Cam Sutton was a 3rd Round pick for the Steelers in 2017 out of the University of Tennessee. Over his first three seasons, Sutton averaged 17 defensive snaps per game, made one start and produced two interceptions. He looked like a guy who could develop into a solid role player, but little more.
Fast forward to the present. Sutton is coming off of three straight solid seasons and a 2022 campaign where he played 99% of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps as their top corner. Sutton flew under-the-radar for a few years before breaking out and then building on that success. He is now poised to hit unrestricted free agency, where he will command an eight-figure-per-season salary.
Sutton should serve as an inspiration for several Steelers on the verge of assuming bigger roles. Who on the current roster might follow his path and emerge in 2023? Here are three candidates for that designation.
McFarland’s first three seasons in Pittsburgh have been quiet, to say the least. He’s played in just 14 games, accumulating 146 rushing yards on 42 carries, with nine receptions and no touchdowns. Most of those stats were earned during McFarland’s rookie year in 2020. Since then, he’s been active for three games and tallied just 40 total snaps.
The reduction in McFarland’s playing time coincided with Pittsburgh’s selection of fellow running back Najee Harris in the 1st Round of the 2021 draft. Harris was the bell cow for the Steelers in his rookie campaign. His 381 total touches led the NFL and provided little room for other backs to see the field. Last season, the Steelers spelled Harris more. When they did, however, it was largely with undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren, who emerged as a capable backup. This left McFarland and fellow back Benny Snell Jr. out in the cold. Snell suited up for all 17 games but participated mostly as a special teams player. Now an unrestricted free agent, Snell’s return to Pittsburgh seems unlikely.
McFarland may not have Snell to contend with for playing time, but he will remain behind Harris and Warren on the depth chart. That doesn’t bode well for his chances to “break out,” as the premise of this article suggests. But McFarland did show in limited reps in 2022 that he was quicker, more decisive and more powerful than he’d been his previous two seasons. That growth could be the impetus for a bigger role.
When I saw McFarland live at Steelers’ training camp last August, I felt he was the most impressive player on the entire offense that day. His speed to the hole and explosion once through it were evident. McFarland has always been fast, but he hasn’t always played fast. That was, in part, because of an indecisiveness that slowed him down. McFarland was a peck-and-hunt runner early in his career. He didn’t seem to know when holes would develop, and he compromised his best asset by dancing and juking as he searched for one.
This carry, from his rookie season against Baltimore, was representative of what we often saw from McFarland. In the photo below, you can see McFarland cut to his left after receiving a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger. Tight end Vance McDonald is in the process of delivering a block that neutralized Baltimore’s right defensive end. With no one to set an edge, McFarland had a wealth of green grass outside the hash:
Rather than use his speed to press it, however, McFarland did this:
That stutter step just before he turned the corner stunted his momentum and ultimately caused him to lose his balance. I’m not sure what McFarland saw that caused him to consider cutting back inside. It was this sort of poor vision and anticipation, though, that contributed to his absence in the lineup.
Here’s another. On this outside zone run, you’ll see that McFarland has blockers out in front who can take him wide. Rather than follow them, he cuts into traffic, where he is swallowed up for a short gain:
Again, a lack of vision derails what looks like a promising run.
All of that changed in 2022. While McFarland touched the ball just eight times, he looked different when he did. He was more decisive and played faster as a result.
Here, against Indianapolis, McFarland takes a handoff on a draw play, makes a quick cut away from pressure, then squares his shoulders and gets up-field. While the draw action creates a huge hole, McFarland makes good decisions in space and runs hard:
He does the same thing on this screen pass, using his blockers as obstruction and getting up-field quickly:
Those were relatively easy runs set up by play designs that provided disguise. This one, on a 3rd-and-2 snap from inside the red zone, is tougher. But McFarland quickly locates a seam in the backside B-gap, lowers his pads and charges through it. There is no dancing or hesitation, just a swift diagnosis and hard, north-south running:
Some of McFarland’s ineffectiveness early in his career was tied to his inability to run between the tackles. When he entered the game, everyone seemed to know he’d get the ball on some sort of outside run. In 2022, McFarland showed, albeit in limited reps, he could run inside and be more than just a gimmick. This gives coordinator Matt Canada greater latitude on how he can use McFarland, whose quick burst makes him a nice compliment to the power running of Harris and Warren. If Canada can find a way to integrate McFarland effectively, he could command a bigger role.
Connor Heyward isn’t exactly an under-the-radar player. When you enter the league as the younger brother of one of the most dominant defensive players of the past decade, people take notice. Heyward’s performance in 2022, however, was largely anonymous to fans outside of Pittsburgh. The rookie tight end caught 12 passes for 151 yards and ran the ball twice for 27 yards while playing 174 total offensive snaps. Modest numbers, to say the least.
The numbers, however, belie the impact Heyward made over the final third of the season. His usage gradually increased, as did the roles in which he was employed. By season’s end, Heyward had become a versatile player whom Canada used to create splash plays or generate scheme advantages against opposing defenses.
One way Canada did this was by assigning Heyward to the H-back role in Pittsburgh’s 12 personnel (two tight end) package. That role had been manned by Zach Gentry earlier in the season. But Heyward proved to be a much better receiver than Gentry, and his blocking was functional enough not to represent a liability. This earned Heyward some of Gentry’s reps.
As a receiver, Heyward demonstrated a penchant for making contested catches, especially on balls thrown down the middle of the field. The Steelers have struggled to exploit this area in the passing game in recent seasons. With Heyward, they have a player who is comfortable catching the ball in heavy traffic, like he demonstrated here against Baltimore:
This catch is even better when you view it from field level, where you get an appreciation for the obstructions Heyward navigated as he came down with the football:
Heyward’s first career touchdown came on a similar play against Atlanta. This one showcased a nifty double-move. Heyward, aligned on the hash to the trips formation in the clip below, made a quick out-cut as he crossed the 15-yard line that got the safety to bite. This allowed Heyward to turn up-field and run open towards the back of the end zone, where he finished the play with a nice over-the-shoulder grab:
The route and the catch were both impressive for a player who, at 6’0-235, is built more like a fullback than a receiver capable of double-moves and acrobatic catches.
Heyward did play running back for his first three seasons in college at Michigan State. That experience allowed Canada to hand him the ball at times, most notably on a play late in the fourth quarter that clinched a dramatic 13-10 win over the Raiders just one night after the sudden passing of Franco Harris:
Heyward will never make a living as an inline tight end blocking down on 5-tech defensive linemen. But he was serviceable as the lead blocker on counter plays, or trapping defensive ends on wham blocks, like we see here:
Looking ahead, Heyward should usurp Gentry’s role as the second tight end. Gentry is set to hit free agency, and although they are very different types of players, Heyward’s versatility could make Gentry expendable. 2023 could be the year Heyward sheds his identity as Cam’s little brother and forges a name for himself.
On the defensive side of the ball, Sutton, Larry Ogunjobi, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush, Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee are all unrestricted free agents. It’s hard to know which will be here next season and which will need replaced (I wrote that for all you Yinzers out there. Hope I did it correctly).
Ultimately, the players on the current roster who could benefit from those departures includes DeMarvin Leal, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Mark Robinson and Tre Norwood. Leal, who drew praise from Mike Tomlin after the season, will almost certainly see more playing time, with or without Ogunjobi. Loudermilk is in a make-or-break situation where his roster spot will be in jeopardy if he doesn’t elevate his play. The same is true for Norwood, who was a disappointment in his sophomore season after a promising rookie campaign.
Which brings us to Robinson. The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker, with Bush almost certain to depart and Spillane a candidate to leave as well. Pittsburgh may dip into the free agent market to find a playing partner for incumbent starter Myles Jack (Philly’s T.J. Edwards will be expensive but would look great in that role). Still, they’ll need a reliable third backer. That could be Robinson, whose performance over the final few games last season was encouraging.
Robinson’s story is well documented. He switched to linebacker his senior season at Ole Miss after playing his first three years at running back. He is raw at the linebacker position but possesses instincts and a nose for the football that are hard to teach. It took Robinson most of the season to find his way onto the field as a rookie. But once he did, he demonstrated an ability to diagnose seams to the football, and a closing speed that is elite for the position:
Robinson packs a wallop when he arrives at the ballcarrier. On contact, runners tend to go sideways or backwards, like we see here:
You can see Robinson’s running back training in the way he stays square as a tackler, which likely comes from years of jump-cutting into holes as a ball-carrier. He is patient in letting seams develop and fast through them once they do. That’s how running backs are taught, too.
Robinson should see an expanded role against run-heavy teams on next season’s schedule like Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Tennessee. But he is yet to learn the nuances of pass coverage. How quickly he can progress in this area will ultimately determine the number of snaps he plays.
At worst, the 7th Round pick from last year’s draft seems like an adequate replacement for Spillane should he leave in free agency. At best, he could develop into the most athletic all-around linebacker the Steelers have had since Ryan Shazier. That’s a big expectation for an unproven player still learning the position. But with Robinson’s natural ability and instincts, it’s not unrealistic.