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Steelers rookies leave their mark in a strange first season

With the most non-traditional offseason imaginable, several of the Steelers rookies still managed to stand out in their first season.

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In what has been an extremely strange year for a majority of the world, 2020 made for an unusual NFL season. Starting with hardly any pro days leading into the virtual NFL draft, offseason workouts and team activities simply did not happen until players arrived for a very unusual training camp. Affected most among these players were those new to the NFL, both drafted and undrafted. With limited opportunities to earn playing time, rookies found themselves up against the wall in many cases.

When it came specifically to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they entered the season with the expectation of not relying on their rookie class for their 2020 success. With no first-round pick due to the trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers appeared to be in a place where any contribution from rookies would just be icing on the cake for the season.

So was it vanilla or chocolate icing? Or something fancy like cream cheese? Because the Steelers ended up with solid production from their 2020 rookie class despite the challenges they faced this past offseason.

Two players from the Steelers 2020 draft class landed on Pro Football Focus’ All Rookie Team. Third-round draft pick Alex Highmith was one of two edge rushers while fourth-round selection Kevin Dotson made the team at guard.

Highsmith played in all 16 games for the Steelers in 2020 and started the final five regular-season contests as well as the Steelers playoff game before leaving with an ankle injury. Taking over for the injured Bud Dupree, Highsmith finished the regular season with an interception, 2.0 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 5 tackles for loss, and 48 total tackles.

Fourth-round draft pick Kevin Dotson appeared in 13 regular season games in his rookie year and started four throughout the season. PFF‘s top rated guard when it comes to pass protection in 2020, it was highly controversial when the Steelers chose to start and play Matt Feiler at left guard after returning from injury when Dotson had started the final two games of the season and played very well. Regardless of his usage in 2020, Dotson looks to be the anchor of the Steelers offensive line for years to come.

Missing from PFFs All Rookie Team is the Steelers top draft choice from 2020 in second-round pick Chase Claypool. Although leading all rookies in receiving touchdowns (9), Claypool was edged out by the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, the 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk, and the Bengals’ Tee Higgins. Regardless of where he fell on the PFF team, Chase Claypool tied the Steelers rookie record in receiving touchdowns (9) and total touchdowns (11). Both marks were tied with Louis Lipps in 1984 and the total touchdowns also is tied with Franco Harris in 1972.

Claypool finished the regular season appearing in all 16 games where he had 873 receiving yards along with his nine receiving touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. In the Steelers Wild Card Game, Claypool added another five receptions for 59 yards and two more touchdowns.

Another rookie many may have overlooked for the Steelers is undrafted rookie free agent James Pierre out of Florida Atlantic. Not only did Pierre make the team in a limited training camp setting, he was active for every game in 2020. Playing primarily on special teams, Pierre logged 18 defensive snaps at cornerback in the Steelers Week 17 game which was twice as many as he had over the entire course of the 2020 season. In the Steelers postseason game, Pierre was used in dime packages over cornerback Justin Layne and appears to be a player the Steelers will continue to develop in years to come.

When looking solely at draft picks, the Steelers had every player from the 2020 NFL draft log snaps in their rookie season. Although some would look at the rookie season of fourth-round running back Anthony McFarland Jr. as a disappointment, whether it be production or usage, he did appear in 11 games and rushed for 113 yards on 33 carries. McFarland was a healthy scratch for the Steelers playoff loss.

Antoine Brooks Jr., the sixth-round safety out of Maryland, started the season on the practice squad but ended up on the active roster after being elevated twice earlier this season. Although inactive in many cases in 2020, Brooks appeared in four games and played almost half the defensive snaps in the Steelers Week 10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers’ seventh-round draft pick Carlos Davis was seen as a project pick by many when he was selected in the 2020 draft. Making the Steelers 53-man roster to start the season, Davis was inactive the majority of his rookie year but was used in seven games over the last half of the season as well as being active for the Steelers playoff game. Davis played a total of 54 defensive snaps in 2020 where he logged one tackle for loss on six total tackles.

As the Steelers move into the 2021 offseason, there will be many tough personnel decisions which will have to be made before the NFL‘s new league year in March. Whether or not the Steelers are going to fight to retain most of their 2020 team or shift into a bit of rebuild mode, the Steelers are able to move forward with the knowledge that several of the 2020 rookie class have shown they will be key contributors to this team in years to come.