Steelers Rookies Who Will Make Instant Impact in 2021 Season

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2021

Steelers Rookies Who Will Make Instant Impact in 2021 Season

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the 2021 NFL draft needing to reload in a number of positions to continue being a playoff team. 

    Last year's rocky finish to the season combined with a free agency in which they lost more talent than they gained created a sense of urgency with this draft. For the Steelers to be successful in 2021, they had to find some immediate contributors with their picks. 

    In all, the Steelers selected nine rookies, including five in the first four rounds. Statistically speaking, some of those players won't even make it through camp. But there are some who will go on to make an immediate impact in Pittsburgh. 

    Najee Harris is the most obvious. The Alabama running back was the Steelers' first-round pick, and he'll be called upon to bring some bite to the run game. 

    But the impact of the class should go beyond him. Here's what to expect from him and a look at two other rookies who should contribute in 2021. 

RB Najee Harris

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    We'll start here because Harris isn't going to just be expected to contribute; he's going to be expected to rejuvenate a running game that was dormant last year. 

    The Steelers were dreadful at running the football in 2020 and didn't do it all that much. They were 28th in rushing attempts (373) and last in the league in yards per carry at 3.6. Meaning, teams weren't expecting the run, and they still couldn't do it. 

    Pittsburgh is going to heavily rely on Harris to change that. According to PFF, he was second in the nation in yards after contact (821) and missed tackles forced (71). He was Bleacher Report's scouting department's top-rated back and 30th overall prospect.

    He'll have to continue to produce like that to find success. The Steelers offensive line last season had the second-lowest yards before contact at 1.9.

    Missing from the Steelers draft class is a bona-fide day-one starter on the offensive line. Kendrick Green could compete for the starting center spot with B.J. Finney, but the team seems content to roll with Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor as their tackles moving forward. 

    Regardless, Harris will put up decent numbers based on opportunity even if his ceiling won't be reached until the offensive line is improved. 

    Early Stat Predictions: 225 carries, 968 yards, eight rushing touchdowns, 40 catches, 252 yards, two receiving touchdowns

TE Pat Freiermuth

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    According to Sharp Football Stats, the Steelers utilized 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) just 12 percent of the time. It was less than every team in the NFL save the Ravens, Bills and Patriots

    The selection of Penn State's Pat Freiermuth in the second round should be an indication we will see more of that grouping in 2021. With Matt Canada taking over the offense, the hope is the Steelers offense will become more balanced. 

    While running 12 personnel means that one of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool or Diontae Johnson is off the field, it also provides another blocker in the run game with the threat of a pass-catcher. 

    Freiermuth does both of those things well enough to see the field early. He was B/R's scouting department's second-rated tight end in the class. He isn't a dynamic receiver quite yet. He projects as an Austin Hooper-type who will work well against zone coverage, find the opening and consistently catch the ball. 

    For now, he's a good enough blocker to be in-line and let Eric Ebron move around the formation in two tight end sets. Freiermuth's value is going to be in letting Canada be more versatile at this point than any flashy receiving production. 

    That's still providing good value to the offense, though. 

    Early Stats Prediction: 14 catches, 155 yards, two touchdowns

Edge Quincy Roche

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    From a value and upside standpoint, Quincy Roche in the sixth round might be the Steelers' best pick in the draft. Roche was all over the place from a draft hype standpoint. According to NFL Mock Draft Database, the Miami edge-rusher was ranked as high as 27th and was in 9.3 percent of first-round mocks. 

    Instead, the Steelers got him in the sixth round to add depth to a position that will need it. 

    The Steelers draft tells us how high the club is on Alex Highsmith. The second-year player should be penciled in at outside linebacker across from T.J. Watt as the team didn't use any early draft capital on the position, and Cassius Marsh is a journeyman with far less upside. 

    That means Highsmith's role as the team's third edge-rusher last season is open to Roche for the taking. 

    Highsmith ended up playing in all 16 games last season, making five starts. He racked up two sacks, five tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. The starts came in the wake of the Bud Dupree injury that ended his season. 

    Roche's ability to rush the edge resulted in 54 tackles for loss and 30.5 sacks across four seasons at Temple and Miami. 

    Roche feels like a great fit as the Steelers have the defensive scheme to get the most out of him. 

    Early Stats Prediction: 25 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, five quarterback hits


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