From the second the 2020 draft came to a close, speculation had already started up for the 2021 class. So, in that spirit, here we are with an article series highlighting prospects who look to be this upcoming draft’s biggest stars.
And the season hasn’t even started yet.
Admittedly, “way too early” draft predictions are exactly what they’re titled: Way too early - and as a result, are very rarely, or perhaps never, accurate at all.
In this draft primer series, we won’t be mocking players to any teams, but rather looking at the top players at each position who could get drafted by the Steelers with their first few picks in 2021. Prospects such as Trevor Lawrence, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Fields, and Penei Sewell, who are all expected to be gone long before the Steelers are projected to pick in the first round, will not be included.
The goal? Not to make any “hot take” predictions, but rather to look at some players that Steeler fans might want to watch a little closer than usual this college season.
Eighth in this series will be the position that has produced some of the most valued defensive players in the NFL: pass-rushers. They are ranked in no particular order.
Hamilcar Rashed Jr., OLB #9, Oregon State
2019 stats: 62 total tackes, 42 solo tackles, 14 sacks, 2 forced fumbles.
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 236 lbs.
Coming from a lesser-known program in Oregon State, Rashed quietly put up one of the best defensive seasons in the nation last year. He’s undersized for a pass-rusher, even a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he’s incredibly productive, athletic, and solid against the run and as an edge rusher. Rashed has a lighting-quick first step, and at times would seemingly just run around an offensive tackle for a sack.
Rashed’s production is what sets him ahead of everyone else as he logged 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in his 2019 season. Rashed’s impact was similar to that of Chase Young or Gregory Rousseau for the Oregon State defense, even though he didn't gain as much national recognition.
Rashed needs to bulk up a little bit to be able to succeed against NFL lineman and he will also prove that his 2019 season wasn’t a fluke. A strong season this year could catapult Rashed into the first round, as his athleticism and production combination will impress many teams. As of right now, popular mock drafts have seen the pass-rushing linebacker go anywhere from the top 20 picks to the late third round.
Some notable articles about Hamilcar Rashed Jr.:
CFB Week 12 Risers & Sliders: Oregon State’s Hamilcar Rashad turning heads - Pro Football Network
2021 NFL Draft: Oregon State’s Rashed Jr. a first-round rusher? - Pro Football Network
2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Hamilcar Rashed Jr., OLB, Oregon State University - NFL Draft Network
Carlos Basham Jr., DE #18, Wake Forest
2019 stats: 57 total tackes, 26 solo tackles, 11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles.
Height/Weight: 6’5”, 275 lbs.
Basham, the cousin of New York Jets’ linebacker Tarell Basham, could be the next member of his family to play in the NFL. He has a nonstop motor and a wide variety of pass-rush moves. He enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2019, but decided to return to school for his senior year despite impressive production as a junior.
Basham is a solid athlete, but draft reports show he might have to work on his speed, agility, and power to truly succeed in the NFL. Adding some more athleticism to his already impressive technique would make Basham a truly dominant edge threat. There are some concerns over Basham’s run defense, but he has all of the tools to succeed and will no doubt improve in that area over the next few seasons.
Basham was projected to go in the second or third rounds in last year’s draft, but has a chance at sneaking into the first in 2021. He currently projects as more of a 4-3 defensive end, but a few dropped pounds or creative coaching could find a role for him as a 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker.
Some notable articles about Carlos Basham Jr.:
Carlos Basham Jr. Draft Profile - The Draft Network
2021 NFL Draft: Don’t overlook Wake Forest EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. - Pro Football Network
Quincy Roche, DE #9, Miami
2019 stats: 49 total tackes, 36 solo tackles, 13 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
Height/Weight: 6’4”, 235 lbs.
After an impressive career as a Temple Owl, Roche transferred to Miami for his final college season. Roche is currently listed at defensive end, but projects more as a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level due to his skillset and size. Roche has great bend, a explosive first step, and overall superb athleticism.
As a smaller defensive end, Roche possesses surprising strength. His hand usage is also impressive. In 2019, Roche impressed both fans and stat geeks with his incredible athleticism, production, and a 93.3 pass-rush grade from PFF.
Roche still has room to improve in some areas, specifically his consistency, but is considered by some to be the top edge rusher in this year’s class. Placed across from another dominant defensive end in Gregory Rousseau at Miami, Roche could either elevate his level of play and production, or be stuck in the shadow of his talented defensive teammate. Roche is currently projected as a first round pick, but a lot could still change in 2020.
Some notable articles about Quincy Roche:
Temple’s Quincy Roche says that transferring is the best decision for him and his family - The Philadelphia Inquirer
Xavier Thomas, DE #9, Clemson
2019 stats: 27 total tackes, 10 solo tackles, 2 sacks, 0 forced fumbles.
Height/Weight: 6’2”, 265 lbs.
After some impressive hype coming out of high school and a solid freshman year at Clemson, Xavier Thomas regressed as a sophomore in nearly every statistical category. He is an athletic, powerful pass-rusher with some position versatility. A power rush is Thomas’ specialty, but he isn’t limited to just pure strength. He’s stockier than an ideal edge player, but still has surprising speed and bend despite his lack of length.
Thomas’ 2019 regression was a concern, but Clemson also went through a scheme change which could have hampered his development as a player. He’ll need to work on his consistency, technique, and production in 2020 to live up to his potential.
Draft pundits have long been awaiting a breakout season from Thomas, and most mock draft projections for him are built on the assumption he’ll be one of the best pass-rushers in the nation at the end of this year. Thomas is currently projected as a fringe first-rounder, but it will take more than two sacks from him to be picked in the top 32.
Some notable articles about Xavier Thomas:
Xavier Thomas Ready To Move On From 2019 - All Clemson
Prove It: Xavier Thomas - All Clemson
Some other names to look out for this season include Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II, Washington’s Joe Tyron, and Stanford’s Thomas Booker.
Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau is currently considered to be a top 5-10 pick, and was therefore not included in this article as he won’t likely be available when Pittsburgh selects in 2021.
Penn State’s Micah Parsons is another name who has been mentioned as an edge player, and still might drop to within the Steelers’ range in the 2021 draft. However, he’s generally projected as linebacker, not a pure pass-rusher, meaning he’ll be brought up in a different article.
Which pass-rusher would you most like to see as a Pittsburgh Steeler next year?
This poll is closed
Hamilcar Rashed Jr.
Carlos Basham Jr.
Will the Steelers be adding another pass-rusher to the roster following the 2021 NFL Draft?
A lot depends on how the team feels about Alex Highsmith.
While Bud Dupree seems to be the bigger variable here, Highsmith’s level of play in 2020 could determine the Steelers’ future at the outside linebacker position. If Highsmith shows he can start, the Steelers might decide not to extend Dupree, pushing Highsmith into a starting role. This would open up a spot to back up T.J. Watt and Highsmith, most likely with a late-round player. If Dupree prices himself out of town anyway, the Steelers would be forced to find a new starter opposite Watt. Highmsith’s play would determine whether he is that new starter or if the team needs to find another high-pedigree linebacker. There’s also the possibility, however unlikely, the team doesn’t even trust Highsmith as depth, prompting them to search for another rotational pass-rusher to back up Dupree.
The Steelers have shown an affinity for first round linebackers over the years, but they seem set at the position entering the 2020 season. Contract issues for Dupree or a disappointing rookie year from Highsmith could still elevate OLB to a position of need in the upcoming draft. Whether Dupree stays or not next year is still up in the air, but Alex Highsmith could make the transition into a post-Dupree defense much smoother.
On the other side of Dupree is superstar pass-rusher T.J. Watt, who thankfully won’t be going anywhere as one of the best players at his position.
As always, the upcoming season will be the biggest indicator for which players the Steelers pick in the 2021 draft. However, a backup pass-rusher might have a larger impact on his team’s future than some may think.