Top 2 Rookie Draft Picks
The 2020 Steelers draft picks played a second season in 2021. Time to see how Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith stacked up against their draft class contemporaries. Just two picks to track this season since the Steelers traded their 2020 first round draft pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019. I’ll recap the rest of the Steelers 2020 draft class and include links to Matthew Marczi’s stock watch on those that remain on the roster.
Here is the link to the midseason rookie tale of the tape if you want to see how the players compared at the 2021 season’s midpoint. The following tables show statistics after two full seasons of play.
I covered the Steelers 2021 rookie draft class recap a few weeks ago. I’ll recap the 2017-2019 draft classes over the next couple of months.
Here is how the Steelers first two 2020 draft picks stack up statistically against their contemporaries after two seasons of play:
|Henry Ruggs III||20||915||79||50||921||18.4||46.1||63.3||24|
|Michael Pittman Jr.||30||1679||190||128||1585||12.4||52.8||67.4||44|
|Laviska Shenault Jr.||30||1282||179||121||1219||10.1||40.6||67.6||30|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Chase Claypool (2nd/49th overall) Claypool tied for fifth in receptions, fourth in receiving yards and third in points scored among this group of receivers. But his catch percentage is tenth. He dropped from 11 touchdowns his rookie season to just two in 2021. The Pro Football Reference (PFR) says he has dropped 11 passes out of 214 targets the past two seasons. That’s a 5.1% drop rate. His yards after catch dipped from 5.3 to 4.8 yards per reception between his rookie and sophomore years. He tends to land on the ground rather than catch passes on the run. Still, he’s gained over 850 receiving yards in both seasons. Let’s see if his chemistry with a new quarterback and receivers coach blossoms in 2022. It would be nice if he regained the form that landed him on the 2020 PFWA All-Rookie team with Justin Jefferson.
Henry Ruggs III (1st/12th overall). Ruggs selected first in 2020 among this group of receivers. After finishing with 452 receiving yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, he gained 469 yards and scored two touchdowns in the first seven games of 2021. He had an impressive 19.5 yards per catch in 2021. Unfortunately, he was involved in a fatal car accident and charged with driving under the influence. The Las Vegas Raiders released their first-round draft pick the next day. A judge rescheduled his preliminary hearing to May 19 to determine if he will face a trial for criminal drunk driving charges.
Jerry Jeudy (1st/15th overall) In 2020, Jeudy appeared in all 16 games and scored three touchdowns. He had the longest reception (92 yards) in the entire NFL and was seventh with 16.5 yards per reception. However, his 46% catch rate with ten dropped passes for an 8.8% drop rate contributed dampened his performance. Jeudy suffered a high ankle sprain in the 2021 season opener. The injury caused him to miss six games. He sat out a seventh game later in the season. In the ten games he appeared in, Jeudy did not score, and he sagged to 12.3 yards per reception. On the plus side he only dropped one of the 56 passes targeting him. The Denver Broncos acquired quarterback Russell Wilson for the 2022 season. We will find out if a new quarterback puts Jeudy back on track to justify his first-round selection.
CeeDee Lamb (1st/17th overall) CeeDee performed strongly in his second season. A 2021 Pro Bowler, he gained 1102 receiving yards and scored six touchdowns. He scored the game winning touchdown in overtime against the New England Patriots in week six. A 35-yard touchdown reception. In two seasons, he ranks second among the wide receivers selected in the 2020 draft in receptions, receiving yards, and scoring. He is slated to be the number one receiver with Amari Cooper traded away. But with Dak Prescott back in form, CeeDee poised to have a strong year in 2022.
Jalen Reagor (1st/21st overall) Reagor missed five games with a torn thumb ligament during his rookie season. He returned to play in all 17 games plus a playoff appearance in 2021. Unfortunately, his receiving statistics did not improve much even playing five additional games. His receiving yards dropped from 396 in 2020 to 299 in 2021. He also went from one to four dropped passes. Perhaps, due to his damaged thumb. Two drops including a touchdown occurred during the final drive in a 13-7 loss to the New York Giants. After scoring a touchdown on a punt return in 2020, he became the Eagles primary punt returner in 2021. In the Eagles playoff, he muffed two punt returns losing one in their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If he does not perform strongly in 2022, his name may become associated with the dreaded “bust” word.
Justin Jefferson (1st/22nd overall) Jefferson picked up where we left off after a superb rookie season. The 2020 NFL Sporting News Rookie of the Year is now a two-time Pro Bowler and second team AP All-Pro. He missed first team by a single vote. Jefferson is at or near the top of his class in most receiving categories. In two seasons, he’s caught 196 passes for 3016 yards and 17 touchdowns. Jefferson gained over receiving yards in 14 of 33 games played. His 1616 receiving yards ranked second in the 2021 NFL season. He clearly leads this group. The Vikings drafted a stud.
Brandon Aiyuk (1st/25th overall) Aiyuk missed some time due to Covid exposure and injuries playing 12 games in his rookie year. He did have two 100 yard receiving games and scored seven touchdowns. But Aiyuk has started 27 of 29 games played and took on additional responsibility as a punt returner in 2021. Aiyuk places in the middle in most categories among his draft peers. A solid performer with 116 receptions for 1574 yards and 10 touchdowns with two more on the ground over two years. He also returned 29 punts averaging 7.2 yards a return in 2021. In three playoff games, Aiyuk caught nine passes for 135 yards. Aiyuk stands to get more targets if George Kittle’s injury woes continue in 2022.
Tee Higgins (2nd/33rd overall) Higgins consistent between his rookie and second seasons. In 2020 he caught 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns. He may have achieved more if fellow rookie Joe Burrow had finished the season. Higgins tied Chris “pencil neck” Collingsworth for most receptions by a rookie in Bengals team history (Ja’Marr Chase broke that record in 2021). He dropped eight of 108 targeted passes for a 7.4% drop rate.
In 2021, he caught 74 passes for 1091 yards and six touchdowns. He reduced drops to five of 110 targeted passes for a 4.5% drop rate. Overshadowed by Chase, he performed well in the playoffs. Higgins had seven receptions for 96 yards against Tennessee. In AFC championship, he caught six for 103 yards. Higgins caught two touchdowns including a 75 yarder in Bengals Super Bowl loss. His 100 yards on four catches the most receiving yards on either team.
Michael Pittman Jr. (2nd/34rd overall) Pittman started slowly but finished strong his rookie season. Hampered by a toe then a leg injury, he only played four games in the first half the season. He finished strong playing in the rest of the schedule including the Colts playoff loss against the Buffalo Bills where he gained 90 receiving yards. Pittman shows potential and skillful hands with just one drop in 66 targets for a 1.6% rate. In 2021, Pittman started all 17 games and broke a 1000 receiving yards while scoring six touchdowns. He did have six drops but a respectable 4.7% of his targets. Pittman will have Matt Ryan throwing to him in 2022.
Laviska Shenault Jr. (2nd/42nd overall) The Jacksonville Jaguars receiver scored five touchdowns his rookie season but none in 2021. He lands in the middle of this group in most statistical categories after two seasons. But two areas standout. Shenault leads the group by catching 67.6% of passes thrown to him. But he is dead last with 10.1 yards per reception. The Jaguars play him out of the slot, even taking some direct snaps as a running back. He did have eight drops in 2021 which were 8% of passes targeting him. Some talk that Jaguars may want to trade him. Where will he be in 2022?
KJ Hamler (2nd/46th overall) Hamler’s rookie season ended by a concussion in week 16 versus the Chargers. KJ did score the winning touchdown in the Broncos first game against the Chargers earlier in the season. Flashes of potential but he dropped seven of 56 passes thrown to him for an extremely high 12.5% drop rate. Unfortunately, tore his ACL ending his 2021 season after just three games. He also tore an ACL his senior high school year before coming to Penn State. We’ll see if KJ can bounce back in 2022.
Van Jefferson (2nd/57th overall) The Los Angeles Rams played Van Jefferson sparingly early in his rookie season. But he has appeared in all 33 games over the past two season plus six playoff games. His snap counts increased from 256 in 2020 to 875 in 2021 and he started all 17 games this year. His stats reflect the increase especially scoring six touchdowns in 2021 versus just one last year. He pulled up his yards per reception to 14.8. However, six drops in 2021 dropped him from 61.3% in 2020 to 57.5% receptions per targets. He caught a 52-yard touchdown pass to break a 13-13 tie with Arizona Cardinals. The 30-23 win put the Rams in the driver’s seat to win the division. He’s playing in the shadow of Cooper Kupp, Jefferson is a valuable addition to the Rams receiving group.
Denzel Mims (2nd/59th overall) His rookie season 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 his rookie year. In 2021, Mims played 11 games but only started three. His production dropped significantly. He caught just eight passes for 133 yards. In two seasons, Denzel caught 31 passes, caught 46.3% of his targets, and scored just two points. All last among his 2020 draft peers. One bright spot is he averages 15.8 yards per reception which is second among the group. Currently, he is one of two wide receivers under contract to the Jets. Let’s see if he rebounds in 2022.
Wide Receiver Summary
I am comparing Chase Claypool to twelve wide receivers selected in the first and second rounds in the 2020 draft. NFL teams selected ten of the twelve receivers ahead of Claypool in the draft. Justin Jefferson is at the head of this class of receivers. 2021 CeeDee Lamb is second. I rate Chase Claypool comparable to Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, and Michael Pittman despite falling off in 2021. All three drafted ahead of Claypool who matches up very well. Claypool must rebound in 2022 or he risks falling behind this group. Claypool will have a new quarterback and it will be the second season in Matt Canada’s offensive scheme.
|Willie Gay Jr.||28||704/269||2||7||1||0||1.5||87||4/2|
All statistics pulled from the Pro Football Reference
Synopsis of each player:
Alex Highsmith (3rd/102nd overall) Highsmith progressed from Bud Dupree’s understudy to fulltime starter. He had few opportunities to shine early in his rookie season playing behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Unfortunately, Dupree injured his knee in week 12 and Highsmith had his chance to show us the light. Earlier in the season, he intercepted Lamar Jackson’s pass early in the second half to help the Steelers win their first game against the Ravens. But Highsmith went from playing 14-32% of defensive snaps in the first 11 games to 83-97% of snaps in the last five games.
In 2021, he started 16 games. He leads the group with eight sacks, 20 tackles for a loss and 21 quarterback hits. His 122 tackles second to just Logan Wilson. His 38 quarterback pressures (hurries, knockdowns, and sacks) out of 99 times as part of a blitz package is tops by far according to the PFR. I’m anxious to see what Highsmith does in 2022.
Josh Uche (2nd/60th overall) The Patriot linebacker started and ended his rookie season with foot and ankle injuries. Josh Uche made his NFL debut in week eight during the Patriots 21-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills. He played nine games until another injury landed him on injured reserve. In limited play, he showed he can rush the quarterback. He blitzed eight times but caused two hurried passes, hit quarterbacks seven times, and recorded a sack for 10 pressures. In 2021, Uche missed four more games due to injury and was inactive for a fifth. He’s played about one third of the Patriots defensive snaps as a rotational outside linebacker. He has the second most quarterback hits in this group with 11. But as the first player selected in this group, his 21 tackles and four sacks are disappointing.
Willie Gay Jr. (2nd/63rd overall) As a rookie, the Kansas City Chiefs deployed Gay on 267 defensive and 240 special team snaps. In coverage, Gay gave up 13 completions on 15 passes thrown his way for an 86.7% completion rate. He totaled 39 combined tackles but missed six for a 13.3% missed tackle rate. The highest among this group of linebackers. Unfortunately, an injury kept him from playing in the postseason including the Super Bowl. In 2021, Gay missed the first four games on injured reserve. But then started 11 of 12 games played compiling 48 tackles and two interceptions. In the playoffs he forced a fumble against Pittsburgh and defended two passes in the loss to Cincinnati. His seven defensed passes tie Logan Wilson and his 87 tackles third in this group of linebackers.
Logan Wilson (3rd/65th overall) Logan Wilson gets a lot of playing time. As a rookie, he had 343 defensive and 203 special team for the Cincinnati Bengals before missing the final three games with an ankle injury. Quarterbacks tested Wilson’s coverage skills completing nine of 14 passes and scoring one touchdown to receivers he was covering. However, Wilson intercepted quarterbacks twice limiting his opponents to a 66.4 quarterback rating. In 2021, he became a fulltime starter at middle linebacker. In week three, he intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice and led with 14 tackles as the Bengals beat the Steelers.
Wilson leads this group with 133 tackles, six interceptions and seven passes defended. Wilson tore the labrum in his shoulder causing him to miss four of the last five games. But he played every single defensive snap in the Bengals four postseason games. He collected 39 tackles, four for a loss along with an interception in the playoffs. Wilson had successful surgery on his shoulder. He should be a beast in 2022.
Zack Baun (3rd/74th overall) Baun started seven games for the New Orleans Saints over his first two seasons. But he is mainly a special team’s player. As a rookie, The Saints put Baun in for 82 defensive snaps compared to 246 special team snaps. In 2021 he played 194 defensive snaps, 17% of the Saints total. Compared to the 372 special team snaps that were 79% of the Saints total. His 42 tackles are near the bottom of this group of linebackers with players who missed extensive time. An underwhelming performance for a third-round pick.
Terrell Lewis (3rd/84th overall) The Los Angeles Rams placed Lewis on a non-injury reserve list to start his rookie season. The Rams reinstated him October 10 and he has appeared sparingly in four games. He played eight games and in the playoff loss to the Packers. In 2021, Lewis played in the Rams first 11 games starting in four. The Rams did not play him in the final six regular season games, and he was inactive for the Rams Super Bowl run. Perhaps Lewis will get more opportunity to play in 2022 with Von Miller moving on.
Anfernee Jennings (3rd/87th overall) In 2020, Jennings missed the final game due to shoulder injury. In 14 games he recorded just 20 combined tackles missing two others for a 9.1% missed tackle rate. After playing 14 games as a rookie, Jennings did not play at all in 2021. The Patriots placed him on injured reserve prior to setting the initial 53-man roster ending his season before it began. The Patriots have made some moves with their linebacker group. So, we will have to wait for 2022 to see how Bill Belichick plans to use him.
Jacob Phillips (3rd/97th overall) 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 Browns regular season finale when he recorded 10 combined tackles, a tackle for a loss and hit the quarterback. In 2021, a bicep injury caused him to miss the first 12 games. He played in four games and again finished strong in a season finale with nine tackles and a sack in the Browns win over the Bengals.
Malik Harrison (3rd/98th overall) In 2020, Harrison played in all 16 games despite the Ravens placing him on the Covid reserve list following the first game against the Steelers. He totaled 44 combined tackles second to Highsmith’s 48 but played about 60% of the defensive snaps that our man did. Malik started the first five Baltimore Raven games in 2021. He played 170 defensive snaps through week seven. However, Harrison received a gunshot wound in the calf in Cleveland during Baltimore’s bye week. He missed the next three games then played in the final seven games. But he played almost exclusively special teams with just one defensive snap. Still, his 69 tackles are third among this group of linebackers.
Davion Taylor (3rd/103rd overall) Taylor landed on injured reserve in 2020 and 2021. The Philadelphia Eagles used Davion mostly for special teams his rookie season. He played 178 special team snaps compared to just 32 defensive snaps. An injured knee kept him from playing the last four games of the season. Taylor started six straight games beginning week six in 2021. He forced two fumbles in a victory over the Denver Broncos in week 11. But he suffered another knee injury that put him out for the rest of the season. Missing ten games in two season due to injury is not a good start to his career. He may get another chance in 2022 as Alex Singleton who replaced him in the starting lineup signed with the Denver Broncos.
Akeem Davis-Gaither (4th/107th overall)
Davis-Gaither overshadowed by fellow Bengals 2020 draft pick LB Logan Wilson. But he played in all 16 games as Wilson missed several in his rookie season. But Akeem hurt his foot in week nine and missed the rest of the 2021 season including the Bengals run to the Super Bowl. Davis-Gaither has played 521 defensive snaps, fourth among the 2020 linebackers drafted in the first three rounds. He has also defensed six passes which is second. We’ll see if Akeem fully recovers during the 2022 training camp.
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. After two seasons, I have Logan Wilson and Alex Highsmith at the top of this group of linebackers. Wilson plays in the middle and Highsmith on the edge. But considering Highsmith selected 37 spots after Wilson, the Steelers getting excellent value from their third-round selection.
THE REST OF THE 2020 DRAFT CLASS
Five of six Steelers selected in 2020 draft class played this year. Fourth round pick Anthony McFarland only appeared in two games in 2021 after playing in 11 games his rookie season. Fellow fourth round pick Kevin Dotson started four games at guard as a rookie. He started the first nine games of 2021 at guard. He looked promising but then missed the final eight games due to an ankle injury.
Sixth round pick Antoine Brooks played in four games as a rookie. But the Ram signed him off waivers at the beginning of the season and he won a Super Bowl ring. Seventh rounder Carlos Davis played 54 defense snaps in seven games as a rookie. Then 50 in four games before Mike Tomlin benched him in 2021. In two seasons just 11 tackles including two for a loss.
MARCZI SOPHOMORE REVIEWS
Steelers Depot stalwart contributor Matthew Marczi conducts a “stock watch” to review how player performance during trends during the year the season. I’ve pulled the links for the latest evaluation to show how each player was last trending:
|2||Chase Claypool||Marczi Stock Watch||Down|
|3||Alex Highsmith||Marczi Stock Watch||Up|
|4||Anthony McFarland Jr.||Marczi Stock Watch||Down|
|4||Kevin Dotson||Marczi Stock Watch||Down|
|6||Antoine Brooks Jr.||Marczi Stock Watch||Sold|
|7||Carlos Davis||Marczi Stock Watch||Down|
After a strong rookie season, the 2020 draft class cooled off in their second season. Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith compare favorably to their draft contemporaries. But Claypool regressed in his sophomore year. Can he rebound with a new quarterback in 2022? Alex Highsmith has a career trajectory moving in the right direction. The highlight of the class.
As for the rest of the class. Matthew Marczi shows their stock down with Antoine Brooks gone. McFarland could not find the field when there was not a viable back-up to Najee Harris. Kevin Dotson never returned from his ankle injury. Carlos Davis benched when the defensive line needed help. We need these folks to step it up in 2022.
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to include a bit of music. The 2020 Steelers draft class looked strong their rookie year. But one is gone and four of the remaining five regressed in year two. Time for them to step it up in 2022. Here is Step it Up by Stereo MC’s.