The Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Class was both controversial and exciting, with the team focused on improving their skill position assets early in the draft at the expense of solidifying aging groups along both the offensive and defensive lines.
In hindsight, the organization probably would have done the latter, knowing now that stalwarts David DeCastro (Guard) and Stephon Tuitt (Defensive Tackle) would never return for the 2021 season. At the time, the organization clearly felt they were one or two skill players away from Super Bowl contention, despite having a statuesque 18th-year quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and four new starters on the offensive line to go with five new starters on defense.
Before we rank the Steelers 2nd year players, let’s take a look at that 2021 draft class in order of selection:
Round 1, No. 24 RB Najee Harris
Round 2, No. 55 TE Pat Freiermuth
Round 3, No. 87 OL Kendrick Green
Round 4, No. 128 OT Dan Moore Jr.
Round 4, No. 140 ILB Buddy Johnson
Round 5, No. 156 DL Isaiah Loudermilk
Round 6, No. 216 OLB Quincy Roche
Round 7, No. 245 DB Tre Norwood
Round 7, No. 254 P Pressley Harvin III
Nine selections were made. Seven are still with the team through 13 weeks in 2022, with only Quincy Roche and Buddy Johnson getting released. For this exercise, we’ll rank those remaining seven players based on their production for the team so far in their short careers.
Let’s dive in!
1. TE Pat Freiermuth
Career Stats: 113 Rec, 161 Tgts, 1,127 YDS, 9 TDs
The man they call “Muth” is my pick as the top player so far from the 2021 draft class for Pittsburgh. A surprise selection at the time, with the team needing help at Center, Guard, and Tackle with franchise building blocks in Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and Alejandro Villanueva all gone. The selection of the Penn State stud TE though has paid off. In 2022, Freiermuth leads the team in receiving yards and has proven to be a reliable target on possession downs and in the Red Zone. With Chase Claypool out of the picture, “Muth” has stepped up as a big-time threat in the middle of the field, something Rookie QB Kenny Pickett is starting to take advantage of. Pat Freiermuth is on an elite-level rise in only year 2.
2. RB Najee Harris
Career Stats: 494 Att, 1,904 YDS, 3.9 Avg, 12 TDs, 106 Rec, 632 YDS, 5 TDs
Najee Harris has been solid through two seasons, although poor OL play in 2021 hampered his efficiency, and a slow start in 2022 due to injury and an ineffective “dancing” running style. In his last 5 games, however, Najee has looked like a completely different back, hitting the hole with confidence, relying on a powerful, punishing style of running that has sparked the entire offense. Harris’ efficiency has also improved, earning a 4.4 per carry average in that span. If Harris continues this level of production, he’ll quickly become a top back in the league.
3. OT Dan Moore Jr.
This is where this ranking falls off a cliff. Unfortunately, we’re only at 3rd place in the rankings. The Bronze Medal in this piece goes to a player that has been underwhelming at best in 2022, after a strong finish to his Rookie year gave many fans hope that the Steelers had unearthed a gem in the 4th round. That has not been the case. Despite some improvement as a run blocker, Moore can still be a turnstyle in Pass-Pro, but it’s the mental area of the game where Moore has the most frustrating struggles. He continues to commit soul-sucking penalties at the most critical moments. Moore’s 9 penalties accepted is 3rd most in the league. The Steelers need to improve along the Offensive Line in the coming offseason, and Dan Moore Jr. will likely be competing with his replacement come 2023.
4. P Pressley Harvin III
Career Stats: 128 Punts, 43.2 Avg, Long 69, 7 Touchbacks, 32.81 IN20%
Harvin is as up and down as they come, but he is an improvement on the man he replaced in Jordan Berry, who was famously the bane of BTSC Editor Jeff Hartman’s existence. Harvin’s at his best with directional punting and pinning opponents inside their own 20. But Harvin is at his worst when asked to flip the field with long punts, with many a shank forcing a frustrated gasp from Steelers faithful. The selection was highly controversial at the time, and still leaves many questioning the decision even now.
5. DB Tre Norwood
Career Stats: 59 TOT, 49 SOLO, 0 Sack, 0 FF, 1 INT, 4 PD
Tre Norwood needs to be on the field more. Mike Tomlin’s “Swiss Army Knife” is a good depth piece and a versatile defender. Although he lacks high end athleticism, he makes up for it with instincts and anticipation. Now, I don’t think he should be starting on the defense, but I believe he definitely has shown he deserves more of a role than Arthur Maulet, especially in obvious coverage situations, where Norwood has the upper hand on the routinely burnt Maulet. Norwood is a guy you keep around, even though he’ll likely never turn into a full-time starter.
6. DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Career Stats: 28 TOT, 18 SOLO, 1 Sack, 0 FF, 0 INT, 3 PD
Loudermilk was always going to be a developmental piece, and he has shown severe limitations in the ability to win at the line of scrimmage and get push on opposing O-linemen. Loudermilk does a decent job of getting off blocks to make the tackle, but it’s usually only after he’s been pushed around at initial contact. His biggest strength might be a knack for batting passes. He’s had a couple excellent teachers in that area in TJ Watt and Cam Heyward. If Loudermilk can improve at the point of attack, he may yet turn into a solid rotational piece along the DL.
7. OL Kendrick Green
Other than the two players the team released, Green is the biggest disappointment of the 2021 draft class. Green started at Center as a rookie, and was routinely decimated by opposing defenders all season. The thought was that Green was too overwhelmed by the mental demands of playing Center that he couldn’t keep up with the physical demands either. In the offseason, however, what played out was that Green just isn’t an NFL caliber offensive lineman, and a serious miss by the Steelers front office.
In 2021, the Steelers successfully added talent at RB and TE, but the group overall isn’t very stellar beyond the first two picks. For the Steelers to truly build a contender in 2023, the team will need to invest in the trenches to help the skill position talent and their improving rookie quarterback reach their full potential. For the Steelers sophomore group, 2023 will be ‘put up or shut up’ for anybody not named Harris or Freiermuth.