Hall of Fame Game Takeaways: Chase Claypool Looks Like Steelers' Dominant WR

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2021

Hall of Fame Game Takeaways: Chase Claypool Looks Like Steelers' Dominant WR

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The NFL preseason is back, kicking off with two storied franchises taking the field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Thursday night. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys opened things up for 2021 with the annual Hall of Fame Game.

    Few stars took the field, and there wasn't exactly a flurry of scoring—Pittsburgh won 16-3. However, this was the first real game action of the season, and both the Steelers and Cowboys learned a bit about themselves during the contest—and perhaps got a look at some future stars along the way.

    Here are our biggest takeaways from the 2021 NFL Hall of Fame Game.

Chase Claypool Looking Like a 2021 Breakout Candidate

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Several of the Steelers starters sat out Thursday's preseason opener, but second-year wideout Chase Claypool was in the lineup early. Pittsburgh's 2020 rookie standout did not disappoint.

    Claypool flashed both his speed and his route-running savvy during the opening half. He caught three of four targets for 62 yards, including a 45-yard reception from quarterback Mason Rudolph. There was a brief scare as he came up injured on the long catch, but it appeared he was merely shaken up by an awkward landing.

    "Reached out for it and had to dive to catch it," ESPN's Brooke Pryor tweeted. "Tried to get up and run for a few extra yards before he's tackled. He was down on the field for a while, but walks off. I'd say that's it for Claypool."

    Claypool, who was taken in the second round of the 2020 draft, showed the skills of a complete, No. 1-caliber receiver during his preseason debut.

    The Notre Dame product was impressive as a rookie, finishing with 873 receiving yards, 16 rushing yards and 11 combined touchdowns. If Claypool's performance on Thursday night—without starter Ben Roethlisberger—is an accurate indication of his development, he could be even better in 2021.

Najee Harris Showed Why He Was a First-Round Pick

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Claypool wasn't the only Steelers offensive player to shine Thursday night. While rookie first-round pick Najee Harris didn't have the most impressive raw statistics—22 rushing yards, 3.1 yards per carry, three receiving yards—he showcased the versatility that made him a first-round selection.

    Harris showed both power and burst on his seven first-half carries. Perhaps more importantly, he showed off his sure hands and willingness to pass-protect. The Alabama product played all three downs during Pittsburgh's first two possessions, and he secured a first down on his first NFL preseason carry.

    It's only an early look, but Pittsburgh appears prepared to utilize Harris as a true three-down back, which is how he was touted heading into the draft.

    "His ability to be a productive player in any type of run scheme and in the passing game—as long as he picks up NFL protection schemes quickly—should make him a plug-and-play three-down running back," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    It's already looking like Harris could be an offensive centerpiece for the Steelers in 2021.

Micah Parsons Looked Like a Pro-Ready Player

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    The Cowboys got a good early look at their first-round rookie as well. Linebacker Micah Parsons, who was selected 12th overall, made his presence felt almost immediately. On Pittsburgh's opening drive, Parsons was there to jump on a Rudolph fumble to give Dallas possession.

    "Just like training camp, Cowboys rookie LB Micah Parsons just constantly seems to be in the right place at the right time," The Athletic's Jon Machota tweeted.

    Parsons' recovery led to a Hunter Niswander 29-yard field goal—the only points of the opening half.

    The Penn State product further flashed his ability to find the football by finishing the first half with three total tackles. Any concerns about Parsons' ability to be football-ready after opting out of the 2020 season should be put to rest.

    Dallas drafted Parson to be an instant-impact centerpiece of its linebackers corps. We're only one game into the preseason, but Parsons appears to be on his way.

Garrett Gilbert Looks Like Dallas' Best No. 2 QB Option

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    Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

    Like Roethlisberger, Cowboys starting quarterback Dak Prescott was out for the Hall of Fame Game. Garrett Gilbert got the start and performed the best of Dallas' three signal-callers on Thursday.

    Gilbert wasn't spectacular. He took a pair of sacks, and he nearly threw a pick at the goal line. However, he finished 8-of-13 for 104 yards, showcasing a good blend of touch and arm strength on several throws.

    Cooper Rush took over after two series and finished 8-of-13 for 70 yards while failing to lead a scoring drive. Ben DiNucci took a sack for a three-and-out on his first possession. He threw an interception on his second. He finished 7-of-17 for 89 yards.

    The battle for Dallas' No. 2 job is especially important considering Prescott isn't only coming back from last year's broken ankle. He's also dealing with a shoulder injury that could keep him sidelined for multiple weeks.

    "We're taking it day by day. Obviously it's five weeks before the season opener, so I've got a lot of time," Prescott said, per Machota.

    Gilbert, who started one game for Dallas last season, appears to have an early grip on the backup job.

Alex Highsmith Showed Why Steelers Can Replace Bud Dupree

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    This past season, Pittsburgh became the first franchise in NFL history to lead the NFL in sacks four consecutive times. The Steelers may have a crack at making it five in a row in 2021.

    One of the challenges this offseason has been finding a replacement for pass-rusher Bud Dupree, who departed to join the Tennessee Titans in free agency. Dupree, who developed into T.J. Watt's primary running-mate, recorded 19.5 sacks in 27 games over the past two seasons.

    Second-year man Alex Highsmith is expected to compete with recent addition Melvin Ingram as Dupree's replacement. He put a nifty spin move on left tackle Ty Nsekhe to notch a sack midway through the first quarter.

    The combination of Highsmith and Ingram—a three-time Pro Bowler—should allow Pittsburgh to replace Dupree's production. However, the Steelers also demonstrated their pass-rushing depth. Cassius Marsh and Quincy Roche also produced sacks.

    With depth, a blitz-heavy scheme and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Watt, Pittsburgh's defense should again be one of the league's best at pressuring opposing quarterbacks this season.

Dwayne Haskins Solid in Steelers Debut

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    In January, the Steelers took a flier on 2019 Washington Football Team first-round pick Dwayne Haskins. While Haskins wasn't the first Pittsburgh quarterback to take snaps on Thursday, he may have a legitimate shot at unseating Rudolph as Roethlisberger's backup.

    Haskins took over on Pittsburgh's fourth possession and played through the third quarter. He finished 8-of-13 for only 54 yards, but more importantly, he appeared comfortable in coordinator Matt Canada's offense and led two scoring drives.

    Rudolph finished 6-of-9 for 84 yards but fumbled once and did not put any points on the board.

    While Haskins wasn't statistically impressive on Thursday, he didn't play the mistake-filled brand of football that he did in Washington. This continued a trend that started early in training camp.

    "Haskins has been surprisingly good," The Athletic's Mark Kaboly wrote. "He hasn't had a day yet where he has shown some of the issues that popped up in Washington the last two years. He's the Steelers' best play-action passer and his accuracy and decision-making have been good."

    If Haskins can continue building on what he did Thursday and what he's done in camp, he may well work himself into Pittsburgh's long-term quarterback plans.

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