This time of year for an NFL fan can be romantically thought of as “the fog of projection” period. Rookies and new free agents give (mostly) meaningless interviews, as veterans argue about their placement on the various “100 best players” lists. And talking heads are left ranking position groups, projecting fantasy stats, and otherwise daydreaming about results that won’t play out for months.
Here in Pittsburgh Steelers Country, most of that daydreaming has focused on predictable areas: speculation about who will start at quarterback; accolades for T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward; interest in Najee Harris’ sophomore year leap; and fascination with the team’s top three WRs (will Diontae Johnson get a new contract? Will Chase Claypool live up to his potential? Will George Pickens become a star in year 1?).
These are all worthwhile pursuits. But they’ve been talked to death, in my book. Instead, I wanted to write something about the players/areas that I’m sort of fascinated by, but which aren’t getting the ink that the topics above command.
In all honesty, I could go all day listing these (please feel free to add entries in the comments). But for now, here’s six spots I’m fascinated by as July plugs on.
Highsmith was drafted as heir-apparent to late-blooming Bud Dupree. And he actually resembles old #48 quite a bit. Dupree looked like a monster at times in his early career (especially late in 2016), but while he was a solid defender for his first four seasons, he didn’t really accumulate the sacks and splash plays one would have expected from a first-round pick and multi-year starter. It wasn’t until 2019 that he really seemed to hit his stride.
Highsmith, meanwhile, looked like a murderer in the 2021 preseason — collapsing backfields, confounding offensive tackles with spin-moves and hand-work, and generally seeming like the next great Steeler OLB. Then during the regular season, the stats were slow in coming. Like Bud’s early career, Alex was actually quite good in most areas — particularly tackles for losses, where he recorded 15, tying Heyward and Buffalo’s Mike Milano for 8th in the NFL (Watt was #1). But he only snagged 6.0 sacks – fourth on the team, and one behind Chris Wormley, who wasn’t even supposed to start. For an attacking defense like the Steelers (where his opposite OLB partner managed 22.5), this is a strangely low number.
With Bud, the sacks didn’t seem to be the result of a change in scheme; something just finally started to click with him, and he was more able to close the deal. Will the same happen for Highsmith? Is 2022 his breakout season?
Levi Wallace/Ahkello Witherspoon
I wanted to run these guys together because both are high potential players — guys who seem very capable against legit competition — but who seem to get very little attention in the press. I could add Cam Sutton to the list too, but he’s a more familiar face in these parts (and I wonder whether his more natural position is in the slot, while these two play outside). Whatever the case, neither Wallace nor Witherspoon has the look of “the next Rod Woodson,” but both look steady, capable of big plays, and smart enough to hold down the job.
Wallace, for example, allowed a 72.6 passer rating when he was targeted last season as a Buffalo Bill. That number tied him with Miami Pro Bowler Xavien Howard in the lower edge of the league’s top 50, and placed him just 1.5 points behind Rams All Pro Jalen Ramsay. Pretty good company.
Meanwhile, among defenders who were targeted 34 or more times last season (the equivalent of twice per game, regardless how many times they suited up) Witherspoon finished first in completion percentage allowed (an absurd 37.8%) and first in passer rating allowed (35.1). He only played in nine games, and only started three, but when Witherspoon saw the field (particularly late in the year) he was outstanding.
Could this pair team up with Sutton and the Steelers outstanding safety duo to create a sneaky-good (or even great) secondary?
Calvin Austin III
For all the offseason hype about QBs or George Pickens (both of which I hope both are awesome), Calvin Austin seems to be flying under the radar. And yet, if you watch his highlights, the 5’7” Memphis Tiger sure looks like a genuine baller.
You could be forgiven for imagining him as a “little speedy guy” in the mold of Dri Archer. But I’m thinking he’s got a lot more Darren Sproles potential, except faster, since Austin was a legit track star (watch his college highlights: he often leans across the goal line like he’s chesting through the tape. I love it).
Highly touted University of Cincinnati (now New York Jets) corner, Sauce Gardner, called Austin the hardest player he ever had to cover. (Sidebar: Gardner allowed zero touchdowns in coverage in his entire college career; if he’s handing out praise, it’s probably worth listening to.) Meanwhile, our man has the same wingspan (read: catch-radius) as 6’0” first round pick Chris Olave, and bigger hands than Pickens, a 6’4” contested catch specialist. He’s also got a 39” vertical leap and outstanding route-footwork, to go with his blazing 4.32 forty time. His closest comp, as far as I can tell, is Tyreek Hill (except, you know, without all the character baggage).
In other words, the fact that Austin is not tall for his position doesn’t seem to be a problem any more than it was for James Harrison at OLB. Oh, and he’s an outstanding kick returner who knows the rules.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Austin emerge as a rock star much earlier than anyone thinks.
Offensive line, en toto
This unit has gained experience, a shot of outside talent, and a new coach since they closed the doors on the 2021 season. James Daniels is perhaps (quietly) the most exciting outside pickup of the 2022 offseason, but if Mason Cole snags the starting job at center, and holds it down — leaving Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green to battle over the second starting guard spot — we could be looking at a powerhouse interior line. Just like how the great Steelers lines have always been built.
This group also has a couple mobile QBs behind it, a versatile running back who loves contact, and an offensive scheme that (rumor has it) is suited to just those strengths. Meanwhile, for all that, it’s still a very young line — particularly at tackle, where Dan Moore is only in his second year, and fifth year man Chuks Okorafor is somehow only 25. There’s room to grow here, and the potential to grow together for a number of years.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this unit suddenly be regarded as a team strength, no matter how low the outside world is on them today.
The Front Seven (*now with more Brian Flores)
Assuming they stay healthy, we know what we’re going to get from Cam and T.J. (excellence), and from Tyson Alualu (strength and experience). Every other position in the front seven, though, is a mystery. But all of it is intriguing — particularly with three defensive coordinators collaborating on game plans. Most notable on that triumvirate is Brian Flores, who came via the school of Bill Belichick, and will be bringing different philosophies and focal points than Mike Tomlin (who came up under Tony Dungy and alongside Dick Lebeau) and Teryl Austin (who coached under Ray Rhodes and Chuck Pagano on his own way up). Hard to say what that perspective will bring, but it should be interesting.
I mentioned Alex Highsmith above, but I expect Flores’s fingerprints will be more visible on Myles Jack, Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and perhaps Buddy Johnson — the inside backers who generally underperformed last year. Jack is new and very talented; he could use a redemption season. And Spillane is an overachiever already, but still has room to grow. Bush and Johnson, though, both face opportunities to prove naysayers wrong in 2022. This could be a big year for them.
Perhaps just as important, what will DeMarvin Leal do in the D? Generally regarded as a college tweener, is he big enough for 3-4 DE? His draft stock was hurt by his odd size (though I’ve heard he’s putting on pro-level DE weight), but his talent was regarded by some as first round stuff. Meanwhile, he’s an athletic guy who could be moved around if a DC had the creativity to do so. With Heyward (an all time great, who may wind up in Canton), Isaiah Lowdermilk (who looked promising in limited action as a rookie), Chris Wormley (who exceeded all pass-rush expectations in 2021), Montravius Adams (who looks to be the quintessential rotational NT), and Larry Ogunjobi (who comes with high hopes and good stats), Leal may be extraneous on the line — which might make him a fun chess piece for Austin, Flores, and Tomlin to play with.
The Front Seven is going to be a lot of fun this year, I suspect.
I know; Pat Freiermuth is the starter. And he’s really good. But he’s already on the border of “Breakout Player” for a lot of people. I expect big things from him, but so do most observers, so I’m going to leave Muuth to the writers with greater circulation. Instead, I’m sort of intrigued by Gentry, who appears to have all the tools to be a legit baller at TE too.
In limited duty last year, Gentry showed decent hands and even better after-catch fight. In fact, one of my favorite plays from the whole 2021 season was a Zach Gentry catch against Tennessee. One play after the Titans concussed Freiermuth (and predictably strutted about, like they were the bad-boy bullies in the stadium), Ben Roethlisberger went right to Gentry, who caught a short ball, and absolutely mauled several Tennessee defenders en route to a 17 yard gain. The Steelers went on to win that game, against the AFC’s #1 seeded Titans, partly by showing they were not going to be intimidated. It absolutely baffled me that the team didn’t make Gentry a bigger part of the rotational offense after that.
A few years ago, the Patriots won a lot of games with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez creating mismatches all over the field at the same time. Could Gentry be the TE2 that teams struggle to account for, while their safeties shadow Freiermuth?
Who knows whether any of these areas/guys will live up to my fascination. But at the very least, let’s admit there are more positions of interest than just “who’s going to start at QB?” on the Steelers in 2022.
In any case, Go Steelers.