The Pittsburgh Steelers only had six draft picks in total, none of which were in the first round. They only had one draft pick inside of the top 50, and that was at 49. In fact, it was their only selection in the top 100 picks. And yet they managed to produce likely three starters from that class, while the entire group remains with the team, an extreme rarity.
It starts at the top with Chase Claypool, the wide receiver out of Notre Dame taken in the second round. He set or tied team rookie record with 62 receptions for 11 total touchdowns, nine of them receiving, and clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
Alex Highsmith in the third round and Kevin Dotson in the second may also both be starting in 2021, and started several games this past season due to injury. Highsmith could take over for Bud Dupree at right outside linebacker, while Dotson may be the starting left guard.
Considering their lack of ‘firepower’, so to speak, their early returns from the class are impressive, and so it’s no surprise that they ended up in the top 10 of draft classes in an ESPN article ranking their production from this past season.
“Despite not having a first-round pick, Pittsburgh still managed to rank in the top 10 in cumulative WAR generated by their rookie class this year”, he article reads. “Their first pick, wide receiver Chase Claypool, was actually the seventh most valuable non-first-round rookie in the NFL this season, per PFF WAR”.
In summing up Claypool’s rookie season, they noted that while he only ranked 11th in deep passing yards (yards on throws with 20-plus air yards), he also led the league in defensive pass interference penalties on deep pass attempts.
They also singled out Highsmith, the 102nd overall selection, as the Steelers’ best value pick, writing that he “was hot and cold this season but managed to finish the regular season with a 72.0 PFF grade. That mark is over 11 grading points higher than Bud Dupree’s mark in 2020 before his torn ACL. It’s also nearly 30 grading points better than what we saw from Dupree as a rookie in 2015”.
The rest of the class includes fourth-round running back Anthony McFarland, sixth-round safety Antoine Brooks, and seventh-round defensive tackle Carlos Davis, all of whom at least finished the season on the 53-man roster and saw playing time.
McFarland in particular can be primed for a bigger role with a shuffling at the position, and with his former college offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, now promoted to the same position in Pittsburgh. Davis passed Isaiah Buggs as the top interior reserve this past season, while Brooks could potentially develop a role as a dime defender as a box safety—or “half a linebacker”, as Kevin Colbert called him.