The Pittsburgh Steelers did something this year that they had not done since 1984: Use their first four draft picks on the same side of the ball. Identifying the offense as the weak link, and believing the talent to be there, they invested heavily on putting people around quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will also be there for his successor.
While you naturally draft early for the long term, this year’s class has big expectations for immediate contributions, something first-round running back Najee Harris understands. Along with second-round tight end Pat Freiermuth, they’re going to have to produce for Roethlisberger, while third-round center Kendrick Green and fourth-round tackle Dan Moore Jr. will have roles as well, the former at least as a starter.
“With this rookie group, we get better every day. Coming in, I felt like a lot of us had a good opportunity to play as rookies”, Harris said on Saturday. “They would tell us that this rookie class—because we drafted a lot of offensive players—to get better every day as rookies, it was really emphasized a lot this year, because a lot of us will play early. I’m glad and happy to see Pat and KG and Dan all out there making plays and doing a good job. I can’t be any more excited. And I was excited for Pat”.
While it’s been the case for a number of years that the Steelers have gotten a lot of productivity from their high rookie draft picks in recent years, there is an especial amount of pressure on this group to perform early and at a high level.
Last year, they had Chase Claypool, their second-round wide receiver, emerge as a starter, while Alex Highsmith and Kevin Dotson displayed starting ability, and who are now in those roles. The year before that, Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson were immediate contributors. JuJu Smith-Schuster, T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, and Javon Hargrave are some other notable rookie starters over the past five seasons.
While it is only the preseason, the early returns on the Steelers’ draft investments have been positive. Harris has been running reasonably well with what he has been given to work with, while rounding out his game as a receiver and pass protector. Freiermuth just came down with a couple of tight ends, while both rookie linemen have had their high points.
Meanwhile, the second-year group will be just as vital, with Claypool, Highsmith, and Dotson all in starting roles. Anthony McFarland, Antoine Brooks Jr., Carlos Davis, and college free agent James Pierre all figure to have complementary roles as well, with either Brooks or Pierre being their nickel defender.