Trio Of Steelers Projected To Break Out In 2022 Includes Second-Year LB

As part of a team in transition on both sides of the football, the 2022 regular season will be a pivotal one for a trio of Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox.

Ahead of the start of Phase 3 of OTAs, veteran cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, third-year receiver Chase Claypool, and second-year linebacker Buddy Johnson are the three Steelers’ players projected to break out in the 2022 regular season. Witherspoon continues to get a ton of love nationally, building off a terrific close to the 2021 season after being inserted into the lineup due to injury, leading to a two-year, $8 million deal in free agency from the Steelers.

Witherspoon was previously labeled as the Steelers’ best-kept secret and the team’s breakout player in recent days by Bleacher Report, so the belief in the veteran cornerback continues to skyrocket ahead of his second season with the Steelers.

“Ahkello Witherspoon wasn’t a regular presence in the Steelers secondary last season—he appeared in nine games with three starts—but that may change moving forward, especially if Joe Haden doesn’t re-sign,” Knox writes. “What makes the 27-year-old an intriguing breakout candidate is his ability to play the football. Despite playing just 57 percent of the defensive snaps when active, he finished the season with nine passes defended and three interceptions. Witherspoon led all Steelers defenders in both categories.”

While Witherspoon’s stock appears to be up, Claypool’s is rather low at this point, especially coming off a really rough second season in the NFL. The Steelers also added two receivers in the 2022 NFL Draft in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III, which could take targets and touches away from Claypool.

Still a second full season in second-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s system, and improved quarterback play could have Claypool get back to the heights he reached as a rookie.

“One could easily argue wideout Chase Claypool had his breakout campaign as a rookie. He had 873 receiving yards in 2020 and 11 combined touchdowns, but he took a significant step back in 2021,” Knox writes. “The 23-year-old still produced 860 receiving yards. However, he had just two scores, was credited with five drops and had three of his targets picked off. When targeted, he provided a passer rating of only 77.5. That’s a big dip from the 110.4 rating from the previous season.

“With a younger, stronger-armed quarterback under center, Claypool can be a star again,” Knox added. “Expect Claypool to begin turning things around at OTAs and in minicamp. With Smith-Schuster and Washington out, he should be first in line to start opposite Diontae Johnson.”

The 2022 season is a big one for Claypool. If he can bounce back in 2022 with improved quarterback play under center, the Steelers’ offense should be able to take a significant step forward.

Finally, Knox surprisingly highlights second-year linebacker Buddy Johnson as the last Steelers’ player to break out this season. Johnson, a fifth-round draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft that rarely saw the field as a rookie, finds himself in a crowded inside linebacker room in Pittsburgh.

A second full season in Pittsburgh could lead to Johnson seeing more playing time overall, especially on special teams under coordinator Danny Smith.

“The 2021 fourth-round pick only appeared in four games and finished with two tackles. However, he could take a big step forward this season under the guidance of new linebackers coach Brian Flores,” Knox writes. “The upside is definitely there for the Texas A&M product. In 2020, he finished with 86 tackles, 45 solo stops, an interception, four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Flores should help the second-year linebacker grow and regain some of that production as a pro.

“While Johnson may not progress enough to oust Myles Jack or Devin Bush from a starting job, expect him to show marked improvement during OTAs and minicamp, where he’ll work alongside former teammate and third-round rookie DeMarvin Leal.”

Though the addition of Flores to the Steelers’ coaching staff should be a major positive for Pittsburgh overall, Johnson is a complete unknown overall, and believing he’s going to break out in 2022 feels like a major stretch overall. Of course, if he does, the Steelers’ inside linebackers room will look that much better moving forward, especially from a depth standpoint.

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