Coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft and the general whirlwind that is free agency, the general consensus surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers was that they were behind the middle of the pack in the NFL after losing a number of key defensive personnel and key starting offensive linemen to free agency, retirement, or salary cap constraints, on top of the return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who faded down the stretch some.
Now though, just two weeks from the start of the regular season, the national media appears to have taken a swing back the other way with the Steelers, seeing them as a playoff team in the AFC, which doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who religiously reads Steelers Depot.
Ahead of the start of the 2021 season, ESPN NFL Nation’s power rankings has the Steelers climbing four spots to No. 11. Coming out of the draft, ESPN NFL Nation’s power rankings had the Steelers at No. 15.
“The Steelers didn’t draft a Day 1 starting tackle, and that’s good news for both Okorafor and Banner,” ESPN’s Brooke Pryor wrote then. “With Alejandro Villanueva departing in free agency, Okorafor is “penciled in” at starting left tackle, according to what Mike Tomlin said in April. Banner, coming off ACL surgery, is projected to start at right tackle — the position he won in a training camp battle a year ago. Both have more job security, with the Steelers opting to wait until the fourth round to take an offensive tackle.”
Since then, the Steelers cut David DeCastro due to an ankle injury and then proceeded to sign outside linebacker Melvin Ingram II, guard Trai Turner, and traded for standout coverage linebacker Joe Schobert, addressing some significant holes on the roster overall.
Now, the Steelers sit at No. 11, taking a sizable leap forward despite not a ton changing, in terms of the dynamic of the team.
Though Pryor and ESPN didn’t specifically address the climb to No. 11 overall in the pre-regular season power rankings climb, the ESPN NFL Nation beat reporter for the Steelers highlighted veteran tight end Eric Ebron as the Steelers’ player on the hottest seat, largely due to the talent coming up behind him in rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth.
“Signed in free agency a year ago, Ebron was brought in to be a red zone threat. But he struggled with drops last season, he wasn’t a significant help as a blocker and his production — five touchdowns and 558 yards — didn’t meet expectations,” Pryor writes. “The Steelers drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round, and he has been a standout in camp as a receiver and a blocker. Ebron has been sidelined with elbow soreness, giving Freiermuth more first-team reps. The rookie could not only push Ebron, an unrestricted free agent after this season, for a starting job, but also could bump him off the roster.”
There’s pretty much a net-zero chance that Ebron is pushed off the roster by Freiermuth prior to the start of the regular season, considering the Steelers restructured his contract and didn’t do anything else behind him and Freiermuth this offseason. Ebron is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 tight end — for now — but Freiermuth will take snaps away from him. There’s just simply no way the Steelers all of a sudden cut bait on Ebron, especially after the work they did restructuring his contract ahead of a season in which they appear to be all-in on competing in what could be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s final season.
Aside from the Steelers at No. 11 overall in the power rankings and in a playoff spot ahead of the season, ESPN’s power ranking also had the Baltimore Ravens at No. 6 and the Cleveland Browns at No. 7, sticking in the same power ranking positions as they were coming out of the 2021 NFL Draft.