Steelers Focus On Physicality
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers headed into the offseason intent on finding ways to become a little less reliant on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Enter Najee Harris, Matt Freiermuth and Kendrick Green.
The AFC North champions used their top picks in the 2021 draft on players they believe can provide the offense with a dash of physicality it lacked while wilting down the stretch last season.
Harris was a workhorse at running back during his senior year at Alabama on his way to helping the Crimson Tide win the national championship.
Freiermuth is a throwback of sorts, a tight end who is just as comfortable taking on a defensive end as a blocker as he is running by a linebacker in the passing game. And Green gives the Steelers a young prospect at center following Maurkice Pouncey’s surprise retirement in February.
The picks are designed to address a running game that finished dead last (32nd) in the NFL in 2020 in both yards and yards per carry.
“Obviously, the run game was something that wasn’t so good last year, but us as a team and now that I’m here, we are trying to find ways to work on that and make it be better,” Harris said following a whirlwind tour of the team’s practice facility on Friday, less than 24 hours after being taken with the 24th overall pick. “I’m just glad that I am here and I’m a Steeler.”
So is Freiermuth. He thought he was getting pranked by one of his Penn State friends when his phone buzzed with Pittsburgh’s familiar “412” area code during the second round on Friday night.
When Freiermuth picked up, coach Mike Tomlin was on the other end to welcome him to a team that is looking for a versatile weapon after veteran Vance McDonald retired in January.
While the call wasn’t a joke, it was a bit of a surprise. The Steelers entered the draft seemingly in serious need of help along the offensive line after Pouncey walked away and left guard Matt Feiler and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva hit the open market in free agency.
Yet rather than use one of their top two picks to address depth issues on the line, they waited until the third to take Green. An All-Big Ten selection as a senior, the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Green was a three-year starter at Illinois and can play both center and guard,
Harris seems to fit the mold of former Steelers star Le’Veon Bell, who spent the first five years of his career as one of the most versatile running backs in the league before leaving in free agency. Harris had 294 touches (251 rushes, 43 receptions) last fall, scoring 30 total touchdowns in the process.
“I liked how (Bell) was lined up wide (in the NFL),” Harris said. “I feel like I can do all of that stuff, if not better. I’m excited to learn more.”
So is Freiermuth, who caught 23 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown during his final season at Penn State in 2020. He appeared in just four games for the Nittany Lions before going down with an injury. Freiermuth underwent shoulder surgery but said he is fully healed and he’s been cleared for full football activities.
The 22-year-old Freiermuth joins a tight end group light on experience outside of veteran Eric Ebron.
While Ebron is basically relegated to pass-catching duties, Freiermuth is a little more old school. He served primarily as a blocker as a freshman but still caught eight touchdowns on just 26 receptions. He added seven more scores as a sophomore and chose to play last fall even though he was already considered a coveted draft prospect.
It’s a decision Freiermuth doesn’t regret even with his season cut short due to injury.
“I’ve said this multiple times, I owe that university more than it owes me,” Freiermuth said. “I have no regrets about going out there and playing this season and getting hurt … it’s the first major injury I ever had and hopefully the last one.”
The move follows the path the Steelers went down a year ago, when they selected wide receiver Chase Claypool in the second round and centered most of their offseason moves on trying to give Roethlisberger plenty of options.
The 39-year-old quarterback has opted to return for an 18th season in 2021. Whether it’s a swan song remains to be seen, but the 6-foot-5 Freiermuth’s arrival does give Roethlisberger another big red zone target.
“It’s kind of weird that he’s going to be my quarterback now,” Freiermuth said. “I can’t wait to go out there and catch footballs from him.”
SEC still most coveted conference, 3 more QBs taken
Not much changed on the second night of the NFL draft. Do the letters SEC and QB seem familiar?
The SEC remained the conference of choice with 29 players selected overall, including 17 on Friday night.
Quarterbacks went in clusters, too. Not like 1-2-3 as happened in the opening round with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville, BYU’s Zach Wilson to the New York Jets, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance to San Francisco.
Still, the second round concluded with Florida’s Kyle Trask going to Tampa Bay perhaps as the heir to Tom Brady in a decade or so. Then Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond was chosen in the second spot of the third round by Minnesota and Stanford’s Davis Mills went in the next slot to Houston.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Trask said of Brady. “He’s definitely one of my favorite quarterbacks growing up. So to have that opportunity to learn from one of the greats is a great opportunity for me. I can’t wait to get this ball rolling for sure.”
Naturally, Alabama was a major destination within the Southeastern Conference. The national champions had a record-equaling six players taken in the opening round. Two more went among the first six picks of Round 2: offensive lineman Landon Dickerson and defensive tackle Christian Barmore, the MVP of the national title game in January on that side of the ball.
Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell to Jacksonville and Mississippi wide receiver Elijah Moore to the Jets were the top two selections Friday night. Guess what conference they played in.
Campbell, a three-year starter, saw Bulldogs teammate Eric Stokes chosen in the first round by Green Bay. Campbell led Georgia with five pass breakups in 10 starts last season. He also had 29 tackles, including 2¢ for loss, and an interception.
He has no qualms about switching to safety if asked.
“I’m versatile and I could learn a new position,” Campbell said. “I trust my feet, trust my hips. I feel like I can run with anybody.”
Moore’s breakout season lifted him to All-America status — and now to a potential regular target for Wilson. The explosive Moore set a school record with 86 catches for 1,193 yards in 2020.
“Oh, man … he’s got a great arm,” he said of Wilson. “Get ready to catch a lot of touchdowns.”
Not everyone went to SEC schools at the outset of the second round. North Carolina running back Javonte Williams is headed to Denver after the Broncos traded up to the third spot with Atlanta.
Miami went for safety Jevon Holland of Oregon. Then it was back to the SEC — and the Tide.
Dickerson can go at guard or center for Philadelphia, which desperately needs to revamp its O-line. He was injured for the national championship game, yet went onto the field for the final snap of Alabama’s romp over Ohio State.
“You can call it leadership or however you want,” he said. “I care for every single guy I play with. I love being a part of a team, especially a football team. Everybody at this level has a mindset that not only do they want to be the best athlete, player they can be, but we also want to create the best team, a winning team.”
Barmore was the first player at his position taken this year, by the Patriots, who traded up with Cincinnati. Barmore, of course, played with New England’s first-rounder, quarterback Mac Jones, at Tuscaloosa.
“It was my favorite team growing up,” said Barmore. “They’re winners. I love winners.”
The Bears, who made waves Thursday night when they traded up to get Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, also moved up to seventh in the second round to get a protector: Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins. That was the first player drafted from the Big 12, at 39th overall.
Another Big 12 guy, Trevon Moehrig of TCU, went 43rd overall to Las Vegas and was the first safety taken.
Such powerhouses as Auburn, Texas A&M, which finished fourth in the final AP poll, and Wisconsin did not have anyone selected through 64 picks. But A&M quarterback Kellen Mond went second in the third round to Minnesota.
“I think one of the biggest things I learned, whether you’re a starter or a backup or anybody, is to treat everything like a national championship or a Super Bowl rep,” Mond said. “So that’s the type of mindset that I have, whether it’s workouts or going into practice. Just wanting to do everything to the best of my ability and just be prefect, and just pretty much wanting to grasp all types of information …”
Three teams made their initial picks in the second round — and they went consecutively. Seattle took wide receiver D’Wayne Eskridge of Western Michigan, the Rams grabbed Louisville wideout Tutu Atwell, and the Chiefs got Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton.
Houston was the final franchise to join the action, taking Mills 67th overall amid all the turmoil surrounding Deshaun Watson.
33. Jacksonville, Tyson Campbell, cb, Georgia.
34. N.Y. Jets, Elijah Moore, wr, Mississippi.
35. Denver (from Atlanta), Javonte Williams, rb, North Carolina.
36. Miami (from Houston), Jevon Holland, cb, Oregon.
37. Philadelphia, Landon Dickerson, c, Alabama.
38. New England (from Cincinnati), Christian Barmore, dt, Alabama.
39. Chicago (from Carolina), Teven Jenkins, ot, Oklahoma State.
40. Atlanta (from Denver), Richie Grant, s, UCF.
41. Detroit, Levi Onwuzurike, dl, Washington.
42. Miami (from N.Y. Giants), Liam Eichenberg, ot, Notre Dame.
43. Las Vegas (from San Francisco), Trevon Moehrig, s, TCU.
44. Dallas, Kelvin Joseph, cb, Kentucky.
45. Jacksonville (from Minnesota), Walker Little, ot, Stanford.
46. Cincinnati (from New England), Jackson Carman, ot, Clemson.
47. L.A. Chargers, Asante Samuel Jr., cb, Florida State.
48. San Francisco (from Las Vegas), Aaron Banks, g, Notre Dame.
49. Arizona, Rondale Moore, wr, Purdue.
50. N.Y. Giants (from Miami), Azeez Ojulari, de, Georgia.
51. Washington, Samuel Cosmi, ot, Texas.
52. Cleveland (from Chicago through Carolina), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, lb, Notre Dame.
53. Tennessee, Dillon Radunz, ot, North Dakota State.
54. Indianapolis, Dayo Odeyingbo, de, Vanderbilt.
55. Pittsburgh, Pat Freiermuth, te, Penn State.
56. Seattle, D’Wayne Eskridge, wr, Western Michigan.
57. L.A. Rams, Tutu Atwell, wr, Louisville.
58. Kansas City (from Baltimore), Nick Bolton, lb, Missouri.
59. Carolina (from Cleveland), Terrace Marshall Jr., wr, LSU.
60. New Orleans, Pete Werner, lb, Ohio State.
61. Buffalo, Carlos Basham Jr., de, Wake Forest.
62. Green Bay, Josh Myers, c, Ohio State.
63. Kansas City, Creed Humphrey, c, Oklahoma.
64. Tampa Bay, Kyle Trask, qb, Florida.
65. Jacksonville, Andre Cisco, s, Syracuse.
66. Minnesota (from N.Y. Jets), Kellen Mond, qb, Texas A&M.
67. Houston, Davis Mills, qb, Stanford.
68. Atlanta, Jalen Mayfield, g, Michigan.
69. Cincinnati, Joseph Ossai, lb, Texas.
70. Carolina (from Philadelphia), Brady Christensen, ot, BYU.
71. N.Y Giants (from Denver), Aaron Robinson, cb, UCF.
72. Detroit, Alim McNeill, dt, North Carolina State.
73. Philadelphia (from Carolina), Milton Williams, dt, Louisiana Tech.
74. Washington, Benjamin St-Juste, cb, Minnesota.
75. Dallas, Osa Odighizuwa, dt, UCLA.
76. New Orleans (from N.Y. Giants through Denver), Paulson Adebo, cb, Stanford.
77. L.A. Chargers, Josh Palmer, wr, Tennessee.
78. Minnesota, Chazz Surratt, lb, North Carolina.
79. Las Vegas (from Arizona), Malcolm Koonce, de, Buffalo.
80. Las Vegas, Divine Deablo, s, Virginia Tech.
81. Miami, Hunter Long, te, Boston College.
82. Washington, Dyami Brown, wr, North Carolina.
83. Carolina (from Chicago), Tommy Tremble, te, Notre Dame.
84. Dallas (from Philadelphia through Indianapolis), Chauncey Golston, de, Iowa.
85. Green Bay (from Tennessee), Amari Rodgers, wr, Clemson.
86. Minnesota (from N.Y. Jets through Seattle), Wyatt Davis, g, Ohio State.
87. Pittsburgh, Kendrick Green, c, Illinois.
88. San Francisco (from L.A. Rams), Trey Sermon, rb, Ohio State.
89. Houston (from Carolina through Cleveland), Nico Collins, wr, Michigan.
90. Minnesota (from Baltimore), Patrick Jones II, de, Pittsburgh.
91. Cleveland (from New Orleans), Anthony Schwartz, wr, Auburn.
92. Tennessee (from Green Bay), Monty Rice, lb, Georgia.
93. Buffalo, Spencer Brown, ot, Northern Iowa.
94. Baltimore (from Kansas City), Ben Cleveland, g, Georgia.
95. Tampa Bay, Robert Hainsey, ot, Notre Dame.
96. New England, Ronnie Perkins, de, Oklahoma.
97. L.A. Chargers, Tre’ McKitty, te, Georgia.
98. Denver (from New Orleans), Quinn Meinerz, c, Wisconsin-Whitewater.
99. Dallas, Nashon Wright, cb, Oregon State.
100. Tennessee, Elijah Molden, s, Washington.
101. Detroit (from L.A. Rams), Ifeatu Melifonwu, cb, Syracuse.
102. San Francisco, Ambry Thomas, cb, Michigan.
103. L.A. Rams, Ernest Jones, lb, South Carolina.
104. Baltimore, Brandon Stephens, cb, SMU.
105. Denver (from New Orleans), Baron Browning, lb, Ohio State.