I’m bringing you the eighth year of the “best and worst case scenarios” of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ latest draft class. Apologize this is coming out later than usual. I try to find a lower-key weekend where I can write and get a little creative, but the NFL schedule has made this year busier than ever.
If you’re new to this series, this is just a fun thought exercise about the potential – good and bad – of the nine players Pittsburgh drafted this season. Of course, we could write up every player’s best-case sending him to Canton and every worst-case with them being the worst player in history (the modern-day Ethan Albright). But I prefer to strike a more realistic balance with the ceiling and floor of these guys.
There’s nine players to talk about so let’s dive in. The best (and worst) case scenarios of the Steelers’ 2021 draft picks. Hope you enjoy it.
Round 1 – Najee Harris
Best Case: Despite expectations so heavy Superman could crumble, Najee Harris finds a way to answer the call. It doesn’t take long for the Steelers to find out they made the right pick at #24. On day three of training camp, the first one in pads, Harris runs through LB Robert Spillane during the first 11v11 run session, busting into the open field before being dragged down around the ankles by Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s a 23-yard gain. Later that day, he makes an acrobatic snag along the right sideline, skying over Devin Bush for a 14-yard catch from Ben Roethlisberger. Even Mike Tomlin, often coy about rookies, can’t help but crack a smile when asked about it in the post-practice Zoom call with media.
“Hey, we drafted him to make plays like that,” he says.
Harris is of course the Steelers’ lead back from the get-go, Week 1 against Buffalo. Though the Steelers lose on a field goal as time expires, Harris carves up the Bills, carrying the ball 21 times for 105 yards and one rushing score. With an offensive line that isn’t great but better than anticipated composed of competent run blockers, Harris just needs small cracks to hit daylight, a rarity for a player of his frame.
Even as a rookie, he can do it all. Run, block, catch, he even trips up Ravens’ LB Patrick Queen – recovering a Marlon Humphrey forced fumble – to save a touchdown in a Week 13 win over Baltimore. All those debates over if Harris was worth the pick at #24? Long gone.
His best performance as a rookie comes Week 12 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Already playing without DT Andrew Billings, Cincy’s Larry Ogunjobi exits on the first drive due to a high ankle sprain. Depleted, Harris runs all over a Bengals’ team already prepared to throw the towel in on the season. By halftime, he’s up to 85 yards, including a 27-yard first quarter score. And the Steelers grind the clock the rest of the way as they did with Le’Veon Bell years ago. Harris concludes his day with 145 yards rushing, another 53 receiving, and three total touchdowns, all on the ground. He becomes the first Steelers’ rookie in team history with three rushing scores in one game.
Harris and this overhauled offensive line also give the Steelers the ability to close games out. Clinging onto a 24-20 lead in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh starts their drive pinned at their 11 with 6:31 remaining. Harris ensures the Steelers’ defense doesn’t need to get back on the field. 11 plays (10 of those runs), 74 yards, and Ben Roethlisberger kneels down at Cleveland’s 15. The Browns never get the ball back, the Steelers notch the win, and secure a playoff berth.
Harris’ rookie year looks like this. 16 games played (he’s held out of the Week 14 game vs Minnesota due to a concussion, unable to get cleared on a short week) 290 carries, 1,276 yards, 10 touchdowns. He posts another 57 receptions for 461 yards and three receiving scores. 1,737 total yards from scrimmage, for those scoring from home. He finishes second in the rookie of the year voting, only behind Trevor Lawrence because, well, quarterback. It helps the Jags surprise and snag the seventh and final Wild Card spot, Urban Meyer having that whole Chip Kelly thing going on.
Just like the early 2010s, the Steelers’ young offensive line continues to grow. Kevin Dotson becomes a stud, Zach Banner proves his contract, while Kendrick Green turns into the Steelers’ next can’t-miss center. David DeCastro retires after the season but Pittsburgh goes right back into investing along the offensive line, snagging Boston College’s Zion Johnson to replace him with the 25th overall pick. Ben Roethlisberger retires but the Steelers go the bridge-QB route, signing Jacoby Brissett to compete with Mason Rudolph for the job (which Brissett wins).
That helps give the Steelers more balance on offense, but the team relies on Harris even more as a sophomore. He delivers. Despite a training camp hamstring pull that causes him to miss most of the preseason, like an old Toyota Hilux, he fires right up as soon as called upon, rushing for 120 yards in the Week 1 win over the Tennessee Titans (a home opener, maybe the biggest fantasy of this whole article).
Harris is like two Christian McCaffrey’s stuffed in a trench coat. He’s Mr. Versatile at 222 pounds (slimming down a bit for his second year, as backs often do). Fans love his personality, his honesty, and with Roethlisberger riding off into the sunset, Harris becomes the face of this offense. In Week 7, he runs for 211 yards in a blowout win over Miami, ripping off a 64-yard run as the third-quarter dagger in the Steelers’ victory.
Matt Canada’s offense feeds him the ball as often as possible. The Steelers finally have a successful screen game; three times that season, Harris catches at least seven passes. He finishes the year with 71 receptions and puts up Bell-like numbers with just a touch more of the big-play ability. 2022 sees Harris play all 17 contests, rushing for 1,433 yards while going for 604 through the air. It’s the second-most yards from scrimmage in team history and Harris is only the third Steeler to have at least 2,000 in one year (the extra game helps, though).
The only sour note is the end to the Steelers’ season, dropping their Wild Card game against the Aaron Rodgers-led Denver Broncos. Harris is bottled up, Pittsburgh falls into a 17-0 hole, and he’s held to just 31 yards rushing on the day.
Now known as one of the NFL’s best backs, the next two seasons are more of the same. Maybe a little more turbulent, the Steelers giving in and drafting Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud in the 2023 draft (moving up 14 spots to get him, a bold move under new GM Brandon Hunt). Harris runs for 1,239 yards that year and 1,187 the next, missing two games due to a shoulder sprain.
Pittsburgh picks up his fifth-year option for 2025 but before camp opens that year, award him with a 4-year, $66 million deal, making him the highest paid back in football. The deal they never could finalize with Bell. Harris gives the team another two strong years and Pittsburgh makes it to the AFC Title game in ]2026, falling to the Los Angeles Chargers in heartbreaking, overtime fashion, but Harris runs for 99 yards and two scores that day. By 2027, the wear and tear begins to catch up to him. An MCL tear causes him to miss six weeks that season and the Steelers, seeing the writing on the wall, look for other options.
They draft Davion Gause in the second round of the 2028 draft who splits time with Harris his rookie season. Harris evolves more into a third-down type of back, still a strong receiver and ultra-willing blocker, morphing into something that resembles Mewelde Moore’s role from years ago. In the offseason approaching 2029, the Steelers release Harris to save cap space so they can pay Stroud big-QB money. Harris remains in the league for three more seasons, spending two with the Las Vegas Raiders and a final season with the Seattle Seahawks. Just like Franco.
It ultimately wasn’t a 10-year career, but it’s about as good of a scenario as the Steelers or the fanbase could’ve hoped for. In eight years with the Steelers, Harris carries the ball 2,171 times for 9,812 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and 58 rushing touchdowns. He catches another 505 passes for 4,280 yards and 15 scores. Over 14,000 career yards, four Pro Bowls, and three All-Pro teams.
Worst Case: What’s the value of having a talented running back if you don’t have an offensive line? It’s like an ornery alligator because it doesn’t have a toothbrush. And Mama says that’s a big reason why Harris’ career doesn’t get off the ground as a rookie.
HIs preseason and training camp is fine. Not great, not terrible, just fine. He picks up the playbook, he’s deemed ready for the start of the season. A good running back can make an offensive line look better. But with this group, it’s tough, especially early in the season. With new faces on staff and on the field, it takes time for this unit to work as that…a unit.
In Harris’ first game, he carries the ball 14 times for just 34 yards with a long of just six yards. Harris tries to create but is met with resistance at the line of scrimmage time and time again. By Week 4, Harris fails to top 63 yards in any game. He’s still an upgrade in some small areas, the team’s short-yardage run game is just “meh” instead of being laughably pathetic, and he’s a competent receiver and valuable checkdown option for Ben Roethlisberger.
Harris’ struggles aren’t solely the faults of others, either. He has the Le’Veon Bell problem. The only knock on Bell’s game was that lack of long speed. Only a few splash plays. Harris is rowing the same but much leakier boat (aka a worse offensive line). The couple of good runs he does find don’t become great ones. In Week 8 at Cleveland, Harris cuts upfield on an inside zone run and finds grass into the second level. But fellow rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah chases him down and tackles him for a 18-yard gain instead what could’ve been – should’ve been – at least 25 yards. Harris doesn’t quite have that second gear in the open field. And now he lacks the luxury of an Alabama offensive line.
There are some bright moments but they’re generally taking advantage of poor run defenses. In Week 12 versus the Bengals, he runs for 101 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown while catching another five passes for 43 yards and his second score of the day, icing a 28-17 win over Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh’s rushing attack improves from the year before but they’re still far from where they want or need to be, finishing 22nd in total yards and 20th in yards per carry. Harris’ rookie year ends up like this: 241 carries 944 yards (3.9 per carry), six touchdowns with 40 receptions for 308 yards and three more scores. James Conner numbers, really. Not horrendous, but not what you’re looking in a first round pick. The Steelers finish the year with their first losing season of the Mike Tomlin era, going 8-9.
To no one’s surprise, Ben Roethlisberger retires after the season. So does David DeCastro. Pittsburgh goes on the hunt to find its next quarterback, trading up from #14 to #7 to take Nevada’s Carson Strong. That gives them less capital to work with to find an offensive lineman to replace DeCastro; all the team does is sign Forrest Lamp, coming off an injury-marred 2021, to play right guard.
With a rookie quarterback and an offensive line still trying to figure it out, all eyes are on stopping Harris. The Steelers want to become a run-heavy, ball-control team just as they were with Roethlisberger in 2004-2005. The identity might be there but the execution isn’t. Harris’ carries increase as a sophomore, toting the rock 278 times but his yards per carry drops to 3.7. Still pushes him over the 1,000 yard mark, finishing with 1,031, but that’s not a good number in a 16-game season, let alone 17 games.
Then there’s the unavoidable. Injury. The Steelers have a habit about running the wheels off running backs. Harris came into the league older with a good amount of tread on his tires. In Week 9 against Houston in 2023, Harris twists his right knee on a first quarter dive.
Staff carts him off the field. Torn ACL. Season over.
ACLs are no longer a death sentence, but it’s Harris’ first major injury. He’s overzealous in trying to rehab and race the clock to be ready for 2024, a critical year for his NFL future.
Maybe it was related, maybe it wasn’t, but in the tune-up preseason game against Washington, he tweaks his knee again and has to undergo another, albeit more minor, surgery. Pittsburgh places him on IR-to-return and he doesn’t come back until mid-season. Not having great speed coming into the NFL, things are even worse after-the-fact. The Steelers as a team aren’t in much better shape, an 80s feel after moving on from #7. The team bottoms out to a 5-12 season, last in the North, “highlighted” by a 41-10 loss to Joe Burrow and the Bengals in Week 11. Harris’ season ends appearing in just seven games, carrying the ball 105 times for just 361 yards and two scores.
Already declining his fifth year option the year before, Pittsburgh easily allows him to hit free agency and he signs a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions. He sees some success in his one-year there, ending 2026 with 1,100 yards rushing and nine total touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving). He sticks in the league for three more years before retiring and focusing on his successful non-profit.
In Pittsburgh, Harris is a Steeler for just four seasons. His career looks like this: 747 carries, 2,821 yards (3.77 YPC) and 16 rushing scores. He averages just 31 receptions per season (injuries bring that number down, of course) and his career ends up resembling Rashard Mendenhall, their last RB first-round selection. In a lot of ways, Harris’ career ends up worse.
The Steelers don’t draft another first round running back until 2041.
Round 2 – Pat Freiermuth
Best Case: MUUUUUUUUUUUUUTH!!!!!!!!!
It doesn’t quite have the same harmonious ring as fans calling out Heath Miller but when you watch Freiermuth play, you could swear #83 again strapped on his shoulder pads.
Freiermuth is great for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is great for Freiermuth. He embodies what the team is looking for. A well-rounded, physical tight end who can put his hand in the dirt and block a defensive end or linebacker. Frankly, it’s refreshing. So is the team’s investment in the position.
The learning curve for a guy in his shoes, a true junior tight end coming off shoulder injury, is steep. But his experience as an in-line blocker has him more ready for the role than most. He begins the year as the backup behind Eric Ebron, logging around 20-25 snaps per game. But with the run game still short-circuiting the first month of the season, Ebron’s poor blocking not the main reason for that failure but definitely isn’t helping, the Steelers look to get Freiermuth on the field more.
In Week Five versus Denver, Freiermuth records his first official start, playing over Ebron in 11 personnel. The Steelers have their best ground attack of the season, Harris running for 126 yards as the Steelers compile 148 on the ground in a 31-13 victory. Freiermuth knocks back Von Miller on a Harris’ three-yard score off right side.
As a receiver, he’s not flashy. But he’s tough as nails. That’s evident in Week 9 against the Chicago Bears. Primetime, Monday night lights. Tie game, 17-17, 39 seconds left fourth quarter, 3rd and 6 from the Bears’ 36 yard line.
Scramble drill with Roethlisberger rolling out to his right, Khalil Mack is one step away from taking him down and Knowing he can’t take a sack, a falling-away Roethlisberger fires it back over the middle of the field. Freiermuth is there but as soon as the ball hits his hands – smack – he gets nailed by LB Roquan Smith. Freiermuth, somehow, holds on, falling down at the 28, picking up the first down. Three plays later, Chris Boswell splits the uprights for the game-winning 42-yard field goal.
His rookie year still isn’t spectacular, they rarely are when it comes to tight ends, but it’s solid and clear he’s built an awesome baseline for the future. Freiermuth’s 2021 line looks like this: 24 receptions for 250 yards and two touchdowns.
With a strong rookie year at his back, the Steelers let Eric Ebron hit free agency after his contract voids, elevating Freiermuth into the starting role for his sophomore season, exactly how the Steelers planned it. Pittsburgh drafts Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec – a Pittsburgh kid who had a stellar 2021 for the Golden Eagles – in the first round and Freiermuth immediately becomes his new best friend. Game after game, he peppers Freiermuth with targets. In Week One of 2022 versus the Indianapolis Colts, Freiermuth catches nine passes for 68 yards and one touchdowns, leaping over LB Darius Leonard on a red zone fade. Freiermuth becomes the *guy* inside the 20, especially with JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving to sign a four-year, $61.3 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, who finally get their guy after Andy Reid failed to convince him the year before.
Freiermuth is the perfect combination of run-blocking and safety valve pass-catching for this young, transforming offense. He isn’t much of a downfield threat, none of his 52 receptions in 2022 go longer than 34 yards, but he leads the team in third down conversions and is second on the team in third down receptions (only behind Diontae Johnson, first on the Steelers with 111 total catches). With Najee Harris, an improved run-blocking line, and a guy like Freiermuth doing the dirty work, the Steelers become a top-ten rushing attack, yards and yards per carry, for the first time since 2007.
Without major upside and as Jurkovec grows and the Steelers add more weapons at wide receiver, Freiermuth never has elite production. Not Travis Kelce, Darren Waller type stuff. But he’s consistent, reliable, dependable and dare I say, Heath Miller-like. Aside from his rookie season, his year-by-year numbers look like someone copying and pasting them.
2021: 24 receptions, 250 yards, 2 TDs
2022: 52 receptions, 518 yards, 6 TDs
2023: 48 receptions, 486 yards, 5 TDs
2024: 55 receptions, 551 yards 5 TDs
Coming off his rookie year, the Steelers sign him to a three-year, $29.3 million extension three days before the start of the 2025 league year. Freiermuth is the same guy, game-in, game-out, year-in, year-out. But Freiermuth rose to the occasion in his biggest moment. The Steelers go on a great run in 2026, winning the final three games of the regular season before knocking off the Browns, Chargers, and finally the Colts in the AFC Title Game. They go to the Super Bowl facing off against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Battle of the Keystone State. Freiermuth catches just two passes for 11 yards that day but scores the go-ahead 4th quarter touchdown, a three yard slant, absorbing the blow from the safety in the middle of the end zone. The Steelers win their 7th Lombardi, 27-23.
Freiermuth goes on to play 11 years in Pittsburgh, catching 541 total passes for 5,604 yards and 41 touchdowns for the Steelers, a steady, blue-collar player who embodies what it means to be a Steeler. Most fans still agree Miller was the better player, there’s always a vocal minority who argues otherwise, but Freiermuth is a rock-solid tight end every single year and a great pick by the Steelers, who earn their next trophy in part because of his play.
Worst Case: It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. That doesn’t just apply to AC/DC. It applies to rookie tight ends. Especially underclassman. Especially ones coming off a shoulder injury. Freiermuth, despite being used as a pro-style tight end, has a mountain to climb to make it to the NFL. That’s evident right away.
In the second preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Freiermuth doubles-over and gets beat by Josh Sweat, getting Dwayne Haskins blindsided and breaking his collarbone. Big wake up call to the NFL when your mistakes are causing ripple effects like that.
After a difficult camp and Eric Ebron nursing a hamstring injury, the Steelers call up Jesse James and sign him on August 14th. Ebron returns for Week One and James becomes the #2 for the start of the season, pushing Freiermuth to #3 duties and scarce playing time. Freiermuth may be the team’s second round pick but the Steelers are gunning for a Super Bowl run. They don’t care who got drafted where. They just need guys who will help them win right now.
Through the first eight weeks of his rookie year, Freiermuth plays just 58 offensive snap, catching three passes for 14 yards, two of which came at the end of a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 4. His rookie year doesn’t end with much of an uptick in production: nine receptions, 61 yards, and no touchdowns.
James leaves after the season but the Steelers, flush with cap space, bring Ebron back after he posts a 57/633/5 2021 year. That keeps Freiermuth stunted as the #2 tight end, still able to see considerable time in that position but not as bonafide starter snaps.
But the problem runs deeper than depth chart. Freiermuth is…fine. No, seriously, he’s not bad. But he’s not good either. There’s no defining trait in his game that makes you want to see more of him. Tight ends should fall into one of two buckets. Really good receivers or really good blockers. Balance is nice but dominance in one area is better. Freiermuth is a decent blocker, a tick above Jesse James, but he’s not Matt Spaeth. And he’s certainly not an athlete. In one practice during 2022 training camp, Stephon Tuitt- granted, with a bit of an angle – chases down and tags up Freiermuth on a tight end screen. Freiermuth isn’t running away from anyone, including his own teammates. His sophomore season is better but nothing to write home about: 26 receptions, 232 yards and his first NFL touchdown, running a goal line crosser against the Ravens.
Matt Canada becomes the head coach at North Carolina in 2023, replacing Mack Brown, and the Steelers go out-of-house to hire his successor, picking Chargers’ receivers coach Chris Beatty, a Virginia native who coached at Pitt before landing in LA. Beatty wants a dynamic tight end (Ebron’s done after 2022) and drafts Georgia’s Arik Gilbert #14th overall, a hybrid receiver/tight end and absolute playmaker for Pittsburgh. Freiermuth holds down his role as a #2 tight end but his ceiling is limited both in depth chart and ability. He plays out his rookie year as just someone who fills the void. No injuries ahead of him open the door, his game never really evolves, he’s a Jesse James-type player who is competent but that’s about it.
He tests free agency for greener pastures, heading close to home and signing with the New England Patriots for 2025, spending three years with the team. His Steelers’ career ends with just 73 receptions for 623 yards and five touchdowns. Ho hum.
Round 3 – Kendrick Green
Best Case: Is there a better system fit for Pittsburgh than Kendrick Green? Nope.
At first, the fit might seem a little strange. A guy who primarily played guard now moving to center with questions about size and ability to consistently win the point of attack. But Adrian Klemm knew exactly what he wanted and what he was getting. Alongside new assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan, the Steelers install a zone-heavy scheme and Green is perfect for it. He has the blend of burst, torque, and overall athleticism to reach defensive linemen down the line and climb to the second level. He’s short but not small, well-built and just a ton of fun to watch.
He easily beats out B.J. Finney for the starting job, it really isn’t much of a contest, and feels right at home almost immediately. In Week One, Green pulls to his right, clearing out Bills’ linebacker Matt Milano to spring Harris off his hip for a 22 yard touchdown. Having Green is like watching a 23 year old Maurkice Pouncey move about, right down to the jersey number.
Green’s best play of the year comes in Week 10 against Detroit. In the second quarter, Green slides right to double DT Michael Brockers. LB Jamie Collins is coming in on a delayed blitz to the other side, seemingly scot free, but Green somehow sees him out of the corner of his eye, comes off the Brockers’ block, and dives to knock Collins off balance, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to hit Chase Claypool for a 33 yard score.
Best of all, Green’s snaps are near-perfect. No more holding your breath before every snap. Green starts all 17 games and is named the Joe Greene Rookie of the Year, even beating out Najee Harris for those honors. According to our charting, he allows just a half-sack all season.
Green’s even more comfortable manning the middle in 2022 and he’s bookended by two talented guards in Kevin Dotson, a budding star himself, and David DeCastro who re-ups with a two-year deal following a bounce-back 2021. The Steelers’ run game goes from dead last in 2020 to 13th in 2021 and 3rd in 2022 on the backs of a new QB in the post-Roethlisberger era. Green quickly develops into a team leader. He’s smart, he’s tough, and as Klemm said when the team drafted him, a total alpha.
Green is a mainstay in the middle and ushers in a new era of offensive lineman. Himself, Kevin Dotson, Zach Banner, and two eventual new faces: TCU OT Obinna Eze and Virginia Tech OG Doug Nester. The unit again ascends itself to one of the best in football for the next five years. Green himself nets a four-year, $42.75 million extension before the start of the 2024 season. He’s named to his second Pro Bowl after the year and once linemen net a Pro Bowl nod or two, rarely do voters pull that honor away. Green plays 12 years in Pittsburgh, making seven Pro Bowls, one All-Pro team, before retiring as a Steeler just as so many great centers did before him.
He’s not in the conversation of greatest Steelers’ centers of all-time, Mike Webster, Dirt Dawson hold those spots, and most agree Maurkice Pouncey was the better player. But it’s close. Green’s career arc falls in above Jeff Hartings, just below Pouncey, but however you frame things, it’s a heck of a career.
Worst Case: When Green is on his game, he looks like a surefire starter. Problem is, it looks bad just about as often as it does good. Inconsistent is the word everyone uses to describe his game.
Green is feisty, aggressive, and has a definite chip on his shoulder. Sometimes it’s his best friend, sometimes his worst enemy. He so badly wants to knock everyone’s head off he loses more than he wins. His “welcome to the NFL” moment comes in training camp. Matched up against Cam Heyward in 1v1 OL/DL, Green tries to quick-set Heyward and punch into his chest. Heyward’s seen that move before. He knocks Green’s outside arm down, swims over him, casting him aside to the ground, and wins the rep.
Mike Tomlin’s say woah than sic’ em phrase has merit but Green is tough to get even-keeled. Offensive linemen have to be steady, not high variance. Receivers can get away with that. Not centers. And Green’s lack of size and length gets him into trouble. He’s strong but has trouble initiating contact against bull rushes, often run into the pocket and into Ben Roethlisberger’s lap.
Green isn’t named the Week One starter, the Steelers choosing the more-trusted BJ Finney but Green starts Week 3 when Finney goes down with a broken right arm vs the Raiders the game before. Green’s first start is going well enough. It’s a tight game versus the Bengals. Tied at 13 with 1:58 left in the 4th quarter and facing 3rd and 2, Ben Roethlisberger gets under center, prepared to handoff to Najee Harris. But Green, still not comfortable with under-center snaps after almost never doing them in college, screws up the snap. The ball rolls loose, recovered by LB Logan Wilson. The Steelers squander their chance, the game goes to overtime, the Bengals get the ball first and march downfield for a game-winning Joe Mixon touchdown.
It’s the start of a three-game losing skid that drops Pittsburgh to 1-4 and buries them in a competitive AFC North. That isn’t all Green’s fault, of course, but that fumble looms large looking at the scope of the season, the Steelers finishing 7-10, the same record as the Bengals and light years away from the AFC North crown (the Browns go 12-5 to win it).
Kevin Colbert retires after 2021 and the Steelers surprise some by going with an outside hire, tabbing Ed Dodds as the next man to run the team. Mike Tomlin is still there but Green lost one man in his corner. Worse yet, Adrian Klemm goes back to college and Chris Morgan goes to San Francisco to reunite with Kyle Shanahan. The Steelers’ scheme reverts back to a more gap and man system, not exactly in Green’s wheelhouse. Green enters 2022 as the starter, the Steelers really don’t have any other options, and while Green is a little more comfortable, his play is underwhelming. In Week 11 against the Patriots, he’s called for holding three times, twice on one drive, from getting overwhelmed as the point of attack.
After two unsuccessful years and new regime changes in Pittsburgh, they trade him during the 2023 NFL Draft to the 49ers reuniting with Morgan and heading back to a zone system. The Steelers receive a 5th round pick in return. Green’s play improves, starting 22 games the next two seasons, but that doesn’t make Steelers’ fans feel much better about the pick. Green starts just 20 games for Pittsburgh and at best, it was forgettable play.
Round 4 – Dan Moore Jr.
Best Case: The goal, the hope, the plan is for Dan Moore Jr. to effectively redshirt his rookie season. Sure, Tomlin, Canada, and Klemm all talk a big game about how Moore is here to compete, they’re going to look at him and find out what they have. But there’s Chukwuma Okorafor and even Joe Haeg in front of him. By 2022, Moore should be in contention for a starting role. Not 2021.
How quickly things change.
In Week One against the Bills, Okorafor suffers a torn MCL and PCL in the third quarter. Haeg comes in to finish the game. But in practice that week, Zach Banner twists his ankle and misses the next two games, shifting Haeg over to right tackle and Moore Jr. into the lineup on Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside for the home opener against the Las Vegas Raiders.
All eyes are on Moore Jr. He passes his first test, not allowing a sack and only one pressure in a Steelers comfortable 28-9 win over the Raiders. It’s a similar story versus the Bengals in Moore’s second start the following week, another Pittsburgh wins that sees Roethlisberger throw 39 times for 314 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked and hit just twice.
Moore is a terrific athlete but shows patience in his pass sets and relies on his battle-tested SEC days. But he also has stronger hands and play strength than given credit for. His chop isn’t as effective as Alejandro Villanueva but it’s similar. He’s also a tireless worker, the coaching staff raving about his approach and all the mental reps he puts in. At 5 AM every day, two men show up to the team facility. Mike Tomlin and Dan Moore. Most days, Moore is beating Tomlin to the front door.
Banner returns for Week Four against Green Bay. With Okorafor still out, the team decides to keep Moore in the starting lineup, allowing Haeg to play in a swing and tackle-eligible role. Moore’s “wow” moment comes in Week 8 against the Browns. On 3rd and 6 in a first-half two-minute drill, Moore chops and drops Myles Garrett to the ground as Roethlisberger hits Eric Ebron for an 11 yard touchdown, giving Pittsburgh a first-half lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 31-20 victory.
Okorafor gets healthy for Week 11 but Moore is playing so well, there’s no reason for the 7-3 Steelers to make a switch. Moore isn’t a great run blocker but fits the Steelers’ zone-heavy scheme well and on the left side, his average-ish run blocking functions just fine.
Moore winds up starting 15 games his rookie year. The only exceptions are the opener and the finale. With the Steelers locked into the #4 seed, they have nothing to play for and give Moore the game off to try and rest up a rookie powering his way through a 17-game season.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Okorafor hits free agency and Moore Jr. is locked in as the team’s left tackle for 2022. Mason Rudolph takes over as the starter and with his lack of mobility, Moore’s importance becomes all the more valuable. He gets stronger for the 2022 season, bulking up from 305 pounds (his rookie playing weight) to 313 for the start of camp. He works with the strength and conditioning staff to find a program to keep his weight on and turns him into a good – though not great – run blocker.
With great coaching from Adrian Klemm, Moore quickly grows and develops into a stud left tackle. He might act like a teddy bear off the field but he’s an aggressor on it with a blend of physicality and lateral mobility, all the traits you’re looking for in an offensive lineman, especially a left tackle. Moore starts all 17 games in 2022, allowing just four sacks (a great number) and is penalized only twice.
In Week 10 of that year versus the Baltimore Ravens, Rudolph fakes a goal line handoff to Najee Harris at the Ravens’ three yard line. He rolls left and hits a wide open Moore standing in the end zone for the touchdown, an awesome moment that gets played over and over again. Zach Banner jokes that Moore stole the touchdown that he had always been waiting for.
Moore becomes a fixture at left tackle and a consistent bright spot even as the Steelers sputter in the post-Roethlisberger era. He’s the Steelers’ starting left tackle the next six years until 2029, when he prices himself out of Pittsburgh and cashes in with the Carolina Panthers. Moore starts another four years with the team. With Pittsburgh, he starts 124 games for Pittsburgh, all at left tackle. He’s twice a Pro Bowl alternate but never quite known as a top tackle in football, he’s never invited on the first ballot. Watch him play though and it’s easy to tell he played at that level for a good chunk of his career.
Worst Case: Moore sees plenty of action in the preseason, second on the offense in preseason snaps only behind center/guard JC Hassenauer. His level of play is acceptable. There’s growing pains, false starting on his first career snap in the Hall of Fame game against Dallas,. Typical rookie angst.
After the summer ends, Moore Jr.’s Sunday afternoons look like my Friday nights. Hanging out in sweatpants. He’s a weekly inactive, losing out to guys like Haeg, Finney (Kendrick Green is named the starting center) and Rashaad Coward, who is more experienced and offers more guard/tackle versatility.
The group stays healthy and Moore only dresses for three games in 2021. He doesn’t log a snap on offense and only 17 on special teams, all on the field goal protect unit. Ahead of him, Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor play well. So does Ben Roethlisberger and Omar Khan works his magic to get him under contract for 2022: Roethlisberger plays for just $7 million but the team offers a handshake deal of a 1.3% stake of the Steelers’ franchise. The league fights the move but an arbitrator rules in favor of the organization, a move that remains controversial for the next decade.
With Ben back in the fold, the Steelers don’t want to touch their improving offensive line. Okorafor, who enjoys a strong 2021, re-signs on a three-year, $37.4 million contract while Zach Banner continues to hold down the fort at right tackle.
Haeg is released in a minor cost-cutting move, elevating Moore to backup duties and he becomes the 6th offensive lineman for 2022. But his run blocking is poor and the role doesn’t suit him well. In Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals, DE Sam Hubbard knocks Moore into the backfield and colliding into Najee Harris, causing a fumble and failed 3rd and 1 conversion.
Okorafor and Banner again stay healthy for practically the entire season. Moore plays just 48 spot-snaps as an offensive tackle (not including his tackle-eligible chances). It’s a small sample size and there’s nothing incredibly positive or negative to take away from that time.
Banner stays in Pittsburgh with another two-year pact but for more money, $18.1 million, basically doubling his previous contract. It’s creates the same story for Moore. No chance to start. In the 2023 draft, the Steelers add extra offensive line help, drafting Alabama’s Pierce Quick in the second round, a value that was simply too good for Pittsburgh to pass on, even if tackle was far from a need.
Entering year three with less than 50 snaps at tackle, Moore quickly and easily loses out to Quick to be the #3 offensive tackle. With a new GM running the show, even though it’s the in-house Omar Khan, Moore is released at cutdowns before the 2023 season. The Los Angeles Rams claim him off waivers. Moore appears in eight games, making his first career start but it’s at right tackle after primarily taking reps on the left side in Pittsburgh. He struggles, allows two sacks, and gets cut after his start. He bounces around the next two seasons, a journeyman who plays for: the Cardinals, Bills, Vikings, back to the Cardinals, before finally being released in the 2024 offseason and walks away from the game.
In Pittsburgh, Moore plays just 102 offensive snaps and never starts at tackle. The Rams game was his only official start and his career ends with a bit of a Tony Hills vibe.
Round 4 – Buddy Johnson
Best Case: Man, did the Steelers get a steal with Buddy Johnson. He’s 2021’s training camp darling. Tape to tape, start to finish, he impresses. He can do everything. Run, hit, coverage is a bit of work in progress but he impresses in RB/LB one-on-one drills, breaking up back-to-back passes for Najee Harris in one session.
Johnson isn’t the biggest guy in the world but plays larger and with more physicality than you might expect. A quick study, he’s always around the ball in the preseason and leads the team with 35 total tackles. He also forces a pair of forced fumbles, including one against Dallas’ JaQuan Hardy in the Hall of Fame game.
In good news depending on who you are, Vince Williams doesn’t make the roster, the most notable camp cut. Robert Spillane beats him out to be the starting ILB and Johnson is elevated to the #3 role, the Buck linebacker behind Spillane.
Johnson begins the year on special teams and soon makes his name. In Week 4 against the Packers, on the Chris Boswell opening kickoff Johnson is the first man downfield and nails KR Malik Taylor, knocking the ball out and recovered by FB Derek Watt at Green Bay’s 17. The next play, Roethlisberger off playaction hits JuJu Smith-Schuster down the right seam for the score. The Steelers go on to win in impressive fashion, 27-15, a late Packers’ score/two-point conversion making the game look closer than it was.
Spillane struggles in his first full-season as the Steelers’ starter. After the run defense is carved up to the tune of 197 yards in a loss to Chris Carson and the Seattle Seahawks, Johnson becomes the starter after the team’s Week 7 bye. In a tough test against the Cleveland Browns, boasting Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Johnson and the Steelers’ run defense holds them to 58 total yards on the ground in a 23-17 Steelers’ victory. Johnson thrives in the Steelers’ aggressive scheme, notching two sacks across Weeks 11-13.
His rookie year is a success, totaling 53 tackles (five for a loss) with two sacks and one interception. But his play feels better than even that and he’s the no-doubter starter for 2022. He and Devin Bush form a great tandem. Johnson is slightly better against the run, Bush better versus the pass, but they complement each other very well.
The full-time starter in 2022, Johnson doesn’t have an absurd amount of tackles, Bush is still the three-down player and there’s so much talent up front the stats are dispersed but he finishes with 78 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions as the Steelers’ run defense finishes fourth in the league.
With Devin Bush playing like the 10th overall pick, Johnson’s ceiling is a bit limited. But Bush battles injuries throughout his career, only playing all 17 games once from 2022 to 2027, and Johnson assumes the every down and green dot role when #55 isn’t available. There isn’t much of a dropoff in play.
Johnson’s biggest moment comes in the 2025 AFC Divisional Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. With the Steelers clinging to 21-20 lead with 5:00 left in the fourth quarter, Johnson jumps a slant for RB Travis Etienne and picks off Trevor Lawrence. Najee Harris runs out the clock and the Steelers win, though they’d fall in the Title Game against the Buffalo Bills.
He plays seven seasons for the Steelers, starting 98 games. He records 601 tackles (59 for a loss) with 12.5 sacks, eight interceptions, and seven forced fumbles. Johnson plays three more years in the league spending them all with the Washington Americans (the Football Team was renamed after the 2021 season).
Worst Case: Johnson has talent. There’s no doubt. But putting it together consistently is a problem.
And here’s Johnson’s biggest issue. Eye discipline. When Johnson sees and diagnoses it, he’s in good shape. But too often, the window dressing most NFL offenses offer, all the pre-snap motion, fakes, and misdirection, gets him into trouble. More on that in a moment.
Vince Williams makes the team out of camp, leaving Johnson as a distant #4 on the depth chart. He gets a helmet Week One but finds himself as a surprise inactive a week later. Ulysees Gilbert, coming off a great camp, gets the helmet instead and those two guys fight it out two dogs, one bone style. With good depth at ILB, don’t forget about Marcus Allen (much more comfortable at ILB in 2021), Johnson suits up for just seven games. He plays a whole two snaps on defense but logs decent time on special teams, finishing the year with six tackles.
Williams retires as soon as the 2021 season ends, giving Johnson a chance to climb the depth chart. When Devin Bush breaks two ribs in Week 2 of the 2022 season, Johnson gets his first couple of starts. His first one against the bland Jets’ offense goes well enough, recording seven tackles and a half-sack of QB Zach Wilson. But Week 4 is against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Their brand of window dressing and fakery has Johnson looking every which way but the football.
Twice, he stands around as the runner scoots by him; once it’s Lamar Jackson, the other it’s JK Dobbins. Both runs go for 40+ yards as the Ravens’ rack up 311 yards on the ground in a 38-20 victory. Worse, the Steelers’ defensive line isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. Cam Heyward’s regression hits hard, Tyson Alualu retires after 2021, and their replacements can’t rise to the moment. Pittsburgh’s run defense goes from 12th in 2021 to 27th in 2022. Playing in a run-heavy division doesn’t help matters.
Johnson reverts to backup status the second Bush is healthy. Pittsburgh realizes they have a quality special teamer effective running down kicks and punts and he has the physical talent to do more. But it doesn’t all quite come together for him and he becomes a backup, occasionally seeing the field on defense but he’s never thought of more as their #3. He starts just five games in his Steelers’ career, recording 72 career tackles. Playing out his rookie contract, he leaves in free agency after the 2024 season, signing with the Dallas Cowboys again serving as a rotational and backup linebacker for the next two years.
Round 5 – Isaiahh Loudermilk
Best Case: Loudermilk may feel like a defensive lineman best suited for playing football a decade ago but talent is talent and run defense is run defense. It doesn’t go out of style. Especially in a division facing Lamar Jackson, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt. Loudermilk is old-school. Stout at the point of attack, controls the line of scrimmage, and frees up the linebackers behind him.
Refined and well-coached, he has arguably the most impressive preseason of any of the team’s draft picks. It isn’t flashy, not a lot of sizzle, but he consistently grades out well week-after-week. He picks up a sack in the preseason, bull-rushing 6th round rookie and Panthers guard Deonte Brown into QB before shedding and dropping Will Grier. It’s a pretty impressive moment.
Once the regular season starts, playing time is scarce. But Isaiah Buggs gets cut for continued weight issues and Loudermilk begins chipping away at Chris Wormley’s snaps as a rotational, run-stuffing end. In Week One, Wormley plays 23 snaps to Loudermilk’s five (getting the nod over Carlos Davis since Loudermilk and Wormley can play NT in a pinch). By Week Three, Wormley logs just 15 snaps to Loudermilk’s 11. After the bye, Loudermilk takes the lead, logging 22 snaps against the Browns to Wormley’s eight.
The upside here isn’t incredibly high. But Loudermilk plays consistent, steady run defense. He offers a little more than that too. The Steelers go 10-7, good enough to become the AFC’s 6th seed. Matched up against the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card game, Loudermilk bats down a Tua Tagovailoa pass that’s picked off by Devin Bush, who races 31 yards into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 17-0 lead. They’d go on to hold off a Dolphins’ comeback, winning 27-20 with Loudermilk’s play viewed as the game’s defining moment.
A lack of athleticism and overall pass rush ability in an evolving-game that demands it caps Loudermilk’s ceiling and never puts him above “solid rotational player” status. But it’s still a valuable role. When Loudermilk needs to give someone a breather, when there’s a short-term injury, he’s the guy the Steelers reliably call upon. And it helps there’s strong pass rushers surrounding him to minimize his own lack of pass rush juice.
A loyal man, Loudermilk hangs around the Steelers’ roster for nine seasons, continuously accepting one-year deals from the franchise and just happy to play football for a stable organization. He makes just 16 career starts, seven of those coming in 2023 after Stephon Tuitt suffers a season-ending triceps injury, but appears in 143 career games. New-age Travis Kirschke/Chris Hoke type of career and a very good R.O.I. for a fifth round pick.
Worst Case: Build a time machine and go back to practically any other era of football and Isaiahh Loudermilk is good to go. But unable to find Doc Brown’s DeLorean, Loudermilk stays stuck in 2021. And he’s a relic of the past. Sure, he’s strong, tough, works hard. None of that is ever in question. But defensive lineman today run in the 4.8’s. Loudermilk…does not. Lineman have to be able to provide their own pass rush, not engulf blockers to create chances for their edge rushing teammates. Loudermilk…can not. Lineman have to be able to flow down the line, wrangle down rushing QBs, play sideline to sideline. Loudermilk…does not.
Not for a lack of trying. In Week 6 against the Seattle Seahawks, Loudermilk nabs a helmet after Chris Wormley misses a game with a broken hand. Russell Wilson drops back early in the second quarter before scrambling and taking off to his right, narrowly avoiding an Alex Highsmith sack. Loudermilk has the angle to tackle him at the line of scrimmage. He’s huffin’, puffin’, pumping his arms as hard as he can but Wilson blows his house down, scampering on by for an 11 yard gain.
With so much depth along the defensive line, and Wormley clubbing up his broken hand after the bye, Loudermilk spends most of the season as an inactive. After his rookie year, the Steelers try to make him into more of a nose tackle to mitigate the pass rush problems. But it doesn’t solve all his issues. Loudermilk doesn’t make the roster in 2022 but is elevated off the Steelers’ practice squad for Week 7. He gets a helmet for that week’s game against the Cleveland Browns and rotates in as a backup nose tackle behind new-starter Carlos Davis. But Loudermilk struggles against the Browns’ zone scheme, constantly reached and cutoff in his eight run snaps. The Browns average 7.8 yards per play on those runs.
Pittsburgh send Loudermilk back down to the practice squad the next week. Three weeks later, he gets released in the roster shuffle when injuries pile up at wide receiver. The Green Bay Packers’ claim him off waivers and put him on their 53 but Loudermilk dresses for just two games and is released after the season. He inks a futures’ deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but they cut him in May of 2023. Loudermilk joins the USFL 2.0 with the Austin Outlaws spending two seasons down south. But he never makes it back to the NFL, eventually taking an assistant coach position with his alma mater Wisconsin in 2026 under new head coach Jim Leonard, his DC during his playing days.
Round 6 – Quincy Roche
Best Case: All the offseason projections pan out. The ones who called Roche a great value, a steal, and whew boy, did the Steelers need a guy like him. He’s not the biggest, sure isn’t the strongest, but he’s a refined, technical pass rusher capable of making an impact right away.
His role becomes even more important right away. Cassius Marsh suffers a broken fibula the second week of camp, ending his season. The Steelers almost pull the trigger on a deal with OLB Chase Winovich; there’s rumors about it for days, but it falls through at the last second, Pittsburgh unwilling to give up a 4th round pick for him. But Roche’s play makes the Steelers glad they didn’t make the move. Roche, similar to Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper in recent years, becomes the star of camp. In the first backs on ‘backers drill, he swims over Pat Freiermuth and then chops down Najee Harris’ hands for back-to-back wins. That carries over to the preseason, logging 167 defensive snaps and leading the team with 3.5 sacks.
His play makes the Steelers comfortable enough not to add any other pass rushers at cutdowns and Roche opens up as the full-time rotational backup at both spots, logging 15-20 snaps per game. Despite being a rookie, he holds his own, quickly understanding leverage and hand placement to handle tackles in the run game while showing off an impressive pass rush plan and array of moves.
Highsmith and Watt stay healthy in 2021, not giving Roche extra chances for playing time until the Week 18 finale against Baltimore. With not much to play for (5 vs 6 seed) TJ Watt gets a rest and Roche replaces him at LOLB. Roche records 1.5 sacks against Alejandro Villanueva. Though the Steelers lose 27-9, coaches take notice of what he accomplished in a larger role.
It helps that Alex Highsmith fails to take a sophomore leap too, finishing the season with just 5.5 sacks. For 2022, Steelers’ coaches decide to implement a true rotation between Highsmith and Roche at ROLB, splitting basically 50% of the time, and seeing who wins out. Roche does, offering similar run defense but a more potent pass rusher. In Week 2 versus the Houston Texans, Roche beats stud left tackle Laremy Tunsil twice for two sacks in a Steelers’ win.
That’s all the coaches needed to see and Roche becomes the majority starter the rest of the season. He’s not the next TJ Watt, not even Bud Dupree; those guys freakish athleticism is something Roche doesn’t possess nor ever will. But he’s a solid complement across Watt as he racks up sacks (finally named Defensive Player of the Year in 2024 after a 16 sack, six forced fumble season – Rams’ fans argue it’s only because Aaron Donald missed five weeks with a MCL sprain) year after year.
Roche could best be compared to someone like Clark Haggans, himself a Day Three pick of the Steelers in 2000. Not a rockstar but a steady player opposite of Joey Porter. Roche’s sack totals look like this throughout his rookie contract.
2021 – 3
2022 – 7.5
2023 – 6
2024 – 6.5
He re-ups with the team after his rookie deal expires, a two-year, $13.7 million deal to remain a Steeler. The next two season are similar to the others but he posts a career-high eight sacks in 2025 before cooling down a bit with 4.5 of them in 2026. The Steelers allow him to reach free agency after the season and he signs with the Carolina Panthers on a one-year deal. He plays three more years in the league as a backup and special teamer posting just 4.5 more sacks.
In Pittsburgh, he wraps up his Steelers’ career with 35.5 sacks in 79 career starts.
Worst Case: The Steelers may want and need Roche to step up as part of their rotational depth. You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him sack the quarterback.
Roche’s given chances in his first summer in the NFL, logging plenty of preseason snaps, especially after Alex Highsmith tweaks his ankle and misses the first two games of the preseason. But Roche is just too small, too slow, and too overwhelmed even when pitted against second and third-string tackles.
Pittsburgh is in desperate need for an upgrade and trades for the Colts’ Ben Banogu after their third preseason game, sending a 2022 7th and RB Jaylen Samuels after Indy loses Nyheim Hines to a torn ACL. Banogu slides in as the #3 outside linebacker. Marsh proves to be a solid-enough special teamer and Roche loses his roster spot, getting a visit from the dreaded Turk on cutdown day. Pittsburgh re-signs him to the practice squad where he spends the first five weeks of his NFL career. He’s occasionally elevated, grabbing a helmet when the numbers give him the chance but only dresses for two games as a rookie, playing 33 snaps on special teams, recording one tackle, and doesn’t log a single snap on defense.
In the 2022 NFL Draft, the Steelers take South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare in the third round. With Banogu on the roster still and of course, Highsmith and Watt (fresh off his contract extension that nets him $30.3 million per season) there’s no room for Roche on the roster. The Steelers release him outright at the end of the 2022 preseason. He bounces around with six teams over the next three seasons, once signed and cut by the Jets four times in 2024, and only appears in seven more NFL games. He never records a sack and is credited with just five tackles.
Round 7 – Tre Norwood
Best Case: Despite a competitive group of young, hungry defensive backs, Norwood stands out. Not because he was blessed with some incredibly physical trait but his versatility creates value, which I know, sounds like something out of Wolf of Wall Street. He can play safety, slot, and contribute on special teams, ultra-important for a Steelers’ secondary undergoing a new look with roles up for grabs. A nose for the football, he picks off three passes in training camp, including jumping an out route in 7 shots on a pass thrown by Ben Roethlisberger. Definitely turns a couple heads.
Norwood makes the 53 and works his way into the Steelers’ dime packages after the bye week. His biggest contribution comes in Week 18 against the Ravens, a must-win game for both sides. The victor gets the AFC North crown. Norwood matches up on TE Mark Andrews on third down all game and shuts him down. Andrews catches just one pass for four yards and Norwood rallies to break up a throw down the right seam on 3rd and 7 late in the first half. Pittsburgh goes on to win 17-14, AFC North champs again.
Norwood takes an arc similar to Cam Sutton but never quite reaches the level of every-down starter. He becomes the defense’s do-everything man, playing free safety, slot, even some outside corner in a pinch. As a sophomore, Norwood slides into his role as dime defender, logging just 375 defensive snaps but coming up large in third down and obvious pass situations. He picks off two passes and breaks up five more.
Norwood remains in that role for the next two seasons before hitting free agency looking for an expanded opportunity and the additional money that comes with it. He signs a two-year, $7.7 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons, serving as their starting free safety for the first 24 games. But a turnover in regime and Norwood’s own struggles, he’s best as a sub-package player, get him benched mid-way through 2026 and let go after the season. He plays four more seasons, two with the Bears and another two with the Patriots.
In Pittsburgh, he appears in 60 games, making 107 tackles and picking off four passes.
Worst Case: Norwood’s around the ball a lot but he’s not really around the ball. It’s reflective of his college stats. Not a lot of tackles. There’s a reason why he averaged about 1.5 tackles per game in Oklahoma. He’s not completely passive, there’s some desire to come up and put his face in the fan but it’s a candle that burns dimly. Norwood isn’t a great athlete and while he’s versatile, logging time at slot and free safety in his first camp, there’s nothing particularly impressive or special about what he’s bringing to the table.
In a competitive room of young DBs, Norwood gets lost in the shuffle. The talk about camp is James Pierre, locking down the right cornerback job, UDFA Lamont Wade, a local kid making a splash, and the impressive play of veteran Arthur Maulet, who offers similar slot/post safety versatility but with better results and Sunday experience.
Norwood misses too many tackles, including falling off TE Pat Freiermuth in one live session during camp, and doesn’t make an impact on the football. He picks off one passes, tipped up into the air by Justin Layne on a bad throw by Josh Dobbs over the middle.
At roster cutdowns, the Steelers cut Norwood, losing out to Maulet and Wade for the final DB spots on the 53. Pittsburgh signs him to the practice squad along with Shakur Brown. But Norwood is released in the roster shuffle in Week 8. He’s brought back two weeks later and remains on the team’s practice squad for the rest of the season, not appearing in a game or even spending a Sunday on the 53 man roster. Realizing his future probably isn’t Pittsburgh, he signs a futures contract with the New York Giants in the offseason. They carry him through camp and he briefly makes the Week One roster. But the Giants’ claim another safety, releasing Norwood. He spends three weeks on their practice squad before being cut.
Without any offers, Norwood tries to keep his football dreams alive, signing a $50,000 contract with Indoor Football League’s Bismarck Bucks. He breaks his wrist in his second game making a diving tackle against the Quad City Steamwheelers. He retires from football in the offseason. A health and exercise science degree, Norwood returns to his home state of Arkansas to open up Norwood’s Gyms, building it into a successful franchise throughout the south.
Round 7 – Pressley Harvin III
Best Case: Harvin isn’t just a fun story, the portly punter with the big leg. He can actually boot the football. St. Vincent finds that out early in camp. On the second day of practice, the Steelers run their punting circuit drill. Open-ended punts just to test and see what they have in a guy like Harvin III. Jordan Berry, the veteran, punts first, a 51 yard boot with 4.38 seconds of hangtime. Pretty good. Up steps Harvin.
The ball cracks off Harvin’s foot and is in the air for what feels like forever. Diontae Johnson steps back and back and back before fielding the ball. Distance? 63 yards. Hangtime? 4.72 seconds. Elite.
Crucially, PH3 is able to carry that over to stadiums. In the Hall of Fame game against Dallas, he averages 52.7 yards per punt on three tries with a long of 59. He’s not just a big leg either. He has grace and precision, putting three of his 13 preseason punts inside the 20, including a gorgeous 49 yarder in the finale against the Panthers that hops out of bounds at the Carolina two. With consistency as a punter and holder, he easily beats out Jordan Berry for the starting punting gig.
The marquee matchup comes Week 6, Sunday night against Seattle. SNF tabs it as a battle between Ben Roethlisberger versus Russell Wilson but everyone stays to watch Pressley Harvin III versus Seattle’s Michael Dickson. In a low-scoring slugfest, Harvin and Dickson trade blows. Dickson kicks things off with a 53 yarder pinned at the Steelers’ seven. Harvin follows it up with a 51 yarder down to the Seahawks’ four. Dickson booms one for 58 yards and a 52 yard net. Harvin answers back with a 62 yarder and 55 yard net.
Seattle goes on to win the game 13-10 but Dickson and Harvin put up elite performances. Dickson with seven punts for 51.1 yards per punt with Harvin averaging 50.8 yards on six boots.
It’s a snapshot of Harvin’s strong rookie season. He finishes the year averaging 46.7 yards per punt, third best in Steelers’ history behind only Bobby Joe Green and Pat Brady. His number ranks 11th in the NFL which sounds low but other punts don’t have to kick at Heinz Field in December like Harvin does.
Pittsburgh squeaks in as the 7th seed to face the Aaron Rodgers-led Denver Broncos in the Wild Card game. Tied up at 14 right before the half, the Steelers face 4th and 3 at midfield. Harvin and the punt unit take the field but the Steelers successfully call a fake. Harvin hits CB Justin Layne, a former receiver at Michigan State, for a 33 yard gain down the right sideline. It sets up a Roethlisberger-to-Claypool touchdown two plays later, giving the Steelers the halftime lead they wouldn’t give back, beating Denver 31-27.
Harvin goes on to be the Steelers’ starting punter – not to mention fan favorite – for the next seven seasons before a knee injury takes away some of that leg strength and the Steelers turn the page. In 2023, Harvin averages a career-high 48.1 yards per punt shattering the franchise record by more than a full-yard. Harvin throws seven more passes in his career, completing four, and throwing a touchdown to WR Isaiah McKoy in 2024. He’s regarded as one of the best punters in team history, right up there with Pat Brady.
Worst Case: Harvin may have a cannon for a leg but the Steelers career about placement and hangtime more than somebody who can just bang out 60 yard punts in all directions at 3.7 seconds. And that’s where Harvin is weakest. Sure, he rips off some kicks that elicit oohs and ahhs. But consistency is his problem. For every good punt, there’s an ugly one. Perfect example. In the Week 2 preseason game against the Eagles, Harvin’s gets the nod for the first half (he and Jordan Berry trade off each week and Berry was the “starter” for the HOF Game). His first punt is a beaut, 53 yards that’s fair caught at the Eagles’ 11. The next? A 29 yard shank that flies into the first row of the Heinz Field seats.
That’s the story of his preseason. It gets worse. In the final versus Carolina, the Steelers line up for a 4th quarter field goal. Backup snapper Christian Kuntz’s snap is a little high, to be fair, but it slips through Harvin’s hands and goes bouncing ten yards away from him. Harvin jumps on the ball but it’s an ugly moment.
With more consistency and trust, Berry wins the job and Harvin is given his pink slip on cutdown date. Pittsburgh opts not to keep an extra punter on the practice squad. Harvin is left on the tryout circuit getting a couple of workouts but no one bits. Hard life for a free agent punter. He tries his hand at playing north of the border in 2022 with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. The bigger, wider fields benefit him but it doesn’t make NFL teams ring his agent’s phone. He spends three years in the CFL, winning a Grey Cup in 2024, but never making it back to the league.