Bold Predictions for Steelers' 2021 NFL Season
The Pittsburgh Steelers were a team of extremes in 2020. They went from an 11-0 start in which they rode a hot defense and opportunistic offense to 1-5 in their final six games including a first-round playoff exit.
Heading into 2021, they are one of the more difficult teams in the league to nail down. Will they look more like they did at the beginning of last year's campaign or was the final stretch a truer representation of where they are?
The truth is probably something in between, but there are plenty of questions that will need to be answered throughout the season.
With the preseason winding down, let's take a look at the upcoming season through the lens of some bold predictions for the team.
Alex Highsmith Will Match Bud Dupree's Production
The Steelers lost quite a few notable names in free agency. Steven Nelson and David DeCastro were cut. Mike Hilton and Alejandro Villanueva found new homes.
But the biggest free-agency loss on paper may have been Bud Dupree. The former first-rounder was the Steelers' most productive edge-rusher outside of T.J. Watt, posting eight sacks and 15 quarterback sacks while playing in 11 games before a knee injury.
For most franchises, losing a pass-rusher of that caliber would be a big concern.
It shouldn't be in the Steel City. Finding and developing quarterback hunters has been a speciality for the franchise for years. From James Harrison to Jason Gildon to Joey Porter, the Steelers have found guys to rush the passer, and not all of them were high draft picks.
So while Dupree put up good numbers, Alex Highsmith could be the next man up. He showed flashes in his rookie season. He only had two sacks, but he posted a 72.0 grade on PFF, which was the 28th best among all edge defenders.
The Steelers signed Melvin Ingram III, which could threaten some of Highsmith's snaps. But he's now over 30 years old and is coming off an injury-plagued 2020 campaign. He should be kept on a pitch count while the younger Highsmith is given the keys.
He'd likely make the coaching staff look smart for that decision.
Chase Claypool Will Be a Top-6 Fantasy Football Receiver
As a rookie, Chase Claypool stepped into a talented collection of receivers and more than held his own. On a team with Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he finished third on the team in targets, second in receiving yards and tied for first in touchdowns.
It was also good enough for him to finish 14th in fantasy scoring among all receivers.
Last season, Claypool's role was mostly as a deep threat. According to PFF, he was one of only five receivers with more than 30 deep targets last season. He did well in the role, posting 14 catches of 20 yards or more and two more 40-plus yard catches.
He was also a red-zone threat. He saw 13 targets and converted four of them for touchdowns as he came close to 10 total for the season.
Claypool felt his limited role made it easier for defenders to key him, though.
"They definitely rolled safeties over, corners started playing outside leverage," Claypool said, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Hopefully, I have a more diverse route tree so they can’t be cheating as much."
With a year of development and a potentially more diverse role, he could go from WR14 in fantasy to putting up the production to be in the top half of WRs in fantasy football.
The Steelers Will Miss the Playoffs for the 3rd Time in 4 Years
The extreme ebb-and-flow of last season was a microcosm for the state of the roster right now.
There are elements of this team that are elite. The pass rush should once again be one of the best in the league. Ben Roethlisberger may have the best trio of receivers this side of the Dallas Cowboys with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
There are two glaring question marks that will make it hard to be consistent in 2021.
The first is the offensive line. The Steelers lost some mainstays from the unit last season. DeCastro was released, Villanueva and Matt Feiler departed in free agency, while center Maurkice Pouncey retired.
That leaves a really unproven offensive line with Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor at the tackle positions. With an aging quarterback in Roethlisberger and an extremely talented running back in Najee Harris, everything is going to ride on the offensive line being at least average.
The second concern is in the defensive backfield. Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson played big roles in the secondary last season and both are gone. That leaves the secondary a little thin on proven commodities.
Both are going to be tough hurdles to overcome. In the competitive AFC North, the margin for error is going to be small.