What the Steelers didn’t do in the 2020 NFL Draft, and one thing they definitely got right

Ben Roethlisberger had good reason to be excited after watching the Steelers‘ 2020 NFL Draft

For a fourth consecutive year, the Steelers drafted a receiver on Day 2, selecting former Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool with the 49th pick. A big, physical receiver at 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, Claypool caught 13 touchdown passes during his final season with the Fighting Irish. While Claypool will join a Steelers receiving corps that already includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Ryan Switzer, the Steelers grabbing one of the draft’s top receivers was the right thing to do with their first pick. It was certainly appreciated by Roethlisberger, who will surely look to utilize his new weapon in the red zone. 

“I honestly don’t know much about Chase other than his numbers and size, but excited,” Roethlisberger said in an email to The Athletic shortly after talking to Claypool. “I heard he’s a good, hard-working guy and a great teammate. I’m sure he’s excited to get to come share a (receivers) room and learn from a great player like JuJu.”

The Steelers weren’t done addressing the offense, a unit that needed depth at running back and on the offensive line. Pittsburgh filled both of those holes in the fourth round, selecting former Maryland running back Anthony McFarland and Louisiana guard Kevin Dotson. McFarland, who clocked the fourth-fastest time in the 40-yard-dash among running backs at the NFL combine, showcased that speed on numerous occasions during his time with the Terrapins. He had a field day against Ohio State in 2018, ripping off runs of 81, 75 and 52 yards against one of the nation’s best teams. McFarland will join a nucleus of running backs in Pittsburgh that includes James Conner, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Kerrith Whyte.

Dotson, the first player drafted who was not invited to this year’s combine, will compete to be the team’s new starting left guard after longtime starter Ramon Foster retired earlier this offseason. The team’s other options at left guard include Stefen Wisniewski and Matt Feiler, the team’s starting right tackle who has the ability to play both tackle and guard. 

A consensus All-American in 2019, Dotson was described as a “people mover” by offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett.

“He is the type of guy when you look at that old-school run game stuff like back in the day when you run through guys, this really flashes on his tape,” Sarrett said, via Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

With their biggest needs on the offensive side of the ball addressed, the Steelers spent the other half of their draft picks addressing their biggest holes on defense. In the third round, Pittsburgh selected Charlotte pass rusher Alex Highsmith, who is coming off a 2019 season that saw him record 15 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Highsmith will look to provide effective depth behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, who combined to record 26 sacks last season. Highsmith will also look to make his mark on special teams in 2020.

Pittsburgh went back to Maryland when it drafted former Terrapin strong safety Antoine Brooks Jr. in the sixth round. A linebacker at the start of his college career, Brooks switched to safety in 2018. That season, he earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors while recording 155 tackles and 17 tackles for loss during his last two seasons with the Terrapins. Along with making an impact on special teams, Brooks, a physical player and sure-handed tackler, can provide essential depth at strong safety behind Terrell Edmunds and Jordan Dangerfield.

With their final pick, the Steelers added to their defensive line by selecting Nebraska’s Carlos Davis, who finished in the top 10 at the combine among defensive linemen in the 40-yard-dash (running a time of 4.82 seconds) and in the bench press, recording 27 reps at 225 pounds. During his four seasons with the Huskers, Davis tallied 9.5 sacks, 125 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and three passes defensed. Davis will join a Pittsburgh defensive line that already includes Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley (a 2020 free agent acquisition) and Tyson Alualu. The unit did lose former starter Javon Hargrave in free agency back in March.

After examining what the Steelers did well, we decided to look deeper into what they didn’t accomplish in the draft, what roster needs remain, and what it might mean moving forward for the rest of the offseason.

1. Add depth at inside linebacker

The Steelers currently don’t have much at that position behind starters Devin Bush and Vince Williams. Pittsburgh’s backups at the position include 2019 sixth-round pick Ulysees Gilbert, Christian Kuntz, and Robert Spillane. Between them, the trio has appeared in just 17 regular season games heading into the 2020 season.

In the third round of the draft, Pittsburgh watched two inside linebackers — LSU’s Jacob Phillips and Ohio State’s Malik Harrison — go off the board to AFC North rivals shortly before selecting Highsmith with the 102nd pick. Pittsburgh ultimately decided not to select an inside linebacker with any of its remaining picks.

The Steelers quickly signed undrafted rookie inside linebackers John Houston, Leo Lewis and James Lockhart, however. A team captain at USC, Lewis finished his Trojans career with 167 tackles, nine passes defensed, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and an interception. A four-year starter at Mississippi, Lewis tallied 235 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, six passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble for the Bulldogs. After starting his career as a defensive lineman at Texas A&M, Lockhard moved to linebacker after transferring to Baylor. He put up solid numbers in 2019, recording six sacks, 31 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss.

Rest assured that the Steelers will continue to keep an eye out for available talent at this position as the 2020 offseason continues.

2. Add depth at free safety

The Steelers don’t have much at this position behind starter Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s current backup is Marcus Allen, a 2018 fifth-round pick that has appeared in just three regular season games.

In the second round, Pittsburgh watched as Grant Delpit and Antoine Winfield Jr., two of the top safety prospects in the draft, fell off the board shortly before they selected Claypool. The Steelers picked Claypool instead of Jeremy Chinn, one of the other top safeties in the draft who was later selected by the Panthers with the 64th pick.

The Steelers did add to this part of their defense when they signed undrafted rookies Trajan Bandy and James Pierre. Both Bandy and Pierre started their college careers at safety before switching to cornerback. Bandy, who attended the University of Miami, recorded four interceptions and 14 pass breakups during his two seasons at cornerback for the Hurricanes. Pierre picked off three passes along with 15 pass breakups in three seasons at Florida Atlantic.

Don’t be surprised if the Steelers sign a free agent to help add depth to this position. One option could be former Raven Tony Jefferson, an eight-year veteran who has seen time at both safety positions.

3. Sign a quarterback who can possibly win the No. 3 spot

The Steelers made it pretty clear heading into the draft that they were not interested in trying to find Roethlisberger’s possible heir apparent this year. That being said, the team should be interested in improving the depth behind Roethlisberger at that position entering the 2020 season.

Pittsburgh currently has five quarterbacks on its roster in Big Ben, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch and J.T. Barrett. While Rudolph’s spot at the No. 2 quarterback is fairly secure, expect Lynch and Barrett to get the opportunity to win the No. 3 spot from Hodges.

If the Steelers are not happy with their quarterback room before the start of the season, they will likely go out and sign a capable veteran. Pittsburgh, given the current climate of the position, should have some decent options. One option could be Andy Dalton, if the Bengals ultimately decide to release him or accept a late-round pick in exchange for their former starter. Joe Flacco could be another option if he is willing to accept a backup role.

As it relates to finding Roethlisberger’s eventual successor, fans should look towards the 2021 draft, as Pittsburgh may decide to pull the trigger on a quarterback given that Big Ben’s contract is set to expire after the 2021 season.

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