Steelers Players with Most to Prove Ahead of 2021 Season
The Pittsburgh Steelers should have a chip on their shoulder after a second-half collapse in 2020. The team had one of the most Jekyll and Hyde seasons in recent memory last year and will look to get back to its early 2020 form in 2021.
There are certainly some key players who have proved they have the skills to accomplish those goals. T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all proven commodities on the defense, while Ben Roethlisberger will be equipped with a dangerous group of receivers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
But it isn't a roster without questions.
The Steelers are going to have some players with something to prove. Whether it's coming back from injury, carving out a role in a crowded depth chart or proving they can handle the role they'll be expected to cover, these names should be especially motivated in 2021.
OT Chukwuma Okorafor
It's no secret the Steelers offensive line was going to need remodeling in 2021. The group was the 17th overall offensive line in PFF rankings and 31st in run blocking.
The problem is they had to do it while losing Maurkice Pouncey to retirement and Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva in free agency.
That's three of their four most-played linemen needing to be replced with little money to spend in free agency. While the Steelers could have used a draft pick to find their starter, they have decided to roll with what little continuity they have at the position and go with Chukwuma Okorafor.
Okorafor will be 24 years old when the NFL season starts, so there is still time for him to develop but he'll need to do it fast. Of the 79 tackles that Pro Football Focus graded last year, he ranked 70th.
If the Steelers are going to adequately protect their aging quarterback and restore some balance to the offense, the Western Michigan product has to be better.
OT Zach Banner
You don't have to look far to find the next guy who has a lot to prove. Zach Banner appears to be headed toward starting at right tackle. Again, the offensive line needed work in the offseason, and the Steelers once again are looking within for the solution on their right side.
The 27-year-old has massive potential. He's 6'8" and 360 pounds. He was a fourth-round selection in the 2017 draft but has shown the potential to outplay that draft slot.
If he can stay on the field, that is.
Last season, Banner started off as the starting option at right tackle but his campaign was ended by a knee injury in September.
Mike Tomlin placed his confidence in the big man even then, though.
"Coach T looked at me and said, 'You are my answer for 2021, so I need you to focus on your knee, don't worry about anything else.' That was the best thing that I could've heard,” Banner said, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.
In three seasons, he's only played 302 snaps. Now, he's going to be relied on as a key starting member of the O-line. The Steelers spent a first-round pick on Najee Harris, but the success of Banner and Okorafor will likely be a bigger factor in the success of the offense.
S Terrell Edmunds
The Steelers defense has a lot of star power and playmakers but only so much money to go around. That's why a player like Terrell Edmunds can enter the fourth year of his contract with something to prove despite being a strong starter.
In three seasons, the 24-year-old has racked up 251 tackles, 15 passes defended, three interceptions and only allowed a passer rating of 70.8 when targeted last year.
Still, the Steelers declined to pick up the safety's fifth-year option, setting him up to hit free agency in 2022. General manager Kevin Colbert was still positive about what Edmunds has done on the field but pointed out the salary-cap restrictions the team faces.
"Last year was probably his best season, prior to the shoulder injury, which limited him, really the last three games that he was active for," he said on The Cook and Joe Show on 93.7 The Fan (h/t Alan Saunders of Steelers Now). "We didn't feel good about not tendering him, but from a cap standpoint, we had to be realistic about what we'd be able to handle in a given year."
On paper, that doesn't necessarily ring true, though. The Steelers are the top team in the league in 2022 cap space with $61.4 million to spend next season. A chunk of that will be dedicated to re-signing T.J. Watt, but the Steelers' other free agents in the class include Joe Haden, David DeCastro and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Edmunds is much younger than Haden and DeCastro, and he's just going to have to put together a 2021 campaign that forces the team to sign him to a long-term deal.