After seeing just two players land inside the NFL’s Top 100 based on player voting, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw four total players land inside ESPN’s Top 100 player ranking ahead of the 2022 regular season Monday morning, albeit with one significant oversight with in the rankings.
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, and running back Najee Harris represented the Steelers in ESPN’s rankings. None of the four were a surprise, really, though the ranking for one player was glaringly off.
More on that later.
One night after landing at No. 6 in the NFL’s Top 100, Watt landed at No. 6 in ESPN’s rankings, which is the same spot he held down in the rankings last season.
“After coming close earlier in his career, Watt finally earned a Defensive Player of the Year award just a few months after signing a contract that made him the then-highest-paid defensive player in the NFL,” ESPN’s Brooke Pryor writes for ESPN.com regarding Watt’s ranking. “En route to capturing the elusive award, Watt led the league in sacks and nearly broke Michael Strahan’s long-standing record. Now it’s about finding a way to repeat as DPOY — and more importantly, lead a defensive surge that will dictate the direction of the Steelers’ 2022 season.”
During the 2021 season, Watt recorded 22.5 sacks to tie Strahan’s record for most sacks in a single season, and he did it while missing two games. He was the easy winner for the Defensive Player of the Year, and continues to be the best pass rusher in football not named Aaron Donald.
Ahead of the 2022 season, ESPN projects Watt to record 13 sacks, 67 total tackles, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries for the Steelers. The sack projection feels a bit low overall for Watt.
Following Watt in the ESPN Top 100 rankings is Fitzpatrick, who for a brief moment in the offseason was the highest-paid safety in football. Though he had a “down” year in 2021 due to a lack of turnovers, he led the Steelers with 124 tackles and was instrumental coming downhill to help defend the run, which the Steelers’ front seven struggled to do time and time again throughout the 2021 season.
Fitzpatrick landed at No. 23 overall, which was the first safety in the rankings. For what it’s worth, Fitzpatrick didn’t crack the NFL Top 100 from player voting.
“A year ago, then-defensive coordinator Keith Butler described a Fitzpatrick play as “another Troy [Polamalu]-like deal.” And while Fitzpatrick might not be a Polamalu duplicate quite yet, his cerebral approach to the game and versatility make him a foundational piece to the Steelers’ defense,” Pryor writes for ESPN.com regarding Fitzpatrick’s ranking. “And the team rewarded him as such, giving him a four-year extension worth $18.4 million annually. Fitzpatrick recorded 124 tackles last season along with two picks and a forced fumble.”
Quietly, Fitzpatrick was very strong down the stretch for the Steelers, making key plays in big moments late in games to help the Steelers ultimately reach the postseason in Ben Roethlisberger’s final season. Now, with a healthy, restocked defense around him, Fitzpatrick should be able to get back to his ball-hawking ways in the Steelers’ defense.
ESPN projects Fitzpatrick to record two interceptions, 116 tackles, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery in 2022.
After Fitzpatrick, Heyward was next up in the rankings from ESPN, but there was a sizable gap from Fitzpatrick at No. 23, all the way to Heyward at…No. 82 overall and the fifth interior defensive lineman off the board after Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, DeForest Buckner and Cameron Jordan.
That’s a glaring oversight, if I do say so myself. Having Heyward at No. 82 overall is way too low, especially after Heyward was at No. 42 in the NFL’s Top 100 just last week.
“A few months before training camp, Heyward turned heads when he said he should be considered one of the league’s premiere defensive tackles along with Aaron Donald. But his stats from 2021 — 10 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble — back up that assertion,” Pryor writes regarding Heyward’s ranking at No. 82 overall. “Heyward, an unquestioned team leader, is getting better with age, and the Steelers need him to keep playing at a high level to revamp the run defense.”
Heyward continues to get better with age, and he does improve his ranking from last season from ESPN when he wasn’t even inside the top 100. There’s just no way he’s behind the likes of Jordan, Buckner or even Jones at this point. He’s coming off of a 10-sack season, is one of the league’s best at batting passes at the line of scrimmage when he can’t get home on the pass rush, and is just a force in the trenches for the black and gold.
While he might not be in the same conversation with Donald, he’s right behind him when it comes to play along the interior defensively. This was a serious oversight by ESPN, but that’s nothing new for Heyward.
ESPN projects Heyward to record just five sacks, 76 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2022.
Finally, coming in at No. 87 in ESPN’s rankings was Harris, who — like Heyward — wasn’t in the rankings last season. At No. 87 overall, Harris was the seventh running back ranked inside the top 100, behind the likes of Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Jones and Dalvin Cook.
“Harris trained all offseason to carry the offensive load for the Steelers, putting on a couple of pounds of muscle to set the table for a big year,” Pryor writes for ESPN.com regarding Harris’ ranking. “After leading all running backs in touches last season, it’s a safe bet that he’ll continue to be a workhorse in his second year. Harris had a quiet 1,000-yard season in 2021, but a revamped offensive line and a quarterback running Matt Canada’s offense should open the door for Harris to be even more productive this season.”
During his rookie season, Harris accounted for 31% of the Steelers’ total yards from scrimmage offensively. That’s an exceptionally high mark overall, but don’t be surprised if he comes close to that number again in 2022. He’s the workhorse for the black and gold on the ground and through the air out of the backfield.
The Steelers are going to rely on him heavily once again, much like the Titans do with Henry, and will lean on him to provide a physical presence in the run game this season.
According to ESPN.com’s projections, Harris is projected to rush for 1,133 yards and seven touchdowns, adding 391 yards and two touchdowns receiving out of the backfield.