Steelers top picks likely to be seen more on special teams than offense/defense as rookies - Plum

Steelers top picks likely to be seen more on special teams than offense/defense as rookies

Trib logo Chris Adamski

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 | 4:42 PM

It’s an annual rite of spring for the Pittsburgh Steelers: Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert sit down for remarks to the media about their newest top draft pick. And while this year’s gushing over superlatives and complimentary scouting reports were not about a first-round pick but a player taken No. 49 overall in the second round, something about their remarks was a little bit different, too.

When speaking about the virtues that stood out the first time they watched Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool in person, it wasn’t Claypool’s proficiency or abilities at his given position that caught their eye.

“The work he did on the special teams,” Colbert said, “really stood out in the (Senior Bowl) practices.”

A few minutes later, Tomlin likewise relayed how much Claypool raised their eyebrows at the winter’s most prestigious college all-star game, played annually in Mobile, Ala.

“His physicality really captured (our) attention… regardless of what drill he was in down in Mobile,” Tomlin said. “Whether it was a special teams drill, or whether it was a wide receiver-DB blocking drill.”

Like Colbert, Tomlin mentioned special teams before he mentioned Claypool as a wide receiver.

Subtle? Yes. But at the risk of reading too much into the ordering of a coach or general manager’s comments, it speaks to the Steelers’ outlook: Special teams will be where Claypool and their second pick, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, most show their initial value.

The reasoning seems sound:

• The Steelers had no first-round pick. The further down a draft goes, the more likely a player is a special-teamer and not a surefire contributor on offense or defense.

• This unique, coronavirus pandemic-influenced offseason will limit instruction time and on-field work between offensive and defensive units where chemistry and cohesion typically are built. Rookies, theoretically, will have more of an uphill climb to contribute right away on offense or defense.

• The scouting report and mental makeup of Claypool and Highsmith indicate a strong embrace of special teams.

“(Claypool) volunteers for special teams,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “This guy’s just a football player.”

Tomlin made similar comments about Highsmith, a former walk-on at Charlotte. Within the first 25 words Highsmith spoke to Pittsburgh media after being drafted, he mentioned Tomlin and Colbert had told him about playing special teams.

“First and foremost,” Colbert said of Highsmith, “on the special teams, it’ll give us another size guy that can run.”

The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Highsmith ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds at the NFL Combine. His status as a late bloomer along with his smaller-school pedigree suggest a one-season, special-teams baptism in the NFL while he adjusts to the pro level. The Steelers have well-established players (T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree) at Highsmith’s given position.

Claypool, similarly, has a solid package of raw traits (4.42 in the 40; 6-4, 238-pound size) and a bevy of players above him on the offensive depth chart.

“Both of those guys,” Colbert said, “will be able to help immediately on the special teams as they grow as a receiver and a linebacker.”

Others among the Steelers’ draft class, such as Anthony McFarland and Antoine Brooks, appear as if they potentially could excel on special teams. But for players taken on Day 3 of the draft, special-teams usage is accepted as just part of the deal.

For a team to laud publicly the special-teams skills of its top two picks? Let’s just say Colbert and Tomlin didn’t open with Devin Bush’s special-teams abilities during their statements after the Steelers took the inside linebacker in the first round last year.

That, in part, is the difference between a player taken No. 10 overall and one taken at No. 49. But that explanation sells short the intangible demeanor and football mindset of Claypool and Highsmith that attracted the Steelers to them in the first place.

“Being ultra-competitive is kind of just who I am,” Claypool said.

“I have to get myself into a position where I can do a lot of things to get my on the field as much as possible,” he added last week.

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