Realistic expectations for all nine Steelers draft picks

With the 2021 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, it’s now time to look to the road ahead as the Pittsburgh Steelers completed rookie minicamp and continue to work out through the Summer.

Fans have obsessed over draft picks going back to the Steelers needs pre-draft to silly grades on how “they did” following it. The truth is, while all of this year’s nine draft selections have a legitimate shot at making the final 53-man roster, I would be surprised to see even half of them participate full-time on game days.

It’s time to lower the bar a bit, peel back the curtain, and realistically look at how each of Pittsburgh’s 2021 draft picks contributes during their rookie season. These are my thoughts and in no way reflects how I feel an individual career may play out, rather, the immediate impact (or lack thereof) of each player based on a variety of factors.

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Najee Harris

Expectation: Bell-Cow Starter

Mike Tomlin is known for sticking with a single running back who stays on the field for the majority of the offensive snaps. His only deviations were during the 2008 Super Bowl run, where Willie Parker would come out on third-down for pass-catching back Mewelde Moore, and the early 2000’s when Rashard Mendenhall was oft-injured, and the coaches couldn’t find a proper fit with Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and others.

Le’Veon Bell changed that trend, and it continued with his fill-ins too, such as DeAngelo Williams and James Conner. (That is, when they were healthy.)

Harris wasn’t drafted with the 24th overall pick to sit the bench. He’ll be a Week 1 starter and barring any setbacks, should carry most of the load in the backfield.

Any other expectation would be a disappointment.

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Pat Freiermuth

Expectation: At least half or more snaps

With Eric Ebron the TE1 in the Steelers offense, I don’t expect Freiermuth to shoulder the burden of being a full-time starter.

He’ll get on the field, but like other TE2’s before him (such as Jesse James and then Vance McDonald in 2020) the Steelers second round pick will see plenty of playing time, but likely relegated to about half of the offensive snaps barring any injury to Ebron.

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Kendrick Green

Expectation: Starter

The Steelers came straight out and said Green will be moving from guard to center: where there’s a glaring need for a starter.

Green has already been gifted recently retired Maurkice Pouncey‘s number 53. If that isn’t a sign of expectations, I don’t know what is.

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Dan Moore Jr.

Expectation: Swing Tackle or Tackle Eligible

My expectations for Moore are a bit lower. It’s not due to any lack of talent or potential, rather the players ahead of him on the depth chart.

I expect Zach Banner to resume as a starter at right tackle, and Chuks Okorafor (who replaced Banner on the right in 2020) will slide over to left tackle.

Since Okorafor is in a contract year, it will be interesting to see how he handles the new duties. There’s still a chance the Steelers swap Banner and Okorafor, but I still see Moore behind them as a rookie who will back both up, and potentially see some time in run-heavy sets as a jumbo, “tackle eligible” tight end.

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Buddy Johnson

Expectation: Inactive List on Game Days

I’m really excited about the addition of Johnson. However, he has Devin Bush, Vince Williams, and Robert Spillane all entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart.

All Johnson has to do is perform in camp, and stay healthy, and he should leap frog everyone else on the ladder, including Ulysses Gilbert and converted safety Marcus Allen.

At best we could see Johnson on game days as a special teamer, but my first inclination is that he is makes the 53-man roster but doesn’t get a helmet early on.

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Isaiahh Loudermilk

Expectation: Inactive List on Game Days

Loudermilk comes in as a developmental player that the Steelers traded a 2022 pick to move back into the fifth-round for.

This signals to me they are not happy with their other defensive line depth of Isaiah Buggs and Carlos Davis. Yet, bumping either of those players on the depth chart doesn’t move the needle much for Loudermilk, as Buggs and Davis were often inactive for one or the other.

Ahead of him on the roster are stalwarts Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu. The Steelers also brought back Chris Wormley who serves as a rotational piece with those three, leaving Loudermilk in a situation to sit under the learning tree for his rookie season.

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Quincy Roche

Expectation: Special Teams and Rotational Depth

Roche was an eyebrow-raising sixth round pick out of Miami, Florida, via Temple: where he won the 2019 AAC Defensive Player of the Year.

I think Roche fell too far and could be a steal for the Steelers, who desperately needed edge rusher depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

Aside from the top three picks, Roche’s path to playing time may be more clear than the rest of the rookies. His competition is Cassius Marsh, Christian Kuntz, and Calvin Bundage. Marsh was picked up from the 49ers practice squad midway through 2020, but was exposed when Highsmith went down. If his performance doesn’t perk up, the OLB3 spot is wide-open for Roche to take, now that Ola Adeniyi left in free agency.

As the OLB3 I’d expect to see Roche come in for Watt or Highsmith between 5-15 snaps, as each catches their breath on the sideline before returning to the game. He should get a helmet on game days and also make an impact playing on special teams coverage units.

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Tre Norwood

Expectation: Boom or Bust

The Steelers defensive back depth is all over the place. The starting corners and safeties are set, aside from finding Mike Hilton‘s replacement.

Mike Tomlin made Norwood’s draft selection announcement by declaring him a “safety” and a “Swiss Army Knife”.

The Steelers love versatility, but Norwood is also a seventh round pick: deep draft picks often struggle to make the 53-man roster, and sometimes even the practice squad.

Eyes should remain focused during camp to see how the Steelers play out finding their new nickel corner, as well as a money/dime backer for passing situations. Norwood could carve out a niche somewhere, but he’ll also have to compete with another safety drafted in 2020 (Antoine Brooks) or corners Justin Layne and the well-received James Pierre for a spot on the team.

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Pressley Harvin III

Expectation: Starter

Okay, so I lied: Harvin has a shot at being a starter too. (I suppose I should’ve paid attention as punters are people too.)

The incumbent, veteran Jordan Berry, has been fighting for his career for some time now. His inconsistency saw the Steelers bring in competition last camp, and keep that undrafted player stashed on the practice squad as they released Berry for Dustin Colquitt – who was then released for Berry’s return.

One of the final picks of the 2021 NFL Draft, Harvin was last year’s Ray Guy winner for the best collegiate punter, as well as the only punter drafted.

The pick was mainly to secure Harvin’s rights to the Steelers, but it’s also notable that Harvin has every opportunity to unseat Berry as his predecessors did.

I believe he will simply based on the film I’ve seen of booming, deep punts as well as control over direction and ability to drop balls within the 20 consistently.

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