Realistic Expectations for Every Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected eight players in the 2017 NFL draft, but that does not mean all eight rookies will have places on the team's final 53-man roster. Some will see playing time this season while others will serve as reserves or as members of the practice squad. Others still may be released outright, especially those drafted in later rounds who are not expensive—in terms of either cash or draft capital—to choose to move on from in a short span of time.
Though training camp and the Steelers' four preseason games will give us a better indication of just what we can expect from their eight drafted rookies in 2017, it's also not too early to put forth a few reasonable expectations for the group. Here's what we may see from the Steelers' latest draft class this season.
LB T.J. Watt
Linebacker T.J. Watt has only taken part in the Steelers' OTAs and minicamp to this point, but already the rookie is drawing rave reviews from his coaches and teammates alike.
Most recently, outside linebackers coach Joey Porter told PennLive's Jacob Klinger, "As many practices as we've had I can count how many mistakes [Watt has] made on one hand. And that's rare." This echoes inside linebacker Vince Williams' experience working alongside Watt thus far. Williams said to the NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala that Watt is "the most ready rookie [he's] ever seen."
It should be noted, though, that one reason for Watt's continued time working with the first-team defense—and thus being given every opportunity to impress—is that he's filling in for the veteran James Harrison, who doesn't need the work this time of year. And Porter also conceded that figuring out the outside linebacker rotation this year—with time split between Watt, Harrison, Arthur Moats, Bud Dupree and perhaps others—will have to wait until later in the summer.
But with Watt already proving quite a quick study, it's hard to imagine him off the field all that often, particularly as he gets more experienced.
Even first-round pass-rushers like Watt aren't 16-game starters as rookies, though, unless desperately needed to be. So while Watt should be able to appear in all of the Steelers' regular-season games, expect his starts to total around seven or eight. Still, that should net Watt around four to five sacks and 30 combined tackles as a rookie.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
With Antonio Brown locked down on a long-term deal, Martavis Bryant reinstated from his suspension and Sammie Coates working back to full health, the Steelers seem to have their depth chart set when it comes to their outside receivers. The true battle taking place this summer will be in the slot: Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the main competitors for the job.
Smith-Schuster confirmed to Klinger at OTAs in late May that that's where he's been lining up and often with the first team. Though the slot was not Smith-Schuster's primary home in college at USC, Pro Football Focus has noted it is a strong area of the field for him: Of the 19 slot passes thrown his way, Smith-Schuster caught 15, for 147 yards and three scores as well as a catch percentage of 78.9.
Still, 19 targets is a far cry from the 53 thrown to Rogers a season ago. And whether or not Smith-Schuster can reliably handle that much of a workload will determine if his first-team status continues through July's training camp.
Even if it doesn't, Smith-Schuster should still have some appreciable stats in his rookie season. For one, his size makes him a red-zone asset. And then there is his willingness to be physical over the middle. Rogers' continued presence, though, as well as the ways the Steelers will use tight end Jesse James and running back Le'Veon Bell as receivers, could hold Smith-Schuster back at times when the Steelers aren't looking for four wideouts on the field.
Should Smith-Schuster be the Steelers' go-to slot receiver, 60 receptions, 700 yards and five touchdowns could be in the cards. If he's not, he could have as few as 40 catches, 500 or so yards and something closer to three touchdowns.
CB Cameron Sutton
Rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton's 2017 contributions will depend heavily on where he ends up doing his best work in the secondary during training camp and in preseason games. Though the third-round draft pick should have no trouble making the Steelers' 53-man roster, how and when he is used at this point could be anyone's guess. He could put up starting-caliber numbers, he could be a backup, he could be used situationally and he could return punts.
Thus far, Sutton has been working on the outside most often during OTAs and minicamp. Should that remain the case over the course of the summer, he'd spend most of his rookie year as a backup to Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell, before perhaps supplanting Cockrell in 2018.
But defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said (via Steelers Nation Radio, h/t Steelers Depot) that moving Sutton into the slot during training camp is also a possibility. Sutton has the skills to play all over the field in both man-to-man and zone coverage (the former being a focus of the defense this offseason and a major reason why the team drafted Sutton). Sheer talent may just have Sutton on the field more often than he's off it.
If the slot becomes his home over the summer, he'd be battling with the likes of William Gay, Senquez Golson, fellow rookie Brian Allen and perhaps even Coty Sensabaugh—and that's a battle Sutton may be able to win quickly. In that case, a realistic statistical prediction for Sutton's rookie year is 50 to 60 tackles, two or three interceptions and 10 passes defensed.
Sutton could also return punts—he returned 46 for 657 yards and three scores in three of his four years at Tennessee. If that becomes his job alone, expect around 23 punts returned for 200 yards and one score.
RB James Conner
Though third-round draft pick James Conner has been a very limited participant in the Steelers' offseason thus far, thanks to a hamstring injury, there is little doubt he won't make the 53-man roster by summer's end and spend his rookie year as the primary backup to Le'Veon Bell.
But Bell is a workhorse in every sense of the word. Of the Steelers' combined 409 rushing attempts last season, only 148 were not Bell's. Bell also made up 1,268 of the Steelers' 1,760 rushing yards and scored seven of the team's 13 rushing scores. On top of that, Bell was also Pittsburgh's second-leading receiver, with 75 catches on 94 targets for 616 yards and two scores.
Thus, the most realistic expectation for Conner's rookie year is a stat line similar to 2016's backup, DeAngelo Williams. Williams rushed 98 times for 343 yards and four scores, while catching 18 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
But Conner could be more of an asset in the passing game than Williams. For example, Conner had 21 catches a year ago as a Pitt Panther, for 302 yards and four scores. Now, Conner is joining an offense that ranked in the top 10 in pass attempts a season ago. Thus, his 102 projected carries for 378 yards and four scores could be augmented by another 30 receptions for 350 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Conner also is ready to be a special teams contributor, saying via the Steelers' official website, "I am going to try and learn all of the special teams, all four phases, and see if I can make an impact and try to earn a role on special teams for sure." So, Conner could end his rookie year with a few tackles to his name as well.
QB Josh Dobbs
When the Steelers drafted Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs in the fourth round this spring, it was the first time the team had selected a quarterback since taking Landry Jones in 2013. The question on everyone's minds: Will Dobbs do enough in his first summer in the NFL to take Jones' job and send Jones to No. 3 on the depth chart behind starter Ben Roethlisberger?
As of now, the answer appears to be no. In fact, Steelers.com's Bob Labriola said flatly, "There is no battle," at least not in 2017. This means that Jones will be Roethlisberger's backup and, barring injury, Dobbs will be the third-string quarterback.
As the third string, there will be a spot on the 53-man roster for Dobbs this year. But there won't be a spot for him on the 46-man game-day roster. The Steelers don't dress a third quarterback unless something particular warrants it, and unless that is the case this year, Dobbs will have to wait to suit up in a regular-season game until at least 2018. Dobbs does not project to have any appreciable stats in his rookie season.
CB Brian Allen
The roster fate of fifth-round cornerback Brian Allen is one that is not entirely in the rookie's hands. With so many cornerbacks currently with the team and nearly an equal amount of questions surrounding who will start—particularly in the slot—and who will play backup to whom, summer's training camp and four preseason games will weigh heavily upon the coaches' pending decisions.
Allen is an interesting case. A life-long wide receiver, in 2015, Utah moved him to cornerback, where he had 62 combined tackles, one sack, four interceptions and nine passes defensed over two years. He's also 6'3", much bigger than is typical for Pittsburgh's defensive backs, and, it may be argued, that will allow him to be more physical and to, in his words to Steelers.com (via Steelers Depot), "disrupt the receiver any way [he] can."
But Allen's lack of experience playing defense means he has some catching up to do when it comes to his tackling technique in particular. If he can clean it up considerably this summer—and other veteran cornerbacks fall to the wayside talent-wise—Allen could find himself on the Steelers' 53-man roster.
What seems more realistic, though, is for Allen to begin the year on the practice squad and perhaps see a call-up to the 53-man roster later in the year in response to injuries and other personnel moves. Should that be the case, Allen would then be in line for around 13 combined tackles and two to three passes defensed while being used in a limited capacity.
LS Colin Holba
When the Steelers opted to use a sixth-round draft pick on the long snapper position—one typically filled by the undrafted rookie pool—it indicated that Greg Warren, the man who had held the job in Pittsburgh since 2005, may be lacking job security. Indeed, that was the case, with the Steelers' releasing Warren in May on a failed physical designation.
That does not mean the long snapping job is Holba's without a fight. Kameron Canaday was re-signed after an early May release, and the relative veteran will be providing competition for the rookie.
Still, it seems as though Holba will win out once it's time to pare down the roster. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert had clear reasons for using a draft pick on Holba, telling the media that "not many come along that are that size who are competent snappers" and noting that "college snappers are these 6-1, 215-220-pound guys, which really would have a hard time snapping and blocking in our league." Holba, meanwhile, is 6'4" and 248 pounds.
Draft resources having been spent on Holba automatically gives him an advantage over Canaday. Thus, expect Holba to be the Steelers' starting long snapper this year and potentially to have as much roster longevity as Warren did before him.
LB Keion Adams
The fact that linebacker Keion Adams was a seventh-round pick this year does not mean there isn't room for him on the Steelers' 53-man roster this season or, barring that, a spot on the practice squad.
In recent years, the Steelers have found all manner of defensive contributors in later rounds, including Tyler Matakevich (seventh round, 2016), L.T. Walton and Anthony Chickillo (sixth round, 2015), Daniel McCullers (sixth round, 2014) and Vince Williams (sixth round, 2013). That fact alone should be of some comfort for Adams as his first NFL training camp approaches.
But the depth chart above him doesn't allow for much movement. Chickillo, Arthur Moats, James Harrison, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt are but five reasons why Adams may not manage more than a backup role should he make the 53-man roster this year.
Even more likely still is that Adams' rookie season will at least start on the practice squad, with Chickillo's career path—added to the practice squad in early September 2015, promoted to the active roster at the end of that month and totaling 19 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in seven starts in 2016—presently appearing to be his best-case scenario for short-term success.
While Adams has speed and athleticism, neither are as yet impressive enough to see him make a major jump up the depth chart in short order. And even with the Steelers' recent willingness to hold on to late-round defensive players, Adams' seventh-round status means there can be no laurels-resting this summer. It will be hard work for Adams even to get enough practice snaps to turn heads in a positive manner.