Welcome back to the 7th year – can you believe it – of my “best/worst case scenarios” of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft class. If you’re new here, this is just a fun chance to dream about the ceiling and floor of the six players the team took in 2020 and give some parameters as to what I think their realistic best/worst cases are. Of course, we could suspend all disbelief and make every pick a Hall of Famer at their best, a complete afterthought at their worst. Somewhere in-between is where I tend to set my sights.
So here’s our best crack at it. Hope you enjoy reading it.
Round Two – Chase Claypool
Best Case: If you played, or even if you watched, high school football, you’ve witnessed an opponent walk onto the field who made you go “uh oh” and your stomach drop. That’s the “first kid off the bus” mentality and if there’s an NFL equivalent, it’s Chase Claypool. 6’4, 238 pounds, who runs 4.42. Opposing cornerbacks? Good luck.
Claypool puts that profile to good use, too. And fast. On the first day of training camp, third pass of practice, Ben Roethlisberger throws (it’s great to write that again) a jump ball in the right corner of the end zone during the team’s “seven shots” session. Claypool skies over Joe Haden and plucks the ball off his helmet, tapping both feet inbounds, eliciting “oohs” from coaches and fans.
Two days later, the pads come on. Setting the tone for a physical camp, coaches begin with a stalk block/run blocking drill between defensive backs and receivers. Claypool is first into the fire, facing Terrell Edmunds, and promptly drives him five yards into the sidelines and at the feet of the VIP crowd. Clalypool comes as advertised. Athletic, a red zone machine, and physical as hell.
His preseason in stadiums are a bit quieter, a byproduct of making the NFL jump in a year robbed of spring workouts, and it slows up the start of his NFL career. He’s 4th on the depth chart anyway, rotating in for certain packages and moments. But like Martavis Bryant or more recently, the Titans’ AJ Brown, Claypool finds his footing the back half of the season.
In Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns, Roethlisberger and Claypool click. On the first play of the game, Ben fakes the handoff to James Conner and chucks it deep to Claypool, who stacks cornerback Denzel Ward vertically, makes the catch, steps out of Ward’s tackle, and races another 39 yards to the end zone for a 70 yard score. Claypool catches a three yard slant for another touchdown in the second half as Pittsburgh rolls the Browns 38-17, thanks to the rookie’s six catch, 116 yard, two score performance. He’s easily named rookie of the week, the first Steelers’ wideout to take home those honors since Mike Wallace way back in 2009.
He parlays that breakout game over the rest of the season. Earning more playing time over James Washington, who misses Week 11 when he turns an ankle in practice, he finishes the year with another pair of 100+ yard games. 102 yards against the New York Giants in Week 11 and 113 yards in a shootout loss Week 15 at home versus Baltimore.
That slow start doesn’t allow him to reach JuJu rookie numbers but he comes close, ending 2020 with a stat line of: 47 receptions, 756 yards and six touchdowns. The scores tie Jacksonville’s Laviska Shenault for most by any rookie.
Such success makes the Steelers feel comfortable letting JuJu Smith-Schuster go in free agency, signing a four-year, $65.2 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Claypool takes over full-time in 2021, oscillating between all three receiver positions but does some of his best work as a matchup nightmare in the slot, masquerading as the tight end some thought he’d be coming out of school.
In his sophomore year, he picks up where his rookie season left off, torching the Detroit Lions for a monster, eight grab, 150 yard, touchdown performance in the Week One opener. He’s beloved by Steelers’ Nation, earning the nickname “Mapletron” for the Calvin Johnson comp and Roethlisberger dubs him “Baby Burress,” the first big receiver #7 had in the NFL. Fans adore him for the jump ball touchdown one play, blocking a cornerback out of the stadium the next. 2021 ends with a stellar, 88 reception, 1240 yard, 11 touchdown performance. He caps it off in the AFC Title Game with a two score touchdown, a 51 bomb from Roethlisberger and a two yard jump ball the other, though Pittsburgh falls to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, 37-34.
Simply put, he’s one of the NFL’s freakiest wide receivers and no scheme can slow down someone with his size/speed combination.
He falls a little shy of being in the immediate conversation for best receivers in football and is generally viewed a tier behind the greats in Steelers’ history, Stallworth, Swann, Brown, Ward, but becomes one of Colbert’s best second round picks. Claypool feels like a first rounder in a year where the franchise didn’t have one.
In total, he plays nine seasons with the Steelers, catching 648 passes for 9590 yards (an average of 14.8 yards per catch) and 54 touchdowns. Those numbers rank third, third, and fourth in team history. He also makes four Pro Bowls, matching Hines Ward’s career number.
Worst Case: 2020 couldn’t be a more difficult year for any rookie, let alone a receiver like Claypool. No minicamps. No OTAs. His first time in the Steelers’ facility doesn’t come until August 17th, the official start of training camp for all teams, pushed back roughly two weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. The entire preseason is truncated. Fewer practices, only two preseason games, in order to keep the NFL schedule on track, avoiding moving the playoffs and Super Bowl.
That puts Claypool and his fellow 2020 class in a tough spot. Playing catchup through no fault of his own, the coaching staff effectively redshirts their six draft picks. Claypool sees action in the first preseason game but makes an incorrect sight adjustment against the Cleveland Browns (the NFL creates a unique schedule for the preseason, local matchups to limit travel and hotel stays). He keeps running vertically against Cover 3 when he should’ve broken down on a comeback, leading Ben Roethlisberger’s pass to be intercepted and taken back to the house by Greedy Williams.
It’s the preseason, no harm, no foul, but the message is a clear. The guy isn’t ready and mistakes like these can’t be tolerated. Claypool gets a helmet Week 1 but is limited to special teams work only, save for one red zone play where he isn’t targeted. Claypool does well as a gunner and coverage guy. He’s a long-strider with great speed and quite the special teams resume, 25 tackles at ND. In fact, his first impact play comes the following week versus Philadelphia, lighting up Jalen Reagor in the second quarter, rookie receiver on rookie receiver crime,forcing a fumble Derek Watt recovers.
An impact on offense is a different story. The three in front of him, Johnson, Smith-Schuster, and Washington, all stay healthy and there’s little meat on the bone for a rookie well behind the eight ball. Each week, Randy Fichtner says they have a plan for Claypool but it’s rarely put into action. Fichtner is far from the league’s most creative offensive coordinator and his attempts to use their new toy fails. In Week 6 versus Indianapolis, Fichtner tries an end around WR pass with Claypool – who played a little bit of QB in high school – throwing the ball. Ben Banogu pressures him and the pass is a lame duck, floated and picked off by Malik Hooker. Laugher of a moment and catalyst to an ugly 28-7 loss.
Things pick up slightly towards the end of the year as Claypool begins to find his footing but not by much. Most yards in a game? 57, thanks to a 41 yard grab in mop up time against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13. Billed as a red zone threat, he struggles to the physicality of press coverage at the next level. Versus Baltimore in Week 15, Marlon Humphrey wins two goal line fades rep. On the second, Claypool can barely get off the line and Roethlisberger’s throw falls hopelessly incomplete.
His 2020 stat line? 22 receptions, 258 yards, and one touchdown.
The offseason gets worse. Roethlisberger managed to play 15 games but with time to rest, reflect, and feel the pain of his elbow after a full year back, makes the difficult decision to hang up his cleats. In his retirement presser, he says his intention was to play out his contract but a bum elbow tossed a monkey wrench into the plan. Claypool has lost the best QB he’ll ever play with.
Pittsburgh pins their hopes on Mason Rudolph, only drafting Georgia’s Jamie Newman in the 4th round under the guise of competition and depth. But Rudolph isn’t the savior and this front office are the last people to realize that. Rudolph struggles through 2021, getting benched for Newman five games into the season after the Steelers begin 1-4. But a rookie quarterback doesn’t help matters.
His issues aren’t just centered around bad quarterbacks and playcalls. Claypool is a physically imposing player but lacks the quickness and separation to consistently win in the NFL. Every opportunity is contested, it just matters to what degree, leading to too many tipped passes, incompletions, just too much risk for the QB to take. With a young WR group under contract, JuJu Smith-Schuster re-ups after 2020, there isn’t a wide open door for Claypool. So he falls out of favor. Tantalizing depth, and message boards offer every excuse to absolve him (bad QB! bad OC!) but Claypool never pulls it all together.
Being a second rounder, there isn’t even the luxury of a fifth year option, though even if there was, it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would’ve picked it up. Claypool has a couple of “moments,” including nabbing an end-of-half Hail Mary attempt in 2022 versus New England, but he’s much more bark than bite. Here’s his yearly stat line as a Steeler.
2020: 22 receptions, 258 yards, 1 TD
2021: 36 receptions, 475 yards, 3 TDs
2022: 33 receptions, 312 yards, 2 TDs
2023: 13 receptions, 144 yards, 1 TD (missed six games with a sprained left MCL)
The total? 104 receptions, 1189 yards, 7 TDs.
At least he wasn’t a first rounder. That’s the go-to line evaluating the selection.
His NFL career doesn’t end there though coming off the knee injury, losing some speed and quickness he never really had, Claypool signs with the Chicago Bears and gets converted to a big, “move” tight end. He finds a moderate amount of success getting to play inside and feast on wide-eyed linebackers, catching five touchdowns on just 18 receptions in 2025. It helps the Bears have a much better quarterback in Derek Carr and fans always wonder what could’ve been had Roethlisberger been healthy for just one more season.
Round Three – Alex Highsmith
Best Case: Coaches frame the #3 OLB spot as a battle throughout camp but if you’re watching practice, if you’re reading reports, heck, if you listen to Keith Butler, you know Highsmith took the early lead and never gave it back. Aside from being a little light in the pants, he has every trait you look for. Athleticism. A quick first step to stress tackles wide. A high football IQ, countering inside when tackles cheat and set outside. He runs to the football, chases it sideline-to-sideline, with the ability to drop into coverage and move around the front.
His preseason is excellent, finishing with four sacks, two forced fumbles, and intercepts a pass tipped by Robert Spillane in the preseason finale. There’s no doubt about it, Highsmith is the top backup.
Of course, a backup is just that. He’s not threatening TJ Watt or Bud Dupree’s playing time. Highsmith plays his standard 15-ish snaps a game, initially making an impact on special teams.
But good players have a way of earning some luck. It comes through unfortunate circumstances, Dupree suffers a broken wrist against the New York Giants in Week 5 and Highsmith makes his first start versus Cincinnati the next week. Just like he did in college against big schools, he works over Bengals’ left tackle Jonah Williams, finishing with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble on Joe Burrow on the final drive to preserve a 24-20 black and gold victory.
Highsmith mans the ROLB spot the next five weeks, more than holding his own. Dupree, feeling the heat, throws on a cast and returns mid-season but Highsmith has made his mark. He ends the year starting five games, recording a promising 4.5 sacks with relatively meager playing time (441 total defensive snaps), two forced fumbles, and continues to do work on special teams, blocking a punt versus the Tennessee Titans.
Instead of paying Dupree – coming off that injury-ridden, 5.5 sack season – the team makes the largely uncontroversial decision to let him go and elevate Highsmith to the starter opposite TJ Watt.
Highsmith comes into 2021 as a new man. A hold-your-nose smoothie concoction bulks him up from 248 pounds at the 2020 Combine to 258 pounds for the start of his sophomore, NFL season. It’s all good muscle too and helps him hold up against the run while maintaining his athleticism. He’s a quick, eager learner, always keeping that edge on his shoulder as an overlooked walk-on at Charlotte.
His first full-year as a starter is a success. 9.5 sacks over 15 games, second fiddle to TJ Watt (who wins MVP with 16.5 sacks, 7 FFs, and 3 INTs) but forming another dynamic duo. Led by Ben Roethlisberger and an elite defense, Pittsburgh motors to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida. There, Highsmith grabs the spotlight, sacking Carson Wentz twice, including at the end of the first half, leading to an Eagles missed field goal that keeps the game tied at 14. That’s viewed as a defining moment as Pittsburgh wins their 7th Super Bowl by the narrowest of margins, 21-20. Highsmith isn’t MVP, that honor goes to Roethlisberger for his 313 yards, two touchdown performance, but Highsmith etches himself into the Steelers’ history books.
Never an elite rusher, not on Watt’s level, but Highsmith is an excellent #2 pass rusher who never gets too high, never too low. Coaches love and can trust the guy. He re-signs after his rookie deal expires, a four-year, $63.7 million deal. He lives up to that billing year-after-year, save for missing 2025 after tearing his ACL in training camp. He works hard to rehab, recover, and look like the same player pre-injury, registering 8.5 sacks in 2026.
In all, he spends eight years with the Steelers, finishing his career with 49.5 sacks, good enough for top ten in official team history. Highsmith spends three more years into the league, two with New Orleans and a final in Carolina, hanging up his cleats with 58 total QB takedowns. It wasn’t a high bar to clear but he’s the best NFL alumni in Charlotte history.
Worst Case: Highsmith is…fine. No, seriously. He’s not bad. But that seems to be the point everyone circles back to in evaluating his play. Decent enough. Serviceable. Could be worse.
That’s the report on him as a rookie out of training camp. He’s a good athlete, does what’s asked, but there’s rarely a “wow” play in his game unless he’s beating up on some poor, third-string left tackle in the preseason who’s just trying not to throw up when the offense goes no-huddle.
Coaches can’t figure out which way to go with him either. The #3 OLB battle between him, Ola Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper is a casserole of “meh.” All three make the 53 and coaches rotate them during the season, throwing them all at the wall and seeing what sticks. Consequently, no one gets into a rhythm.
When Highsmith does play, his susceptible run defense pops up. He lacks the size and bulk is noticeable and he finds out the hard way. In his “welcome to the NFL” moment, Ravens’ RT Orlando Brown Jr. buries him as he tries – and fails – to hold the edge on a 4th and 2 Lamar Jackson keeper. Jackson runs in for a 14 yard touchdown; Highsmith is picking Heinz Field grass out of his teeth.
His rookie season ends with little fanfare. One sack thanks to a blown protection against Washington though Highsmith records six tackles on special teams, 17 in total for 2020.
Bud Dupree has another phenomenal season, finishing with 12.5 sacks, and the Steelers dig deep into their pockets to lock him up long-term. There’s no path for Highsmith to ever see a serious bump in playing time, not now nor in the future, and Ola Adeniyi is the lead backup in 2021. Highsmith dresses on gamedays but sees only a handful of snaps per game (four against Miami, seven versus Baltimore, you get the idea).
And that’s basically how each season goes. Highsmith is just an ok player. He offers a little pass rush juice, does his job on special teams, but struggles against the run and jump in competition. Pittsburgh drafts another pass rusher in the 2023 draft, taking Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux in the second round, and Highsmith amounts to a #4 OLB/special teamer for the majority of his career. Both sides part ways after 2023. With the Steelers, he records 56 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and just one official start.
Round Four – Anthony McFarland
Best Case: McFarland is the breath of fresh air the Steelers’ offense desperately needed. He’s not “the guy” out of the gate but it’s hard not to notice him while on the field. That shows up immediately in the preseason. McFarland’s first career touch, getting the nod as the starting kick returner in the Hall of Fame game against Dallas, is a 62 yard runback into Cowboys’ territory.
Simply put, McFarland is a playmaker with the ball in his hands. He leads the entire league in preseason rushing yards, toting the ball 44 times for 216 yards, including a 39 yard dash to the end zone in the finale against Carolina. He shows his chops in the pass game, underutilized at Maryland, tacking on another eight grabs for 86 yards. He just fits in the offense. Maybe it’s the infusion of speed that’s been missed, maybe it’s gelling with Matt Canada, but it all begins to click.
McFarland begins the year as the Steelers’ starting kick returner and essentially 2B to Benny Snell’s 2A spot, rotating in behind James Conner. Inevitably, a bigger role opens up when Conner suffers a nasty Lisfranc foot injury in Week 6. Pittsburgh opts against a workhorse back but McFarland’s playtime doubles and he’s a lot more enthralling to watch than Snell plodding along at 3.8 yards a pop.
He isn’t Dri Archer or Chris Rainey, athletes without a true position. He’s just a running back with serious wheels, in a similar vein as Willie Parker. He can run between the tackles, a one-cut, downhill player who bursts into the second level and can win in open grass, eliminating defenders’ leverage and angles. He makes even some of the best look slow, turning the corner on Baltimore’s Earl Thomas in Week 7 for a 48 yard gain down the right sideline. The coaching staff is mindful about his snap count and McFarland isn’t often used in short-yardage situations, but he’s by far the most impactful Steelers’ rookie. Which makes sense. RB is arguably the easiest position to transition to and in a year like this, he’s not behind the eight ball as much as others.
McFarland ends his rookie year with 126 attempts for 567 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He also sports a healthy 23.8 kick return average, getting Pittsburgh out of that basement for the first time in what feels like forever.
Pittsburgh lets Conner walk in the offseason, taking a one-year “prove it” deal with the Atlanta Falcons. That opens the door for McFarland and on top of that, after a year of middling, Steelers’ offense, Pittsburgh makes the decision to fire OC Randy Fichtner and promote Matt Canada to OC. Canada is all-in on McFarland, dating back to their time at Maryland. Pittsburgh decides against drafting a running back, counting on McFarland and Snell to lead the way.
Opening up 2021 is McFarland. Canada gets him the ball in all kinds of ways. Traditional run game, perimeter plays with jet sweeps, designed passes on screens and angle routes, and he’s a trusty checkdown option for Ben Roethlisberger when there’s trouble.
Though never the every-down back, the Steelers and most of the league have moved on from the concept, McFarland does lead the team in every rushing category. His 2021 stat line? 214 carries, 989 yards, and six rushing scores.
That’s the same story for the next two seasons. But given the nature of the position, fungible like it is, and the retirements of Ben Roethlisberger, Kevin Colbert, the loss of Canada (who becomes the Broncos’ head coach in 2023) a totally new Steelers’ era, Pittsburgh drafts Michigan State’s Elijah Collins in 2023. The year before McFarland’s contract expires. By the end of the season, another successful campaign (206 carries, 902 yards, seven scores), the running back cycle starts all over and the team opts against re-signing him. Youth is still on his side, only 25, and he carves out an equally successful career with the Los Angeles Rams, including notching his first 1000 yard season in 2025. Ultimately, McFarland goes on to play ten years in the league.
His final stat line? 1984 carries, 9066 yards, and 37 rushing touchdowns. Pittsburgh accounts for a little more than one-third of that production.
Worst Case: McFarland is fast and fun to watch, there’s no denying that. The tough part is figuring out what to do with him.
Concerns arise almost immediately. No, he isn’t Archer or Rainey but his short frame makes it tough to trust him in pass protection. Day Three of training camp, 2020. Backs on ‘backers is the coronation for many of these guys. McFarland is the fourth guy to step into the ring and the coaches want to put his feet to the fire. Mike Tomlin calls out Vince Williams to go against him and Williams runs him over with a heavy bull rush, firing up the entire defense.
The coaches look at each other? Is this the guy we trust to protect Ben Roethlisberger?
And that limits his rookie snap count. There’s still James Conner, of course, the most talented back on the roster, who manages to stay *almost* completely healthy and play in 15 games. Benny Snell has the advantage of being a sophomore and takes the typical second-year leap. There simply isn’t much of a role left over for McFarland, especially with an uninspiring OC like Fichtner.
Pittsburgh tries to give him a look in the kick return game and the dude is explosive, no doubt, but a lack of experience there is telling and it’s hard to learn on the fly in the NFL. He coughs up the football in the fourth quarter of an eventual, 24-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns and the Steelers pull him off that unit.
There’s pockets where you see the allure of his game, including a dazzling 33 yard slalom through the Jaguars’ defense mid-season, but he spends most of his time standing near RBs coach Eddie Faulkner on the sideline. His rookie season ends not with a bang but a whimper, 48 carries for 206 yards and no touchdowns.
Despite good health, Pittsburgh has tough decisions to make and Conner is allowed to walk. Without a true #1, the team drafts another running back, eyeing another workhorse and selecting Alabama’s Najee Harris in the second round, 59th overall. McFarland’s path to playing time is just as murky as it was as a rookie. Things get worse in the summer. He tears the meniscus in his right knee, undergoing surgery, and missing the first month of the season. That makes him an easy name to forget. Though he gets healthy part way through the year, the Steelers’ run game is humming and McFarland doesn’t trust his knee the same way. He seems more hesitant, not as fast in the open field, and buried on the depth chart.
Matt Canada takes the offensive coordinator job in Seattle, leaving McFarland without the guy who helped get him drafted. The 4th round investment isn’t heavy, there’s naturally high turnover with the position anyway, and the team moves on following the 2022 training camp. He bounces around with five teams over the next three years only logging 41 attempts.
In Pittsburgh, his 2.5 year stay ends with him recording only 65 carries for 263 yards and zero touchdowns.
Round Four – Kevin Dotson
Best Case: Nicknamed the “People Mover,” Dotson also quickly becomes one of Steelers’ Nations favorites. He and Zach Banner are two of the most jovial linemen on the team, clowning around in the stretch line (someone’s gotta replace Ramon Foster’s spirit). But on the field, both are among the biggest and strongest players. Dotson begins camp with the second-teamers. On one rep with the defense rotating in third string, Dotson practically carries poor DT Cavon Walker, driving him five yards downfield as Jaylen Samuels runs behind for a 17 yard gain.
The common theme is the lost offseason hurting this class. Dotson is no exception. If he was plugging back in at right guard, where he started 52 games at UL-Lafeyette, it might be a different story (Marcus Gilbert started 13 games in 2011 post-lockout) but Flozell Adams compared flipping spots to writing with your opposite hand.
Dotson starts 2020 on the bench but the door quickly swings open. Through injury, unfortunately, as circumstance often dictates (look no further than the QB situation a year ago). Alejandro Villanueva goes down for three weeks with a shoulder injury, it’s been bugging him for years, in Week 3, causing musical chairs across the starting five. Chukwuma Okorafor, who won the starting RT job, flips to the blindside, Matt Feiler shifts to RT, and Dotson edges out Stefen Wisniewski for the LG vacancy.
Pass protection is another story but the run game doesn’t miss a beat. In Week 4, the first with the new lineup, James Conner and Benny Snell combine for 201 yards rushing as Pittsburgh pounds New York 34-13. Dotson isn’t perfect, he gives up two sacks in his first three starts, but he’s the definition of a mauling run blocker. Moving people from Point A to Point B against their will.
Dotson gets shuffled back to the bench once Villanueva heals up but the team knows they have a steal. Villanueva retires after the 2020 season, football never defined him anymore, moving Okorafor to LT as Feiler – signed to a three-year deal – flips back to RT. Dotson is the no-brainer choice to fill back in at left guard and he opens 2021 as the definitive starter.
The Steelers’ rushing attack spikes again, in large part thanks to Dotson. They finish third in the NFL in yards per carry, taking some of the pressure off Ben Roethlisberger, and this well-balanced, efficient offense heads to the Super Bowl to face the Dallas Cowboys, a classic matchup of the 70s, 90s, and now 2020s.
4th quarter. Pittsburgh trails 27-23. In a callback to Super Bowl 40, Dotson’s asked to pull left to right, climbs up through the 2nd level and smacks LB Jaylon Smith, driving and washing him out of the play as Conner follows behind for a 31 yard touchdown. Pittsburgh wins by that margin, 30-27, and Dotson’s play is carved in football history. Local famous diner Pamela’s unveils the Dotson pancake and the dude never has to buy another beer in the Steel City ever again.
League-wide, he’s never one of the top guards, never touching David DeCastro’s natural notoriety but he’s a dominant run blocker and good-enough pass protector. He’s durable too, once starting 87 straight games, and is named a Pro Bowl alternate in 2026.
Dotson plays nine seasons as a Steeler, starting 123 total games, following a similar career arc as DeCastro. He’s arguably the second greatest 4th round pick Colbert ever made, only second behind fellow UL-Lafayette alum Ike Taylor.
Worst Case: Remember Pedro Cerrano from Major League? Dude could mash fastballs to the moon. Couldn’t hurt a curveball (initially).
That’s Dotson. There’s no question he can run block. But pass pro is like Cerrano. Lot of swings and misses.
It’s evident very early in training camp. In 1v1 pass block drills, he struggles, getting whipped by backups. Crafty veterans like Tyson Alualu and even outside-looking-in roster players like Cavon Walker and Henry Mondeaux. Walker drops Dotson to a knee on a spin move early in camp and things don’t get much better throughout the summer.
Dotson simply isn’t ready. Throw on top of that the transition to left guard, harder than it sounds, and he’s glued to the bench for what amounts to a redshirt freshman season. He doesn’t play a single offensive snap, only logging 21 snaps on the field goal unit.
Feiler is re-signed after the season and remains at left guard. With David DeCastro not going anywhere, Dotson is stuck and his play isn’t inspiring enough for the team to make a move. His run blocking is fine but he’s more Chris Kemoeatu than anything else. And in this era, pass blocking is a lot more important. The Steelers’ o-line was built to pass protect for a reason.
Dotson plays just 91 snaps in 2021 but allows 2.5 sacks. The run blocking is nice but that can’t be the calling card of this era. In 2022, they draft another interior linemen, taking Ohio State’s Harry Miller in the 2nd round. Miller is drafted to sooner-than-later replace Maurkice Pouncey but also works at guard and quickly passes Dotson up.
His age doesn’t help either. Drafted at nearly 24 years old, he’s a maxed out player who basically hit his ceiling by the time he took his first trip into Pittsburgh. Offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett isn’t Mike Munchak either and simply doesn’t develop linemen the way Munchak seemingly turned water into wine.
By the end of his rookie deal, Dotson’s already nearly 28 and Pittsburgh’s turned the page. He spends another two years in the league, one with Kansas City, another with Tampa Bay, making three more starts. That’s still more than the two he made with the Steelers.
Round Six – Antoine Brooks Jr.
Best Case: Brooks makes his name known to the fanbase almost right away. On the fourth day of practice, second in pads, he levels the hit of training camp, blowing up poor Quadree Henderson running a crosser over the middle. Only a rookie, Brooks is a tone setter for the defense in practice. Always hyping up a teammate, energetic after a big play, heck, just taking the field before every kickoff, he’s the energizer bunny.
And that’s his role as a rookie. Special teams demon, making you forget about the losses of Tyler Matakevich and Roosevelt Nix. In the Week One opener against Philadelphia, Brooks registers two tackles and forces a fumble (though it’s recovered by the Eagles).
After Cam Sutton suffers a broken toe in Week 6, Brooks gets his first crack on defense. He works mostly in dime packages but is also the team’s answer to tight ends. When the team wants to play a big nickel against Baltimore, Brooks is the guy they lean on and he answers the call. He gives Mark Andrews all he can handle, catching just one of four targets, including an end zone breakup on 3rd and goal.
Brooks’ role only expands in 2021 after Mike Hilton hits free agency, signing with Buffalo, which puts Sutton in the slot and Brooks as a sub-package player. He also begins to transition more to playing inside linebacker and in essence, becomes a de facto linebacker, even if the team keeps his safety listing and he maintains his #25 jersey.
He’s never a full-time player but a versatile chess piece and problem solver week-to-week. He also emerges as a core special teamer over his first four seasons, leading the team and ranking fifth in the NFL with 33 tackles. Wanting a full-time defensive role and the pay that comes along with it, he elects to test free agency and signs a three-year pact with the Detroit Lions, playing as a 4-3 SAM linebacker. He makes 29 starts over that time, totaling up 194 tackles, five forced fumbles, three sacks, and two interceptions.
Worst Case: Jack of all trades. That’s Antoine Brooks. On paper, he looks good. Play a little safety, play a little linebacker, wherever the team needs him, he’ll fit. But those multi-roles are typically reserved for special players like Derwin James, capable of excelling in any role. And Brooks simply isn’t athletic and fluid enough to come anywhere close to that.
There’s still potential on special teams and his skillset is much better suited for special teams. But it isn’t all roses there either. His tackling is inconsistent. Want-to isn’t the issue, that’s the last of his problems, but he struggles to wrap up and aims too low.
Crucially, he misses an open field chance on Bengals’ kick returner Brandon Wilson, who scampers for a 74 yard runback that leads to a Cincinnati touchdown.
Bottom line, Brooks simply doesn’t have a home. The team gets serious after drafting a safety, selecting Florida’s Donovan Stiner in the third round the next year. Brooks gets carried to camp but gets squeezed out, the team unable to figure out if he’s a linebacker or safety – he’s neither – and his special teams play isn’t strong enough. He spends all of 2021 on the practice squad but isn’t offered a futures contract when the year ends. He signs with the Green Bay Packers and bounces around with three teams the next five seasons, appearing in only eight NFL games and never recording a start.
Round Seven – Carlos Davis
Best Case: Davis is a roller coaster player but his highs are impressing. Karl Dunbar is a great coach and they work on his pad level in camp, letting him play more consistently and unlocking his positive traits. Strength, effort, and some level of versatility.
It takes injury, a running theme here, to open up a spot on the 53, Isaiah Buggs goes down with a knee injury and is placed on IR. Davis doesn’t get a hat on gameday until Week 14 and winds up playing just 59 snaps his rookie season, recording four tackles and a half-sack against the Browns in the regular season finale.
The following offseason in an adventure for the d-line. Tyson Alualu? Retires. Chris Wormley. Takes more money and goes back to Baltimore, making Kevin Colbert look silly in the process. And Daniel McCullers opts to get out of Pittsburgh and goes back home to Carolina and play for the Panthers.
The Steelers don’t anoint Davis the starter, signing Dalvin Tomlinson to a three-year contract. But Davis gets a helmet and sees typical backup snaps, working in the Steelers’ base defense and occasionally in nickel off-and-on. In 2021, he plays 294 snaps, compiling 23 tackles and 1.5. sacks.
That’s basically the story for 2022. He’s carried into camp for 2023 but loses out his role, always on the bubble, and gets released at final cutdowns. He bounces around New England and Las Vegas for two seasons before falling out of the league.
Worst Case: There’s some talent with Davis but it’s far and few between. For every decent rep, there’s three ugly ones. The 53 man roster is full, six linemen already locked into the roster even before he was drafted, so he winds up on the practice squad.
Pittsburgh yo-yos him on and off the practice squad throughout the season, the odd man out when injuries strike. Signed September 2nd. Cut September 8th. Re-signed on the 12th, cut on the 27th, brought back two weeks later. Round and round he goes.
The Steelers cut ties with him for good in mid-November. He joins the upstart AFA (American Football Association), playing for the Albuquerque Roadrunners and inking a 2021 summer training camp invite with Arizona. He’s released at cutdown and after eight weeks on the tryout circuit with no bites, retires to become a psychologist.