April 14, 2021

How the 11-0 Steelers built a winner through the NFL draft

How the 11-0 Steelers built a winner through the NFL draft

Forty-eight picks were made in the 2020 NFL draft before the Pittsburgh Steelers made a selection, but they were already playing from ahead at that point.

Last September, the Steelers swung a trade for disgruntled Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, plus a 2020 fourth-rounder, for Pittsburgh’s first- and fifth-round selections in the 2020 draft. (The team also will swap Pittsburgh’s sixth-rounder next year for Miami’s seventh-rounder in 2021 as part of the deal.)

Even though Ben Roethlisberger missed all but one game last season, the Fitzpatrick deal was a rousing success from the get-go. He spearheaded a defense that ranked in the top 10 in nearly every major category a year ago, including second in interception rate.

In 14 games with Pittsburgh last season, Fitzpatrick intercepted five passes (running one back for a 96-yard touchdown), recovered two fumbles (running one back for a 43-yard score) and forced one more fumble. Both of his touchdowns broke a tie or took the lead in eventual Steelers victories.

And Fitzpatrick, after a slow start to 2020, has been gangbusters again. In his past seven games, he has four interceptions (including a 33-yard pick-six in a blowout of the Browns, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and eight passes defended — two of those coming in Wednesday’s 19-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

It wasn’t by any means a pretty victory, but it’s the kind of close, hard-fought win that has become the hallmark of the 11-0 Steelers. And though Fitzpatrick can only be considered an honorary member of the 2020 Steelers draft class, that group has helped make this team a Super Bowl contender. Draft picks are assets, and it’s clear the Steelers received incredible value for the former No. 11 overall pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool has been a huge rookie contributor for the 11-0 team. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Their first actual 2020 selection, wide receiver Chase Claypool, might have been the 11th wide receiver selected in the draft. But he’s second among all rookies in touchdowns with 10 (eight receiving, two rushing), ranks fourth among rookies in receptions (45), fourth in receiving yards (611) and first in TD grabs.

For a player who didn’t truly emerge as Notre Dame’s go-to receiver until the second half of last season and was viewed by some armchair scouts as a project type of talent perhaps requiring a move to tight end, it has been a stunning Year 1 breakout. He’s caught a pass in every game, despite starting only two this season, and ranks third on the team in targets.

Even in his least-productive games, such as on Wednesday, Claypool has found ways to deliver. Although he failed to haul in two early passes in the delayed win over Baltimore, including one drop inside the Ravens’ 5-yard line, Claypool finished the game with six catches for 52 yards and drew a long pass-interference flag.

The 2020 draft pick now thrust into the spotlight

Following the game, it became clear that the Steelers will need another rookie to step up in a big way. Following a torn ACL suffered by Bud Dupree, the Steelers now will look to rookie Alex Highsmith to step up into his role.

Highsmith was the Steelers’ compensatory third-round selection (No. 102 overall), which they received in part for the loss of free agent Le’Veon Bell. And Highsmith has impressed in limited duty after playing out of position last season for the Charlotte 49ers.

In college, he was playing mostly as a “4i” interior defender, lined up on the inside shoulder of the opposing offensive tackle, or in what’s known as the “B gap.” For the Steelers, however, Highsmith has lined up more as an outside rusher, sometimes playing on his feet as the third stand-up rusher in Pittsburgh’s odd front behind starters T.J. Watt and Dupree. Highsmith also has been a core member of the Steelers’ special-teams units.

Now he’s likely to be Dupree’s replacement. Although Highsmith has only 20 tackles and one sack in 11 games, it’s not reflective of how well he’s played. He also has four tackles for loss, plus an interception — he’s surprisingly nimble in coverage — in the first Ravens game that helped Pittsburgh overcome a 10-point, second-half deficit.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith must step up into a big void down the stretch of his rookie season. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith must step up into a big void down the stretch of his rookie season. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The rest of the six-man draft class is looking very respectable as well.

Fourth-round offensive guard Kevin Dotson has started two games and was a strong mid-game injury fill-in for Pro Bowler David DeCastro against the Eagles. All signs point to Dotson being pegged as a future starter, and he’ll be a key replacement now that he’s off the COVID-19 list.

Running back Anthony McFarland Jr., selected nine picks before Dotson, has had a limited impact since a six-rush, 42-yard opener. But he caught a 17-yard pass on Wednesday that helped set up a second-quarter field goal. Pittsburgh’s running back depth being what it is, we still could see him as a key factor down the stretch.

Sixth-round safety Antoine Brooks Jr. was cut, signed to the practice squad but then elevated to the active roster. He’s seen some playing time in recent games alongside undrafted rookie James Pierre, who has been a core special-teamer most of the season. Seventh-round defensive tackle Carlos Davis has seen time as a reserve in each of the past four games.

How Kevin Colbert rediscovered his draft mojo

The Steelers built a dynasty in the 1970s with a string of some of the best classes in NFL draft history.

In fact, there might not have been an NFL franchise that added more talent in a six-year span as the Steelers did from 1969 to 1974, incredibly drafting the likes of Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, John Stallworth, Jack Ham, Mike Webster, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Mike Wagner in that span.

The Steelers’ drafts the past two decades under GM Kevin Colbert haven’t been quite as prolific. Undoubtedly, there were some lean draft years in Pittsburgh in the 2010s, especially in the uneven classes of 2015 and 2016.

But Colbert has rediscovered some of his talent-evaluation magic from the early 2000s, when he helped build a two-time Super Bowl champion roster, in recent years. And almost never has Colbert and his staff not drafted at least one impact starter in his more than 20 years at the helm.

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has rediscovered his talent-evaluation touch in recent NFL drafts. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has rediscovered his talent-evaluation touch in recent NFL drafts. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

The 2017 class (T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton, James Conner) has been the gold standard. But the respectable 2018 and 2019 groups also each netted multiple starters and key backups. The 2019 trade up for linebacker Devin Bush rates as a big hit, even though he’s now out for the season along with Dupree, another homegrown pick.

Years ago, I asked now-retired general manager Ernie Accorsi what in his mind constituted a successful draft class. Without hesitation, he said: “Two starters, plus two other contributors.”

When we view the Steelers’ past four classes through that prism, they’re an unquestioned success in the drafting department.

And already, the 2020 class is making its indelible mark, too.

Fitpatrick’s impact must be factored into this group. Claypool looks like the next great Steelers WR draft pick. Highsmith will play a crucial role in the team’s playoff run and could be Dupree’s replacement if he walks in free agency in the spring.

And the fact that the other four picks are on still the roster is nothing to sneeze at, with Dotson especially looking like a pick that will age well. This is what great team building looks like.

Why are the Steelers 11-0? This high rate of draft-pick success is a pretty good answer to that question.

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