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Steelers could be leaning on rookies again in 2021, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team who builds through the NFL Draft, and they have been relying on those rookies in the past, and likely will again in 2021.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Minicamp Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a formula for their organization. They are never the team who goes out and spends frivolously in free agency. Rather, they are the team who decides to build through the NFL Draft. Doing so, and drafting well, allows the team to remain competitive for years to come, without exhausting valuable salary cap space necessary to re-sign specific players.

While the Steelers typically rely on the draft to re-stock their depth chart, in the Mike Tomlin era the team hasn’t wanted to lean on rookies to contribute right away. They would prefer to allow the rookies at least a season to get their feet wet, playing sparingly in the process, before taking on a starter’s role.

However, that has changed in recent years. When you look at the past two draft classes, not including the 2021 draft class, you will see how the Steelers had high expectations for players in their first year of work as professionals.

2020
Chase Claypool
Alex Highsmith
Kevin Dotson

The class of 2020 was truly unique, and special at the same time. With only six draft picks, and none in the first round, the Steelers hit home runs with Claypool, Highsmith and Dotson. They hit it big enough to the tune where several media sites had the Steelers with three first round talents when they re-drafted the 2020 NFL Draft. Those three players were the three listed above.

2019
Devin Bush
Diontae Johnson

The class of 2019 saw an immediate starter in Devin Bush, and a budding star in Diontae Johnson. Johnson was not just a receiving threat, gaining 680 yards his rookie season, but also a dynamic return man as well. Bush stepped in and played early and often for the Steelers, and proved to be the long term answer at the ILB position for the black and gold.

But when you go further back, you don’t see the same immediate usage of rookies. In the 2018 draft class only Terrell Edmunds was considered someone who could help immediately, but even he wasn’t slated for a starting role until Morgan Burnett failed to stay healthy. This would thrust Edmunds into the starting role, one which he would never relinquish.

The 2017 class was different in a lot of ways. T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene, and proved their worth almost immediately. It was Watt who put James Harrison on the bench, and Smith-Schuster who caused angst from Antonio Brown for him taking some of the spotlight away from him. Throw in players like James Conner and Cam Sutton in that 2017 draft class, and you have some solid additions.

What is the moral of this story? The fact the Steelers don’t typically rely on having a 2020 draft class, where three starters emerge. They expect their top pick to be an immediate contributor, but outside of that they take a wait-and-see type approach on most of their young players.

But will 2021 be different? Are the Steelers once again leaning on their rookies to contribute? I would venture to say they are, and in a big way.

When you look at the class of 2021 you see three players who are expected to make an impact one way or another. Najee Harris is a no-brainer, Pat Freiermuth will have a role within the offense and Kendrick Green is a hopeful to become the next Pittsburgh Steelers center.

That trio of players could completely alter the outlook on the 2021 regular season. The Steelers ability to run the football, to make the offense more balanced and to take some of the pressure off Ben Roethlisberger will fall on these players to not just win their spots on the starting roster, but to perform when called upon.

Not as easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Don’t get the message confused here. Every draft class has their Cam Suttons and James Washingtons. Players who contribute early in their career, but are not expected to be starters right away. This could be said about a player like Tre Norwood, Dan Moore Jr. and even Buddy Johnson. If they make the team, which it is expected they do, them contributing on special teams will be a large reason for them getting a helmet on game days; however, if they are called into duty as a starter, something went drastically bad, think Vince Williams starting as a 6th round rookie after Larry Foote was lost for the season with a torn biceps.

Every draft class has the picks who shine immediately, think T.J. Watt, while there are others who have potential, but flame out, think Sutton Smith. In 2021 the Steelers are banking on several players in the most recent draft class to show up, and show out. If they prove capable, the Steelers could be a very difficult team to beat in 2021.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the upcoming 2021 regular season.