Predicting the Steelers 2021 MVP, Rookie of the Year, and other awards.
Now that the 2021 NFL season is on the horizon, the talking heads are all weighing in on All Pro picks, season records, and award predictions. I read these articles compulsively (and with some irritation), but it occurred to me a few years ago that I’d enjoy them a lot more if we ever saw one just for the Steelers.
So below is a series of “awards” predictions that are specific to this Steelers team.
This will come in two editions: first, the traditional awards (e.g. MVP, Rookie of the Year), then the second will be invented by me (e.g. “People’s Choice Award,” “Addition by Subtraction/Best Loss”). I’ll make the case for my picks, but there will also be a poll for each award, including “other” as an option (in case you feel like I missed an important choice).
If there’s interest, I’ll probably revisit this at the end of the year, and maybe at mid-season as well. In any case, please make arguments, leave suggestions, and otherwise hash this out in the comments. On with the show. Go Steelers.
The shorthand list. Explanations and polls to follow.
MVP: Ben Roethlisberger
Offensive POY: Chase Claypool
Defensive POY: T.J. Watt
Rookie of the Year: Najee Harris
Newcomer of the Year: Joe Schobert
Comeback/Improved POY: Devin Bush
Breakout Player: Alex Highsmith
Assistant Coach of the Year: Matt Canada
Game of the Year: At Cleveland Browns on Halloween
Whether it’s NFL MVP or Super Bowl MVP, league voters are often wildly inconsistent in how they define “most valuable.” For my part, I think of MVP as somewhere between “the team’s best player” and “the hardest to replace.” That is, the guy who, if you lost him you’d feel it the most; not just because his backups are bad, but because he brings something you can’t get anywhere else.
My Choice: Ben Roethlisberger. Just like Big Ben always picked Heath Miller as the team MVP, I always pick Big Ben. Though T.J. Watt is probably the best player on this team (and was hosed for DPOY the last two years in a row), the most valuable player has to be Ben. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game any way you slice it, and he’s probably the only player with the potential to make every single teammate’s job easier. He took a lot of flack this off-season for the way the team sputtered down the stretch, but it says here that he’s due for a big rebound.
As Steelers soldiers have been saying for the last couple of decades, the team is never truly out of it as long as 7 is on the field. He’s still the MVP in my book.
Offensive Player of the Year –
I think of OPOY (or DPOY) as the player having the finest season. Stats matter (especially with OPOY) but so does the eyeball test. Which player will have the most impressive season in 2019? Here are my candidates:
My Choice: Chase Claypool. There’s a reasonable argument for Najee Harris here. But I have a feeling that Claypool is going to have an explosive second season. A physical specimen if there ever was one, “Mapletron” is going to benefit greatly from Harris’ ability to draw defenders into the box, and Matt Canada’s (hopefully) willingness to throw downfield instead of two-yard dinks. If I’m right about that stuff, we could be talking about a special season for #11.
Defensive Player of the Year –
Stats can affect DPOY, but with interior linemen eating up blockers and shutdown corners never being challenged, the eyeball test is at least as important. Who will be the most impressive defender in black and gold?
My Choice: T.J. Watt. I love Cam Heyward’s leadership and bullrush, and I think Minkah Fitzpatrick might be the best safety in the league. But T.J. Watt is in a class by himself. His athleticism, tenacity, and motor impress me every time I watch him play. He’s one of the best in the game already, and if the duo of Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram can give a decent Bud Dupree impression, we might see a whole new level from him. Stay tuned.
Rookie of the Year –
This is always tough to predict. For every 2003, with Mike Logan starting all year and Troy Polamalu on the bench, there’s a 2013, with Larry Foote’s preseason injury and sixth round rookie Vince Williams in the lineup all year. This year, though, feels like a season where a rookie will be a legit star for the Steelers.
My Choice: Najee Harris. If Harris is a pro-quality runner (and he looks like it), he’ll legitimize the Steelers running game in a way we haven’t seen since Le’Veon Bell left. And if that’s true, he’ll earn this award in spades. It’s possible that Harris’s stats won’t leap off the page, but the Steelers will be a better offense anyway. If he runs for 800 yards and 6 touchdowns, and catches 50 balls, it’s very possible that the whole offense will erupt since he’ll make the defenses account for runners in a way they haven’t for several years. (Let’s keep that in mind if his stats aren’t overwhelming.)
Newcomer of the Year –
With the Steelers making a splash in the free agency and trading market this season, I wanted to acknowledge that not all newcomers who matter are rookies. Who’s going to be the best pickup this season?
My Choice: Joe Schobert. I’m on the record as a Robert Spillane fan, and (though he’s had a rough preseason) he was better last year than most seem to give him credit for. So I don’t mean this to read like, “thank god Schobert is in instead of that guy!” Instead, Schobert looks to me like the smart veteran presence (think: James Farrior) to line up next to a young, athletic sideline-to-sideline kid in Devin Bush (think: Lawrence Timmons). That will allow Bush to play faster and think less. And Schobert’s experience and sure tackling should make the rest of the defense more reliable to boot. Schobert’s a Pro Bowler and a tackling machine. I’m stoked about him.
Comeback Player of the Year —
The Steelers don’t have a lot of guys returning from significant injury, so I’m thinking of this as both “comeback from injury” and “comeback from poor play.”
My Choice: Devin Bush. This is an easy one to grab. Bush looked like the real thing in his rookie campaign. If he can pick up where he left off, he’ll be a revelation. I initially included Zack Banner, believe it or not — not because I expect him to be a Pro Bowler, but because he would have been in position to stabilize the edge after his season-long injury last year. And this team could use that. But I’m not even sure how much he’s going to play this season after all. And I’m thinking Bush (playing next to Schobert) comes on this season. He gets my award.
Breakout Player –
Though Devin Bush is on both of these lists, “Breakout Player” is different than “Comeback.” In this case, the list is less about proven ballers who got injured or regressed. Instead, these are mostly players who I predict will come out of nowhere (or in some cases, out of mediocrity) and stand at the cusp of greatness. These are players who are becoming stars this season.
My Choice: Alex Highsmith. I’m excited that the Steelers picked up Melvin Ingram, and I’ve been impressed with the rookies this preseason (hat tip to Jamir Jones). But Alex Highsmith has looked like a man among boys this summer. The second-year-leap is a real thing too. Lamarr Woodley went from 4.0 sacks as a rookie to 11.5 in year two. T.J. Watt went from 7.0 to 13.0. Highsmith has the potential to blow up the pocket over and over this year (especially as teams key in on stopping Watt). Here’s hoping.
Assistant Coach of the Year –
Despite how quiet the offseason has been, there was some real turnover on the coaching staff. Each of the guys below is either the new man on the job, or working through a big turnover in manpower/scheme.
My Choice: Adrian Klemm, Offensive Line Coach. This is one of those positions where the play on the field may not suggest “coach of the year.” But I’m thinking about Mike Tomlin in 2019, where the Steelers started 1-4, lost their HOF quarterback, and traded away their next season’s first round draft pick; then, instead of falling off a cliff, they went on a 7-1 run and nearly made the playoffs. Even Coach T’s critics had to admit was some fine coaching. Klemm has been dealt a rough hand, but that doesn’t mean the line is doomed.
I’m thinking this offensive line will be average at best. But given the situation, that could be good enough to get these guys off the ground. And if that’s true, Klemm will have earned some real plaudits.
Game of the Year –
I’ll leave this without definition. Maybe you think “Game of the Year” is the most important game on the schedule for seeding purposes. Maybe you think it’s an important midseason checkpoint that will tell us where the team is for the stretch run. Maybe it’s a rivalry game, or one you’ve scored tickets for. You decide what this means.
My Choice: Week 8 against the Browns. I love me a good revenge game. And the NFL talking heads want Cleveland to have surpassed the Steelers SO BAD. More importantly, I’ve heard way too much of “the Browns throttled Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year.” I want Pittsburgh to shut that whole conversation down.
(Sidebar rant: These teams played three times last year. The Steelers dominated Cleveland in every way at mid-season. Then in week 17, the Browns won by a hair against Mason Rudolph and the Steelers JV. Then they met in the playoffs—the game where the Steelers were exhausted and walking-wounded, where Maurkice Pouncey spotted Cleveland a touchdown on the first play of the game (and was so flat he retired after the game), and where supposedly-washed-up Big Ben threw for 500 in a doomed comeback attempt.
Taking those three games as a whole makes the Steelers look like the better team who lost one of those “any given Sundays” matchups at the wrong time. But man, I must be the only person on earth who thinks that.)
One of my all-time favorite games was a Halloween rout over New England in Ben’s rookie year. Let’s have another one of those this season.
Okay, stay tuned for the next edition.