JuJu Smith-Schuster barely did anything, as he and Devlin Hodges couldn’t connect at all. And yet when Mason Rudolph returned against the Jets Smith-Schuster caught a few good passes.
Diontae Johnson was an alright #2 WR all season, until the last few games when the offense was getting destroyed as teams pounced all over Devlin Hodges. then Diontae Johnson was the only WR doing anything. What can we expect from Diontae Johnson in year 2? Was it a breakout end to the season, or just that he was the WR Devlin Hodges had the most chemistry with when other teams stopped respecting him as a passer entirely?
James Washington might be the worst player to evaluate on the team. For 11 games he was nobody. But for 4 games from week 9-12 James Washington produced like an all-pro while filling up highlight reels.
Are the Steelers boasting one of the deepest 3 WR sets in the NFL, creating headaches for opponents no matter who they cover? Maybe. Or maybe James Washington is a one-trick pony without the speed to make it work once teams figured him out, Diontae Johnson is a solid depth WR with good chemistry with the Steelers bottom of the depth chart QB, and JuJu is solid but not good enough to create opportunity for the other guys. We can look at history and tell that JuJu is productive, but we don’t have any history with the other 2.
Running back is another position with 3 players that could be good or could be nothing, and we don’t really know. James Conner followed a strong 2018 that ended with injury, with another injury riddled season where he had one game of 60+ rushing yards. Conner ran for 154 yards, 31% of his rushing for the season came in one of his ten games. James Conner was the most boom or bust RB for the Steelers in 2019, leading the team in runs that failed to gain a yard and also in runs that gained 10 or more yards. Conner also led the entire team in receiving yards twice in 2019.
Benny Snell was a more reliable runner, and the team posted a 4-1 record when Benny Snell led the team in rushing, compared to a 2-6 record when James Conner led the team in rushing. Yet Benny Snell was far from impressive as a receiver and not nearly as big a threat to break a longer run. An interesting note here is that Snell had the highest percentage of runs against a loaded box of any RB in the NFL (via Rotounderworld’s player profiler) and the sixth highest average number of defenders in the box.
Jaylen Samuels was mostly a pass catching back who struggled with pass blocking much more this season than last season, but then James Conner struggled blocking too. Should we blame them, the QBs, the offensive changes Randy Fichtner put in to help the young QBs?
The Steelers two main rushers, James Conner and Benny Snell faced more men in the box and a higher percentage of loaded box fronts than league leader Derrick Henry did in 2019. The Steelers also put more WRs on the field than the Titans did, averaging 2.54 WRs per snap while the Titans averaged 2.37 WRs per snap. Benny Snell averaged 7 men in the box, James Conner 6.9 and Derrick Henry 6.8.
Who do you blame for that? The WRs, the offensive play-calling, the QBs?
The offensive line struggled, but with teams putting more players in the box than they would against other teams that were run-based, how can we expect them not to?
Take a look back at the week 6 win against the Chargers in LA, the Steelers got a rare win on the West coast in a game when James Conner accounted for 59.1% of the teams receiving yards while the leading rusher was Benny Snell. Combined they accounted for 208 of the teams 256 total yards, while the leading WR had 2 catches for 14 yards.
Do the Steelers potentially have one of the best 2-back combos in the NFL? Are all the WRs trash? Is Devlin Hodges just that bad and Randy Fichtner drew up a great game plan to get a win by attacking the Chargers LBs in different ways? I mean someone did something right there, who do you want to give the credit to?
Heading into the draft the Steelers have to evaluate a team that frankly, could contain 7 pro-bowl caliber players on offense or zero. And everyone in Steeler nation has their own opinion as to what players are legit and which ones aren’t. What players on this offense do you think are legit starters? Which ones aren’t worth a roster spot?