Boom or Bust: Steelers With High Expectations in 2020
Heading into the 2020 season, there are high expectations for the whole Steelers team.
They return pretty much their whole elite defense from last year. On top of that, they get back their hall of fame quarterback. With a plethora of talented young players to pair with Ben Roethlisberger on offense, the unit should be light years better than it was in 2019. This all adds up to high expectations for a team coming off an 8-8 season. There are a few players specifically who have high expectations, some of whom will rise to the occasion and some who could bust.
Zach Banner: Boom
“#72 has reported as eligible” became a bit of a meme in 2019 and turned Zach Banner into a fan favorite in the process. Heading into 2020, though, Banner has his eyes set on much more than being the sixth offensive lineman who gets to run some routes. He has stated that his goal is to be a starting tackle this season. A strong training camp will likely earn Banner the starting spot at right tackle. Consider this a prediction. Zach Banner will win the starting job, perform well in 2020, and earn himself another contract in Pittsburgh after the season.
Despite being a meme, turning on Banner’s tape from 2019 won’t show you anything to laugh it. Instead, you’ll see a massive man with a mean streak and ridiculous strength. Most of his reps last year came in the run game, and there are numerous clips of Banner bullying opposing defenders. He’s a good athlete for a player with his absurd size, too. Banner has become a fan favorite on social media and is a good leader and person in the locker room as well. The team should be wanting to keep him in Pittsburgh for a long time. If he performs like he did last year as the full-time starter, they won’t have much of a choice. Zach Banner will meet his high expectations in 2020.
Ulysees Gilbert III: Bust
Now, this isn’t to say that Ulysees Gilbert III doesn’t have a lot of potential or will stink in 2020. The potential is definitely there. During his rookie preseason, Gilbert showed flashes of a very good linebacker. He’s a great athlete for the position and has an excellent foundation to build on in coverage. The pairing of Gilbert and Devin Bush would probably be the fastest linebacker duo in the NFL. If things work out and Gilbert takes a step forward, he could be the full-time starter as early as 2022.
Gilbert isn’t a sure thing, though. His mental processing lacks a little bit. This could be a problem when paired with Bush, who, for as good as he was as a rookie, had some mental lapses as well. It would be a major shock to see Gilbert get many snaps over Vince Williams when the team is in their base defense. Williams is a stud in the run game; Gilbert is unproven in that regard. Because of that, Gilbert will have fewer opportunities to establish himself as a starting-caliber player. Bush said during the offseason that he’d be comfortable if he and Williams both need to play every snap at linebacker. If this came to fruition, it would mean that Gilbert failed to step up and prove himself as a sub-package linebacker. He is very good on special teams and can contribute on defense but pump the brakes on Ulysees Gilbert being a major key yet in 2020.
James Washington: Boom
When the Steelers used their first pick in the draft on Chase Claypool, James Washington started to get overlooked. Don’t get it twisted, Washington will be starting the season as the team’s third wide receiver. Claypool will get his chances, especially in the red zone, but he will not start the season ahead of Washington, who had a very solid end of the 2019 season. He played very well down the stretch, especially considering the level of quarterback play he was dealing with.
So, why will James Washington outperform expectations next year? Two words: Ben Roethlisberger. The two built a solid connection towards the end of 2018, Washington’s rookie campaign. Diontae Johnson’s emergence will also open up more looks for Washington. The wide receiver group as a whole is underrated, and a player of Washington’s caliber being the third option at receiver is a good thing for the offense. He’s physical, can win contested catches, and is a good deep ball threat. If Roethlisberger and Washington can get their connection back to start the season, it will be a good third year for the young wide receiver.
Terrell Edmunds: Bust
There’s a disclaimer with this one. If you’re expecting Terrell Edmunds to continue his gradual improvement into a solid safety, that’s a safe bet. But if you’re expecting Edmunds to become the first-round caliber safety that the Steelers drafted him to be, tone down the expectations a little bit. There are signs pointing towards Edmunds making improvements. He’s entering year three, he has more than enough athletic potential, and he will be able to build chemistry alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick. And he’ll be playing with the exact same secondary as last year, which means everyone should be on the same page.
Looking at the things Edmunds struggles with, though, lead to long-term concerns. He really lacks ball skills. Sometimes it feels like opposing quarterbacks are throwing the ball to Edmunds rather than their receivers, and he still can’t make a play on it. Ball skills and instincts aren’t easy for a coaching staff to teach to a player. Many times, a player will either have ball skills, or he won’t. So far, Edmunds doesn’t.
Some think that moving Edmunds into the hybrid role would better suit his skills on the Steelers defense. Having his speed and physicality closer to the line of scrimmage wouldn’t be a bad thing. A concern, though, would be his tackling skills. He isn’t the sure tackler that a team would like a guy playing in the box to be. If Edmunds were moved into more of a linebacker role, he would need to make huge strides in run support. Edmunds can, and probably will make some improvements from 2020. But he still has leaps to make, and many seem to be raising their expectations for him too high, too soon.