The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to build on a roller coaster 2019 season that resulted in an underwhelming 8-8 record. On the offensive side of the ball, it was a year of trial and error. With the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, moving the ball was a struggle for the young Steelers offense led by Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges. On the contrary, it was a coming up party for the Steelers defense. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s defense proved that they were an elite group last year, and almost single-handedly dragged their squad to a 6th seed in the AFC. Although the Steelers ultimately failed to clinch a postseason berth, they were able to expose a lot of young talent to the bright lights of meaningful December football. This year, those players will look to build on their 2019 campaign and prove they are here to stay.
1. Diontae Johnson, WR
We are going to start with an obvious one here, but there is just too much potential to ignore. Johnson, the first of the Steelers’ two third-round picks in 2019 had an extremely promising first year. His 680 receiving yards ranked 8th in the league among rookies, while his 59 receptions were good enough for 3rd among his class. These stats are bound to improve as he was catching passes from the likes of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. What is possibly the most exciting trait about Johnson is his ability to create separation. His average of 3.6 yards of separation at the time he was targeted ranked 1st in the NFL among all receivers! Now, imagine this year when he has two-time super bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger distributing the ball to him. With Juju Smith-Schuster listed as the No. 1 wide receiver on the Steelers depth chart, Diontae Johnson should get plenty of favorable matchups this year, starting with the New York Giants week one.
2. Cameron Sutton, CB
Transitioning to the defensive side of the ball, CB Cameron Sutton is primed for a breakout year in 2020. Sutton, who has been listed behind Mike Hilton in the Steeler’s depth chart over the last few years, found himself on the field consistently in 2019. He appeared in all 16 games for the Steelers, breaking up five passes and sealed a week 6 victory by picking off QB Philip Rivers in the final minute of the game. With Joe Haden and Steven Nelson locking down the perimeter of the field for Pittsburgh, Sutton found himself lined up in the slot often and thrived. The 2017 third-round pick has had the luxury of learning from one of the game’s best slot corners in Mike Hilton, but with Hilton needing a new contract in 2021, the Steelers may look to move on from him. The 2020 season will be a perfect time for Sutton to see a significant amount of snaps, and one can reasonably expect him to take an even bigger step this year than he had in 2019.
3. Marcus Allen, LB
Perhaps one of the more intriguing storylines of the 2020 Steelers Camp was the progression of former safety, now ILB Marcus Allen. The 24-year-old out of Penn State has not seen significant time on the field throughout his short career, but that may change this season after his position switch. Historically, the Steelers have loved to use players similar to Allen in their sub-packages. With the recent return of S Sean Davis, the Steelers must have loved Allen enough to keep him on the 53-man roster. Expect him to play in the box often as well as cover big targets over the middle of the field. The young hybrid prospect will be able to glide like a defensive back, yet hit like a linebacker. The prototype of a Pittsburgh Steeler.
4. Benny Snell Jr., RB
A familiar face from last year, my next breakout candidate is the 2nd year running back out of Kentucky. The college star made his presence known last year in the NFL to the tune of 426 rush yards on 108 attempts. His 3.9 yards per carry was good enough for 5th among qualified rookie running backs. He will start the season behind James Conner, whom Tomlin has already made clear is the “bell cow” back. However, expect Snell to still receive meaningful carries in every game this year. Conner’s vulnerability has been the biggest slight on his NFL resume, meaning Snell will be prepared to jump in whenever necessary and prove he is an NFL caliber back.
5. Zach Banner, OT
Fan-favorite Zach Banner will round out this list, and what an exciting piece he is. With former OT Matt Feiler moving to guard to replace Ramon Foster, Banner battled teammate Chuks Okorafor for the starting RT spot. Just this week Mike Tomlin announced that Banner had earned the starting role, so we will get a good look at him Monday night. Banner received a fair share of snaps in 2019 where he served as an extra offensive lineman in heavy offensive sets and he performed very well. Now the challenge will be to consistently protect franchise QB, Ben Roethlisberger. Any doubts on if he understands his role? That can be put to rest when he responded to a question regarding his position. “You’re talking about protecting the most important person in Pittsburgh.” He certainly understands the significance of his role, now he is primed to prove he can do it.