Despite not having a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers came away with quite the haul. Few teams can say they got more bang for their buck than the Steelers did in the 2020 season. The team only had 6 selections. But even during a pandemic season with no preseason and limited training camp, all 6 saw the field. With a lot of moving pieces and much uncertainty lying ahead for the team, they will lean heavily on their sophomore studs to take that next leap. As I said, all 6 players did see playing time in year one. However, Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith and Kevin Dotson figure to all see more expanded roles in year two. Let’s talk about those 3 specifically.
Chase Claypool burst on to the scene in 2020. He had 72 total touches, 889 total yards and 11 total touchdowns. While the production did somewhat tail off towards the end of the season, I would attribute that more to the offense as a whole struggling down the stretch. He did also add 2 receiving touchdowns in his playoff debut. Many people are expecting wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to depart via free agency. Should that happen, Claypool’s role on this team will be even more magnified. He already has a skillset that nobody else in the room can replicate. His blend of size and speed make him tough to match up with.
Oddly enough, one area where he can definitely stand to improve in is contested catches. He was great in that department in college, but year one was a mixed bag there. I’d like to see him play through contact better. I think he could also greatly improve upon his get-off at the line of scrimmage. Something I expect to see him take a leap in as he is set to work out with Rischad Whitfield (footwork king), the name kind of says it all.
If JuJu were to depart, the team would likely add another wide receiver in the draft but it would likely not happen until the middle rounds. They would instead lean more heavily on Diontae Johnson, James Washington and yes, Chase Claypool. He developed a great relationship with Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, and one would expect that relationship to continue to grow in 2021.
Alex Highsmith was a relatively unknown commodity when the Steelers took him with pick 102. A former walk on at Charlotte, he’s carried that chip on his shoulder into his NFL career and isn’t looking back. His role even in year 1 expanded to the point of starting opposite of TJ Watt due to a season ending injury to Bud Dupree. Now Dupree is likely to depart in free agency, Highsmith will be handed the keys full-time.
He got his first start in Week 13 vs Washington and graded out as one of the best rookie pass rushers. What does he have in store for his encore performance? He’s a quick learner and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. That is why I’m so hopeful that he can take the next step in stopping the run. He caused a ton of havoc and piled up pressures over the last few weeks, however he only had a couple sacks to show for it. I expect to see that number rise in year 2. Not just due to opportunity, but for the reasons listed above.
Being the student of the game he is, I think he will add more finish to his game. He also offers a little bit more in coverage than Dupree did and while I’d rather him be rushing the passer every down, that versatility is nice to have. Learning from TJ Watt and Bud Dupree last year paid huge dividends, and I expect that to continue into the future.
Kevin Dotson was possibly the only bright spot along the offensive line. The 4th round rookie wasn’t expected to have an immediate role, but he saw quite a bit of game action and was impressive each time he was called upon. With starting left guard Matt Feiler departing via free agency, long time center Maurkice Pouncey retiring and right guard David DeCastro having just next year on his deal, Dotson is one of the only knowns along the offensive line.
He figures to start at left guard, however he was working on snapping the ball last year leading some to believe he could take over for Pouncey. My best guess is he will be the left guard, and a very good one. As far as his long term projection, I’m really not sure where he will play amongst the interior spots but I have no doubt he will thrive in whatever role he is put in. A people mover in every sense of the word, he fell into the Steelers lap and thank goodness he did. It’s a bonus that he grew up a fan of the team, but now he gets to be a key cog on the offensive line for what figures to be a very long time.
While there is much uncertainty surrounding the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one thing is for certain. They will be relying heavily on their 2020 draft class to take a second-year leap and prove that they can be fixtures on this team for the immediate and long-term future. If the Steelers are going to compete in 2021, the players they added to the roster in 2020 will be a huge reason why.