After starting 11-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers went 1-6 to close the season, including a Wild Card loss in the NFL Playoffs. Entering the free-agency period and facing salary cap issues, the Steelers roster looks very different. With the first week of free agency behind us, how does the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart shape up as attention turns toward the 2021 NFL Draft?
Pittsburgh Steelers Depth Chart
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins Jr.
Running Back: Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr., Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds
Wide Receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud, Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White
Tight End: Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Dax Raymond
Offensive Tackle: Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Anthony Coyle, John Leglue, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Aviante Collins
Offensive Guard: David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, Joe Haeg, J.C. Hassenauer
Center: B.J. Finney, J.C. Hassenauer
Interior Defensive Line: Cameron Heyward, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis
EDGE: T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Stephon Tuitt, Calvin Taylor Jr., Demarcus Christmas, Chris Wormley, Henry Mondeaux
Linebacker: Devin Bush, Marcus Allen, Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales
Cornerback: Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, James Pierre, Justin Layne, Trevor Williams, Stephen Denmark
Saftey: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Antoine Brooks Jr., Miles Killebrew, John Battle
Kicker: Chris Boswell
Punter: Corliss Waitman
Long Snapper: Kameron Canaday
Pittsburgh Steelers Depth Chart Analysis | Offense
Coming as a surprise to most, Ben Roethlisberger chose to return for his 18th season. Despite his age, Roethlisberger still has solid football left in the tank. In 2020, he completed 399 of 605 attempts (65.6%) for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns.
While no longer an elite signal-caller, he is better than any other option the Steelers currently have on the roster. 2021 will be the final year the Steelers begin a season with Roethlisberger sitting atop the depth chart — the clock is ticking.
Behind Roethlisberger on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart are two massive unknowns. As an organization, the Steelers and Mike Tomlin have given Mason Rudolph their full endorsement as the heir apparent. While this may be true, the play on the field leaves more questions than answers.
In his 15 career games, including nine starts, Rudolph has struggled to adjust to the NFL, completing just 61.5% of his passes (201 of 326) for 2,089 yards a 15:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The most significant impact he has made on the field came from his head crashing into his own helmet with Myles Garrett’s help.
Dwayne Haskins is quickly on his way to joining the long list of first-round busts, especially among QBs from Ohio State. Washington released their 15th overall pick from 2019 due to his play on the field, maturity concerns, and poor off-field decision making. The raw talent is there, and I expect him to compete with Rudolph for the QB2 spot on the Steelers’ depth chart.
For now, Benny Snell Jr. is the Week 1 starter on the Steelers’ depth chart. Snell has never been seen as a lead back, even when he came out of Kentucky in 2019. In his 29 career games, Snell has made five starts while filling in for an injured James Conner. On 219 carries, Snell has amassed 794 yards and 6 touchdowns. He is not a real threat in the passing game, reeling in just 13 receptions on 18 targets for 61 yards.
Since entering the league in 2019, Snell is 35th out of 40 qualifying running backs — minimum 200 carries — in yards per carry (3.63). It’s hard to imagine the Steelers are comfortable with him as their Day 1 starter.
More of a change-of-pace-style running back, Anthony McFarland is the speed for the Steelers’ RB depth chart. McFarland didn’t see much time on the field in 2020, but he made the most of every snap. He finished the season with 33 carries for 113 yards while playing in 11 games, adding another 6 receptions for 54 yards in the passing game.
Jaylen Samuels has been a disappointment, given the fact the Steelers hired his former college coach. Never really finding a genuine role in the offense, Samuels has taken his 213 total touches over his three-year career for 1,009 yards and 4 touchdowns.
If there is one part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart that can go toe-to-toe with anyone else, it’s the wide receivers.
After flirting with free agency, JuJu Smith-Schuster made a surprising return to the Steelers on a one-year deal. With two years of production without Antonio Brown, it has become rather apparent that Smith-Schuster is not the alpha people thought he would become following his 1,400-yard 2018 season.
What he is, however, is one of the best slot wide receivers in the NFL. Smith-Schuster excels against zone coverage, winning on 80.2% of his routes. He has also enjoyed success on slants, beating defenders on 80.6% of such routes, per Reception Perception. When playing against man (fourth-percentile) or press (sixth-percentile), Smith-Schuster struggles, winning on go routes just 33%, corner routes 50%, and post routes at 54.5% of the time.
While he did struggle with drops last season, Diontae Johnson is one of the best separators in the NFL. Johnson led all Steelers WRs and was sixth in the NFL with 144 targets. The second-year receiver out of Toledo turned those into 923 yards and 7 touchdowns on 88 receptions.
In his rookie season, Chase Claypool quickly became a household name. From deep routes, 4-touchdown games, and even rushing the ball, Claypool did it all. He played in all 16 games, catching 62 of 109 targets for 873 yards and 9 touchdowns, adding two more scores on the ground. He led all rookie wide receivers in touchdowns in 2020, despite coming off the board as WR11.
While he has not been called upon often, James Washington has been quietly impressive when on the field. While fourth on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart, Washington put up a career-high 5 touchdowns in 2020 on 30 receptions, the highest scoring rate of any Steeler last season.
While he only surpassed 55 yards once, Eric Ebron was finally able to stay healthy. Ebron saw his most targets (91), catches (56), receiving yards (558), and touchdowns (5) since his 13-score breakout campaign in 2018.
Outside of Ebron, there is little production to speak of on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ TE depth chart. Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, and Dax Raymond have a combined seven games of experience and 1 reception. Not a great sign, especially given Ebron’s injury history.
Up to this point, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth has mainly remained similar to previous seasons. Consistency ends here, as three of the five offensive line starters are no longer with the franchise.
LT Alejandro Villanueva is still a free agent, leaving Roethlisberger’s blindside wide open. As of right now, Chukwuma Okorafor would slide over from right tackle and take the starting spot. Zach Banner would also open the season up as the starting RT, coming off a 2020 season where he suffered a torn ACL in Week 1. The Steelers believe in Banner’s talent as the cash-strapped team awarded him a two-year, $9.5-million contract in mid-March.
Anthony Coyle, John Leglue, Jarron Jones, and Brandon Walton have no playing experience in the NFL. Aviante Collins has made five appearances since 2017.
Anchoring the Steelers offensive line is RG David DeCastro. He has made the Pro Bowl each of the last six seasons and was selected first-team All-Pro in 2015 and 2017. On the left side, there is another vacancy for the time being.
2020 rookie Kevin Dotson should earn the opening day nod from Mike Tomlin, with Matt Feiler now in Los Angeles. Dotson played well during his 13 games, including four starts.
One of the Steelers’ few moves in the free agency included the addition of Joe Haeg. Fresh off a Super Bowl victory with Tampa Bay, Haeg has started 38 of 67 games since entering the league, including three starts last year. He has both guard and tackle experience, which could be vital given the team’s needs.
Of all the players missing on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart’s offensive side, none are more impactful than the loss of Maurkice Pouncey. Arguably the best center in the NFL, Maurkice and his brother Mike announced their retirement this offseason.
J.C. Hassenauer is next in line for the Steelers, but there are legitimate concerns. Hassenauer was a UDFA out of Alabama in 2018, whom the Falcons signed and released. His next stop was in the AAF as a member of the Birmingham Iron. In 2019, the Steelers signed Hassenauer to their practice squad, where he remained until he made his first start in Week 11 of last year.
To go from a future Hall of Famer to a player with four career starts is concerning, to say the least.
Steelers Analysis | Defense
Interior Defensive Line
A four-time Pro Bowler, Cam Heyward holds down the middle of Pittsburgh’s defensive line. Heyward has been as reliable as they come, playing in 15 or more games in all but one year since entering the NFL in 2011. The Steelers will need him to get after the passer more in 2021 as his 4.0 sacks last season were his lowest since 2016.
Isaiah Buggs was the second of three sixth-round selections by the Steelers in 2019. Hailing from Alabama, Buggs played 10 games for the Steelers in 2020. Playing both defensive end and defensive tackle, he generated 11 tackles and 1 QB hit. Carlos Davis played in seven games as a rookie in 2020, where he totaled 6 tackles.
When comparing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart from 2020 to 2021, EDGE Bud Dupree’s glaring omission is impossible to overlook. After two phenomenal seasons, including an injury-shortened 2020, the Steelers could not re-sign Dupree due to a tight salary cap.
Luckily for the team, the 2020 rookie Alex Highsmith appears ready for the job. Highsmith put up 48 tackles, 30 solo tackles, 2 sacks, an interception, and a pass defended.
On the other side of the line is star edge rusher T.J. Watt. The chip on Watt’s shoulder is larger than the state of Wisconsin after being slighted for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt led the league in sacks (15.0), tackles for a loss (23), and QB hits (41) last season. The Steelers will work to re-sign Watt during the season, which may end up as the largest contract in franchise history.
Entering the final year of his contract, Stephon Tuitt posted a career-high 11 sacks in 2020. Rotating in with Tuitt will be Chris Wormley, who is fresh off signing a new two-year extension with the Steelers to bolster their depth chart. Wormley played in 13 games last year, starting one, and finished the season with 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, and 3 quarterback hits.
Calvin Taylor Jr., Demarcus Christmas, and Henry Mondeaux fill out the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart but have little to no experience at the NFL level.
Selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of Michigan, Devin Bush earned NFL All-Rookie honors. He has tallied 135 combined tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 2 sacks, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Reports suggest he is on schedule to rejoin the team after he suffered a torn ACL in Week 6 against the Denver Broncos.
Robert Spillane filled in for Bush after being placed on injured reserve and played well, especially in the run game. In his 12 games, he recorded 45 tackles and returned and an interception for a touchdown in Week 8.
Marcus Allen is a converted safety who the Steelers hope to get in the rotation more following the positional change. He contributed 30 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hits in two starts and 14 appearances.
Ulysees Gilbert III was selected by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft and played on just 33 snaps in 2020 after landing on IR twice.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart at cornerback is well, not good, especially given the AFC North’s quarterback talent. Mike Hilton recently signed with the Bengals, and Steven Nelson saw his contract terminated by the Steelers. Apparently, it was fine by him in the end.
Cameron Sutton will have to step up in a big way for the Steelers in 2021. Sutton played in all 16 games and started six. He had a streak where he had a forced fumble in three straight games, including Week 8 at Baltimore, Week 9 at Dallas, and Week 10 vs. Cincinnati.
Since joining the Steelers in 2018, Joe Haden has started all 56 games he has appeared in, generating 172 tackles, 11 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 48 passes defended.
While James Pierre only played 35 total snaps on defense, he received 238 snaps on special teams. There, he proved himself an asset who could see more playing time in 2021. Justin Layne has made a minimal impact since his third-round selection in 2019. Though he has played in 26 games, he has just 25 tackles and is still trying to adjust to the position after converting from receiver in college.
Since joining the Steelers via trade, Minkah Fitzpatrick has been the best safety on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart since Troy Polamalu. In 30 starts, Fitzpatrick has 9 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 136 tackles.
Starting alongside Fitzpatrick is former first-round pick Terrell Edmunds. In Week 11 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Edmunds snatched his only 2 interceptions of the season.
The Steelers drafted Antoine Brooks Jr. in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He was released before the regular season but was immediately signed back to the practice squad. He bounced back and forth between there and the active roster for much of the season. Brooks played in four games during the final 10 games of the season, dressed but did not see action in three, and was a gameday inactive twice.
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