Pittsburgh started off the 2020 season with an 11-0 record, but then went 1-4 down the stretch and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Injuries on defense and the decline in play from Ben Roethlisberger were the keys to their struggles. Their biggest decline over this span was offensively. They averaged 28.8 points per game in Weeks 1-11; from Week 12 on, they averaged 22.7. Injuries on defense hurt them in terms of turnovers — they had 4 forced turnovers over their last six games compared to 23 forced turnovers through their first 11 games of the season.
Some quick history, the following are the Steelers’ last five years’ worth of first-round draft picks:
- 2020: none
- 2019: Devin Bush (LB)
- 2018: Terrell Edmunds (S)
- 2017: T.J. Watt (EDGE)
- 2016: Artie Burns (CB)
The Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive player in the first round since 2012, when they drafted offensive lineman David DeCastro. Their last skill position offensive player drafted in the first round was running back Rashard Mendenhall in 2008.
The following players mentioned below are players who could possibly be on the move, either through trade or being cut, due to their 2021 cap hit. Their age is in parentheses:
- Joe Haden (31)
- David DeCastro (31)
- Ben Roethlisberger (38)
- Eric Ebron (27)
- Vince Williams (31)
The Steelers currently have $29.84 million in cap space without making any of the suggested cuts above.
Unless they re-sign some players, the Steelers are projected to lose three offensive tackles, one of them being starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, to free agency. Running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are also impending free agents. Pittsburgh’s struggles and possible free-agent losses makes them a perfect destination for an offensive player in the first round.
Possibility #1: Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood
41 career starts
Why: The Steelers currently have three offensive tackles set to hit free agency at the start of the offseason. Protecting Roethlisberger will be one of their priorities as he turns 39 before the start of next season.
With his experience as a starter for Alabama, Leatherwood could slide in as the Steelers’ starting left tackle on day one. He has experience across the line, playing guard as well during his time at Alabama. Leatherwood has ideal size/length/frame for an NFL caliber offensive tackle. He was prone to getting beat with speed while at Alabama, but despite that still was trusted to protect Tua Tagovailoa and the blind side of Mac Jones. He’s a multi-position lineman who brings instant value to the Steelers wherever he plays.
Possibility #2: South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn
2020 stat line: 7 games, 16 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 INTs, 6 PDs
Why: Currently, Pittsburgh has Mike Hilton as an impending free agent. Joe Haden is also a possible cut/trade candidate because of the cap space it could free up for the Steelers. If one of those things happens, cornerback would make sense for the Steelers at the end of the first round.
Horn is a lengthy six-foot cornerback. Towards the end of the season, Pittsburgh struggled finding ways to force tiurnovers. Horn would be able to slide into a starting role, preferably outside, for the Steelers defense. His length, athleticism and improving ball skills make him an intriguing prospect for an already excellent defense. He’s not afraid to be physical in coverage, something that will help him in press coverage.
Possibility #3: North Dakota State OT Dillon Radunz
32 career starts
Why: With Villanueva and some of their depth offensive linemen hitting free agency this offseason, an offensive tackle would fill an instant need for the Steelers. Radunz is a late riser. After having the North Dakota State football season being reduced to just one game, Radunz was forgotten by some until the Senior Bowl.
Radunz shined at the Senior Bowl, earning the overall practice player of the week award, Radunz’s stock is starting to gain traction as the draft draws closer. Radunz showed good technique and athleticism in Mobile. His lean and athletic build leaves room for him to gain weight at the NFL level. His outstanding size and great length only add to his draft stock. Radunz would fill a huge need for the Steelers pending 2021 free agency.
Possibility #4: Alabama RB Najee Harris
2020 stat line: 13 games, 1,466 yards, 5.8 ypc, 26 TDs, 425 receiving yards, 4 TDs
Why: From Week 7 on in their 2020 season, Pittsburgh had just one 100-yard team rushing game. As a team, they eclipsed 100 rushing yards just once over that span. With James Conner set to become a free agent, Benny Snell would slide in as their RB1. Harris would be an immediate upgrade over Snell.
Harris was phenomenal in 2020 for Alabama to say the least. He had 30 total touchdowns and proved to be a true threat as a runner and more importantly as a receiver out of the backfield. He is a power back with surprising athleticism for a player of his size. His one knock is his speed, he won’t win every footrace, but his other abilities make up for his lack of speed.
Player to Watch: North Dakota State QB Trey Lance
2019 stat line: 2,786 pass yards, 28 TDs, 0 INTs, 1,100 rush yards, 14 TDs
Why: Roethlisberger will be 39 in 2021. His play continued to worsen as the season went on for the Steelers and was one of the reasons their 11-0 season stalled. Looking for the heir to Roethlisberger needs to start, and recently signed Dwayne Haskins is certainly not a guarantee to progress into a starting caliber QB.
Entering the 2020 season, Trey Lance was considered one of the top three QBs for the 2021 draft. After his team played just one game in 2020 due to COVID, he has been moved down draft boards. Lance is a dual threat QB who can beat teams with both his arm and legs. An exceptional runner paired with his potential as a passer, he wouild be an ideal prospect to sit on the bench for a year to learn from Roethlisberger, before eventually taking over as their starter. Whether or not he is available with the 24th pick is another topic.
Sources: Football Reference, Spotrac