The 2019 season was a crazy one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team the Steelers ran out on the field to start the season against the Patriots on September 8th and the team that left the field at the end of the season on December 29th were very different. For this stock report on the Steelers’ roster, I’m going to look at the current state of each position versus two different points in time. First, what the Steelers looked to have at the start of the 2019 training camp, and secondly, what the Steelers had at the end of the 2019 season.
Starting with the offense in this article, and continuing with the defense in Part 2. Let’s get to it.
Before the 2019 season started the Steelers had the leading passer in the NFL returning as the starter, and the backup duo they had the year prior. The question out of camp was if Mason Rudolph was ready to take the No. 2 spot from Josh Dobbs. Oh for those days of innocence...
At the end of the 2019 season the quarterback room was a mess. Ben Roethlisberger was on injured reserve, Mason Rudolph struggled, improved, had a nightmare game against the Browns, lost the starting job, got back onto the field in week 16 only to be injured. Devlin Hodges had won 3 games as an un-drafted rookie, but also smashed head first into the rookie wall and wasn’t remotely close to playing quality NFL football at the end of the season.
As the 2020 NFL season approaches the Steelers franchise quarterback is back, looking fit and throwing with improved strength. They also have a unique situation behind Ben Roethlisberger. All three potential backup quarterbacks have started multiple NFL games and all three have at least one win in the NFL. A much better situation than heading into 2019 when the Steelers backups had thrown a grand total of 12 NFL passes for 43 yards and an interception.
While there are more questions surrounding Ben Roethlisberger today then there were a year ago, the backup quarterbacks are in a much better place, with significantly more experience across the board.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock even.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock WAY up.
Last year at the start of training camp James Conner was viewed as a top ten running back by a lot of people, and rightly so. Conner amassed nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 13 games in the 2018 season. The big question coming into camp was if the Steelers could use Jaylen Samuels (coming off a phenomenal game against the Patriots) and rookie Benny Snell Jr. effectively enough to keep James Conner healthy through the season.
By the end of the 2019 season James Conner had been in and out of the lineup with limited production throughout, Jaylen Samuels led all Steeler running backs in offensive snaps, and while Samuels was a consistent receiver out of the backfield his 2.7 yards per carry wasn’t acceptable. Benny Snell had 8 fewer carries and 38 fewer yards than James Conner without being very impressive. Not exactly the result fans were hoping for after Conner’s big 2018 season.
In 2020 the Steelers have added another running back to the room, brought in a new fullback, but questions abound. Can James Conner be a dynamic producer for a full season? Can Benny Snell build on his rookie year and take on a bigger role to compliment or supplant Conner? Is there a good role for Jaylen Samuels in this offense? And lastly, what can rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. offer the offense?
While there is much less confidence in this group than there was following James Conner’s Pro-Bowl 2018, the running back room is deep and versatile heading into 2020.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock down.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock slightly up.
The Steelers 2019 training camp had a major question at wide receiver. Just a bit over 3 months before camp opened, the Steelers traded their all-pro wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, and that move would dominate the discussion, media questions and analysis of the Steelers wide receivers. Was JuJu Smith-Schuster ready to be a number one receiver? Would James Washington improve on his uneventful rookie season? Would free agent signing Donte Moncrief be the deep threat the Steelers lacked in 2018?
By the end of the 2019 season Antonio Brown and his drama weren’t being missed by any Steeler fans, Donte Moncrief wasn’t on the roster, Ryan Switzer wasn’t on the field anymore, and JuJu Smith-Schuster was hurt and struggled most of the season. In good news James Washington, though inconsistent, rose up to lead the Steelers in receiving, while rookie Diontae Johnson showed he was ready to be a significant part of the offense, leading the Steelers and all rookies in receptions while leading the Steelers in receiving touchdowns.
The 2020 Steelers look to have the three leading wide receivers from the previous season on the roster for the first time since 2015, and they aren’t just bringing back those three. The Steelers added to the room by drafting 2nd round pick Chase Claypool. Diontae Johnson is poised to take a big second year leap, JuJu Smith-Schuster should rebound nicely with the return of his quarterback and James Washington, the leading receiver from 2019, could end up being the #3 or even #4 receiver on this offense even with his improved play. That’s no knock on James Washington either, this position is as deep as it has been since the 2011 season when Antonio Brown’s break out gave the Steelers a 4-headed receiver room with Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Hines Ward rounding out the group in his final season.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock up.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock up.
The Steelers let Jesse James leave in free agency after a season when he and Vance McDonald had been the most balanced and productive tight end duo for the Steelers in a very long time. In 2019 the Steelers added a late round TE to the room, but with Vance McDonald’s injury history, and only Xavier Grimble with experience at the position behind him, the position was as weak as ever.
Xavier Grimble would be lost to injury, Nick Vannett was brought in and Zach Gentry played well for a later round rookie, but the tight end position was one of the least productive areas of the Steelers all around poor offense. By the end of the season, the most popular tight end on the roster might well have been offensive lineman Zach Banner.
The tight end position has a very different outlook heading into the 2020 season. Free agent addition Eric Ebron gives the Steelers their best pure receiving tight end since Ladarius Green’s small sample of games for the Steelers in 2016. If Ebron can replicate Green’s impact over a longer stretch of the season this tight end group could be the most productive in franchise history.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock way up.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock way up.
The 2019 training camp kicked off with only one big question surrounding the Steelers great offensive line, How much of an impact would the loss of their all-time great offensive line coach Mike Munchak have on the season? The Steelers traded Marcus Gilbert to the Arizone Cardinals, but he had been hurt and Mett Feiler had started ten games in 2018, so it wasn’t a big deal.
By the end of the 2019 season there were a lot more questions about the offensive line. Maurkice Pouncey had struggled, including a decent amount of trouble just getting the ball to the quarterback, the run game was not very effective and questions regarding the age and ability of the lineman began to get louder.
In 2020 the Steelers offensive line has changed a little, with Matt Feiler moving to guard to replace the retired Ramon Foster, and the starter at right tackle to be decided by an abbreviated camp battle without the usual preseason games to test their play in live competition. Depth is still solid, B.J. Finney left, but the Steelers signed veteran Stefan Wisniewski, and both Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are fine backups, although if either will be a good starter is still to be determined.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock down.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock slightly down.
Coaching and overall
The Steelers return most of the offensive coaches from last season. The biggest loss coming from the death of wide receivers Coach Darryl Drake on August 11, 2019. Coach Drake was a great receivers coach and a great man, respected and loved by his players and many more people his life impacted.
Ike Hilliard replaces Coach Drake, and brings the valuable asset of being a long time NFL wide receiver to a room full of young receivers.
The only other change on the offensive coaching staff is the addition of Matt Canada, who will be the Steelers quarterback coach, tasked with the development of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, but also with bringing an experienced and creative mind into the room with great success using motion and misdirection in his career. Something the Steelers offense has been missing and hopes to benefit from.
Questions still remain about Shaun Sarrett as the Steelers offensive line coach, while it is highly unlikely he can achieve the same level as his predecessor, the 2020 season will reveal a lot about how good a coach he can be.
With few changes on both the roster and coaching staff, the Steelers offense should benefit from the continuity and experience the players and coaches have working together.
It would be almost impossible for the Steelers offense to be worse than it was in 2019, but even with the return of Ben Roethlisberger, dothe Steelers look better now than they did before the season started in 2019? The biggest asset to the 2020 Steelers may be experience and depth, which may hold more value than ever in a season where a positive covid-19 test can take any player out of the lineup at any time. Outside of more confidence in the depth at almost every position, the biggest change has to be the addition of Eric Ebron to the tight end room.
Of course the return of Ben Roethlisberger dwarfs everything else in the difference between the end of the 2019 season and the start of training camp 2020. The value of a franchise quarterback cannot be underestimated, and while his injury may give concern as to how much longer he will remain a top quarterback, recent returns by other veteran quarterbacks give a lot of hope for the 2020 season.
vs. 2019 training camp: Stock slightly up.
vs. 2019 end of season: Stock way up.
Stay tuned for part 2, covering the Steelers defense on Tuesday.