Steelers draft class has promise, but some things have to happen

By Joe Smeltzer

Mel Kiper says the Steelers’ 2021 draft class was mediocre.

Tom in Bethel Park says it was great. Tom’s best friend, Ted, says it stunk, and the two have been arguing about it over cold suds for the past week.

As a team with many areas of need, it would have been impossible for Pittsburgh to address all of them in last week’s draft, and therefore, impossible for the fanbase to reach a consensus on how well Kevin Colbert and company did their jobs.

The debates are plentiful.

Was it responsible to take a running back in the first round?

Was it wise to take a tight end before an offensive lineman?

Whas it clever to take Illinois’ Kendrick Green with the first offensive line pick, presumably as Maurkice Pouncey’s long-term replacement at center, when he only played four games at the position in college and Quinn Meinerz, a more traditional center out of Wisconsin-Whitewater, was available?

From where we sit, there are no right or wrong answers, and it won’t be clear how good, bad or lukewarm the Steelers’ 2021 draft class will be for a while.

If these rookies are put in the right position to succeed, they could help the Steelers get back to the postseason in 2021.

For that to happen, the coaching staff needs to push the right buttons, something it oftentimes failed to do in 2020.

This space will be dedicated to the offense since that’s what the team used its first four picks to address. Boy did the Steelers’ offense need to be addressed.

Najee Harris is a Steeler because the running game was among the worst in the NFL last season. Said running game suffered largely because of a subpar offensive line, which the Steelers tried to improve with consecutive picks in the third and fourth round, taking Green in the third and Texas A&M tackle Dan Moore Jr. in the fourth. The Steelers didn’t have much production behind Eric Ebron at tight end in 2020 (and even he was spotty at times), so they took Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the second round.

The hope is that Harris will be a superstar, that Freiermuth will provide what’s been missing since Heath Miller retired five years ago, that Green will follow in the lineage of elite Steelers interior linemen and that Moore will be a hidden gem the same way last year’s fourth-round pick Kevin Dotson appears to be.

Without any important free agent signings, the offense will probably need immediate contributions from its rookies for there to be a significant improvement.

It will definitely need cooperation and common sense from its decision-makers.

Every soul in Pittsburgh should be happy that Randy Fichtner is no longer the offensive coordinator. But some of the overly positive residents think that because Fichtner is gone, Ben Roethlisberger will discover the Fountain of Youth and offense will suddenly turn into Air Coryell 2021. It’s not going to be that simple, and Fichtner’s replacement, Matt Canada, has a lot to prove.

Canada has developed a reputation over the last decade-plus as an innovative, well-respected, creative mind… in college football. Canada’s only NFL experience comes as Roethlisberger’s quarterback coach last season, and are we sure that the grizzled gunslinger and rookie play-caller will work in harmony?

If this is indeed Ben’s last ride, he’s going to want to go out on his terms. How much will he listen to a guy who has 5x more experience coaching at Northern Illinois than he has in the NFL?

Ben’s ego is what led to the Fichtner nightmare being possible. That’s not a shot. Quarterbacks, especially future Hall of Famers, have great influence in who coaches them. But since Roethlisberger’s familiarity and comfortability with “Coach Randy” did nothing to help the team, it’s up to Canada to show some assertiveness. Canada has the potential to bring a lot of unique concepts to the Steelers’ operation, but the quarterback must be on board. If this is the only season Roethlisberger and Canada have together, here’s hoping the two can get along, and that Canada can command enough respect. The better the QB/OC relationship is, the better each can do their job, and the better the rookies around Roethlisberger will be able to perform.

Going beyond Canada, the Steelers’ coaching staff needs to put their young players in a position to showcase their upside. Kevin Dotson was one of the few bright spots down the stretch in 2020, and that’s an encouraging thought in 2021. We must remember, however, that he was benched for Matt Feiler in the Steelers’ lone playoff game. The coaching staff needs to push seniority aside and play the best available players. I’m confident that Harris and Freiermuth will see significant playing time right away. I’m fearful that Green and Moore Jr. will be pushed aside for veterans.

If Green and Moore are good enough to start, but don’t, that could affect Harris, as the running game needs to have the best possible offensive line in front of it.

Like all draft classes, there’s plenty of reason for both optimism and concern. If the Steelers are to make the playoffs in 2021, they’ll likely need key contributions from their rookie class. For those contributions to happen, those rookies need to be set up for success. If the Steelers’ offensive scheme remains stale and the coaches remain overly loyal to older players, that will set them up for failure instead.

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