Our second annual Steelers Depot Awards, where we name our offensive and defensive MVPs, Rookie of the Year, and a handful of other superlatives for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Alex Kozora, Matthew Marczi, Josh Carney and Jonathan Heitritter have released their ballots so far. Today is my turn.
OFFENSIVE MVP: RB NAJEE HARRIS
This pick probably would’ve gotten me laughed out of the room in Week 7, but as Harris got healthier as the year went on, he became the key part in helping the Steelers offense click.
After the team’s Week 9 bye, Harris toted the rock 164 times for 673 yards and six touchdowns, while adding 17 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown (a game-winner in Week 17 at Baltimore) through the air. When the team needed him the most, Harris stepped up. He came up clutch on the team’s game-winning drive in Week 16 against the Las Vegas Raiders, ran for 111 yards and caught the aforementioned game-winner against Baltimore in Week 17 and tacked on another 80 yards and a touchdown (should have been two) against the Browns in three must-win games for Pittsburgh.
While he got off to a slow start to the season, pretty much the whole team did. And when Harris picked it up, so did everyone else. His performance in the second half of the season was good enough to earn him my MVP vote.
DEFENSIVE MVP: S MINKAH FITZPATRICK
I really thought about going with OLB Alex Highsmith here, as his career-high 14.5 sacks helped give the Steelers pass rush what little juice they had with T.J. Watt sidelined seven games with an injury.
But Fitzpatrick was just a flat-out stud all year, and there’s a very good argument to make the Steelers don’t win nine games without Fitzpatrick in the lineup.
From his pick-six to blocked XP in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals that kept the Steelers alive in a game they somehow ended up winning, to his interceptions in the final minute against the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, Fitzpatrick was clutch.
He was a ball-hawk too, as his six interceptions tied for the league lead and helped him earn 1st Team All-Pro honors for the third time in his career. He also tied his career-high with 11 pass deflections. He was the captain of the secondary and the most valuable part of this defense. Without him, the Steelers aren’t fighting for the playoffs up until the final minutes of the season.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: QB KENNY PICKETT
I really wanted to go with undrafted running back Jaylen Warren here, but I gotta give it to the guy running the offense. Pickett didn’t put up gaudy numbers, but like the rest of the team, he was much, much better after the bye week.
After throwing eight interceptions prior to Week 9, Pickett’s ball security went from his biggest weakness to one of his greatest strengths. He threw just one interception in 224 attempts after the bye, while adding 1,442 yards and five touchdowns to go along with a 7-2 record.
He played winning football down the stretch, leading game-winning drives in must-win contests in Week 16 and Week 17, with the one in Week 17 featuring some of his best throws of the season.
After a shaky start, Pickett rewarded the Steelers’ faith in selecting him 20th overall. While he’s still got a long road ahead of him, he showed the signs that he can be this team’s starting quarterback for a long time.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: CB CAMERON SUTTON
I did not have Sutton morphing into one of the top outside cornerbacks in the league on my bingo card heading into the season. I thought Sutton was at best going to be the second-best cornerback in Pittsburgh, with the team also featuring Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon.
But instead, it was Sutton who became the Steelers’ top corner, setting career-highs in interceptions and pass deflections, while allowing just a 67.1 passing rating when targeted. It was by far the best season of his career, and he was the Steelers’ best cornerback week in and week out.
His play this year was key in helping the team finish the year strong and preventing big plays down the stretch. He needs to be priority number one for the Steelers in free agency this summer as they’ll attempt to lock him up long-term.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: K CHRIS BOSWELL
After signing an extension to make him one of the highest-paid kickers in the NFL, Boswell had one of the worst seasons of his career. It started with a miss in Week 1, and Boswell went just 20-28 while also missing time with a groin injury.
While you can’t ding a player for getting hurt, Boswell just wasn’t all that good when he was on the field. He missed a lot of kicks you’d expect him to make, and his 71.4% field goal percentage was the second-lowest of his career beyond his disastrous 13-20 (65%) season in 2018.
Boswell rebounded nicely from that campaign, and I have faith he’ll rebound from a tough showing this year. Still, relative to expectations, Boswell was definitely a letdown this year.
MOST UNDERRATED: RB JAYLEN WARREN
All offseason, one of the biggest storylines was Pittsburgh’s inability to find an RB2 behind Najee Harris after he led the league in touches as a rookie. The Steelers brought in two undrafted free agents in Warren and Mateao Durant. They also signed Jeremy McNichols in training camp, but he was quickly lost for the season.
Warren stood above the rest of the group competing for the backup job in training camp and not only was he able to crack the 53-man roster, but he was able to significantly contribute. HE took over as the team’s third-down back in Week 5, and his pass blocking is the reason why I’m putting him as underrated.
Warren showed everyone what he can do with the ball in his hands, totaling 593 all-purpose yards on 105 touches, but his pass blocking was incredibly impressive and fun to watch. Standing at 5’8, Warren has that dog in him and was willing and able to lay a hit on any and all oncoming pass rushers.
It started in Week 1 and continued throughout the season. Even if Warren wasn’t as productive as he was with the ball in his hands, his ability to block would earn him a role on an NFL roster for a bit. The fact he was productive in all facets of the game is a huge boon for the Steelers. What an amazing find as a UDFA, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the running back.
PLAY OF THE YEAR: KENNY PICKETT’S GAME-WINNER TO GEORGE PICKENS IN WEEK 16
If there was ever a must-win game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was Week 16 against the Las Vegas Raiders. On Christmas Eve, the day after the 50th anniversary of The Immaculate Reception, a game where Franco Harris got his number posthumously retired after unexpectedly passing away earlier that week, the Steelers also needed to win to stay alive in the playoff hunt.
With 49 seconds left, Pittsburgh’s rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett hit rookie-second round pick George Pickens in the end zone to give the Steelers a lead late in the game. Cameron Sutton eventually sealed the win with an interception, but it was Pickett’s poise late in a game that Pittsburgh absolutely had to win that put them ahead.
On a bitter cold Christmas Eve night, the Steelers were able to keep their season alive and honor Franco Harris on what was supposed to be a night all about him. While it wasn’t the flashiest play of the season, it’s the one that might be the most remembered when looking back on 2022.
COACH OF THE YEAR: RBs COACH EDDIE FAULKNER
Gave some serious consideration to Pat Meyer here, but ultimately decided to go with Faulkner. Not only did Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have really nice seasons and get a lot better as the year went on, but I want to take you back to Week 12 on November 28.
The Steelers were 3-7 and playing the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football. A loss pretty much would’ve put their season to bed, and things didn’t look too hot when Harris exited the game in the first half with an injury in a game Warren was already ruled out of. Instead, it was running back Benny Snell Jr., getting his first snaps of the season who led the charge with 12 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown. Anthony McFarland Jr. chipped in with six carries for 30 yards as well. Two guys who didn’t get a snap all year came up huge for the Steelers in what was pretty much a must-win game, and that credit goes to Faulkner for getting them ready to play.
Throughout the year, especially down the stretch, the running back room was a strength for the Steelers. But for two guys who had zero role on offense prior to Week 12 to help lead the Steelers to a win gives Faulkner just enough of a leg up to surpass Meyer for my vote for Coach of the Year.
2023 PLAYER TO WATCH: TE PAT FREIERMUTH
Freiermuth took a big leap when it came to yards per reception in his second year in the league. While he had just three more receptions (63 vs. 60) in year two compared to his rookie year, he had 732 yards this year compared to 497 his rookie year. The boost in yards per reception (11.6, up from 8.3) is significant when you consider that the Steelers under Kenny Pickett didn’t really throw the ball downfield much.
If Pickett gets more comfortable throwing downfield in year two (which he really should be) and the training wheels start to come off a bit, Freiermuth could showcase himself as a vertical threat at tight end and put himself among the league’s best. He already had the sixth-most receiving yards as a tight end this year, and if the offense expands and throws the ball downfield more, Freiermuth’s numbers are only going to increase.
While he only had two touchdowns this year, he was a red zone threat as a rookie with seven scores and that’s a facet of his game the Steelers could utilize more going forward. 2023 will be an important year for Freiermuth to see if he can separate himself and put himself in the upper echelon of tight ends in the NFL.
BEST ADDITION: C MASON COLE
James Daniels was the anchor of the offensive line and I considered him for this spot. But given what an absolute black hole center was in 2021 with Kendrick Green, I’m giving Cole the award. It really wouldn’t have taken much to improve off what Green gave the Steelers in 2020, but Cole came in and immediately solidified the position.
Early on when the rest of the line had their struggles adapting to Pat Meyer’s scheme, Cole was solid. That’s the word to sum up his 2022 season. He was solid. He didn’t blow you away, and he wasn’t perfect. But he showed that he was a good starting center, and watching him control the center of the line after a season watching Green get blown back at the point of attack was refreshing to watch.
He finished 10th in pass block win rate among centers, and hopefully, Cole can be the starting center for this team for a long time.
MOST MISSED: WR JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
It was good to see Smith-Schuster put up numbers in Kansas City (78 receptions, 933 yards, three touchdowns) he almost assuredly wouldn’t have in Pittsburgh this year just due to the differences in the two offenses. But the Steelers, who used Smith-Schuster as a big slot towards the end of his tenure, tried the same with Chase Claypool to limited production before trading him to Chicago.
After the Claypool trade, the Steelers got very little production from Steven Sims and Gunner Olszewski in the slot, and if Smith-Schuster was still in town, the slot position would’ve been a strength instead of a weakness. He could’ve elevated Pittsburgh’s passing attack and given Pickett another reliable threat.
Slot receiver is a position the Steelers will likely address this offseason, and the return of wide receiver Calvin Austin III from injury should help as well. But it certainly would’ve been nice to have Smith-Schuster on the roster this year.