With the 2021 NFL Draft just weeks away, and this year actually scheduled to take place in person, not to mention on time, we are due to revisit and reflect upon the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft class of 2020, which, though small, was one of their more successful in recent years.
For the first time since the late 1960s, the Steelers did not have a first-round draft choice for the 2020 NFL Draft, having given that up to the Miami Dolphins when they acquired first-team All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in September of 2019. I think it’s fair to say that they proved to be a good investment.
And the fact that the team has gotten such strong returns from their remaining six selections from the draft class is part of that analysis. For the first time likely in team history, as best as I can tell, every single member of the draft class not only spent time on the 53-man roster, but actually played in a game—even all in the same game.
It started with the second-round selection of Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool, who would set or tie multiple team rookie records with his 62 receptions, nine receiving touchdowns, and 11 total offensive touchdowns. He had 873 receiving yards, and he would add another five receptions for 59 yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers’ playoff loss.
Claypool was their only top-100 selection, with third-round outside linebacker Alex Highsmith having come as a compensatory draft pick. Initially contributing sparsely as a rotational player behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, they eventually began to incorporate him into a sub-package. After Dupree tore his ACL, Highsmith took over in the starting lineup, and acquitted himself well.
Running back Anthony McFarland, the team’s first of two fourth-round picks, did not come out of the gates racing—or perhaps he did, but tripped. He did managed to log 33 carries, albeit for just 113 yards, with an early 20-yard run. But he ran like a rookie for the most part, over-excited, at times tripping and overrunning gaps. More is expected of him this year.
The team’s other fourth-round pick was guard Kevin Dotson, the first non-Combine invitee to be drafted, and he ended up playing in the season opener, after Stefen Wisniewski—who was started for an injured David DeCastro—was injured. Dotson started the next game, and then would start three more, to positive reviews, two at each guard position.
The Steelers’ final two draft picks, sixth-round safety Antoine Brooks, Jr. and seventh-round defensive lineman Carlos Davis, contributed less, but still contributed. The latter made the initial 53-man roster. The former spent time on the practice squad before being called up for the remainder of the season.
On paper, it looks as though the draft class should yield three 2021 starters in Claypool, Highsmith, and Dotson. McFarland should see an expanded role in Matt Canada’s offense, under whom he had his best season in 2018. Davis should have a more active rotational role as well. Brooks has an opportunity to become a core special teamer, perhaps replacing Jordan Dangerfield, and possibly even developing into a sub-package hybrid linebacker on defense.
As a bonus, undrafted free agent cornerback James Pierre out of Florida Atlantic also made the 53-man roster and spent the entire season there. He developed into a plus special teamer, but late in the season got some playing time on defense. He will compete with Justin Layne for an expanded and possibly very significant role on defense this season.