Last year not a single Pittsburgh Steelers player earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ list of the 50 best NFL players. This year the Steelers have two defenders on the PFF50, a list that is “not about how valuable players are, but rather about how good they are,” writes PFF’s Sam Monson, by way of explanation. “A guard, cornerback, receiver or even a running back has just as good a chance to appear on this list as a quarterback does.”
Setting aside Monson’s dismissiveness of the running back position, it’s important to note that PFF takes into account player performance over the course of multiple seasons, as well as “relevant injuries and new circumstances that could change a player’s future outlook.” PFF also considers “any suggestion of decline from players reaching the latter stages of their careers.”
Cameron Heyward at No. 40
The first Pittsburgh Steelers player to appear on the 2020 list is defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, who made news recently for his strong words about the George Floyd situation—words that did not go unnoticed by Steelers’ owner Art Rooney II.
“A season ago, Cameron Heyward was probably the most dominant interior defensive lineman outside of Aaron Donald,” noted PFF, which has named Donald the best player in the NFL for four years in a row. “[Heyward] produced 60 total pressures and 44 defensive stops and had career highs in both run-defense and pass-rush grade,” this in spite of the fact that line mate Stephon Tuitt missed much of the 2019 season with a torn pectoral muscle.
But with Tuitt on the mend, there’s good reason to be optimistic that the Steelers’ defensive line can be even better in 2020.
T.J. Watt at No. 28
The only other Steeler on the list is outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who had “the highest pass-rushing grade of any edge defender in 2019,” writes Monson, before noting that Watt “notched 81 total pressures and made a whole host of game-changing plays, including eight forced fumbles and a pair of interceptions. If he plays to that level again, Watt will be one of the best defenders in the league at any position,” concludes Monson.
Better yet, Watt isn’t the only young player on the Steelers’ defense whose star is on the rise. For one, PFF recently identified inside linebacker Devin Bush as a potential ‘breakout’ player in 2020.
Other AFC North Players on the PFF50
The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t had a player on the list since 2018, when it had three players so honored, including wide receiver A.J. Green and DL Geno Atkins.
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