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Carney: 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers Awards

Our second annual Steelers Depot awards, choosing our superlatives of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 season. Like last year, we’re naming the Steelers MVPs, the Rookie of the Year, the Play of the Year, and several other categories.

Alex Kozora has already submitted his ballot, as has Matthew Marczi. Today, it’s my turn to hand out some season-ending awards for the Steelers.

Offensive MVP: RG James Daniels

This is probably very stunning to many reading this, but stick with me here. I wanted to be slightly different than the consensus here. I have to give some of the big fellas in the trenches some love.

Daniels was the best player on an offensive line that absolutely exceeded expectations in 2022. Signed to a three-year deal in free agency, Daniels stepped into the starting right guard job and became the offensive line’s quiet leader, one that led by example and was as consistent as they come in the trenches.

The 24-year-old guard stayed healthy all season long, not missing a single snap for the Steelers, playing a key role in the second-half turnaround the offensive line experienced, which led to a step forward in the second half for the Steelers’ offense as a whole, which went 7-2 down the stretch.

Daniels played 1,160 snaps on the season an allowed just 20 total pressures and zero sacks on 686 pass blocking reps, according to Pro Football Focus, finishing his first season as a Steeler with an overall grade of 67.1. The young guard was a massive upgrade over Trai Turner from the previous season and looks like a huge building block for the Steelers moving forward in front of quarterback Kenny Pickett and running back Najee Harris.

Defensive MVP: OLB Alex Highsmith

Who knows where the Steelers’ defense would have truly been this season without Alex Highsmith off the edge.

Without star outside linebacker T.J. Watt, much of the pass rush onus fell on Highsmith. While he was quiet for stretches without Watt (as was everyone else defensively) the third-year linebacker turned in a career year with 14.5 sacks. He was absolutely dominant for stretches, recording 3.0 sacks in the season opener, 2.0 sacks in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and closed the season strong with 4.5 sacks in the final four games — including 2.5 against Cleveland in the season finale.

He should have been a Pro Bowler this season, and he should receive some All-Pro consideration as well, considering he led the league in forced fumbles and finished top 5 in sacks. He’s in line for a big payday via an extension this off-season and is absolutely deserving of it.

Rookie of the Year: RB Jaylen Warren

It would have made sense to go with QB Kenny Pickett or WR George Pickens here, but the way undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren burst onto the scene in training camp, preseason and then the regular season is nothing short of remarkable.

Warren went from the bottom of the depth chart to the No. 2 running back, taking reps away from second-year running back Najee Harris in the process. He’s an explosive runner, one that hits the hole fast and hard and can rip off the explosive runs the Steelers desperately need in the running game.

He’s a strong receiver, too, and really shines in pass protection. Warren simply plays like an old-school Steeler. He fits everything that Pittsburgh represents on the field. His ascension to RB2 behind Harris was rather fun to watch unfold and gives the Steelers an intriguing 1-2 combination in the backfield for the foreseeable future.

Biggest Surprise: CB Cameron Sutton

Sutton was solid overall in 2021, but didn’t do much to really draw attention at the cornerback position, which is both good and bad.

Then, he went off in 2022. Sutton recorded a career-high three interceptions and should have had a few more if not for drops.

After the Steelers signed Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon in free agency, the expectation was Sutton would kick inside and be the primary slot defender, where he was much better suited. Instead, he battled and stayed at the outside cornerback position, turning in a career year while dealing with the opponent’s No. 1 WR each and every week, finishing with an impressive 15 pass breakups on the year.

Quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 63.6 when targeting him. He completely shut down one side of the field on his own and looks like he’s finding a new level to his game as a veteran in the NFL. The Steelers simply can’t afford to let him reach free agency. He needs to be locked up to a long-term deal.

Biggest Disappointment: NT Tyson Alualu

When Alualu went down with a broken ankle early in the 2021 season, there were concerns about that being the end of his career. To his credit, he came back and worked his way back onto the field for the 2022 season in a year in which he was supposed to anchor the middle of the defensive line between Cameron Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi.

Instead, Alualu missed some time in training camp while on the PUP list and then when he was on the field was nowhere close to himself, getting bullied at the point of attack. He didn’t have his legs underneath him, and when that happened early in the season Alualu was a detriment to the Steelers’ defense against the run, ultimately leading to his benching.

It’s sad this is the way Alualu went out in his career, because it was a very solid one overall.

Most Underrated: C Mason Cole

The toughness and leadership Cole put on display throughout his first season with the Steelers was very, very encouraging. After having an up-and-down first four seasons in the NFL, going from starter to backup, back into a starting role during his time in Arizona and Minnesota, there wasn’t much expected from Cole entering his first season in Pittsburgh.

Maybe that had to do with such a low bar being present at the position after one year of Kendrick Green, but Cole was pretty darn solid for the Steelers in the middle of a rebuild, rejuvenated offensive line in the Steel City. He still might be a stop-gap at the position for the Steelers moving forward, but he was a “varsity-level” player all season long for the Steelers, providing much-needed consistency in pass blocking and in the run game.

Play of the Year: Minkah Fitzpatrick’s blocked XP Week 1 against Cincinnati

Fitzpatrick was dominant in Week 1 on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals. He finished with 14 tackles on the day and picked off a pass on the second play from scrimmage and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Steelers an early lead.

His play on special teams late in the game though was the play of the year and saved the Steelers from potentially going 8-9, rather than 9-8 and just narrowly missing the playoffs. Fitzpatrick snuck through the left side of the Bengals’ line on the PAT and got a hand on it just moments after Joe Burrow found Ja’Marr Chase for the game-tying score with four seconds left. If Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson gets the XP off cleanly, the Bengals win.

Instead, Fitzpatrick’s block sent it to overtime, where the Steelers ultimately won on a Chris Boswell field goal.

Coach of the Year: OL Pat Meyer

The job Meyer did this season was rather impressive, taking what was arguably the worst offensive line in football in 2021, bringing in some new pieces in Mason Cole and James Daniels, adding in some new blocking techniques and practices, and turning them into a league-average unit overall that was very clearly trending upwards in the second half of the season.

While guys like left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor struggled at times in pass protection, this group found an identity in the second half of the season as a mean, physical run blocking unit that helped the Steelers find an identity offensively, going 7-2 down the stretch.

Maybe Meyer gets a blue chip prospect or two to work with next season coming out of the draft, or maybe another high-priced free agent to work with, but the job he did in 2022 with what he had available was impressive.

2023 Player to Watch: TE Connor Heyward

Heyward closed his rookie season in style with three catches for 45 yards against the Browns in addition to some great work as a blocker overall. Those reps came late in the 28-14 win over the Browns after Pat Freiermuth went down with a knee injury, and those reps might be a glimpse of what’s to come from the jack-of-all-trades offensive piece.

With TE2 Zach Gentry and fullback Derek Watt set to hit free agency this offseason, there should be a larger role for Heyward offensively, both at tight end and fullback, where he got a few looks in Week 18 as a lead blocker.

When targeted in the passing game, Heyward simply made plays. He needs to see more reps in 2023, especially in the passing game, and if he can settle into that true H-back role that was envisioned for him when the Steelers drafted him, the offense can become all the more versatile.

Best Addition: RG James Daniels

Like I said above in the offensive MVP category, Daniels was quietly very good for the Steelers throughout the 2022 season. The less you hear negatives about an offensive lineman throughout a season, the better he tends to be playing.

Daniels was a very good addition to a young Steelers offense in the end, even if his tenure got off to a rough start with poor showings in training camp and the preseason. He settled in nicely though and was a rock for the offensive line in pass protection and in the run game. Former GM Kevin Colbert hit a home run with the Daniels signing early in free agency.

Most Missed: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

I’ll probably catch heat for this, but without Smith-Schuster, the Steelers got very little production out of the slot in 2022. They didn’t have that tough yards-after-catch guy in the middle of the field either to complement Pat Freiermuth.

Smith-Schuster drew a lot of unnecessary heat off the field but was as reliable as they come on the field. Seeing him have a great year in Kansas City was awesome to see, but also made me wonder just what he could have done as that reliable slot option for the Steelers, especially in the second half of the season for rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Of course, having Smith-Schuster still around would have crowded the receiver room even more with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and — assuming they still would have drafted him — George Pickens. That would have made trading Claypool at the time all the more manageable and lessened the initial blow in the slot.

Things worked out for all parties involved though. And who knows, maybe Smith-Schuster comes back to Pittsburgh in free agency this offseason to fill that slot role once again.

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