TOP TWO DRAFT PICKS
With a bye week in week seven, here is a midseason update on the Steelers 2020 draft class. The Steelers picks from the first three rounds compared to players drafted by other teams. While, the day three picks summarized without comparisons to other team’s draft picks. Just two picks to compare this season since the Steelers traded their 2020 first round draft pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019.
I’ll review the 2021 draft class in my next article. At the end of the season, I’ll recap the 2017-2021 draft classes.
Last year, I rated Chase Claypool comparable to CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, and Brandon Aiyuk. All three drafted ahead of Claypool who matched up very well. I noted Claypool dropped six passes in the second half of the season after zero drops in the first seven games. Meanwhile, Alex Highsmith rose to the top of the pile of his draft contemporaries. I opined that Highsmith needed to demonstrate the ability sack quarterbacks or at least flush them regularly to prove he will be a complementary OLB to T.J. Watt. First rounders beat out Highsmith for PFWA All-Rookie honors last season. But so far, he is a solid third round pick. Time to see how Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith stack up against their draft class contemporaries midway through their sophomore year.
Here is how the Steelers first two 2020 draft picks stack up statistically against their contemporaries six games into their second year of play:
|Name||G||Snap %||TGTs||RECs||Yds||Y/C||Y/G||Catch %||TDs|
|Henry Ruggs III||6||69||32||20||445||22.3||74.2||62.5||2|
|Jerry Jeudy – IR||1||47||7||6||72||12.0||72.0||85.7||0|
|Michael Pittman Jr.||6||92||46||31||403||13.0||67.2||67.4||1|
|Laviska Shenault Jr.||6||73||41||26||306||11.8||51.0||63.4||0|
|KJ Hamler – IR||3||44||10||5||74||14.8||24.7||50.0||0|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Chase Claypool (2nd/49th overall) Chase Claypool has one touchdown in 2021 after leading the rookies with seven touchdowns in the first half of last season. Among the sophomore receiver class, he ranks fourth or fifth in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving yards per game. Chase is third with 16.3 yards per reception. Not bad since he missed the Green Bay Packers game after a hamstring injury in practice. However, his two drops helped lead him to a low 52.4% catch rate. Pro Football Reference advance receiving statistics also assign one of Ben’s interceptions to him. That results in a 79.3 passer rating for Roethlisberger when targeting Claypool compared to 110.4 last season. With JuJu Smith-Schuster out for the season, Claypool expected to shoulder part of the load for the remainder of the season.
Henry Ruggs III (1st/12th overall) Henry Ruggs establishing himself as first in this class of wide receivers. Currently, he leads the entire NFL with 22.3 yards per reception. Derek Carr improves his quarterback rating from 97.7 to 127.1 when targeting Ruggs. One of his two touchdowns came at the Steelers expense. A 61-yard reception where he outraced the coverage. The average depth of targets is a robust 18.4 yards. Ruggs returned kickoffs in the first three games, but the Las Vegas Raiders pulled him away from special teams to protect their investment.
Jerry Jeudy (1st/15th overall) Jerry Jeudy suffered a high ankle game in in the season opener against the New York Giants. He caught six of seven targets for 72 yards before the injury. The Denver Broncos designated Jeudy to return from injured reserve on October 16 and speculation is that he will return to play on October 31 against the Washington Football team. We will see how he performs in the second half of the season after only seeing action in one game.
CeeDee Lamb (1st/17th overall) Currently, CeeDee Lamb gained 497 receiving yards, averaged 82.8 receiving yards per game and scored four touchdown receptions. That places him in the top ten in the NFL in those categories. Also, Lamb returned three punts averaging 12.3 yards per return. He set career highs in receptions with nine and 149 yards in his last game. Plus, he scored the game winning touchdown in the Dallas Cowboys overtime win over the New England Patriots.
Jalen Reagor (1st/21st overall) Jalen Reagor gained only 140 receiving yards in six games. His 23.3 receiving yards per game is the second lowest among this receiver group. The average depth of his completions is a paltry 2.9 yards. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts drops his quarterback rating from 88.6 to 70.5 when targeting Reagor. Underwhelming performance for a first round draft pick.
Justin Jefferson (1st/22nd overall) Justin Jefferson represented the Minnesota Vikings in the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2020. This season, he’s ranked fourth in the NFL with 41 receptions, sixth with 542 receiving yards, and sixth with 90.3 receiving yards per game. He’s tops in all three of those categories among this sophomore class. Jefferson also leads the class with three drops but that is only a 5.1% drop rate due to all his targets. Kirk Cousins enjoys a 115.2 passer rating when targeting Jefferson. He’s fighting an ankle injury and did lose a fumble in the Vikings win over the Carolina Panthers. But he should be near the top of this class if he continues his solid first half season performance.
Brandon Aiyuk (1st/25th overall) The San Francisco 49ers looking for Brandon Aiyuk to step up his game after a strong rookie performance. So far, it’s not happening with General Manager John Lynch saying he’s looking for a sense of urgency from the young receiver. His 90 receiving yards in five games comes out to a paltry 18 yards per game. He has a low 53.3% catch rate with two drops. That’s a 13.3% drop rate on 15 targets. Aiyuk is in the top ten of the NFL with an 8.1 punt return average out of ten returns.
Tee Higgins (2nd/33rd overall) Tee Higgins led the Cincinnati Bengals in receiving yards and touchdowns his rookie season. This year he scored touchdowns in his first two games. But then missed two games including Pittsburgh due to a shoulder injury. Higgins is working back into form and forms a dangerous duo with rookie Ja’Marr Chase. His average depth of target is low at 8.6 yards but is a favorite safety valve for quarterback Joe Burrow although his passer rating drops to 93.5 from 107.9.
Michael Pittman Jr. (2nd/34th overall) Michael Pittman has increased his receiving yards per game from 38.7 in 2020 to 67.2 so far in 2021. He is on pace to easily exceed his 503 receiving yards last year. Pittman already accumulated 403 yards in six games this season. He’s played 92% of the Indianapolis Colts offensive snaps after missing some games last year. Pittman provides quarterback Carson Wentz “playmaking assistance.” He is third among this group with 46 targets but has zero drops.
Laviska Shenault Jr. (2nd/42nd overall) Laviska Shenault helped the Jacksonville Jaguars notch their first win with a clutch catch that set up the game winning field goal by former Steeler Mathew Wright over the Miami Dolphins. However, he has yet to score this season after five touchdowns last year. His catching percentage has tailed off from 73.4% last year to 63.4% so far this year.
KJ Hamler (2nd/46th overall) Last year, KJ Hamler’s season ended by a concussion in week 16. Flashes of potential but he dropped seven of 56 passes thrown to him for an extremely high 12.5% drop rate. This season, Hamler played three games before tearing his ACL in the second quarter against the New York Jets. He caught just five of ten passes targeting him. However, only one counted as a drop.
Van Jefferson (2nd/57th overall) In 2020, the Los Angeles Rams played Van Jefferson sparingly during the season. He played just 256 snaps which was 23% of the offensive snaps. So far, in 2021 Jefferson played 71% of the Rams offensive snaps in the first six games. However, he took a big shot in the New York Giants game and evaluated for a concussion. Matt Stafford passes for a 124.0 rating when targeting Jefferson.
Denzel Mims (2nd/59th overall) In his rookie season, Denzel Mims hampered by hamstring injuries early in the season and playing for the woeful New York Jets. He suffered a concussion in week 17 versus the New England Patriots and ended up playing just nine games. In 2021, he played in the season opener then was a healthy scratch for the next two games. Mims played just 21 snaps in the three games he’s been active this year. Scant opportunity compared to the 44-63 snaps in the complete games he played in his rookie season. He caught his only target in the opener for 40 yards. He was not targeting versus Tennessee with just 10 snaps. Then caught two of three targets out of his eight snaps against Atlanta. Mims says he is “frustrated” at the lack of playing time.
WIDE RECEIVER SUMMARY
Henry Ruggs, CeeDee Lamb, and Justin Jefferson top the receiver group so far this season. Despite Chase lagging from his performance last year, I rank Claypool fifth among this group of 13 young receivers. Not bad considering NFL teams selected ten of the receivers ahead of him in the draft. Several receivers stymied by injury or performance issues keeping them off the field. Let’s see if the Claypool-Roethlisberger connection improves and he starts catching passes in the end zone.
|Name||G||Snap % D/ST||INTs||PDs||FF||FR||Sacks||Tackles||TFL/QBH|
|Willie Gay Jr.||2||37/26||0||0||0||0||0.0||3||0/0|
|Anfernee Jennings||0||INJURED RESERVE|
|Jacob Phillips||0||INJURED RESERVE|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Alex Highsmith (3rd/102nd overall) Last season, when Alex Highsmith stepped in for injured Bud Dupree I said, “I’m not ready to say he is a one for one replacement for Bud Dupree, but he did show some flash.” Despite sharing some snaps with Melvin Ingram, Highsmith is playing 68% of the Steelers snaps in games he played compared to 43% last year. He leads the linebacker group in quarterback pressures with nine. He’s sacked the quarterback 1.5 times, hurried passes five times and knocked the quarterback down twice. He also has four quarterback hits twice the quarterback did not hit the ground. His 21 combined tackles tied for second but far behind Logan Wilson. In the Seattle game he played 100% of the defensive snaps. A signal that the groin injury that forced him missing the third game against the Bengals fully healed.
Josh Uche (2nd/60th overall) In 2020, the New England Patriot linebacker started and ended the season with foot and ankle injuries. In nine games, he showed ability to rush the quarterback. He blitzed eight times causing two hurried passes, knocked quarterbacks down seven times, and recorded a sack for 10 pressures. This season, in five games he’s already blitzed eight times for six pressures including three sacks and hurrying the quarterback’s pass three times. He injured his back and missed game three against the Saints. The Patriots play the Jets in week seven, earlier Uche sacked Zach Wilson twice and will be looking to keep the pressure on.
Willie Gay Jr. (2nd/63rd overall) Willie Gay missed the Chiefs first four games due to a toe injury. Gay also mentioned his struggle with mental health issues but did not go into specifics on social media. He is back in uniform and played in the Chiefs last two games. Playing just 43 defensive snaps so far, we will have to see how he performs in the second half of the season.
Logan Wilson (3rd/65th overall) In 2020, Logan Wilson played 343 defensive and 203 special team in 12 games for the Cincinnati Bengals before missing the final three games with an ankle injury. In six games this season, he has 353 defensive snaps and just 50 on special teams. He has 53 tackles including three for a loss. In six games, Wilson intercepted four passes including two against the Steelers. Quarterbacks targeted him 25 times and he allowed 41 completions, but those interceptions may get opposing teams avoiding him in coverage. He has allowed the lowest passer rating (62.4) among this group of linebackers. He’s tackled ball carriers 53 times with just two misses.
Zack Baun (3rd/74th overall) Zack Baun is part of the strong New Orleans Saints run defense. The Saints still use Baun primarily for special teams but have increased his defensive snaps from 8% in 2020 to 27% in 2021. Baun has already exceeded his combined tackles for last year with 13 and has one quarterback hit.
Terrell Lewis (3rd/84th overall) Terrell Lewis missed eight games last season. He already played six in 2021. Lewis is making the most of his opportunities. Last year he blitzed the quarterback seven times recording four quarterback pressures including two sacks. This season he already sacked quarterbacks three times and forced hurried passes three times for six total quarterback pressures. He’s the only group member with a forced fumble this season and has three tackles for a loss. One downside are two missed tackles for a 12.5% miss rate.
Anfernee Jennings (3rd/87th overall) The New England Patriots placed Anfernee Jennings on injured reserve at the end of August for an undisclosed injury. Last season, he missed the final game due to shoulder injury.
Jacob Phillips (3rd/97th overall) Last season, Phillips’s rookie year stymied by a knee injury and Covid resulting in only 11 games played. He came off the list in time to play his best game in the Cleveland Browns regular season finale against Pittsburgh when he recorded 10 combined tackles, a tackle for a loss and hit the quarterback. This year, Phillips suffered a biceps injury in training camp. He has yet to play in 2021 and remains on the injured reserve list.
Malik Harrison (3rd/98th overall) Malik Harrison played 41% of the Baltimore Ravens defensive snaps in the first six games. However, John Harbaugh started Josh Bynes over 2020 first round draft pick Patrick Queen in their demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers. That may cut into his defensive snaps if Bynes continues to play in front of them. His 21 combined tackles match Highsmith despite playing 76 less defensive snaps. Receivers caught four of five passes when he was in coverage. He allowed two touchdowns and quarterbacks enjoyed a 133.6 passer rating when throwing his way. It’s a low sample of passing targets and it will be interesting if teams attempt to exploit his coverage in the next few games.
Davion Taylor (3rd/103rd overall) Davion Taylor looking to accelerate his slow start this season. An injured knee kept him from playing the last four games of the 2020 season. Then he suffered a calf injury in Philadelphia Eagles 2021 training camp forcing him to miss week one. He played the second game but reaggravated the injury and missed the third game. He played the next three games earning a start against Tampa in their most recent match. The Eagles have bumped up his percentage of defensive snaps from just four percent last year to over 28% in 2021. Taylor missed three tackles this season for a 17.6% miss rate. Both highs for this group.
Akeem Davis-Gaither (4th/107th overall) Akeem Davis-Gaither overshadowed by fellow Bengals second year linebacker Logan Wilson. But he played remains a contributor playing in all six games especially on special teams. In pass defense, receivers he covered caught 10 of 16 passes for a 62.5% completion average. The lowest among this linebacker group. He held quarterbacks to a 69.0 passer rating in coverage. Only teammate Logan Wilson held quarterbacks to a lower rating. Playing 35% of defensive and 67% of the Bengals special team snaps, Davis-Gaither proving an exceptionally good bargain for a fourth-round selection.
I am comparing Highsmith to other linebackers drafted in the second or third rounds. Fourth rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither included since the Bengal was picked just five spots after Highsmith. Other teams chose eight of the ten listed linebackers ahead of Highsmith. Midseason last year, I rated the Bengal’s Logan Wilson and Davis-Gaither along with Raven Malik Harris and Willie Gay over Highsmith. This year, Logan Wilson is the top gun of the group. Anfernee Jennings and Jacob Phillips landed on injured reserve. Willie Gay’s progress stymied by missing the first four games. I rank Highsmith in a pack with Josh Uche and Terrell Lewis behind Wilson. Highsmith will need to demonstrate the ability to sack quarterbacks or at least pressure them regularly to prove he will be a complementary OLB to T.J. Watt. His 1.5 sacks in the last game are a hopeful sign.
THE REST OF THE 2020 DRAFT CLASS
All six 2020 Steeler draftees played last year. Sixth round defensive back Antoine Brooks played in four games last season but signed a contract to the Rams practice squad and has yet to play this year. Fourth round pick Anthony McFarland just came off injured reserve and is in the 21-day window for the Steelers to activate him. Fellow fourth round pick Kevin Dotson started all six games at right guard.
Seventh rounder Carlos Davis played 54 defense snaps in seven games last season. This year he played 17 snaps in the season opener but has not appeared since struggling with a knee injury. He remains on the 53-man roster. The Steelers drafted James Pierre as an undrafted free agent in 2020. Pierre played in all six games including two starts so far this season.
Your Music Selection
I always like to include a bit of music. Let’s see where everyone stacks up by season’s end. I was going to go with Stackin’ and Flippin’ It by Snootie Wild but the lyrics too explicit. But if you want to stack up the dough, you got to work for it. Here is Stack It Up by Liam Payne