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Foundational Five: Breaking Down Pittsburgh’s Five Young Cornerstone Players

When I used to play Madden, I was obsessed with Franchise Mode where you could act as the general manager of the team and conduct various moves to remake the roster of the team you chose to play with. I spent hours trading players and signing free agents, attempting to build a roster of young, talented, and cheap (when possible) players that could contribute to the franchise both now and in the future. I would also stockpile draft capital in hoping to compliment the players signed/traded for with inexpensive rookies to round out a youthful team that was set to compete for titles year-in year-out.

I recognize now that I probably spent too much time on the game in general, let alone focusing on roster construction rather than playing the game itself. However, this mindset of focusing on a youth movement to lay the foundation for a franchise over the long-term has been a focus of many professional teams, treasuring first round draft capital over established veterans at times and willing to pay a premium when a young, talented player becomes available on the trade market or in free agency. With that, I wanted to highlight five names that stick out on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster that match that designation of a foundational player vital to the team’s success this season as well as down the road.

RB Najee Harris

This should be expected when you draft a running back in the first round to play the feature back role in an offense wanting to reestablish its identity in the run game. However, Najee Harris is more than deserving, being a highly touted prospect coming out of Alabama with the size, movement skills, and pass catching ability to be an every down back in the NFL. He already has 1,000 scrimmage yards on the year and is on-track to break Franco Harris’s rookie season rushing record. He hasn’t been the most efficient at times as a runner, but he is working with a patchwork OL that was gutted last season and a QB working on his farewell tour.

Expect Harris to continue to improve in the offense moving forward with a QB that makes defenses play honest with the use of play action and the ability to complete the deep ball effectively, putting less defenders in the box to commit to stopping Harris. Adding talent and continued development along the OL will also help Harris’s efficiency as a runner, allowing him to get to the second level more and be able to create more per touch than being met constantly in the backfield. Harris may not have breakaway speed, but he can be that bell cow that can shoulder 350+ touches a season and be the engine to the offense for the length of his rookie deal.

TE Pat Freiermuth

If you would have told me that Pittsburgh landed two long-term foundational pieces to their offense in the same draft, I would be thrilled. I was skeptical of Pat Freiermuth coming out, seeing him as a work-in-progress preferring a pro-ready OL like Creed Humphrey who was also on the board. However, Freiermuth has made me a believer this season, coming on strong in his rookie year which is a feat many first-year TEs fail to accomplish. He has already earned the trust of one Ben Roethlisberger, serving as a reliable chain mover on possession downs as well as a red zone threat, currently tied for second in the entire NFL with six TDs at the TE position.

Freiermuth still has a long way to go from a blocking perspective, by having a weapon that can align anywhere in the formation and has secure hands to make contested catches routinely is huge for a QB at the end of the road as well as a prospective young QB, giving him a target he can rely on. The jury is still out whether rookie OL Kendrick Green or Dan Moore Jr. will be the long-term answer at their respective positions, but Freiermuth seems to have answered the question of who would be the next long-term Pittsburgh Steelers TE after legend Heath Miller.

WR Diontae Johnson

I was extremely critical of the Diontae Johnson pick back in 2019 for several reasons. He was an older rookie prospect that seemed to struggle with drops while at Toledo as well as tending to slip coming out of his routes and boasted a frail frame that could have a tough time holding up in the pros. My initial thoughts on Johnson were confirmed has he struggled with drops as well as staying healthy his first two seasons in the league, showing flashes of greatness as a route runner, but failing to consistently put it together for multiple games in a row. He even ended up getting benched due to the drop issues, making many believe he was going to be gone after his rookie deal expired.

However, Johnson dedicated this offseason to working on his issues that plagued him last season and the results have been fantastic. He is currently only charted for one drop this season via Pro Football Reference and ranks in the top ten in the league in receiving yards (914), receptions (76), and targets (120) while missing a game this season with a knee injury. He has six TDs so far this season and is the alpha in the Steelers passing game. Johnson is a nuanced route runner, getting separation with ease against man coverage and has improved his ability to win vertically down the field. He has made clutch catches the moments Pittsburgh has needed it most and is playing himself into a nice contract extension.

EDGE T.J. Watt

I could just leave this section blank as all Steelers fans understand just how important T.J. Watt is to the franchise as a cornerstone player, but I think we failed to recognize how important Watt is for this team not only in the moment, but also going forward. He just inked the most lucrative contract extension in NFL history for a defensive player and has proven to be worth every penny, playing himself to be the favorite to win the DPOY award.

He has come up with the biggest plays in the most crucial moments for Pittsburgh and is actively taking the torch from All-Pro Cam Heyward as the leader and face of the defense. Watt will be the identity of the Steelers defense for years to come as well as the likely face of the franchise once Ben decides to retire. Needless to say, Watt will be charged with ushering in a new era of dominant Steelers defense to live up to what the 70s Steelers started and has since been embraced by Blitzburgh and the late 2000s team that made two Super Bowl appearances. With a long lineage of Steelers greats, Watt appears to be the next man up.

S Minkah Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s play has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride this season, seeing it’s peaks and valleys. However, as mentioned above, Pittsburgh thought so much of Fitzpatrick that GM Kevin Colbert broke tradition by sending away a first round draft pick to acquire Fitzpatrick when he became available. The move paid off in a big way early as Fitzpatrick brought stability to a shaky Pittsburgh secondary, serving as the dangerous centerfielder with the range and ball skills to make splash plays that had been sorely lacking for years. The ball hawking safety secured five INTs in his first season in Black and Gold, following up with another four picks in 2020. Fitzpatrick even converted two of those picks into defensive TDs.

While Fitzpatrick has struggled in the tackling and turnover department this season, this isn’t to say that he hasn’t made an impact. He looks to be pressing at times to make the big play when he just needs to play his game and use his stellar instincts to take him to where the football is going. Opposing offenses always have to game plan for him, and his presence make a huge difference to the passing game as was evident in the game he missed against the Chargers. I fully expect Pittsburgh to engage in contract extension talks after picking up his fifth-year option this past offseason, tying him at Watt together as the cornerstone pieces on the defense for years to come.

What are your thoughts on the names provided above as foundational pieces to Pittsburgh? Would you personally swap any of the names out with another player on the roster? Do you think it may be too early to tell on a few of the names provided? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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