Piece by piece, the NFL offseason and preseason is eroding away. No rookie minicamps or spring OTAs. Preseason games are expected to be sliced in half, if not cut outright entirely, and there’s a good chance rosters are reduced from their typical offseason 90.
It impacts every team similarly, they have the same baseline challenge to deal with, and it especially hurts rookies and young players counting on reps that no longer exist. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, here are five players most hurt by these changes.
Mason Rudolph: Said it before, will say it again. 2020 was – and still is – sink or swim for Rudolph. Can he be a much better version of himself than his turbulent 2019 year? Or is what we saw last year about as good as it gets? Already named the #2 backup, Rudolph needed to have a strong performance in the summer. There’s no excuses for him. Playing in August should seem easy compared to a year starting on Sundays. Everything should slow down, his pocket presence improved, more consistency with his accuracy.
Now? That opportunity is limited. No more than two preseason games and you imagine Ben Roethlisberger is going to take up real estate in at least one of those. The sample size in judging him will be small. It can be done, you’d hope he makes a jump that’s immediately noticeable but an offseason where Rudolph is working cold with other backups and new faces is far from ideal. This was a time to figure out if you’re all-in or all-out on Rudolph. Instead, the team may shrug their shoulders and go, “eh, we’re still not sure.”
Chukwuma Okorafor/Zach Banner: A more immediately impactful battle on the Steelers’ roster is the RT spot. Both guys have been in the league for a couple years now, they could afford to miss the spring, but they lack a lot of playing experience. Okorafor was one of the Steelers biggest disappointments last camp and if he can’t win a starting job this year, the team probably looks to move on. Banner is trying to climb the ladder from mid-camp add to starting right tackle, betting on himself by signing a one-year deal.
Again, the opportunity to evaluate is small. One player could start the first preseason game, the other the last. It could be at a point where the situation remains fluid heading into the regular season with no one truly locking down the job. Getting to watch these two battle over a month, facing different types of rushers in the preseason, see who can remain consistent avoiding peaks and valleys is how this was supposed to go. Not anymore.
Chase Claypool: It’s tough for any rookie to make the jump to the NFL. You could throw the whole class on here and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s even tougher for a receiver like Claypool, carrying some expectations as a 2nd round, and Steelers’ first draft pick.
It’s not even like Claypool was an incredibly high-production and experienced college receiver. He didn’t emerge into a full-time role in the offense until 2019 when he replaced Miles Boykin. Now he steps into the NFL landscape. No time to work with quarterbacks, especially Ben Roethlisberger coming off elbow surgery. As the Steelers do, they begin by teaching rookie receivers one position to start. That focus is important but it makes them less versatile early on in their careers (see James Washington in 2018) and hard to integrate into the offense.
To his credit, Claypool moved around at Notre Dame and he can still provide value on special teams. At the start of the year, he’s the #4 WR, not counted on to start like some other rookies around the AFC North: Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, Jedrick Wills in Cleveland.
But similar to Martavis Bryant in 2014 (who didn’t play until Week 7) or Tennessee’s AJ Brown last season (27 catches his first ten games) Claypool might not settle in until the back half of the season.
Alex Highsmith (and the Steelers in 2021): Fewer names I felt compelled to include for the defense, largely because so many starters and even backups are either returning or veteran. Highsmith is another rookie adding to the list. An easy name to choose for all the same reasons as Claypool.
While Highsmith is a more developed pass rusher than some think, he’s still a rookie needing to absorb the playbook while competing with two guys, Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper, who’ve gone through a camp with the Steelers before. Adeniyi has played on Sundays. Unless Highsmith is an incredibly quick study, it’s hard to imagine him becoming the #3 OLB for Week One. Maybe that changes by mid-season or the team decides not to rock the boat.
If we assume the latter happens and Highsmith spends the year contributing very little, it’ll put the Steelers in a dilemma for the offseason. Do you let Bud Dupree walk and thrust Highsmith into the lineup, hoping he’s the guy you drafted despite still knowing little about him? Do you re-sign Dupree to protect yourself (incredibly expensive, I know)? Or do you punt and draft another top EDGE rusher in the top two rounds of the 2021 draft?
No one has that answer right now but it’s a situation they could be facing months from now. While the Steelers have a veteran-laden roster right now, they’re poised to lose big names this offseason (Dupree, Hilton, Villanueva, Feiler, Sutton and several others) meaning they may end up relying on guys who have limited NFL resumes next season.