Rookie Matters (or, Rookies Matter)

0C6372A2-A8DE-4656-835A-062556A3EA3EI realize that about a million words have already been written about the last few rookie classes. But I have never shied away from adding a few thousand more to any subject, and it won’t stop me this time either.

Those of you who have been reading my musings know that I’ve only been a Steelers fan since the end of 2009, which was a curious time to start taking an interest, right smack dab in the middle of the worst losing streak of Mike Tomlin’s career. At that time I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know about things like rookies, although I quickly figured out the draft, since it gave me an opportunity to look over a great many handsome promising young players.

As a result, the first rookie class I was aware of was headlined by Maurkice Pouncey, who quickly established himself as one of the premier centers in the league. (This always comes with an asterisk, in case you believe Pro Football Focus, which has never appreciated him.) And my early looks into the Steelers’ draft history (at least in this century) seemed to indicate that the Steelers were one of the very best in the business in terms of identifying talent.

But there were already rumblings about the first few draft classes under Mike Tomlin. And indeed as time went on, 2008 in particular proved to be a nadir in Steelers’ recent history.

Then came a few disappointing seasons, the aging of the defense, and Art II’s ominous state-of-the-Steelers message in which he declared they needed to get rookies on the field sooner.

And while I really hated the passing of the Steeler greats I had come to love—James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Troy et al, it was evident that, given the new pay structure in which you only had most of your draftees for four years, it didn’t make sense to give veterans on the decline a lot of playing time in favor of youngsters who were going to make a lot of mistakes at first but were the future. Or so one hoped.

Of course, part of what is at issue is the old nature/nurture debate. The rookie classes in Tomlin’s first five years were often disappointing because they didn’t develop well, but did they not develop well because they didn’t get sufficient playing time, or did they not get sufficient playing time because they weren’t chosen well? (“Not chosen well” doesn’t necessarily indicate that they were lacking in talent, but perhaps they didn’t fit the scheme, or their personality wasn’t a good fit for the coaching staff, or numerous other things, some of which are easier to work out in advance than others.)

This seems to be a particular issue on defense. You can throw a rookie wide receiver—say, Antonio Brown—out on the field with a specific assignment, and they only have to remember and react to the particulars of that assignment. It appears to me that it’s a good deal more difficult to do this with a defensive player. As we’ve seen so often in the past few seasons, a missed assignment can lead to a big hole on the field which will be exploited by any even modestly competent offense. Nonetheless, under Keith Butler the staff has found more and more ways to give a guy snaps in the midst of the season.

Of course, all the other teams have to make the same calculations. And, obviously, some do so more successfully than others.

All of this said, let’s compare the early Tomlin draft classes with the later ones and see if we can determine whether the difference has more to do with what players were chosen as opposed to how they were developed (or not…) I started to write up each draft class, and finally decided this was TMI. So here, for each year, are the total number of drafted players, where the Steelers picked, and the players who made the 53-man roster their rookie year. Players who started their rookie year are indicated with a $ ($$ for starting more than 1/2 of his games*) and I’ve also indicated the ones who are still with the Steelersºº or in the NFLº. I leave it to all of you to decide whether the designation of ºº has anything to do with Danny Smith’s new special teams award. [Numbers are regular season only.]

2007: No. 15, 8 picks (an extra fourth-rounder)

  • Lawrence Timmonsº
  • LaMarr Woodley
  • Matt Spaeth $
  • Daniel Sepulveda $$ (yes, I know, punters don’t count…)
  • William Gayºº

2008: No. 23, 7 picks (2 sixth-round, no seventh)

  • Rashard Mendenhall ($) – started one game out of four played
  • Limas Sweed
  • Bruce Davis
  • Tony Hills
  • Dennis Dixon
  • Ryan Mundy

2009:  No. 32, 9 picks (no second, three third, two fifth, two seventh)

  • Ziggy Hood º
  • Kraig Urbik
  • Mike Wallaceº$
  • Keenan Lewis
  • Joe Burnett
  • Frank Summers
  • A.Q. Shipleyº
  • David Johnson

2010: No. 16, 12 picks (four fifth-rounders, two sixth, two seventh)

  • Maurkice Pounceyºº$
  • Jason Worilds
  • Emmanuel Sandersº$
  • Chris Scott
  • Crezdon Butler
  • Stevenson Sylvester
  • Jonathan Dwyer
  • Antonio Brownºº
  • (7th round pick traded for Byron Leftwich)$

2011: No. 31, 7 picks

  • Cameron Heywardºº
  • Marcus Gilbertºº$$
  • Cortez Allen
  • Curtis Brown
  • Chris Carterº
  • Baron Batch (IR)

2012: No. 24, 9 picks (no sixth, four seventh)

  • David DeCastroºº$$
  • Mike Adams $
  • Sean Spenceºº(IR)
  • Alameda Ta’amu
  • Chris Rainey
  • Toney Clemons
  • David Paulson $
  • Terrence Frederick
  • Kelvin Beachumº$

2013: No. 15, 9 picks (two fourths, two sixths)

  • Jarvis Jones $
  • Le’Veon Bellºº$$
  • Markus Wheatonº$
  • Shamarko Thomasº
  • Landry Jonesºº
  • Justin Brown
  • Vince Williamsºº$$
  • Nicholas Williams

2014: No. 15, 9 picks (two fifths, two sevenths)

  • Ryan Shazierºº$$
  • Stephon Tuittºº$
  • Dri Archer
  • Martavis Bryantºº$
  • Jordan Zumwalt
  • Daniel McCullersºº$
  • Rob Blanchflower

2015: No. 22, 8 picks (two sixths)

  • Bud Dupreeºº$
  • Senquez Golson (IR)
  • Sammie Coatesº
  • Doran Grantº
  • Jesse Jamesºº$
  • L.T. Waltonºº
  • Anthony Chickilloºº

2016: No. 25, 7 picks (no fifth, two sevenths)

  • Artie Burnsºº$$
  • Sean Davisºº$$
  • Javon Hargraveºº$$
  • Jerald Hawkinsºº(IR)
  • DeMarcus Ayersº
  • Tyler Matakevichºº

2017: No. 24, 8 picks (two third-rounders)

  • T.J. Wattºº$$
  • JuJu Smith-Schusterºº$
  • Cameron Suttonºº$
  • James Connerºº
  • Joshua Dobbsºº
  • Brian Allenºº
  • Keion Adamsºº(IR)

*For instance, because of injury Ryan Shazier only played in nine games his rookie year, but started five of them

It isn’t very surprising that so many of the players in Tomlin’s earlier drafts are no longer in the NFL. But what we can clearly see is a trend of playing the new draftees sooner. Prior to 2010 only three players started even a single game their rookie year, and all three were offensive players. It wasn’t until 2013 that a defensive player started the majority of games in his rookie season, and wouldn’t you know it would be Vince Williams, who started 11 games in his rookie year because of the injury to Larry Foote. (The team tried lots of other options before settling on Williams.) Jarvis Jones, the first round pick, also started several games. And that seemed to open the floodgates, because at least one rookie defensive player has started for the Steelers every year since.

Of course, how they all turn out remains to be seen. It was easy to be excited about the 2008 draft when all but one pick made the roster, or 2009 when it looked like the Steelers had picked up a boatload of talent on the cheap. But there is little doubt that, by design, the Steelers are throwing the rookies into the fire. In fact, it seems entirely possible that the Steelers encouraged Dick LeBeau to get on with “his life’s work,” which turned out to still be coaching football, because Keith Butler was willing to amend his schemes to accomodate younger, less experienced players.

It certainly seems possible this year’s class will go down in Steelers history as one of the great ones. T.J. Watt did things this year that no other linebacker in the league did, rookie or no.  And that’s in a good way. Anybody still think he was overdrafted at No. 24?

JuJu Smith-Schuster looks like the heir apparent to Hines Ward, except faster. And his celebrations are soon going to be legendary. Cameron Sutton is contributing on defense despite spending most of training camp and more than half the season on IR. Go back and read that last sentence, and imagine that being written even three years ago. We have to pray we don’t require any contributions from Joshua Dobbs anytime soon, but Brian Allen has been making some on special teams, although he has taken some dumb penalties.

All in all, it’s easy to see there has been a sea change in how the young guys are used. I don’t know any way to determine whether this represents 1) better drafting, 2) drafting from the perspective of who can be the most immediately useful rather than who seems to have the biggest upside, or 3) whether the coaching staff has just gotten better at developing guys. This was the question I set out to explore, but the truth is, it’s pretty difficult to know. My personal opinion, which I can’t back up with any actual facts (which is why I’m a blogger and not a regular journalist—oh, wait…) is that it’s a combination of all three factors, with No. 3 having the most weight and No. 2 the least. But there is no doubt that Art II’s edict was heard.

3 comments

  • I think the trend to playing rookies more has to do with Butler rather than Lebeau being DC. IMO a good thing and In hindsight I think Lebeau stayed two years too long.

    Like

  • kick him in the head

    where is isaac redman anyways?

    Like

    • kick him in the head

      timing is a big factor too. when you have a strong team that’s used to playing together, someone has to fall off to give someone an opportunity to get snaps.

      Like

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