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Winning the Fight of Their Lives
For a draft class to succeed the picks have to be a good fit
Draft choices are a lot like suits because even the best material ultimately will be displeasing if the fit isn't right. When it comes to NFL wide receivers it has become wise to view them as offensive linemen because while individual talent is important, it's' how those individuals complement each other to form a unit that can make the offense special. The decision to spend their second-round pick (49th overall) on Chase Claypool was a move by the Steelers to add a complementary piece to the young receivers already on the roster, with the idea of providing Ben Roethlisberger with a more complete set of weapons. It would be easy to look at JuJu Smith-Schuster (24 years old in late November), James Washington (turned 24 in early April), and Diontae Johnson (24 in early July) and make the case the Steelers didn't need to add another young player at that position. But offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner doesn't view the receivers through the prism of age. "You know, naturally as a coach, you get excited about the opportunity that maybe (Claypool) has to be defended deep," said Fichtner. "And now guys like JuJu, Diontae, and James, they work in the intermediate, and all of a sudden, it just seems to open things up a little bit clean- er. Everyone needs those levels to be able to attack, and I think the speed alone puts him into that conversation." One way of viewing this pick is to see that the Steelers used it to replace what they most recently had in Martavis Bryant. "Chase is a 6-4, 230-pound receiver who can get deep, and quite honestly we didn't have that threat last year," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "We didn't have that tall receiver who can just out-run coverage ... That was very attractive to us."
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER ALEX HIGHSMITH
There are two things about Steelers' 3-4 outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree that are true: They make up the NFL's best tandem, and they need the occasional play(s) off to re-charge their motors. And when a tandem combines for 26 sacks, 53 hits on the quarterback, two interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries it's a small price to pay to have a third outside linebacker capable enough to provide that breather. Before the draft, the depth at outside linebacker consisted of Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper, and while those players have generated preseason excitement, neither has a regular season resume. Alex Highsmith was drafted to address that reality. "It is obvious (Highsmith) is a technician. He studies the rush element of play," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He took a significant step in 2019 in terms of developing his rush repertoire."
ANTHONY McFARLAND JR.
Tomlin believes in the concept of a feature back. Since being hired in 2007, it was Willie Parker, then Rashard Mendenhall, then Le'Veon Bell, and now James Conner. The feature back gets the playing time and the touches that come with it. But in the interest of adding offensive weapons this offseason, the Steelers took a stab at adding a complementary piece. "With Anthony McFarland Jr., we were able to add a running back who gives us a little changeup characteristic that's different than the guys we have," said Colbert. "He has really good vision, one-step cut quickness, and very good finish speed." In a 52-51 loss to Ohio State in 2018, McFarland had 298 yards, plus touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards while averaging 14.2 yards per carry. During his two seasons with the Terrapins, he had touchdown runs 81, 80, and 75 yards.
"The Pittsburgh Steelers love to run the football. But it's the way they love to run the football ... they use those tackles and tight ends and they pull," said former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. "What that does for running backs is, if they just get a crease ... If Anthony McFarland gets a crease, he's gone."
Russ Grimm was a member of The Hogs. and he has three super bowl rings and a Hall of Fame jacket as a result. Grimm also enjoyed a long career as an offensive line coach in the NFL, and this is what he used to tell people about being successful as an offensive lineman: "Playing offensive line is about moving a guy from Point-A to Point-B against his will." Kevin Dotson has that ability, and after the 2019 season he was voted first-team AllAmerica by the Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and Pro Football Focus.
"Whal really shows up on his tape is that he's a people-mover, and I really like that," said offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett. "He's the type of guy who when you think about the old-school stuff of offensive linemen just running through guys, that really flashes on his tape."
ANTOINE BROOKS JR.
Maybe this is the guy who ends up providing options/depth at the inside linebacker position alongside Devin Bush. Or maybe this is the guy who ends up taking the place of the guy who ends up providing options/depth at the inside linebacker position alongside Devin Bush. Antoine Brooks is versatile, and he is willing. But until the Steelers get him on the field during training camp and the preseason, Brooks' role will remain undefined.
"I don't know what we'll do. We'll get him in, shake them up and we'll see where they fit best for us moving forward," said senior defensive assistant Secondary coach Teryl Austin. "If Brooks is better playing back, we know Terrell Edmunds can play down in the box and can cover tight ends. If (Brooks) does that better, then we'll move him down there and let Edmunds stay back or move around. We'll have to figure all that out once we get everybody together, and I think that's our job as coaches. We know the guy's a good football player, and then we figure out in what positions they'll help us win games."
It's not entirely accurate to portray Carlos Davis as a nose tackle, nor is it necessarily fair to expect him to provide what Javon Hargrave did. "A traditional 3-4 nose tackle, I don't want to say it's dying, but it's less and less of base defense," said Colbert. "So, Carlos at 300-plus, could he play inside at nose? Sure. He can play as a rush defensive tackle like Javon did on the inside. In the base defense, I'm sure he will line up at the nose, and then in the sub-packages he'll be an inside rusher. Again, when you're running 4.79 at his size ... he's very athletic." What the Steelers will expect from Davis right away will be to provide competition to the bottom of the depth chart. specifically second-year pro Isaiah Buggs and veteran Dan McCullers. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt provide the star power, Tyson Alualu is reliable and versatile, and Chris Wormley has NFL starting experience as a nose tackle and defensive end in Baltimore. But there's another spot available, and the Steelers have no intention of simply handing it over. Not on the defensive line. Or at any other position, either.