The Pittsburgh Steelers went 8-8 during the 2019 season and it is probably the most impressive 8-8 record I’ve ever seen, I’m not kidding. This team was crippled by the quarterback play of Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph. The defense dragged this team to eight wins by forcing turnovers and scoring points. It was seriously impressive and if this defense can do the same for Ben Roethlisberger, I see no reason why this team can’t return the playoffs.
Make sure to check out all of our other team award predictions here.
MVP: T.J. Watt
The young Watt has notched 27.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles over the last two seasons. Yes, 14 forced fumbles in just two seasons. That doesn’t just come as some fluke stat, it’s something Watt identifies when he’s chasing down opposing quarterbacks and ball carriers in the open field. At the age of 25, Watt still isn’t quite into his prime. He’s already collected two Pro Bowl appearances and an All-Pro accolade. As he continues to gain experience as a pro, I would expect him to continue posting gaudy numbers, especially next to Cameron Heyward, Chris Wormley, and Stephon Tuitt. When you’re forcing a fumble every two games and taking quarterbacks down over 27 times in two seasons, I think you’re in consideration for that MVP title.
Offensive Player: James Conner
With Big Ben aging and failing to stay healthy, I expect the Steelers to ride the defense and running game. Although they did add a change-of-pace back in Anthony McFarland, I don’t see anyone threatening Conner’s carries. Jaylen Samuel’s posted some putrid efficiency numbers and Benny Snell Jr. didn’t look like he was ready to steal Conner’s job. I love Conner’s enthusiasm and leadership he has displayed this offseason. He continues to reshape his body and in regards to the running game, he takes it personally when people think the Steelers won’t be able to get that going. In a contract year, my money is on Conner netting 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. If he can manage that, this defense should win enough games to put them into the playoffs.
Defensive Player: Devin Bush Jr.
For some reason, Bush is quietly a second-year breakout candidate. Sure, he had a really good rookie season but I think he can do way more in 2020. In Pittsburgh, they notoriously put their linebackers in strenuous situations. With that in consideration, he did really well in his rookie season but just wait until he gets a second-year in that system under his belt. With time, his coverage ability will improve because the talent and natural movement skills are there. Once he really taps into the playmaking skills, I think we are looking at a perennial pro bowler, the way most of us evaluating him coming out of Michigan.
Incredible interception by Devin Bush. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/wmlhKKlymV
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) October 6, 2019
Offensive Rookie: Anthony McFarland Jr.
Samuels is on the hot seat in Pittsburgh after posting poor efficiency numbers in 2019. He had every chance to potentially steal the job from Conner and he just couldn’t do it. With the addition of McFarland, all signs point to Samuels to moving on, and that’s good news for McFarland.
McFarland is in a good spot here and he could potentially be the best pure ball carrier out of all the running backs on the team. In college, I thought he was a good inside and outside zone runner; reminding me of Alvin Kamara. He may not be the explosive athlete Kamara is but he can certainly glide well into the 4.4 range. Even though he only caught 24 balls in collegiate career, nothing about his tape says he can’t catch passes out of the backfield. I think he will be the primary change-of-pace back in Pittsburgh and I can see a handful of explosive plays coming to the Steel City.
Anthony McFarland broke a huge TD run against Ohio State.
Five minutes later, he did it again. pic.twitter.com/cU8eVYGvAB
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 17, 2018
Defensive Rookie: Alex Highsmith
Highsmith is what you call a performer and that’s what got him the call in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft. He put up 40 sacks over his last two seasons in Charlotte for the 49ers. He’s got a really good motor and some twitch off the edge, allowing him to win from snap to finish. He landed in a good spot in Pittsburgh. He’s playing on a good defense and will have both Watt and Bud Dupree ahead of him, allowing him to learn first. With that being said, he will likely be the third man in the rotation and he will be asked to play early. As Watt and Dupree wear down opposing tackles, I think Highsmith can play sparingly and obtain 6-8 sacks. That’s good enough for me.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, Alex Highsmith❗️
Explosive pass rusher! #Steelers #NFLDraft
— Across The Bridge (@ATBPGH) April 25, 2020
Biggest Surprise: James Washington
I loved Washington coming out of Oklahoma State and compared him to guys like Chris Chambers and Pierre Garcon. Let’s not give up on him yet. I know a lot of fans like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool but let’s pump the brakes. Washington posted a 44/735/3 slash line with 16.7 yards per catch, they’re also using him as a deep threat and posted the fourth-highest aDOT in the NFL (15.9). Did I mention that he did this with horrible quarterback play? The quarterback play killed his efficiency numbers but some of the ancillary starts are appealing. Regardless of what you think Big Ben has left in the tank, he will be an upgrade for Washington.
Absurdly good TD grab by James Washington. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/3bAMmS9AlY
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) December 1, 2019
Biggest Disappointment: Chase Claypool
I guess I’m biased because I liked Johnson and Washington but didn’t like Claypool coming out of college. Claypool tested well, and that’s fine, but we use testing as another way to confirm what you saw on tape. I do not see that elite athleticism on tape when I’m watching Claypool. He is a guy that doesn’t use his catch radius and has to body catch most of his targets. I don’t think he can separate and I certainly don’t think he can separate at the next level. He also doesn’t threaten after the catch unless he’s running through smaller defensive backs.
I think Claypool moves into an Evan Engram role at some point in the future. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t see him pushing Washington for a starting spot, and it wouldn’t be wise to have him in there competing with Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster for targets. In year one, Claypool is my disappointment.
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