They are two of the critical elements of winning football at the professional level, and coming off the 2019 season the Steelers knew they had to take steps to improve one element and maintain the other. After sitting out Thursday's first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, they used their two picks on Friday's second day to address those things.
Last season, the Steelers got close to making the playoffs but ultimately fell short, and if one particular failure was to be assigned culpability for that it would be finishing tied-for-last in the NFL in scoring offensive touchdowns. While there were 15 teams that scored 40-or-more offensive touchdowns over the course of the 2019 regular season, the Steelers and the New York Jets were at the bottom of the pile with 25 each. That had to change, and change significantly.
On the other side, the Steelers either had led the league or tied for the league lead in sacks in each of the previous three seasons, but when the team had to cut Anthony Chickillo earlier this offseason to get into compliance with the salary cap, the defense found itself precariously thin at the key pass-rushing position of outside linebacker. And while Bud Dupree's services had been secured for 2020 through the application of the franchise tag, there is a real danger of being unable to keep him beyond the 2020 season.
To help their offense, they used their first pick in this draft, the 49th overall, on Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool. There are two things about Claypool that indicate he could be someone to help increase the number of offensive touchdowns in 2020, and those are his size/speed ratio, and the fact he averaged a touchdown per game in 2019.
"We never go into (a draft) looking for a position," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "We have ideas where strengths of the draft class are, we have ideas where our wants are. And if they match up at a certain point, great. In the case of a wide receiver, we were excited that particular player was available to us. Not that position. Chase Claypool the player was available to us for all the reasons we stated. He's big, he's fast, he's strong, he's physical. He can make a contested catch. Again, when a player like him is available, it was easy. We didn't go in looking for any particular position."
The Steelers always are looking for guys they would describe as "football players first," and that fit Claypool when they saw him firsthand at the Senior Bowl.
"We really got up close to him at the Senior Bowl," said Colbert. "The work he did on special teams really stood out in those practices. Of course we knew about his receiving abilities, but when you saw him up close working the way that he did in the special teams parts of practice, it really showed the competitiveness this young man has to go along with his size, his speed and his receiving abilities."
As for Highsmith, Tomlin said one of the attractive things about him as a prospect was his knowledge of some of the nuances of the game and of his position.
"I really enjoyed getting to know him through the process and having football conversations with him," said Tomlin. "It is obvious he is a technician. He studies the rush element of play. He took a significant step in 2019 in terms of developing his rush repertoire. I think it was obviously beneficial to him in terms of his production, and it is reasonable to expect that growth in understanding and analyzing what he does and how he produces plays to continue even as he takes a step to this level of play."
WR CHASE CLAYPOOL
The promise of the first round, with only six wide receivers and one running back among the first 32 picks, turned quickly into the kind of run on a single position that likely caused some angst among the Steelers brain trust.
Starting with the first pick of the round that was the 33rd overall and belonged to the Bengals, and on down to the 48th pick of the round that belonged to the Seahawks, four wide receivers and two running backs were among those 16 selections. And it wasn't just the numbers, but also the way the players picked were the well-known names at those positions.
Wide receivers Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman were the first two picks of the round, and running back D'Andre Swift was the third. Then the ninth and 10th picks of the second round were running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Laviska Shenault, and before the Steelers were on the clock wide receiver K.J. Hamler also was snapped up.
As the Steelers' turn drew closer, and with contemporary wisdom being that the team was going to go with an offensive playmaker, it became logical to assume their decision was going to come down to wide receiver Chase Claypool, or one of a couple of well-known running backs – J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers.
At this point, it became important to remember what General Manager Kevin Colbert had said about the team's running back situation on the Monday before the draft began.
"I know that starting the (2020) season, we'll have a healthy James Conner and we have some other young backs who have all been contributors in the past, and there's no reason that they still can't be contributors when healthy," said Colbert. "You know, I always go back to (the fact) James Conner had acute injuries in 2019. In 2018, he avoided that and put up a Pro Bowl season. So he's still a young, ascending player, and when healthy, he's an NFL Pro Bowl player. Again, that's a hope -- I know James will enter the season healthy, but you know, can we complement it, and we'll see. But I'm not going in thinking we don't have a starter-capable runner because I know James Conner is."
And as Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Claypool as the Steelers' second-round pick and their initial selection of this 2020 NFL Draft, it was as if Colbert's words were providing the background music.
Nothing against Akers or Dobbins, but it certainly seems as though Claypool fits the description of an offensive playmaker. At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, he ran a sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine, which made him the biggest wide receiver to post that kind of a time since Calvin Johnson did it in 2007. And to put Claypool's timed speed into context, his sub-4.4 compares favorably to what JuJu Smith-Schuster (4.54), James Washington (4.54), and Diontae Johnson (4.53) posted on their way into the NFL.
"He's one of those rare combinations of size and speed," said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. "His wingspan is greater than 80 inches. He's got big hands. His production this past season was off the charts, and it's been growing every season for him. He's one of those guys who scores the ball all the time, and there are ways to do it, and he finds ways to basically average a touchdown in every game he plays. He's a point scorer."
Claypool finished the 2019 season with 66 catches for 1,037 yards (15.7 average) and 13 touchdowns while starting all 13 games for the Fighting Irish. In 2019, the Steelers finished the season with 18 passing touchdowns, which was tied for 28th in the NFL, and their individual leader in that category was Johnson who finished with five.
"You know, naturally as a coach, you get excited about the opportunity that maybe this player has to be defended deep," said Fichtner, "and now guys like JuJu, Diontae [Johnson], James [Washington], they work in the intermediate, and all of a sudden, it just seems to open things up a little bit cleaner. Everyone needs those levels to be able to attack, and I think just the speed alone puts Chase into that conversation. So, I'm very excited."
OLB ALEX HIGHSMITH
The Steelers historically have had success going down this path with college players, and it began long before either Colbert or Tomlin were hired by the team. It involves taking guys who played defensive end in college but did so at a weight that was too light to transfer to the same position at the NFL level. Then if the guy has some athletic ability and some pass-rush skills, he can be transformed into an outside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 defense.
And the really good ones become capable of making plays in the backfield or in coverage, and the opponent never can be completely sure whether he'll be attacking the quarterback or dropping into coverage. If you need a single example of this working to perfection, just watch the final 18 seconds of the first half of Super Bowl XLIII and then ask Kurt Warner if James Harrison was where he thought he was going to be on first-and-goal at the Steelers 1-yard line.
Alex Highsmith is the latest in the long line of players who will attempt to make that transition and join a group that includes Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon, Mike Vrabel, Carlos Emmons, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley, and Bud Dupree. During his junior year at Charlotte, Highsmith played in the interior of the defensive line, and he finished with 60 tackles and three sacks, but the following year the team switched to a 4-2-5 alignment and Highsmith regularly lined up in a two-point stance. From there, Highsmith blossomed and finished his final college season with 75 tackles, 14 sacks, three passes defensed, and two forced fumbles in 13 games.
"First time I saw him was at the East-West game, the practices," said Colbert. "You could tell that he was above where we thought he might have been going into that game because he stood out in the East-West practices. A long, fast, athletic guy. He continued to impress us athletically at the Combine. And when you look at what he did as a walk-on at Charlotte who was a special teams standout as a young player, to end up putting up the stats that he had this past season, we all think this kid isn't anywhere near where he might be somewhere down the road."
Added Tomlin, "Alex is a quality depth to the position where you need quality rush men. So we now have three Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the AFC North. We've got to employ people to hunt those guys. Hopefully he'll aid us in that regard."