Last season the 2017 draft class had several players take big steps forward in their second season, with T.J. Watt leading the team in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles, JuJu Smith-Schuster leading the team in receiving, and James Conner leading the team in rushing, and all three making the Pro Bowl. This year the Steelers are looking to several of last year’s rookies, the class of 2018, to take a big step forward in their second year. So far, in this preseason, they are doing it.
Terrell Edmunds – Edmunds has played a lot of roles in this preseason, manning up on Tyreek Hill and Mike Evans on the opening plays of the first two games, playing deep safety in cover 1 and even lining up as a Will LB in certain defensive sets. In the first two games he has been targeted in coverage once, a switch where he picked up the receiver while Hilton blitzed against Tampa, a pass he broke up in the end zone. No other passes have been thrown his way, or even in his vicinity when he’s been playing zone. QB’s looking his way end up following their progression away from No. 34. He has some solo tackles and good run fills, with only one missed tackle on a play where he sniffed out a screen but couldn’t wrap up the receiver, but his interference bought time for others to get there and the play gained 2 yards.
Edmunds draws comparisons to Troy Polamalu, largely due to his athleticism, the position he plays and the team and fans both looking for an increase in splash plays, but Edmunds reminds me of a different Steeler Safety, Carnell Lake. Lake didn’t create a lot of splash plays, but he was very good and incredibly versatile, a key component of the great defenses of Cowher’s early tenure. Edmunds needs to show that he can be that type of player for the Steelers, a mismatch-canceling DB who can do whatever is asked of him in the regular season when the games count, because he’s already showing he can do it all in the preseason.
James Washington – After a forgettable rookie campaign James Washington has been the heart of the Steelers’ passing offense this preseason. His stat line is impressive: 8 receptions on 10 targets for 162 yards and a TD. Rudolph and Dobbs have a combined 152.1 passer rating when throwing to James Washington, and a 68.4 passer rating on passes to everyone else. Washington accounts for four of the six 20+ yard passes Rudolph and Dobbs have thrown; Johnny Holton and Eli Rogers had the other 2.
I know that Washington’s stats last preseason were also impressive, but almost all of that was in the second half of games and his stats from the first half of those games, 2 receptions on 6 targets for 8 yards, were not good. Those stats reflect his stat lines in the first half of the season when he had 7 receptions on 19 targets for 66 yards and 1 TD in 7 games. This year’s stats are mostly in the first half and are much more reminiscent of his impressive step up in December of last season when he had 8 receptions on 13 targets for 140 yards. Once you look below the surface you see that last year James was over-matched against NFL talent, but stood out among the bottom of the depth chart players. This year he is standing out while facing NFL talent.
The growth from James Washington is real, and the only remaining thing we need to see from Washington is him playing with Ben. I don’t have any worries about Ben and James producing. Ben and James didn’t produce for most of 2018, but they were finding it in December. James is creating more space than he was last season, and showing the hands he’s always shown, and Ben will throw to anyone if they get open and catch the ball.
Mason Rudolph – He’s clearly winning the QB battle with Dobbs, and has shown a lot of growth from his rookie year in his poise and footwork, and that translates into better passes. The big question for Rudolph is can he have success throwing to WRs not named James Washington. Rudolph has completed 14 passes this preseason, and while only 4 of those were to James Washington, the 4 to Washington account for half his passes longer than 6 yards. Starting the second game with JuJu, Donte Moncrief and Eli Rogers as his receivers, Vance at TE and James Conner at RB he completed 3 passes on 7 attempts for 14 yards, he took a sack and threw for one first down. It is clear he still has great chemistry with James Washington, but we need to see him build chemistry with other receivers or our passing game risks becoming very predictable if Rudolph has to take over.
Chukwuma Okorafor – He’s been getting a lot of snaps in the preseason, and getting them early in the games. It is clear the Steelers are investing in him a lot and intend for him to play a bigger role this season. I can’t do any better at evaluating Chuk’s performance than CHISAP did in his piece earlier this week. He covers his growth, struggles, potential and what we need to see from him still, so with nothing substantial to add to it, I suggest you go read it if you haven’t already.
Marcus Allen - Marcus played better in the second preseason game, but it is telling that it came at the end of the game. He entered the game on defense for the second drive of the 4th quarter. He made his presence felt, forcing a fumble and playing much better in coverage. The fourth safety spot still seems up for grabs, it will be important to see if Allen can make the 53; if he doesn’t, it won’t be a good sign for his career at all.
Jaylen Samuels – After a rookie season spent mostly watching the action from the bench Samuels took over for James Conner against Oakland where he collected 92 yards, then exploded for a huge game against the Patriots with 172 yards, almost 44% of the team’s total offense. This preseason, in limited touches, he has been very productive. Samuels has gained 47 yards and a TD on 6 carries and added a catch for 9 yards. He’s looked quicker and much more comfortable as a RB, like he’s more than ready to take some of the load off of Conner and give the Steelers a 2-headed monster at RB.
This is important because while Conner ranked 11th in carries and yards and 8th in yards per game, the Steelers as a team ranked 31st in carries and yards despite ranking 5th in total offensive plays. If we are going to run the ball more this year, we will need to give a good number of carries to our second RB. The Steelers were 80 carries (5 runs a game) away from 10th in the league in rush attempts, if Jaylen Samuels can get even 100 carries we can bring greater balance the offense and reduce the wear on Conner. And while we’re used to Tomlin using one back around here, in the 6 years Tomlin coached the Steelers before Bell was drafted the Steelers had multiple 100 carry backs 4 times, and time lost to injury only accounts for 1 of those seasons.
All we really need to see with Jaylen is him getting the opportunity to produce. I think he’s earned it and will get it.
Joshua Frazier - The last pick from 2018 is the only one not on the roster currently. After failing to make the Steelers roster he spent time on Detroits practice squad and was in the AAF before an injury ended his hopes in that league.
While only one of the seven draft picks from this class is a lock or even a favorite to start, four players from this draft look to start the season as top reserves and aside from Rudolph who we hope doesn’t need to play, should all see a good number of snaps.
While the Steelers’ 2018 draft class is highly unlikely to rival what 2017’s class did in their second year, there are several players poised to make increased contributions to the Steelers this year. If the 2019 season is going to have a better result than 2018 did, the growth of the 2018 draft class will play a significant part in the improvement.