Top 2 Rookie Draft Picks
The NFL Conference Championships are this weekend, but the Steelers getting a head start on the 2021 season. Time to see how Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith stacked up against their draft class contemporaries. Just two picks to track this season since the Steelers traded their 2020 first round draft pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019.
Here is the link to the midseason rookie tale of the tape if you want to compare the statistical change from the season’s midpoint.
Here is how the Steelers first two 2020 draft picks stack up statistically against their contemporaries after one regular season of play:
|Henry Ruggs III||13||581||43||26||452||17.4||34.8||60.5||2|
|Michael Pittman Jr.||13||700||61||40||503||12.6||38.7||65.6||1|
|Laviska Shenault Jr.||14||585||79||58||600||10.3||42.9||73.4||5|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Chase Claypool (2nd/49th overall) Claypool led the rookies with seven touchdowns in the first half of the season and had zero drops. His scoring tailed off, but his 11 total touchdowns was first among the listed rookie receivers. He did drop six of 109 targeted passes to finish with a 5.5% drop rate. The average depth of passes to Chase was 13.2 yards but only averaged 14.1 yards per catch so he did not get a lot of YAC. However, his 84-yard touchdown catch against Denver was the third longest reception in the NFL this year. He did catch two touchdown passes in the playoff game that we have already forgotten about. Still, his 62 receptions for 873 yards compares well with receivers drafted well ahead of him.
Henry Ruggs III (1st/12th overall). An early season injury forced Ruggs to miss two games. He missed a third later in season. The average depth of passes thrown his was an impressive 17.4 yards. He had three drops for a 7.0% drop rate but caught 60.5% of his 43 targets. He gained 452 receiving yards on just 26 receptions. The 102.1 quarterback rating on passes thrown to him was on par with the Raiders quarterback Derek Carr rating of 101.4. Not an overwhelming performance by the first receiver picked in the 2020 draft.
Jerry Jeudy (1st/15th overall) Denver Broncos have drafted a work in progress. His average depth of target is 13.5 yards, and he averages 16.5 yards per reception. He gained 856 yards on 52 receptions. However, his 46% catch rate was the only one under 50% among the listed rookies. Ten dropped passes for an 8.8% drop rate contributed to this low performance. In fact, defenders intercepted six passes targeting him leading to an abysmal 58.7 quarterback rating on passes targeting Jeudy. His 92-yard catch led the NFL for longest reception of the season. Truly feast or famine as his coach described early in the season.
CeeDee Lamb (1st/17th overall) CeeDee’s production hurt by the Dallas Cowboys quarterback woes. However, his 74 receptions for 935 yards were second to Justin Jefferson among the listed rookies. He is versatile scoring five touchdown receptions and scoring one rushing and another on a kickoff return. Four Cowboy quarterbacks combined for an 89.8 passer rating but that bumped up to 100.2 when throwing in CeeDee’s direction. He did drop eight passes for a 7.2% drop rate.
Jalen Reagor (1st/21st overall) Reagor injured his thumb in the second game and missed the next five after surgery. The Philadelphia Eagles receiver returned to play week eight and caught his first career touchdown pass in their victory over the Cowboys. He also returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown versus the Packers. He only dropped one of 54 passes for a 1.9% rate. However, Carson Wentz only had a 63.5 quarterback rating throwing to Reagor which was below his average.
Justin Jefferson (1st/22nd overall) The Vikings drafted a stud. Jefferson’s 88 catches of 125 targets for 1400 yards led all the rookies. He finished fourth in the entire league in receiving yards and sixth with 87.5 receiving yards per game. Add seven touchdowns while catching 70.4% of targeted passes. Jefferson dropped two passes for a solid 1.6% drop rate. Kirk Cousins enjoyed a 112.7 quarterback rating throwing to him. He is a rookie Pro Bowler plus the AP and Pro Football Focus (PFF) named him to their All-Pro second team. PFF awarded him their Rookie of the Year Honor. Jefferson did say he felt “disrespected” by being the fifth receiver picked in the draft.
Brandon Aiyuk (1st/25th overall) Aiyuk missed some time due to Covid exposure and injuries playing 12 games in his rookie year. He did have two 100 yard receiving games and scored seven touchdowns. His 62.3 receiving yards per game is second among the listed rookies. He missed five passes for a 5.2% drop rate. San Francisco 49ers are looking forward to a breakout second season.
Tee Higgins (2nd/33rd overall) Higgins caught 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns. He may have achieved more if fellow rookie Joe Burrow had finished the season. They had a good connection. He tied Chris “pencil neck” Collingsworth for most receptions by a rookie in Bengals team history. He may have broken the record but left the season finale early with a hamstring injury. He did drop eight of 108 targeted passes for a 7.4% drop rate. His quarterbacks earned 103.5 passer rating when throwing to him.
Michael Pittman Jr. (2nd/34th overall) Pittman hampered by a toe then a leg injury and only played four games in the first half the season. He finished strong playing in the rest of the schedule including the Colts playoff loss against the Buffalo Bills where he gained 90 receiving yards. Pittman shows potential and skillful hands with just one drop in 66 targets for a 1.6% rate.
Laviska Shenault Jr. (2nd/42nd overall) The Jacksonville Jaguars receiver scored five touchdowns this season. He led all the listed rookies catching 73.4% of his passes. Quarterbacks enjoyed a 116.0 passer rating when targeting him. The average depth of passes to him was just 6.2 yards resulting in just 10.3 yards per reception. He had a 3.8% drop rate.
KJ Hamler (2nd/46th overall) Hamler’s season ended by a concussion in week 16 versus the Chargers. KJ did score the winning touchdown in the Broncos first game against the Chargers earlier in the season. Flashes of potential but he dropped seven of 56 passes thrown to him for an extremely high 12.5% drop rate.
Van Jefferson (2nd/57th overall) The Los Angeles Rams played Van Jefferson sparingly during the season. He played just 256 snaps which was 23% of the offensive snaps. However, he played a season high 46 snaps in their playoff against the Packers which was 87% of their offensive snaps. He scored caught a touchdown pass from Jared Goff near the end of the first half. He muffed one of 31 targeted passes for a 3.2% drop rate.
Denzel Mims (2nd/59th overall) His rookie season hampered by hamstring injuries early in the season and playing for the woeful New York Jets. He suffered a concussion in week 17 versus the New England Patriots and ended up playing just nine games. He did average 15.5 yards per catch and had just one drop on 44 targets for a 2.3% drop rate.
Wide Receiver Summary
I am comparing Chase Claypool to twelve wide receivers selected in the first and second rounds in the 2020 draft. NFL teams selected ten of the twelve receivers ahead of Claypool in the draft. Justin Jefferson is at the head of this class of receivers. I rate Chase Claypool comparable to CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, and Brandon Aiyuk. All three drafted ahead of Claypool who matches up very well. Ben Roethlisberger’s successful connection (110.4 rating) with Claypool and his prolific scoring makes him the best value among these receivers so far. Claypool did drop six passes in the second half of the season after zero drops in the first seven games. I’d like to see him working the Jugs machine before and after training camp practices. The PFWA named both Justin Jefferson and Claypool to their 2020 All-Rookie team. Nice.
|Willie Gay Jr.||16||267/240||0||3||1||0||1.0||39||3/1|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Alex Highsmith (3rd/102nd overall) When you play behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree there are few opportunities to shine. Unfortunately, Dupree injured his knee in week 12 and Highsmith had his chance to show us the light. Earlier in the season, he intercepted Lamar Jackson’s pass early in the second half to help the Steelers win their first game against the Ravens. But Highsmith went from playing 14-32% of defensive snaps in the first 11 games to 83-97% of snaps in the last five games. Unfortunately, that was during the Steelers collapse and an ankle injury limited his play in the humiliating playoff loss to 19 defensive snaps.
Yet, he excelled. Receivers he covered only caught five of nine passes for a 55.6% completion rate. He held quarterbacks to a 35.2 passer rating in coverage. Both tops among his contemporaries. He blitzed 36 times forcing four hurried passes and hitting quarterbacks six times. He added two sacks for a total of 12 quarterback pressures. Again, tops among this group. He led with 48 combined tackled resulting in five tackles for losses. Both tops in the group.
He played a lot. 437 defensive and 267 special team snaps. I’m not ready to say he is a one for one replacement for Bud Dupree, but he did show some flash.
Josh Uche (2nd/60th overall) Josh Uche finally made his NFL debut in week eight during the Patriots 21-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills. He played nine games until another injury landed him on injured reserve. The Patriot linebacker started and ended the season with foot and ankle injuries. In limited play, he allowed two of three pass completions for a 66.7% rate including a touchdown. Quarterbacks enjoyed a 109.7 rating on those three passes. However, he can rush the quarterback. He blitzed eight times but caused two hurried passes, hit quarterbacks seven times, and recorded a sack for 10 pressures. He totaled nine tackles with no misses. Now if he could just stay on the field.
Willie Gay Jr. (2nd/63rd overall) The Kansas City Chiefs deployed Gay on 267 defensive and 240 special team snaps. In coverage, Gay gave up 13 completions on 15 passes thrown his way for an 86.7% completion rate. He defended three passes limiting quarterbacks to a 90.0 passer rating. He blitzed 19 times causing a hurry and sacking the quarterback once. He totaled 39 combined tackles but missed six for a 13.3% missed tackle rate. The highest among this group of linebackers.
Logan Wilson (3rd/65th overall) Logan Wilson gets a lot of playing time. He had 343 defensive and 203 special team for the Cincinnati Bengals before missing the final three games with an ankle injury. Quarterbacks tested Wilson’s coverage skills completing nine of 14 passes and scoring one touchdown to receivers he was covering. However, Wilson intercepted quarterbacks twice limiting his opponents to a 66.4 quarterback rating. He blitzed 43 times for two quarterback pressures including a sack. In 12 games he had 33 tackles and missed two for a 5.7% miss tackle rate.
Zack Baun (3rd/74th overall) The Saints put Baun in for 82 defensive snaps compared to 246 special team snaps. He blitzed five times but recorded no quarterback pressures. In limited coverage he allowed completions on both balls thrown his way. He missed two tackles while making 12 combined tackles for a 14.3% missed tackle rate. Not much production from his 15 games.
Terrell Lewis (3rd/84th overall) The Los Angeles Rams placed Lewis on a non-injury reserve list to start the season. The Rams reinstated him October 10 and he has appeared sparingly in four games. He played eight games and in the playoff loss to the Packers. He blitzed the quarterback seven times recording four quarterback pressures including two sacks. He recorded just five tackles with no misses.
Anfernee Jennings (3rd/87th overall) Jennings missed the final game due to shoulder injury along with fellow rookie Patriot LB Josh Uche. In 14 games he recorded just 20 combined tackles missing two others for a 9.1% missed tackle rate. In coverage he allowed four of five completions for an 80% completion rate to receivers he was defending. He had two quarterback pressures forcing a hurried throw and a quarterback hit on another play.
Jacob Phillips (3rd/97th overall) Phillips rookie year stymied by a knee injury and Covid resulting in only 11 games played. He came off the list in time to play his best game in the Browns regular season finale when he recorded 10 combined tackles, a tackle for a loss and hit the quarterback. Receivers caught 12 of 13 passes for a 92.3% catch rate when he was in coverage. Quarterbacks had a 101.3 rating when passing to receivers he covered. He had one other quarterback pressure in addition to the hit he gave Mason Rudolph. He missed one tackle with 25 combined tackles for a 3.8% missed tackle rate.
Malik Harrison (3rd/98th overall) Harrison played in all 16 games despite the Ravens placing him on the Covid reserve list following the first game against the Steelers. He totaled 44 combined tackles second to Highsmith’s 48 but played about 60% of the defensive snaps that our man did. Receivers caught 14 of 18 passes for a 77.8% catch rate when he was in coverage. He allowed one touchdown and quarterbacks enjoyed a 110.9 passer rating when throwing his way. He pressured a quarterback once forcing a hurried throw. He missed only two tackles for a 4.3% missed tackle rate.
Davion Taylor (3rd/103rd overall) The Eagles used Davion mostly for special teams this season. He played 178 special team snaps compared to just 32 defensive snaps. In the three games he played on defense opposing quarterbacks threw to receivers he covered three times for two completions allowing 66.7% completions. He recorded no quarterback pressures and recorded 10 combined tackles with no misses. However, it’s a small body of work to evaluate. An injured knee kept him from playing the last four games of the season.
Akeem Davis-Gaither (4th/107th overall) Davis-Gaither overshadowed by fellow Bengals rookie LB Logan Wilson. But he played in all 16 games as Wilson missed several. In pass defense receivers he covered caught 12 of 18 passes for a 66.7% completion average. He intercepted a tipped Lamar Jackson pass at the end of the season for his first career interception. He held quarterbacks to a 69.2% passer rating in coverage. He pressured quarterbacks six times including half a sack. His 31 combined tackles with three misses resulted in an 8.8% missed tackle rate. Overall an exceptionally good bargain so far for a fourth-round selection.
I am comparing Highsmith to other linebackers drafted in the second or third rounds. Fourth rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither included since the Bengal was picked just five spots after Highsmith. Other teams chose eight of the ten listed linebackers ahead of Highsmith. At midseason, I rated the Bengal’s Logan and Davis-Gaither along with Raven Malik Harris and Willie Gay over Highsmith. Once his playing time picked up, Highsmith rose to the top of the pile. Highsmith will need to demonstrate the ability sack quarterbacks or at least flush them regularly to prove he will be a complementary OLB to T.J. Watt. First rounders beat out Highsmith for PFWA All-Rookie honors. But he is a solid third round pick.
THE REST OF THE 2020 DRAFT CLASS
All six Steeler draftees played this year. Fourth round pick Anthony McFarland played in 11 games, but the pathetic run blocking opened few holes for him. McFarland also missed opportunities when there was a brief glimmer of daylight. Fellow fourth round pick Kevin Dotson started four games at guard. He looks very promising, but Mike Tomlin sat him for the playoff game for unknown reasons after starting the final two regular season games.
Sixth round pick Antoine Brooks played in four games. He played 28 defensive snaps in the 36-10 win over the Bengalis. Seventh rounder Carlos Davis played 54 defense snaps in seven games. He totaled six tackles including one for a loss. Let’s see if all stick to the roster in 2021 and gauge their progress.
Your Music Selection
I always like to include a bit of music. Let’s see if the Steelers can Come Together .