I came across an article the other day asking if it's too early to label second-year OLB Jarvis Jones a bust. Yes, the same Jarvis Jones the Steelers selected with the 17th pick overall in last year's NFL draft.
My initial thought was "of course it's too early." Several reasons began swirling in my head as to why the thought of Jones being a bust is a ridiculous notion at this stage of his young career.
There's nothing to worry about with Jarvis Jones.
First, let's take into account the fact that rookies do not usually see significant playing time in Dick LeBeau's defense, although it looks like that trend will be broken this season. Jones was forced into action in 2013 when LaMarr Woodley went down with an injury.
This led to Jones playing an astounding 636 snaps as a rookie, and logging over 350 pass rushes. Given the amount of time he was on the field, his statistics weren't all that impressive - Jones had 1 sack and 40 tackles.
From 1977 to 2012, the Steelers selected a linebacker only twice in the first round of the draft. Talk about added pressure on top of being thrown into the fire far quicker than normal for a rookie on defense.
It's known very well in the annals of NFL folklore that Dick LeBeau's defense is one of the most complex to grasp, however. Jones' play in 2013 displays perfectly why rookies don't start for LeBeau that often. The mental part of the 3-4 zone blitz scheme can be too much for a young player to master right away. I believe Jones fell victim to this last season.
Taking a look back through the 2000's up until right now, there are several players who became productive starters and/or stars on the Steelers' defense after seeing scarce playing time their rookie seasons. This is the reason I believe it's way too early to think Jones won't develop into the player the Steelers envision.
Take the following examples, for instance:
OLB James Harrison was released three times by the Steelers from 2002 to 2004. He only started eight games from 2002 to 2006. Yet in 2007, he won the starting job and the rest is history. People worry that Jones only weighing 240 pounds will hinder his ability, yet Harrison played at 242 pounds.
SS Troy Polamalu didn't start a single game during his 2003 rookie season. After taking a year to learn and develop, he became arguably the best safety of this generation.
CB Ike Taylor only started two games in his first two seasons, then became a full-time starter in 2005. He lost his job briefly in 2006, then regained it in 2007. He's been a constant in the Steelers' secondary ever since.
ILB Lawrence Timmons only started two games in his first two seasons after being drafted in the first round in 2007. He was moved from OLB to full-time ILB in 2009, and has been one of the best players on the defense since.
OLB LaMarr Woodley didn't start a single game his rookie year of 2007, then went on to become one of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL from 2008 to 2011. He is no longer with the Steelers, but taking a year to learn really helped Woodley thrive when called upon to start.
DE Cam Heyward didn't start a game until his third season with the Steelers, which was last year. After sitting the bench for two seasons, Heyward had a breakout campaign in 2013.
OLB Jason Worilds didn't get a chance to start until last year, and he came through with a breakout season just like Heyward.
All of these players benefited from not being thrown right into the fire, but taking the time to learn the scheme and develop. This luxury was not afforded to Jarvis Jones last year.
If history is any indication, Jones is primed to make a leap in 2014. While his performance wasn't overly great in 2013, the experience he gained is invaluable. Once the mental part of the game slows down for him, I fully expect Jones to develop into the pass rush specialist he's supposed to be, and help the Steelers return to the upper echelon of NFL defenses.