The Pittsburgh Steelers snuck into the postseason in 2021, but now they’re heading into their first campaign without Ben Roethlisberger in nearly two decades. Following an offseason of change, can Pittsburgh’s breakout candidates help propel them back to the playoffs? Let’s take a look at three Steelers who could ascend in 2022.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 breakout candidates
Pat Freiermuth, TE
Collegiate tight ends can take a while to adapt to the NFL, but Pat Freiermuth was a contributor for the Steelers from Day 1. In 16 games (nine starts), the Penn State product hauled in 60 receptions — the fourth-most for any rookie TE since the merger — and seven touchdowns.
Despite that early success, Freiermuth has more room to grow. He only played on 58% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps in 2021. With another offseason for development, Freiermuth could leap into the 70-80% playtime range that most starting tight ends fall into. He recently told reporters he was “beat up” at the end of last season, but Freiermuth’s since added more muscle in an effort to stay fresh throughout the year.
While he had plenty of volume in the receiving game, Freiermuth’s 8.3 yards per reception ranked 44th among 47 qualifying tight ends. It’s a figure that Freiermuth himself called “atrocious.” However, it was also largely dependent on the play of Roethlisberger, who ranked 32nd in average depth of target last season. If Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett is willing to take more chances down the field, and Freiermuth is allowed to run deeper routes, increased production should follow.
Freiermuth scored seven touchdowns in 2021, and he’s capable of getting open near the goal line. Despite his relatively low snap share, he still ranked second among all TEs with 20 red-zone targets. With a better quarterback situation heading into next season, Freirmuth could leap into the NFL’s elite tier of tight ends.
Alex Highsmith, EDGE
It’s not easy to find a competent edge rusher after the top 50 picks or so in the NFL draft. But the Steelers plucked Alex Highsmith out of Charlotte with the 102nd overall selection in 2020, and he’s quietly turned into a starting-caliber outside linebacker.
After Highsmith spent his rookie year as a part-time player, Pittsburgh asked him to step into a more critical role in 2021 following the departure of free agent Bud Dupree. The 6’4″, 242-pounder played 76% of the Steelers’ defensive snaps — fourth-most on the team — while managing six sacks and 38 pressures.
Highsmith needs to show more consistency, but he has the tools and athleticism to become a high-quality No. 2 edge rusher. Playing opposite reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, Highsmith is always going to benefit from less attention from offensive linemen. If he can take advantage of that reduced focus, Highsmith could approach double-digit sacks in 2022.
Because he’s such an elite run defender, Highsmith will hardly ever come off the field. He flashes excellent awareness in the run game, regularly showing the ability to set the edge and play contain. Last season, Highsmith finished tied for sixth in ESPN’s run-block win rate (29%). With that skill set serving as a foundation, the 24-year-old’s pass-rushing efficiency will determine if truly breaks out.
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB
Freiermuth and Highsmith are entering their second and third respective NFL campaigns, but Ahkello Witherspoon is a veteran. He’s already played in six seasons, appeared in 56 games, and spent time with three teams. So what makes him a breakout candidate for 2022?
Witherspoon only has one season as a full-time starter under his belt. That came in 2018 on a San Francisco 49ers defense that was ineffective as a unit. He was relegated to backup duty for most of the next two years and didn’t get another starting opportunity until the latter third of the 2021 campaign.
After stepping into the Steelers’ lineup on a full-time basis in Week 12, Witherspoon proved to be a playmaker down the stretch. Over the rest of the season, he posted three interceptions and nine pass breakups. Witherspoon has 92nd percentile arm length (33″). It’s no surprise he was able to use those long limbs to disrupt the ball. At 6’2″ and nearly 200 pounds, he has the size to get physical with opposing receivers.
With Joe Haden gone, Witherspoon will be on the field in nickel packages. He’ll compete with free agent addition Levi Wallace to start in Pittsburgh’s base defense alongside Cameron Sutton. If Witherspoon can harness his athletic prowess, he could put together a career year.