In the wake of the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers draft, several draft “experts” have come out and criticized the drafting of RB Najee Harris given the need at offensive line. These experts use “advanced analytics” to support their stance, but it does not take in all the information. The majority of the top running backs who have made a significant impact to their teams did not make it to pick #55 of the 2nd round and the running backs that made significant impacts/started immediately with their teams in their rookie season were taken in the top 40-45 picks.
Per the benefit of the Steeler Nation Draft Show, there were insights provided by both former and current Steelers players alike that took a different view of the “experts” opinion. One thing that the “experts” seem to forget is the difficulty that goes along with starting as a rookie on the offensive line, seemingly assuming that whoever would be drafted would immediately start.
Former 1st round pick and 2x Super Bowl Champion guard Kendall Simmons shared just how difficult it was to start as a rookie: “It was extremely hard” and “I got blessed with having Jeff Hartings right there. Jeff told me a lot of things and he would tell me ‘hey, I know what you got on this play’ and I could just go.”
Simmons, who is now an assistant coach at Auburn, made some very astute observations based on his experience as a player and now being on the coaching and recruiting side.
On drafting a tight end in the second round: TE Pat Freiermuth can give the Steelers in essence an “extension of the offensive line” in much the same way that Heath Miller and Mark Bruener was during their time. Although many of the highlights of Freiermuth featured him catching the ball, but Simmons pointed out that finding that “big guy that can block” and “who actually wants to block” is rare based on a lot of players who play spread formations in college. If he can scratch the surface of being like Miller or Bruener as a 6th offensive lineman on the field, the Steelers have found a guy that can may be able to make a major impact in 2021.
Given the Steelers history at drafting at the TE position, it’s not unreasonable to expect Freiermuth to see significant time as a rookie, even if primarily only as a blocking TE.
He liked the of 3rd round pick G/C Kendrick Green out of Illinois based on the relationship between Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith (who was head coach of Illinois 2016-2020), so there is additional insight on the type of player that Green is, especially with his flexibility and playing multiple positions.
Simmons acknowledged how difficult playing center in the NFL is while it is unlikely that Green was going to come in and start right away, referencing his own experience. However, knowing that B.J. Finney is likely to be the starter, he will be able to learn from a guy who eventually he will end up replacing.
History is with Simmons’ insight. Heath Miller and Mark Bruener were late 1st round picks that were immediate starters and had a huge impact on the rushing game with their blocking, probably more than their receiving. When the Steelers have went high with drafting a running back, they were on the field quickly:
- 2008 #1 pick Rashard Mendenhall suffered an injury that put him on IR after his 1st start (Week 4) in 2008 and the Steelers had Willie Parker coming off a 1,300 yard season in 2007. Mendenhall overtook the starting role for Parker in Week 4 of 2009 permanently after being being benched in an embarrassing fashion (he lost his playbook) in Week 3. He responded strongly – 29 carries for 165 yards and 2 TDs in a 38-28 win.
- 2013 #2 pick Le’Veon Bell was inactive for the the first 3 games of 2013, with his first start in Week 4 vs. the Minnesota Vikings in Wembley Stadium. Bell rushed for 57 yards and 2 TDs in a game the Steelers dominated in all ways but the scoreboard. However he would continue to improve and was an integral part of the team’s 8-4 finish that saw them miss the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.
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