2022 draft completes near-total makeover of Steelers offense

It was 16 months ago that the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers’ season ended.

It probably seems like a lot longer ago than that, and not just because of the stunningly disappointing result, a 48-37 wild-card playoff loss to the rival Cleveland Browns.

The offensive lineup for the Steelers that Jan. 10, 2021, day is virtually unrecognizable to the one that will take the field when the 2022 season opens in September.

And that near-total makeover of the offense that ushers in the Steelers’ post-Ben Roethlisberger era was undertaken in large part by the actions of outgoing general manager Kevin Colbert‘s final two drafts at the helm. A year after taking players who would become rookie starters on offense with the first four picks, Colbert again focused on that side of the ball in the 2022 draft ended that Saturday.

QB Kenny Pickett (Round 1) and wide receivers George Pickens (Round 2) and Calvin Austin III (Round 4)) are what the Steelers hope is a “splash play” triumvirate on offense for years to come. They are added to the more meat-and-potatoes group (a workhorse running back, tight end, two linemen) the Steelers added among the top 140 picks of last year’s draft.

Put together, and that’s seven potential new offensive starters taken in the past two drafts. And that doesn’t even count Saturday’s sixth-round pick, Connor Heyward, who likely will push for an early role as a tight end/H-back/fullback. Add those young players to two other prospective starters on the interior line who were signed during free agency in March, and it’s been an almost a complete turnover for the Steelers on offense since that ugly playoff loss to the Browns.

“I work with an edge this time of year, with a level of excitement that anticipates some newness,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Whether that’s new people or whether it’s old people evolving in some way, we’re really excited about where we are and getting to work to kind of meet the challenges that await us.”

Those 2020 Steelers started 11-0 and were averaging 28.8 points over the first 10 games. But they didn’t top 28 points the rest of the regular season, and since it ended, one contributor after another has retired or departed.

Of the 18 players who took at least one offensive snap for the Steelers during their January 2021 playoff game, only five remain with the team.

Players who accounted for 73.6% of the aggregate snaps played on offense in that game are no longer with the team: Roethlisberger, center Maurkice Pouncey, tight end Vance McDonald and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva formally announced their retirements (the latter after playing 2021 for Baltimore ), and guard David DeCastro hasn’t played since and might soon make his retirement official. Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud, running back James Conner and guard Matt Feiler left via free agency, and a handful of others remain unsigned.

The changing of the guard that has replaced that group has mostly come via the past two drafts. Last year’s added first-round running back Najee Harris, second-round tight end Pat Freiermuth, third-round center Kendrick Green and fourth-round left tackle Dan Moore Jr. All four started last season, and Harris and Freiermuth showed Pro Bowl ability ( Harris was selected to the game as an alternate).

If this year’s offensive draft foursome of Pickett, Pickens, Austin and Heyward have similar rookie seasons, the Steelers will feel good about their future on offense.

“I’m going to be excited about the youth,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “They’re willing to work.

“I think we’ve got a real talented group, and we’re going to have a lot of fun getting them ready to go.”

the mean age of the Steelers’ starting 11 on offense for the January 2021 playoff game was 28. Five were over 30.

It’s possible — perhaps even likely — that by the time they kick off the 2022 season, none of their offensive starters will be older than Diontae Johnson, who turns 26 on July 5.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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