After an offseason full of changes in the front office, on the field, and literally with the stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers are entering a new era, largely driven by a number of key, young pieces on the offensive side of the football.
Offensively, the Steelers are rather young, with no projected starter over the age of 27 ahead of training camp. Despite being relatively young offensively, there’s a ton of high-end talent on the offensive side of the football that has analysts like NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah excited for the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Thursday’s Move The Sticks podcast with Jeremiah and Brooks, the duo selected a pair of rookies and second-year players to “buy in” on ahead of the 2022 season. There were certainly some familiar names from Jeremiah and Brooks.
Brooks, the former NFL defensive back, scout and now television personality on the NFL Network, chose rookie wide receiver George Pickens for his portion of the segment, highlighting the former Georgia standout who came off the board at No. 52 overall in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
“I’m going to go and look at George Pickens,” Brooks said on the Move The Sticks podcast. “And the reason why George Pickens is a player to keep an eye on is because there’s a lot of uncertainty in their wide receiver core. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, both are angling for big contracts. And so, we know the Steelers are not ever trying to pay a wide receiver 20 plus million a year. So how quickly can George Pickens move into the rotation and become a key contributor? This is a very talented player, a guy who is hindered by a knee injury. Let’s see if he’s the next second round pick to kind of flourish in a Steeler uniform.”
Many thought that George Pickens was set up to be the first WR taken in the 2022 NFL Draft entering the spring last year, but a torn ACL suffered during spring practice set those aspirations for Pickens on hold, keeping him from playing a majority of the season. Still, Pickens chose to battle back and get back on the field to help the Georgia Bulldogs win the CFP National Championship Game. That will to get back on the field for his teammates, as well as showing Pittsburgh that he was fully recovered from the knee injury with an impressive Combine and Pro Day performance gave them the confidence to select him.
While he figures to slot in as WR3 behind Johnson and Claypool, Pickens will have the opportunity to assert himself as a legitimate threat in the passing game early on in 2022 as soon as he can get up to speed.
Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout himself and NFL Network’s lead draft analyst, chose Pickens as well based of the unknown associated with Pickens as a player along with how well Pittsburgh has historically done scouting and developing the WR position.
“I put Pickens down and sometimes you’re buying because you expect big things,” Jeremiah said regarding Pickens. “Sometimes you buy like you buy a stock just off intrigue. Like, I don’t know if any of us know. We’ve seen the flashes; we’ve seen the glimpses and sometimes we see that manifests itself in a big-time player. Sometimes you could get a little bit of a bust risk there. But I’m buying Pickens purely on intrigue. Again, I’m going to give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt, as I just mentioned. They’ve done such a good job at the wide out position.”
It’s hard not to be enamored with a player like Pickens who possesses the size, explosiveness, and flashes on tape that made many consider him to be a potential prototypical #1 WR in the league and possibly the best receiver in this draft class prior to the injury.
When it came to second-year players, Brooks went with TE Pat Freiermuth as his player to watch out for coming off a strong rookie season in 2021.
“Let’s go Pat Freiermuth, tight end from Penn State,” said Brooks. “Yeah, he’s a big body play maker guy that’s in that Heath Miller mold. I think he has a chance to be a productive pass catcher. I would keep an eye on him being able to get it done.”
Freiermuth burst onto the scene last season as a sure-handed pass catcher that was a reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger to move the chains as well as in the red zone. He came down with seven touchdowns last season and should his usage down the field increase along with his expected increase in snaps played, Freiermuth could take a notable step forward heading into his second season with the Steelers.
Jeremiah opted to go with a different name for his second-year player to watch, opting for the crown jewel of the 2021 draft class, first-round RB Najee Harris out of Alabama.
“Think about what Najee Harris did last year,” Jeremiah said regarding choosing Harris. “Roethlisberger was not a threat to run, obviously, right? So, you didn’t have to account for the extra guy in the run game. So that’s the first thing. The second thing you have to remember is if you think about Ben not being able to vertically push the ball down the field, you’re going to have a crowded box. You’re bringing more people closer to the line of scrimmage. So, when you think about Najee Harris going into Year #2, and you have an opportunity to maybe scare some of those safeties back a little bit with more of a vertical passing game, you start with that and then you also have the threat of the quarterback being a run option.”
Much has been made about Pittsburgh’s predictable offense as Jeremiah points to when discussing Harris. Ben was a statue in the pocket the last few seasons of his career, not offering the scrambling threat he used to provide back in his prime. Therefore, defenses committed more bodies to Harris, knowing fully well that Ben wasn’t a threat to run.
Along with the lack of an additional guy to account for in the run game, Jeremiah also points to ben’s inability to attack defenses down the field in the passing game. This wasn’t for a fact that Ben physically couldn’t throw the ball down the field or chose not to attack defenses vertically (although his arm strength wasn’t what it used to be). Rather, it came down to Ben failing to connect on his deep shots, having a poor completion rate which made defenses more confident to play up around the LOS. Again, part of this can be put on Pittsburgh’s inability to have receivers consistently stretch the field vertically, but part of the blame deserves to fall on Ben’s shoulders.
Based on Jeremiah’s though process, he believes that having a mobile QB like Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett who likely has a more live arm at this stage in their respective careers than Ben did last year to be the key factors to help push Najee Harris over-the-top in his second year.
“So, you want to run some zone-read stuff, either if it’s Trubisky who wins the job, or whether or not you end up getting the rookie out there who wins the job. To me, I think you’re in a pretty good spot there. Whether it’s Pickett or Trubisky, you have to count for the quarterback in the run game. That’s why I think Najee takes it up a level.”