With one year in the books for the Steelers 2021 draft class, I would argue the class as a whole can, and should, be viewed as a general success. An interesting question to consider is who needs to have the sophomore jump that head coach Mike Tomlin expects of his young players in order for the team to succeed in the upcoming 2022 season.
The stars of the first two rounds, Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, shined bright and had stellar rookie years, with many of their statistics surpassing the rookie numbers of other legendary Steelers at their respective positions (looking at you Franco Harris and Heath Miller). Harris is the true bell cow running back the Steelers have been searching for since the days of Le'Veon Bell, and with a new quarterback under center this year, Harris looks to be the lifeblood of the offense.
In a similar sense, Freiermuth can break out onto the scene even more if he can fully establish himself as a red-zone nightmare and reliable target for whichever young QB is slinging the ball. While an even better second season for either of these players would be much appreciated, neither needs to have the sophomore jump for this team to succeed, especially with added weapons on offense such as wide receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.
The next two rookies of the 2021 draft were thrust into starting roles, but neither quite had the luster as the first two picks. Kendrick Green, despite wearing Maurkice Pouncey's No. 53, struggled mightily in his role as the starting center, but did a decent job for being thrust into the fire after only starting at center three times in college and clearly being undersized for the position in the NFL. Dan Moore Jr. quietly was a solid starting left tackle who, for a fourth round pick, did a good job of keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright throughout his final season. Those who can look past the flashiness of the star players on offense understand how crucial the offensive line is in letting the playmakers do what they do best.
This offseason Green will be competing for both the starting center and starting left guard positions and would need a sophomore jump to push the offensive line forward while Moore would do good to further grow into the starting left tackle for years to come. With sophomore jumps, Green and Moore could anchor the left side of the Steelers offensive line this upcoming year. Again, while improvement would be appreciated, it is not crucial to the teams success. For Green, he can serve this year as a backup due to the addition of starting caliber center Mason Cole and expected starting right guard James Daniels. Moore would love to keep the quarterback clean, whoever he may be, but no matter which man goes under center, any will be substantially more mobile than Roethlisberger and can much more easily evade pressure.
As we continue sifting through the 2021 picks, we have now reached the defensive side of the ball. Starting with Buddy Johnson, a second year jump for him could mean getting a helmet on game day, but with the addition of Myles Jack and the expected improvement of Devin Bush after another offseason recovery, Johnson should not see too many snaps on defense this year.
Fifth rounder Isaiahh Loudermilk is an intriguing candidate for someone who needs to make a second year jump. With the retirement of Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers are down a playmaking stalwart on the defensive line. However, with the return of Tyson Alualu the defensive line should certainly play better than last season. As for filling the whole left by Tuitt, Loudermilk may very well play an important role, yet I expect the Steelers to handle the replacement duties by committee, meaning Loudermilk, along with Chris Wormley and 2022 third round pick DeMarvin Leal will all take a decent number of snaps along the defensive line throughout the season.
Sixth round pick Quincy Roche spent the season with the Giants where he had a respectable rookie season for a late draft pick and it is unfortunate that he could not remain in Pittsburgh as the depth at outside linebacker behind starters TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith is questionable.
Seventh round pick Tre Norwood was deemed an intelligent swiss-army knife by Tomlin and often found himself on the field in nickel and dime packages where he genuinely impressed in limited action. A jump by Norwood would be appreciated in ensuring the secondary can mesh well with two new starting corners expected this season, but somewhat similar to Loudermilk, Norwood will be playing limited snaps and a jump is not absolutely crucial.
At this point, some of you may think I'm crazy and that I am too quick to overlook the big shots on offense, the hard-working men of the trenches, or the rotational/depth pieces on defense. I'm sure some of you reading are confused thinking I have listed all of the picks from the seven rounds of the 2021 draft and therefore my answer to who needs to make a sophomore jump is nobody. However, those of you who have made it this far probably know there is one draftee I have yet to name and yes he is my answer for player who needs to make a sophomore jump.
Of course that young man is Pressley Harvin III.
After many years of average punting from Jordan Berry the Steelers selected Harvin, the 2021 recipient of the Ray Guy Award that is given to the best punter in all of college football, with the 254th pick (out of 259) in the 2021 NFL draft. Harvin had to earn his spot on the roster last year and the Steelers coaching staff thought he did enough to beat out the incumbent Berry for the job, releasing Berry in the process.
Retrospectively, the Steelers made the wrong move. Berry was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings and had the best year of his career to date while Harvin had some massive struggles with inconsistency. One week he would have a booming 60 yard punt and the next week he would shank a couple of 30 yarders, overall resulting in a poorer punting performance than the Steelers had had the past few years. Additionally, Harvin suffered through family tragedy throughout the season which most certainly affected the quality of his play.
With questions surrounding the starting quarterback, a strong, effective punter will be necessary to flip the field when the offense has its struggles, and to pin the opposing team deep in their own territory where the defense can make a big play. Another year like last year and Harvin should not remain on the Steelers roster for years to come, but the team has confidence in him as seen in their lack of interest in keeping punter Corliss Waitman around for a training camp competition. Harvin needs to have a big jump in productivity in order to best help the defense be the dominant force we all know they can be.
So, am I crazy? While I would gladly accept a sophomore jump from any of the other second-year players, Harvin and his role in the field position game is too crucial for me to overlook. With his struggles last year, he is the one player who needs to improve in leaps and bounds this upcoming season in order for the team to see success in 2022. Let me know what you think!