The start of the 2021 NFL season is five months away. As depressing as it is to say this statement, it also shows the Steelers have a lot they can do with the remaining 18 offseason positions they can still fill in order to get to their 90-man roster. But will any of those additions line up as a starter for Week 1 this fall?
The reason the question is asked is in order to look at the Steelers current roster and see who is in line to be the starters. Are there positions where the Steelers desperately need an upgrade? While “desperately” is a relative term some may use to describe the situaition, an upgrade of some sort at several positions would be in the team’s best interest by the time the season rolls around.
While many Steelers fans are looking for the 2021 NFL draft to fill out the starting lineup, it’s not a guarantee that any of their draft picks will be starting in Week 1. Of course it is a desirable thing to see their rookies ready to go as soon as possible, but the Steelers are one of several NFL teams who try not to force their rookies onto the field too soon.
I have said many times that the Steelers do not draft their players to start right away, even their top selections. While I still stand by the statement, I don’t think it’s presented in the best way possible. After dwelling on the subject even more, I think the better way to say how the Steelers deal with things is they they enter the season with a plan in case any of their draft picks are not ready.
Case in point, none of the Steelers draftees from 2020 were Week 1 starters. Yes, Chase Claypool contributed right away, but he only saw 30% of the offensive snaps the first week of the season. As we all know, Claypool’s integration into the offense did not take long as by the fourth game he not only started, but had over 100 receiving yards with three touchdowns and three rushes for another touchdown.
As we all should know, the Steelers did not have a first round draft pick in 2020. Perhaps it is the first rounders who should be plugged in right away in Week 1.
The Steelers last first round selection was when they traded up to the 10th spot to select Devin Bush in 2019. While Bush officially did get his start in Week 1, he did not start in Week 2 and played just under 80% of the snaps in both games. By Weeks 3 and 4, Bush was up to playing 100% of the snaps. Had Bush not been ready, the Steelers had specifically signed Mark Barron to fill the role if needed.
Sticking with the 2019 draft class, Diontae Johnson was eased into the lineup the first two weeks seeing less than 50% of the snaps on offense. By Week 3, Johnson started the game and played 79% of the snaps.
Going back another draft class, Terrell Edmunds was forced into starting duty Week 1 due to nagging injuries to Morgan Burnett. James Washington only saw 11 snaps in Week 1 his rookie season and did not even have a target.
Not that I need to drive my point home any more, but in 2017 T.J. Watt was a Week 1 starter for the Steelers as he proved himself to be ready of earning the job over James Harrison. But also remember the Week 1 starter across from Watt his rookie season was Anthony Chickillo as Bud Dupree missed the game due to injury. As for other members of the Steelers fantastic 2017 draft class, JuJu Smith-Schuster officially got the start in Week 1 as the Steelers opened with three wide receivers, but he saw less than half of the Steelers offensive snaps and did not have a target. Smith-Schuster would not start another game for the Steelers until Week 8.
Ultimately, my point is the Steelers don’t go into the season unless they have a plan for the rookies not being ready to start the very first week. Looking at the Steelers roster as it sits, is this team ready to take the field with the players they currently have?
There are several positions of concern if the Steelers are choosing their starters at this time. While either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer could be the short-term starter for the Steelers, I think most of Steelers Nation would be leery of either one of them starting for the entire season, especially since Finney did not play an offensive snap in 2020.
At the running back position, the Steelers don’t have a player that has more than eight career starts. Both newly acquired free agent Kalen Ballage and Steelers fourth-year running back Jalen Samuels have each started eight games in their career. Third-year player Benny Snell Jr has started five games. Will one of these players be the Steelers starter Week 1, or will they be adding a player in some manner who will get the call to start the season?
The reason I posed this question is because there is a good chance that most, if not all of the starters for the Steelers in Week 1 of the upcoming season are currently on the roster. As much as fans would like a “plug and play” draftee at pick 24, that type of player still may not ready to be fully integrated until the third or fourth week of the season. As much as you hope the Steelers find a player who is ready to go their first NFL game, like a Devin Bush or T.J. Watt, there is not guarantee this will be the case.
This question will be so much more easily answered once the 2021 draft occurs. There may be a player at running back, linebacker, or center that the Steelers will have ready for the beginning of the 2021 season. But if the Steelers don’t invest high draft capital at that position, there’s a decent chance the player may not be ready to go at the start of the season. And as much as the Steelers may need certain players at certain places, we have seen far too many times, especially among other NFL franchises, teams putting too much on a player early in their career has ultimately been their downfall. If you can trust anyone not to do this, it’s usually the Steelers.
So how would you feel if the starting lineup in Week 1 of the 2021 season comes strictly from the players currently on the roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Do you feel there is a position that they have to find somebody else, either in the draft or from the remaining free agents, who could fill in right away? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments below.