The 2020 NFL Draft is in the books.
The virtual draft took place over the weekend and had Anthony McFarland Jr. (Round 4, Pick 124) and Antoine Brooks Jr. (Round 6, Pick 198) both going to the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Tino Ellis signed with the New Orleans Saints, Keandre Jones signed with the Chicago Bears, Javon Leake signed with the New York Giants and Tyler Mabry signed with the Seattle Seahawks as undrafted free agents.
The Steelers have a habit of drafting Maryland players — safety Sean Davis was drafted by the organization in 2016 (Round 2, Pick 58) and offensive lineman Derwin Gray in 2019 (Round 7, Pick 219) — and it is definitely not the first connection between the NFL franchise and the Terp program.
Maryland wide receiver Dino Tomlin, son of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, came to the program after committing Nov. 2018 — though he didn’t see much action during his freshman year in 2019.
In January, Mike hired Matt Canada, who served as Maryland’s interim head coach during the 2018 season, as the quarterback coach of the Steelers — his first job since being replaced by Mike Locksley.
Just over a week prior to Canada’s hiring, Locksley hired Scottie Montgomery, who previously coached at ECU from 2016-18 and served as the Steelers wide receivers coach from 2010-12, as his offensive coordinator.
Brooks and McFarland now join three other Terps — running back Trey Edmunds, defensive lineman Cavon Walker and Gray — on Pittsburgh’s 90-man roster.
“Me and [McFarland] are going to ball out until we can’t anymore,” Brooks said. “Me and him in the same locker room being united. It’s the next level.”
Here’s how they can impact the AFC North team that finished with an 8-8 record in 2019.
Anthony McFarland Jr.
Despite a rough 2019 season due to ongoing injuries, McFarland was the highest drafted Terp running back since LaMont Jordan was picked 49th overall by the New York Jets in 2001.
The DeMatha product managed to rush for 614 yards and eight touchdowns on 125 carries last season. But where McFarland really burst onto the scene was during his 2018 campaign under Canada, earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors after rushing for 1,022 yards and four touchdowns on 125 attempts.
“[Canada] is like a father-figure to me,” McFarland said. “Every time I see him, I am going to pick his brain. I am glad I am going to be around him.”
At this time, McFarland is projected to be the Steelers No. 4 running back, behind James Conner, Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels. (Though it is hard to predict the depth chart, this is where I would place him prior to OTAs and camp.)
By not drafting a running back in the second or third rounds — Pittsburgh didn’t have a first-round draft pick after trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick last season — the Steelers have indicated that they are sticking with Conner as their No. 1 back this upcoming season.
But Conner hasn’t shown that he can be the durable back that Tomlin and Co. need. In the past two seasons since becoming the lead back with the departure of Le’Veon Bell, the former Pitt Panther has missed nine games. After a promising season in 2018 with 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 215 carries, Conner only managed to produce 464 yards and four touchdowns on 116 carries in 2019.
Prior to the 2020 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh continued to add depth to its backfield, adding Samuels in fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft and Snell in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. (Seeing a trend here?)
As Conner was out, the duo had to produce in 2019, with Snell getting the majority of the carries while Samuels was the team’s receiving threat out of the backfield. Snell ran for 426 yards and two touchdowns on 108 carries, while Samuels caught 47 passes — good for second on the team last year — for 305 yards and one touchdown.
Now in comes McFarland.
“I am really excited to add a guy like Anthony McFarland,” Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. “A good fit to the room, a good complement to what is already on our roster. We have some familiarity with him. People speak very highly of him. You look at the tape he offers a change of pace to our room. I think he will be a great addition. I am excited to get him in the fold.”
Based on the 40-yard dash, the former Terp is the fastest of the four after running 4.44 at the combine — Conner ran 4.65, Samuels ran 4.54 and Snell ran 4.66 — and his breakaway speed appears superior as well.
With his speed and elusiveness, McFarland will have a few opportunities to carry the ball, but Conner and Snell are still projected to see the majority of the carries this upcoming season — shall they stay healthy.
But McFarland, who may have trouble immediately seeing the workload he did in College Park, could be used more as a pass-catching back during his rookie campaign — an area of his game that doesn’t get enough appreciation.
In a small sample size — 24 receptions for 199 yards and one touchdown in two seasons — the Hyattsville, Maryland, native has showcased that he can be a threat out of the backfield.
We are all aware of McFarland’s big play ability, and I think at times he will demonstrate that. Conner’s rookie contract ends after this year, which McFarland may benefit from in the long run if the Steelers decide to not resign their 2017 third round draft pick.
However, in his first year as a Steeler, I think his best way of making the 53-man roster is to beat out Samuels and prove he can be another receiving threat for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Antoine Brooks Jr.
Brooks is such an intriguing pick for the Steelers due to his versatility.
Pittsburgh has shown it is set at the safety position for years to come by drafting Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds — brother of Trey — in 2018 and trading for Fitzpatrick last year. The team brought the duo together with expectations that they would grow together.
As it stands right now, I would project Brooks to be the No. 5 safety on the Steelers’ roster, behind undrafted free agent Jordan Dangerfield and 2018 fifth round selection and former Penn State Nittany Lion Marcus Allen.
While Dangerfield saw the field in 16 games — mostly on special teams — in 2019, Allen only played in one game and was on the practice squad for the majority of the season.
Due to his ability to play multiple positions as he did with the Terps — starting off as a linebacker and then transitioning to nickel and safety — Brooks could see more defensive snaps than the other two safeties ahead of him.
“He is a really good physical player,” Steelers senior defensive assistant and secondary coach Teryl Austin said. “He plays a little of everywhere, and he was around the ball. Wherever the ball is, he is going to show up. He has a really good feel for the game in terms of instinct and not being afraid to make a decision.”
After inking linebacker Mark Barron — a very athletic playmaker who was great in passing situations — to a two-year deal in March 2019, the Steelers cut him a year later and will be without him this upcoming season.
Brooks could replace Barron this upcoming season by playing as a hybrid linebacker for Pittsburgh in the box on some downs and going out into coverage on running backs and tight ends in other situations.
The former Terp could also be a nice change of pace for the Steelers at nickel. Currently, Mike Hilton is Pittsburgh’s No. 1 nickel defensive back and one of the best in the NFL at the position — though he is a restricted free agent and it is possible he isn’t on Pittsburgh’s roster in 2020. Hilton is great in pass coverage, but is more well known for his ability to blitz and sack the quarterback. He had 65 total tackles, six tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Brooks could replace or complement Hilton in that nickel position in 2020 with his ability to cover, make open field tackles and blitz off the edge.
In his last three seasons in College Park, Brooks had 226 tackles, 27.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
If a role isn’t carved out for the former Terp on defense in his first year with the Steelers, Brooks could find a home on special teams — where he primarily appeared during his freshman year in College Park. With his ball-tracking and athletic ability, Brooks could potentially be a special teams steal for the Pittsburgh Steelers.