Given the months and months of build-up to the annual NFL draft, the rush to summarize a team’s rookie draft class in a few sentences and stamp a letter grade on it has never quite made much sense to me.
In the past, I’ve compared this process to patrons at a restaurant complimenting (or complaining to) the chef based on the menu, rather than waiting to actually taste the food.
In much this same way, it obviously takes time to properly evaluate a draft. Given all of the complexities of the 2020 NFL draft, specifically, this is especially true.
So, while we cannot skip years ahead to know for certain which players will ultimately exceed or fail to live up to expectations in the NFL, we can provide a much deeper dive into each team’s rookie class.
Therefore, in a 32-part series, NFLDraftScout.com will be providing a detailed breakdown of each of the NFL teams’ rookie hauls, following the original draft order. Each team will be evaluated on the quality, quantity and relative safety of their draft classes (including undrafted free agents), with specific players recognized as Best Player, Best Value and Best Project, culminating in one “final” grade.
Today’s team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin
General Manager: Kevin Colbert
Players selected in 2020:
Round 2, Pick 49 overall: WR Chase Claypool, Notre Dame
Round 3, Pick 102 overall: Edge rusher Alex Highsmith, Charlotte
Round 4, Pick 124 overall: RB Anthony McFarland, Maryland
Round 4, Pick 135 overall: OG Kevin Dotson, Louisiana-Lafayette
Round 6, Pick 198 overall: SS Antoine Brooks, Maryland
Round 7, Pick 232 overall: DT Carlos Davis, Nebraska
Key Undrafted Free Agents:
DT Josiah Coatney, Mississippi
CB Trajan Bandy, Miami
CB James Pierre, Florida Atlantic
LB Leo Lewis, Mississippi State
FB Spencer Nigh, Auburn
Overview of the Steelers’ 2020 draft: After trades last year for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and to move up in the 2019 NFL draft to acquire linebacker Devin Bush, Kevin Colbert and the Pittsburgh Steelers were left with just a single selection among 2020’s top 100 picks. The selection of Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool with that selection was a similar investment based on elite athletic traits, still expanding playmaking potential and success against top competition. While pass rusher was perhaps not as obvious of a need as a boost to the passing game following last year’s collapse with Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the jettisoning of Antonio Brown, “Blitzburgh” has never met a rusher they didn’t like and the upside Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith offers is certainly intriguing, as is the surprising plug and play possibilities of fellow “small-schooler” Kevin Dotson out of Louisiana-Lafayette, who size and brawling nature just scream Steelers. Former Maryland teammates Anthony McFarland and Antoine Brooks, Jr. are polar opposites of each other from a size perspective. McFarland, short but certainly not small at 5-08, 208 pounds has the lateral agility and breakaway straight-line speed that was lacking from the rest of Pittsburgh’s stable of burly backs. The 5-11, 220 pound Brooks, on the other hand, plays more like a linebacker from the safety position, offering thunderous hits and positional versatility, as well as ideal special teams traits. Nebraska nose guard Carlos Davis was still on the board at No. 232 overall because he is not going to offer anything as a pass rusher but his stout frame and game make him a solid fit for a squad looking to replace Javon Hargrave. Nevertheless, this pick was somewhat of a surprise. Of the 27 selections in the 7 round Colbert has used since taking over as GM of Pittsburgh at the turn of the century, only three have been defensive tackles. Undrafted free agent Josiah Coatney from Mississippi had a similar grade and is one to watch as a potential rookie surprise, as well.
Best Player of the Steelers’ 2020 Draft: WR Chase Claypool
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Claypool is not his remarkable blend of size (6-4, 238 pounds) and athleticism (4.42 second 40 yard dash, 40.5” vertical) but the fact that he is already the best player in Pittsburgh’s 2020 draft class and he is barely scratching the surface of his potential. That is a bit unusual given that Claypool started 33 games at a power program like Notre Dame but one has to peel back the onion a bit with this young man, a native Canadian who did not make the transition to receiver full-time until he joined the Irish. Perhaps the best indication of Claypool competitive mindset is that he recorded over twice as many tackles on special teams as a true freshman (11) as he had receptions (five) and that he steadily progressed as a receiver, jumping from 402 receiving yards as a sophomore to 639 and 1,037 over the 2018-2019 seasons, topping off with 13 touchdowns and team MVP honors before an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where his remarkable raw talent (and more consistent quarterback play) allowed Claypool to splurge. Sure, he’s raw, needing work as both a route-runner and hands-catcher. Pittsburgh is as good at developing receivers as any team in the NFL, however, and already has a legitimate No. 1 target in the similarly physical and competitive JuJu Smith-Schuster to draw coverage, allowing Claypool time to ripen.
Best Value of the Steelers’ 2020 Draft: RB Anthony McFarland
With all due respect to Roethlisberger and the passing game, for many, running the football has been synonymous with the Pittsburgh Steelers for generations. The loss of Roethlisberger last season had an immeasurable effect on the Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, but the statistics were ugly. The Steelers averaged just 90.4 rushing yards a game in 2019 and scored just seven touchdowns on the ground, good for 29 in the NFL in both categories. Nagging shoulder and knee injuries limited James Conner to just ten games and he was limited in many of those. Benny Snell is tough and Jaylen Samuels is a terrific receiver but, like Conner, neither possess the juice to scare NFL defenses. Home run potential is precisely what McFarland provides. The former four-star recruit turned down the likes of Alabama and Miami to play college ball close to home and he exploded onto the national scene in 2018 with an eye-popping 298-yard performance against Ohio State, one of the elite games of that year turned in by any running back at the collegiate level. After earning Freshman All-American honors in 2018 with 1,034 yards while starting just five games, McFarland struggled through a high ankle sprain and saw his numbers essentially cut in half (614 yards) and yet he still opted to make the bold NFL jump with two full years of athletic eligibility remaining. The inspirational Conner is clearly the current lead dog in Pittsburgh’s running back room but don’t sleep on McFarland. Mike Tomlin has shown a willingness to ride the hot hand before and McFarland’s speed would offer a whole new dimension to Pittsburgh’s offense.
Best Project of the Steelers’ 2020 Draft: Edge rusher Alex Highsmith
The Steelers have one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at pass rusher in T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree but with the latter brought back on just a one-year Franchise Tag tender at nearly $16 million, cheaper options had to be found. Plug and play pass rushers (like Watt and Dupree) are almost always found in the first round. Pittsburgh has shown an ability to develop rushers, as well, and Highsmith qualifies as one of the most intriguing projects of this year’ class. Typically, to earn the NFL’s attention, players have to dominate small school opponents. Highsmith walked on at Charlotte and didn’t become a fulltime starter until his junior season. Once on the field, however, the former high school middle linebacker’s speed and bend off the edge made him virtually unstoppable with the 6-3, 248 pound Highsmith recording an eye-popping 39 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, including 14 sacks in 2019 – second only to No. 2 overall pick Chase Young among all FBS defenders. Even better, Highsmith starred against top competition when he had the opportunity, recording three tackles and a sack against Clemson this past season (prompting Dabo Swinney to call him the best player they’d faced to that point in the season) and getting characterized by scouts who attended the East-West Shrine Game as “the best player here.”
Overall Grade for the Steelers’ 2020 Draft:
Previous 2020 NFL Draft Report Cards: Cincinnati Bengals |Washington Redskins | Detroit Lions | New York Giants | Miami Dolphins | Los Angeles Chargers | Carolina Panthers | Arizona Cardinals | Jacksonville Jaguars | Cleveland Browns | New York Jets | Las Vegas Raiders | Indianapolis Colts | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Denver Broncos | Atlanta Falcons | Dallas Cowboys | Pittsburgh Steelers | Chicago Bears | Los Angeles Rams | Philadelphia Eagles | Buffalo Bills | New England Patriots | New Orleans Saints | Houston Texans | Minnesota Vikings | Seattle Seahawks | Baltimore Ravens | Green Bay Packers | Tennessee Titans | San Francisco 49ers | Kansas City Chiefs