In some ways, the Pittsburgh Steelers have made major changes to its roster this offseason. In others, they’ve maintained stability. General manager Kevin Colbert joined Dan Sileo on his podcast to review and recap the Steelers’ roster and its outlook on an important 2021 season.
Colbert started by addressing the many changes made across the offensive line.
“We’ve tried to retool the offensive line with some younger guys that are going to have to come in and help,” he told Sileo. “When we went into this draft, we knew we could look at our team and said, ‘look, we could play a game right now.’ We had 50 players that had NFL experience, albeit maybe not in the roles that they’ll play for us and maybe a more advanced role that we might ask them to do. So they have to prove that they can do it, but we knew we had stability.”
The Steelers’ starting five will look almost completely different than a season ago. Comparing Week One of 2020 to Week One of 2021, only Zach Banner is expected to stay in his spot, and he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the opener last season. Chukwuma Okorafor will shift to left tackle, Kevin Dotson will elevate to starting left guard, there will potentially be a three-way battle at center, and the team replaced David DeCastro with Trai Turner. To Colbert’s point, guys like Okorafor and Dotson will have new or increased roles while players like rookie Kendrick Green and Turner will join the team for the first time.
How well this group will play is unclear but there’s no doubt there’s more changes here than there have been in a long time.
The rest of the offense is much more familiar, as Colbert was quick to note.
“We have some change, but again, not with totally young players up front. The wide receiver core is pretty much intact. We’ve got three of the runners back we had last year and we added another vet in Kalen Ballage. And then of course drafting Najee. So we feel good about that.”
The Steelers didn’t draft a receiver for the first time since 2011. Much of that had to do with the ability to re-sign WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, who surprised some by taking less money to ink a one-year, $8 million deal this offseason. Chase Claypool will look to make a jump his sophomore year while Diontae Johnson will look to drop his drop issues in year #3.
Quarterback and tight end return the team’s starters with some interesting prospects in the mix.
“The quarterback position, we have four NFL quality vets that have either started games or have played in games. The tight end position, we were able to add another young guy to Eric Ebron and a couple of young guys pushing on there.”
Pittsburgh signed Dwayne Haskins to a futures contract and he’ll compete primarily with Josh Dobbs for a roster spot. The team drafted Pat Freiermuth in the second round, becoming the first tight end drafted by the team in the top four rounds since 2007. But for this season, Ben Roethlisberger will be the team’s starting QB while Eric Ebron will be the team’s starting tight end.
Colbert then flipped over to the defense.
“Then defensively, we understood that Bud Dupree was probably going to have a market that we weren’t going to be able to entertain. And fortunately for Bud, it worked out. Alex Highsmith did a nice job stepping in there. We got the majority of our defensive front back. We made a switch at the corner position, again, salary cap precluded having us to do that. But then we have our safety’s back. We have all of our specialists backs.”
The Steelers almost lost NT Tyson Alualu and cut Vince Williams. But a COVID case gave Alualu time to change his mind and return to Pittsburgh while Williams was re-signed to a cheap, one-year deal. Highsmith will step into a full-time role for Dupree after replacing him down the stretch last season. The Steelers lost a pair of corners in Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson and will rely on young players like James Pierre and Antoine Brooks Jr. to replace them. Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, and Minkah Fitzpatrick return. And as Colbert said, so do the team’s specialists: kicker Chris Boswell, punter Jordan Berry, and long snapper Kameron Canaday. Berry will be pushed by rookie Pressley Harvin III.
Big picture, Colbert said his goal is to make a Steelers’ team that looks closer to the start of last year than the end.
“We just hope that we can put together a team that is more at that 11-0 range and not the 1-5 that we ended.”
That mission will be tougher with a difficult schedule and competitive AFC North. Most analysts have the Baltimore Ravens or Cleveland Browns as the AFC North favorites.