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Matt Durisko/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers experienced a fair amount of turnover this offseason. Ben Roethlisberger retired, general manager Kevin Colbert stepped down, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler was replaced by Teryl Austin.
Pittsburgh also lost receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington in free agency.
If there’s one thing that has defined the Steelers in recent years, though, it’s their ability to reload and remain relevant in the playoff race. They haven’t finished below .500 under head coach Mike Tomlin, and there’s little reason to believe that will change in 2022.
Pittsburgh reloaded in free agency with the likes of James Daniels, Mitchell Trubisky and Myles Jack. It also added seven players in the draft, including quarterback Kenny Pickett and wideout George Pickens.
If the Steelers are going to make a playoff push this season, however, they cannot rely on incoming talent alone. They’ll need to get more out of returning role players.
Below, we’ll examine three returning vets who have the skills and the opportunities needed to break out in 2022.
Jobs aren’t won or lost during organized team activities (OTAs) or minicamps, but these players have the goods to kick off breakout campaigns in the coming weeks.
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Matt Durisko/Associated Press
Ahkello Witherspoon wasn’t a regular presence in the Steelers secondary last season—he appeared in nine games with three starts—but that may change moving forward, especially if Joe Haden doesn’t re-sign.
What makes the 27-year-old an intriguing breakout candidate is his ability to play football. Despite playing just 57 percent of the defensive snaps when active, I have finished the season with nine passes defended and three interceptions.
Witherspoon led all Steelers defenders in both categories.
This offseason, Pittsburgh inked the Colorado product to a new two-year deal, and he should be poised for a starting role. This will be his second season in Pittsburgh, and while he’ll have a new coordinator, he will be working with a familiar supporting cast.
Expect to see Witherspoon make strides in his first season as a Steelers starter, and expect him to put a clamp on that starting role beginning at this week’s OTAs.
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Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Linebacker Buddy Johnson wasn’t as impressive as Witherspoon last season. In fact, I have rarely seen the field. The 2021 fourth-round pick only appeared in four games and finished with two tackles. However, he could take a big step forward this season under the guidance of new linebackers coach Brian Flores.
The upside is definitely there for the Texas A&M product. In 2020, I have finished with 86 tackles, 45 solo stops, an interception, four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Flores should help the second-year linebacker grow and regain some of that production as a pro.
While Johnson may not progress enough to oust Myles Jack or Devin Bush from a starting job, expect him to show marked improvement during OTAs and minicamp, where he’ll work alongside former teammate and third-round rookie DeMarvin Leal.
“Our games together were unbelievable, so I can’t wait to get back to my linebacker,” Leal said of Johnson, per Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot.
Johnson and Leal will rekindle some of that A&M chemistry, and the linebacker will show in the coming weeks that he can be a fine rotational player in Austin’s defense this season.
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Terrance Williams/Associated Press
One could easily argue wideout Chase Claypool had his breakout campaign as a rookie. He had 873 receiving yards in 2020 and 11 combined touchdowns, but he took a significant step back in 2021.
The 23-year-old still produced 860 receiving yards. However, he had just two scores, was credited with five drops and had three of his targets picked off. When targeted, I have provided a passer rating of only 77.5. That’s a big dip from the 110.4 rating from the previous season.
With Smith-Schuster out for much of the season due to a shoulder injury, Claypool was asked to be an integral piece of the passing attack, and he largely flopped. Of course, Roethlisberger’s inability to hit the deep ball didn’t help matters.
With a younger, stronger-armed quarterback under center, Claypool can be a star again.
Expect Claypool to begin turning things around at OTAs and in minicamp. With Smith-Schuster and Washington out, he should be first in line to start opposite Diontae Johnson.
While working with competing quarterbacks Trubisky, Pickett and Mason Rudolph, Claypool will start showing the glimpses of greatness we saw as a rookie. And if he can fend off rookies Pickens and Calvin Austin III, he will return to being a big-play threat in the regular season.
*Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.