The Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Dallas Cowboys in the 2021 Hall of Fame Game on Thursday night in Canton, OH, and that contest will kickstart the NFL preseason slate. While there will understandably be a lot of eyes on the Steelers 2021 draft picks and other rookies that will play Thursday night against the Cowboys, I wanted to highlight eight non-rookie players I feel need to be watched very closely in the first preseason contest of 2021 as well.
CB James Pierre – How can Pierre not be the first name on this list of non-rookie players to watch Thursday night? The second-year undrafted cornerback out of Florida Atlantic showed some promise on defense very late last season and that carried over into the Steelers offseason practices. Pierre seems to have a ball magnet inside of him and it’s beginning to look like there’s a good chance he could be a starter for the team down the road. Look for Pierre to possibly start Thursday night against the Cowboys with veteran cornerbacks Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton likely to be held out of the Hall of Fame game contest, and then look for us to examine the young cornerback’s snaps closely not long after the clock shows all zeros.
QB Dwayne Haskins – You knew Haskins would be on this list of non-rookie players to watch Thursday night, right? Haskins seems to have had a good training camp to date and Thursday night against the Cowboys the former first-round draft pick of the Washington Football Team figures to log the most snaps at quarterback for the Steelers in that contest. Haskins will follow starter Mason Rudolph into game and might even play past halftime as well. A solid performance Thursday night by Haskins will increase the talk that the Ohio State product just might possibly have a chance to be a successful reclamation project by the Steelers and thus become their heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger. A bad showing Thursday night by Haskins, however, will lead to people wondering if might be one and done in Pittsburgh after the 2021 season.
NCB Antoine Brooks Jr. — The Steelers lost veteran nickel cornerback Mike Hilton in free agency this offseason and now the team is looking for someone to win that spot in the defense this offseason. Brooks, the Steelers’ sixth-round draft pick out of Maryland last year, is in the running to win that job as he’s battling newcomer veteran defensive back Arthur Maulet this summer. Brooks should get quite a bit of playing time as the nickel slot defender against the Cowboys and he needs to show out well in whatever snaps he gets. Brooks will also likely be asked to play a little on special teams Thursday night, and that’s a phase of the game he needs to stick out in, as well.
RB Anthony McFarland Jr. – Yes, Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris will be the primary focus of fans Thursday night and for good reason as he’s the teams first round draft pick this year. Even if Harris does play Thursday night, McFarland, if fully healthy, will likely be the one to follow the rookie into the game. McFarland is in his second season now after barely touching the football as a rookie in 2020. Expect the Maryland product to log some early playing time against the Cowboys with half a dozen touches likely being part of that. It would be nice to see McFarland catch a pass or two Thursday night in addition to popping one explosive run. In reality, Thursday night will be our first good and extended look at McFarland with their nor being any preseason games last year.
ILB Ulysees Gilbert III – While Gilbert has been in the NFL since being selected by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, he’s had problems staying healthy. When he has not had back issues the last two seasons, Gilbert has shown some promise and especially on special teams. This is a make-or-break next four weeks for Gilbert when it comes to his NFL future. If he can play well throughout the preseason, something that should be expected with him being a third-year player, and stay healthy, he should have no problem making the 53-man roster again this year. The Steelers certainly could use a healthy Gilbert as depth at the inside linebacker position in 2021 in addition to having him be a core special teams player.
RB Kalen Ballage – With Steelers running back Benny Snell Jr. expected to be sidelined by an injury Thursday night and with Harris not likely to see much playing time early, Ballage, a former fourth-round draft pick who was signed during the offseason, might just wind up logging the most playing time and touches of all Steelers running backs against the Cowboys. Additionally, Ballage will likely see some special teams snaps against the Cowboys so those will need to be looked at closely as well. Ballage is not a lock to make the 53-man roster right now, so he needs to be impressive and reliable throughout the preseason to help his chances. He very well could wind up being the offensive player of the game for the Steelers Thursday night.
DT Carlos Davis – It’s been an incredibly quiet offseason for Davis, the Steelers’ young defensive tackle and seventh-round draft pick in 2020. While Davis did not log a lot of defensive snaps during his 2020 rookie season, his overall performance wasn’t bad at all in the maps that he did play. Most of those snaps also came against the Cowboys, the team the Steelers will play Thursday night. The Steelers brought back veteran defensive tackle Tyson Alualu this offseason, so Davis is battling to be his backup again this season. The Nebraska product should play quite a bit Thursday night and with this being his second season, he should be expected to fare well against the Cowboys offensive linemen he goes up against. I will be watching Davis closely Thursday night, and you should be as well.
TE Zach Gentry – After only playing roughly 70 total offensive snaps in his first two NFL seasons, Gentry is not a lock to make the Steelers’ 53-man roster this year and especially on the heels of the team drafting tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round several months ago. Gentry is battling this summer to again make the Steelers’ 53-man roster as a third tight end. He’ll need to show a lot of improvement in the blocking department starting Thursday night against the Cowboys. Additionally, it would be nice to see Gentry, a former college quarterback-turned-tight end, make at least one play on special teams Thursday night. Like Gilbert mentioned above, this is a make-or-break next four weeks for Gentry, who had the second half of his second NFL season wiped out by a knee injury. I’m rooting for him.