Pittsburgh Steelers: 2 Potential Breakout Candidates

Despite claiming the AFC North crown in 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that ultimately collapsed down the stretch to close out last season's campaign. During the offseason, Pittsburgh was also witness to a number of key contributors and quality players leave through either retirement or free agency while the franchise grappled with significant cap issues. However, there are more than a handful of exciting and talented young players that are primed to contribute. In what should be a competitive season for the team amidst a strong division, Head Coach Mike Tomlin and newly appointed Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada will be looking to get the most out of some of these young players. 

The max age limit has been set at 26 years old for the sake of this particular discussion, any players older will not be eligible for discussion. 

OLB Alex Highsmith: Drafted in the 3rd-round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Alex Highsmith became a surprise contributor after starter Bud Dupree went down with a season ending knee injury. As a rookie, Highsmith recorded 42 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and an interception at the expense of Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson in Week 8. Highsmith also participated on special teams throughout the year as well. Heading into the 2021 season Highsmith has found himself primed to take on a significant role opposite of 3-time Pro-bowler OLB T.J. Watt. In theory, Watt's presence should provide Highsmith with ample opportunities to make plays while attention is diverted to his running mate. The Steelers also recently signed long-time Charger OLB Melvin Ingram this offseason but do not expect his presence to deter Highsmith's productiveness much at all; the most likely scenario is that Ingram provides effective rotational relief and veteran guidance to a young linebacking core. Despite being listed as questionable for the Steelers' Week 1 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, Highsmith was recorded as a full participant in Friday's practice. (Age: 24)

OG Kevin Dotson: Selected in the 4th-round out of Louisiana, Kevin Dotson is also a member of the 2020 draft class, who like our aforementioned linebacker became an important contributor throughout the season. The young guard showed flashes of being a reliable piece to a unit that definitely had its struggles last year along the offensive line in Pittsburgh, making 4 starts and playing in 14 games if we include the playoffs. Notably, Dotson recorded only 3 penalties and was also graded quite favorably by PFF in pass-blocking with a grade in the high 80's but with an overall grade of 66.2 over 358 snaps, there is still room to improve. After a strong preseason, Dotson has solidified himself as the Week 1 starter and the opportunity is there for him to cement himself as a long-term and important member of this unit that has undergone a major, and sudden restructuring. (Age: 24)

Notable Mentions: LB Devin Bush, TE Pat Freiermuth and CB Cam Sutton 

What are your thoughts? Who are your breakout candidates? 

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