The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class recently wrapped up their productive initial campaigns, complete with plenty of first for the talented young cast. Their first taste of the extremely long NFL season, their first opportunity to experience the intensity of the AFC North rivalries, and their first time feeling the overwhelming pressure of playoff football. Although the season was a roller coaster ride of peaks and valleys for many of the young men, the participants have the opportunity to improve from their baptism by fire.
There is really only two directions for the youngsters to go. For many proven reliable contributors, their sophomore campaign is when they take the biggest step forward in their professional careers. After honest self evaluation, they can identify any areas in need of improvement and properly address them in the off season. Alex Highsmith did just that after his rookie season, put in the hard work necessary to improve, and the results speak for themselves. This is the optimal maturity and commitment every coach is looking for.
Then you have the type of player who doesn't completely grasp the magnitude of the situation. They are quick to blame others for their lack of success, or for opportunities they felt they deserved but didn't get. Some enjoy early success and don't continuously strive to improve at their craft. These individuals fail to improve, or even regress from their first to second seasons. This is other referred to as the sophomore slump, but the reasons behind the lack of growth are obvious. Chase Claypool appears to fit the description.
It remains to be seen how this rookie class will evolve during the off season, but each young man was lauded for their work ethic and character coming out of college. That bodes well for their NFL futures, but only if they can navigate the trappings of their own success.
RB Najee Harris
Harris is the consummate professional, seemingly a man among boys at times. He proved no less the week prior when he returned to the playing field against the Baltimore Ravens after injuring his elbow early in the contest. It was a game the Steelers had to win to have a shot at making the playoffs, and he was determined to tough it out and help his team emerge victorious. He really only had the use of his left arm, but he still managed to make a couple of drive altering plays on the game winning drive for the Steelers. Not the typical behavior of the modern day player, much less a rookie.
I had no doubt that Harris would suit up and play through the pain against the Chiefs. No way was he going to miss his first opportunity to perform in the playoffs. As always, he gave everything he had to give, but the running lanes simply weren't there. He even suffered his first fumble of the season, as the ball was ripped from his injured right arm as he was being gang tackled along the sidelines. He deserves better, and the Steelers have to get him some help, especially across that offensive line. I believe help is on the way.
TE Pat Freiermuth
Although it is totally unfair to Freiermuth, I will never be able to think about his selection without thinking what might have been. I totally understood the Najee Harris first round selection because the Steelers viewed him as the best RB in the class, potentially a generational talent if utilized correctly. I thought I could see the Steelers perfectly conceived plan coming to fruition as the Steelers second round selection rolled around. I told anyone willing to listen that Creed Humphrey was the best center prospect I had ever evaluated. I am not a professional, but his elite talent was impossible to ignore or miss, or so I thought. The Steelers did indeed miss the opportunity to select a second potentially generational talent at a huge area of need. That has proven to be a Dan Marino level mistake, as Humphrey is a PFF All Pro as a rookie.
That doesn't mean I am not a huge fan of Freiermuth, because I am. I love his reliable hands, underrated athleticism, and after the catch toughness and intensity. His game should flourish if the Steelers next QB will take full advantage of his considerable abilities. The Steelers already knew that Ben Roethlisberger was hesitant to utilize the TE or the middle of the field. Play action and dominant TE play go together like peanut butter and jelly. For all those already well-known reasons, Freiermuth's selection will always be a huge miss in my opinion. Based on the state of the Steelers offensive line, and it being Ben's last season, solidifying the center position with Creed Humphrey was the only logical choice. Freiermuth had a solid rookie season, and has proven to be a solid second round selection. It's not his fault he wasn't the best option in this instance.
C Kendrick Green
That brings us to Kendrick Green. There is a perfectly logical reason that I am not a gambler. I don't like to lose, which every gambler is inevitably destined to do. Unless you are some Dustin Hoffman "Rain Man" savant or something, which I most certainly am not. The Steelers gambled on Green's ability to successfully make the position switch from collegiate guard to NFL capable center, which he proved unable to accomplish. At least in his first experience as a professional.
Former Steelers lineman Trai Essex spoke on social media about the importance of the little things at the center position, like getting your head up quickly prior to engaging in your block. He agrees that a off season of detailed training could do wonders for Green's technique. I noticed another interesting occurrence during the Wild Card game. On multiple occasions, J.C. Hassenauer engaged in double team blocks and allowed instantaneous pressure up the middle. So it seems that may be a protection identity issues, rather than a straight miscue from Green, again new to the position. Whoever assumes the Steelers OL Coach position will have a talented project on his hands with Green.
LT Dan Moore Jr.
Moore struggled on occasion against the Chiefs, but basically every Steelers player struggled on offense in the game. Moore has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Steelers this season. He has shown enough talent, heart, and determination as the fulltime starting LT to be penciled in at one of the starting tackle spots going into 2022. The question remains as to which side of the formation that will be, but he has proven capable enough after being pressed into emergency duty as a rookie to be considered a reliable option for next year. An off season of position specific weight training will do wonders for his overall development. One overlooked benefit of being a professional.
ILB Buddy Johnson
Johnson's rookie season was basically a redshirt year for the talented ILB from Texas A&M. Just when it appeared that Johnson was about to get his first real opportunity to see action on defense as the only true Buck linebacker on the roster, he went down with a nagging foot injury and COVID protocol. Buddy showed the ability to disengage from blockers effectively, better than advertised athleticism and mobility, and the aggressiveness to be disruptive against the run. The aforementioned mobility suggest that his pass coverage abilities should continue to develop. The Steelers interior defense needs his physicality.
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
By any conceivable metrics, Loudermilk exceeded all expectations, especially for the numerous critics of his selection, of which I was chief. His incredible combination of size and length perfectly fits the Steelers preferred model for the position. Think Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Stephon Tuitt, and Cameron Heyward. He could be next in line. This off season will be crucial to his development. Hopefully Heyward will take him under his wing moving forward, as he may be required to start as early as next season, depending on the Tuitt situation.
DB Tre Norwood
Just as expected, Norwood saw an uptick in snaps against the high flying ariel attack of the Chiefs. He performed well, especially in the early going. His average athleticism was eventually exploited as the Chiefs offense made necessary adjustments and the Steelers coverage was exposed. Norwood's instincts and IQ are off the charts, definitely NFL caliber. Minkah Fitzpatrick mentioned no less in a recent interview. He will never have the optimal speed to match his intelligence, but he will be a valuable contributor if utilized correctly.
P Pressley Harvin lll
The Steelers waived Corliss Waitman prior to the game, to make room for JuJu Smith Schuster on the roster, and Waitman has since been claimed by the Denver Broncos. I am happy for Waitman, and I think he will boom the ball in the thin air of Mile High.
Harvin produced his best game of the season against the Chiefs. He was called on early and often against the Chiefs, with the Steelers offense struggling as per usual, and he came through with flying colors under the suffocating pressure of playoff football on the road. He struck the ball cleanly all night, achieving excellent hangtime and distance with a almost 50 yard average. Hopefully the Steelers have found a punter capable of rising to the occasion. Harvin was that Sunday, at least for one game.