Now that I’ve wrapped up the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot, it’s time to turn our attention to the Ranking the Starters series for the Steelers.
As a quick reminder, I’ll run down the 24 starters, which include kicker and punter, but not long snapper or returners. Offensively, I’m going to rank the starters based on a three-wide set, with one tight end, meaning no fullback, so you won’t see Derek Watt appear in the starters’ series.
Defensively, I’m going to roll with the Steelers’ nickel defense, switching it up from last season when I went with the 3-4. So that means no nose tackle (Tyson Alualu) in this list, which makes sense considering the Steelers are in nickel more than base.
Here’s how the 2020 rankings went ahead of the 2020 season.
Before we get started, I’ll give you a brief rundown of names to expect in this series, as I make my starters projections.
QB — Ben Roethlisberger
RB — Najee Harris
WR — JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR – Diontae Johnson
WR – Chase Claypool
TE — Eric Ebron
LT — Chukwuma Okorafor
LG — Kevin Dotson
C — Kendrick Green
RG — Trai Turner
RT – Zach Banner
DE — Cameron Heyward
DE — Stephon Tuitt
OLB — Alex Highsmith
ILB — Devin Bush
ILB — Robert Spillane
OLB — TJ Watt
CB — Joe Haden
CB — Cameron Sutton
CB – James Pierre
S — Minkah Fitzpatrick
S — Terrell Edmunds
K – Chris Boswell
P — Jordan Berry
Does that make sense? Good.
Last note before we dive in here: here’s how the list started out last season with No’s: 24-22.
No. 24 — Jordan Berry
No. 23 — Chukwuma Okorafor
No. 22 — Terrell Edmunds
No. 24 — Jordan Berry, P
Consistency remains a problem for Jordan Berry, who I am projecting to hold down the punter’s position once again, holding off seventh-round draft pick Pressley Harvin III in a training camp battle.
Berry certainly has a big leg, but he’s been so up and down in his career, and has left Steelers fans, media — and even coaches — wanting more. When he’s asked to boom punts, he can do it in a big way, but he continues to struggle at directional punting, which the Steelers have asked him to do often to mitigate punt returns.
It’s worth noting that Berry averaged a career-high 45.8 yards per punt last season, but dropped a career-low 23 punts inside the 20 yard line for the Steelers.
I think it’s safe to say he’s the “worst” starter on the Steelers’ roster ahead of training camp.
No. 23 — James Pierre, CB
I’m firmly in the James Pierre fan club at this point.
Though he is very inexperienced and a complete unknown at cornerback for the Steelers — outside of a handful of late-season snaps — Pierre is impressing a lot of people ahead of training camp and looks like he’s in the driver’s seat to see a ton of playing time in 2021 following the departure of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson this offseason.
Pierre won’t hold down a starting job in base, but once the Steelers move to nickel, I expect to see Pierre come onto the field as the outside corner, sliding Cameron Sutton inside to the slot where he’s much more comfortable.
Pierre is long with good ball skills and even played some safety in college. He is sticky in coverage and looked comfortable in the limited snaps he received, including the eight defensive snaps he played in the Wild Card loss to the Cleveland Browns.
If the Steelers can hit on Pierre as an undrafted free agent, and especially at cornerback, that’s a monumental win for the franchise.
No. 22 — Chukwuma Okorafor, LT
Though he had a rough 2020 season filling in for the injured Zach Banner, Okorafor still moves up one spot in my Ranking the Starters series.
Okorafor makes the move from right tackle back to his more natural left tackle position, a spot which he played in college at Western Michigan. As a more athletic tackle with some passiveness to his game, Okorafor fits better at left tackle in pass protection where he can use his footwork and length to win.
Where he’ll struggle in the Steelers’ new system is in the run game, which new OL coach Adrian Klemm is focusing on aggression and nastiness, neither of which are a real part of Okorafor’s game.
The move to left tackle could certainly do wonders for Okorafor, but he still remains rather low on my starters rankings due to the poor 2020 season he put on tape.