The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers are a team in transition after multiple player retirements and free agent losses during the offseason. They now have plenty of new faces in new places, both on the field and in the coaching staff. That is an uncommon occurrence for one of the NFL's most stable franchises.
Their franchise QB Ben Roethlisberger is returning for what very well may be his final NFL season, maybe not. Regardless if it is or isn't, the Steelers have no intention of going softly into that dark night. The Steelers don't rebuild, they reload. Kevin Colbert and company did their best to do just that this offseason, mainly through the draft. I have been impressed with the results thus far.
Friday night's preseason finale road loss to the Carolina Panthers was both ugly and meaningless, but it did help resolve some questions where the Steelers still needed clarity.
Steelers Stock Up: Extraordinary draft class
Kevin Colbert has no need to buy a lottery ticket, because he has already hit the jackpot with back to back draft classes of legendary proportions. I predicted prior to training camp that every member of the Steelers 2021 draft class would make the final roster, and I still believe that statement to be true. I can't remember the last time that happened with a Steelers draft class, or any where in the NFL for that matter, but I have to believe it is extremely rare.
Najee Harris has every attribute needed to be a future NFL star, down to the work ethic and personality. He is the type of player that makes those around him even better, especially the offensive line. Isn't that the definition of a superstar? He can turn a missed block, that would have resulted in a two yard loss last season, into a four yard gain through his explosive power. The offensive linemen are going to love this young man.
Pat Freiermuth looks like the long awaited answer at TE1 for the Steelers. His blocking has been better than advertised; though work remains to be done, he obviously has the potential and attitude required to improve in that regard. His reputation for reliable hands has proven accurate, and his rapport with Roethlisberger grows by the day.
Kendrick Green is both raw and inexperienced at center, but his athleticism and nasty demeanor is impossible to ignore. He started training camp down on the depth chart, but that was merely a formality, as I predicted. Green is the future for the Steelers at the position. Expect both steady improvement and inevitable growing pains from the young stud.
Dan Moore Jr. has exceeded all expectations, my own included. More physical and aggressive than advertised, he has honestly been the Steelers best tackle during camp. Not sure that is a good development honestly.
Buddy Johnson is an old school inside linebacker with a warrior's mentality. A tackling machine who loves contact. Think young Vince Williams, with better speed and athleticism. Future starter.
Isaiahh Loudermilk seems determined to make me eat my words after being extremely critical of not only his selection, but the Steelers trading future draft capital to do so. He looks like he may just prove worthy of the investment. He is strong and disruptive, and could be dangerous if he ever learns what he is supposed to be doing.
Quincy Roche making the roster isn't a certainty at this point, he is actually my biggest concern of all the draft picks, but he should be. He has shown an impressive arsenal of pass rush moves and counters at a position of great need around the league. Roche most likely won't survive the practice squad, but Cassius Marsh probably would. Easy decision in my mind. Practice squad may be his only avenue if extra depth is deemed necessary at other positions of greater need however.
Tre Norwood has shown superior instincts and intangibles, with the versatility to play any secondary role. He possesses average athleticism, and his physicality is a work in progress, but he is already the backup free safety with the potential to do more.
Finally, Pressley Harvin is a larger than life personality with a big leg, a gaggle of nicknames, and a ton of talent. He has been the answer to many prayers that have been lifted up by the Steelers faithful.
Even after such a disappointing performance against the Panthers, the Steelers 2021 draft class has to put a smile on every Steelers fans face.
Steelers Stock Down: Uncertain depth charts
There are two sides to every story or situation. The fact that every draft pick this year has a real possibility of making the final roster says alot about that roster.
The Steelers have been blessed with experienced veteran rosters for years. The Steelers believe in stability and they take care of their own when possible. This offseason of change was oftentimes out of their hands and beyond their control. Retirements and free agent losses happen to every franchise each year, but there were extenuating circumstances for the Steelers, starting with the pandemic resulting in a unexpected decrease in the salary cap. Terrible timing for a organization hoping for one more championship run for their aging franchise QB.
Kevin Colbert did a masterful job of reloading the roster with young talent, as I mentioned earlier, with the key word being young, as in unproven and inexperienced. There is only one way to become proven and experienced, and that is by playing. There is no other way, and there are bound to be growing pains. Patience will be required.
There is uncertainty up and down the depth charts at a few positions. Left tackle is the biggest question on the offensive line. Based on camp and preseason performances alone, Dan Moore Jr. would undoubtedly be the starter. The Steelers have proclaimed Chukwuma Okorafor as the presumptive starter, but he has been underwhelming thus far, having honestly done nothing to win the position. If he gets first dibs as the starting LT, it is based solely on experience, as he has done nothing to earn said position. His performance against the Panthers was more of the same.
The other starting position still up for grabs would be at slot corner. If training camp and the preseason has taught us anything, it would be that my initial prediction of a slot by committee approach has merit. No single player has every single attribute that the Steelers value in a slot corner, but there are multiple players that are interchangeable according to matchups.
Cameron Sutton has the coverage skills to shadow speedy slot guys, while Miles Killebrew has the strength and tackling prowess to matchup with size on the interior. He is also a outstanding blitzer. Tre Norwood is in the process of learning to play the position, and he possesses the football IQ to be a fast learner.
While it's true that the Steelers don't have a proven performer at these positions, the cupboard is hardly bare at this point.
In conclusion, another Steelers training camp and preseason is in the books. No major injuries to speak of, our first glimpse of a foundation stabilizing draft class, and better clarification at a few notable areas of concern. All in all, I would say things went pretty much according to plan.