Wednesday, the NFL announcement that weeks 1 and 4 of the preseason will not take place. It wasn't too much of a surprise given the cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game last week and the importance of limiting contact between teams as much as possible. Still, the Steelers went from having five preseason games on the schedule to just two in a matter of days. The lost time will certainly have an impact on all NFL players as they prepare for the 2020 season, but none will be hit harder than this years class of rookies.
The jump from college football to the NFL is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. While some positions, like running back, have easier transitions, all rookies have to adjust to facing bigger, faster, and stronger players. On top of that, they also have to learn a completely new playbook and system that is likely very different from the one they were used to in college. Preseason is usually their chance to adapt and get used to the next level of play before the real season begins. Needless to say, a shortened preseason will cut significantly into the much needed experience these rookies will acquire.
In some circumstances, rookies don't need the preseason because they can use their first full regular season to get comfortable. However, many of the Steelers 2019 draft picks weren't able to enjoy that luxury, and were immediately thrust into action. In those cases the preseason certainly played a crucial role in their development. For example, Devin Bush, who ended up leading the team in tackles, played a significant number of snaps to help him get accustomed to playing in the Steelers defensive scheme. In Week 1 of last years preseason, he hardly left the field until the second half. Diontae Johnson also got a solid amount of playing time and scored a touchdown in preseason Week 2 which helped him prepare to lead the team in receptions. While this year’s class of rookies was already unlikely to be forced onto the field quite so early, the lack of preseason playing time will push back their development even further, and they may not see substantial playing time at all this year.
The Steelers 2020 draft class is headlined by wide receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, running back Anthony McFarland Jr, and offensive guard Kevin Dotson. The Steelers already have solidified starters at each of these positions, so luckily, pending an injury none of these players should be needed until later in the season. However, under normal circumstances, McFarland and Claypool would have received a few snaps here and there in early in the schedule, and now, that will likely not be the case. On the defensive side of the ball, Highsmith had a solid shot at earning some snaps whenever Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt needed a break, but given the shortened preseason, those responsibilities will likely fall to Olasunkanmi Adeniyi for the first few weeks. Don't be surprised if the rookies don't start to contribute on the field the way last years class did until later into the regular season.
Fortunately, the Steelers will likely not be as heavily affected by the change as some other teams across the league. For starters, they traded away their first round draft pick to get Minkah Fitzpatrick which means they do not have to worry about getting a first round talent ready for opening day. Instead, they will go into Week 1 knowing the free safety position is being held down by an All-Pro. Additionally, the Steelers are returning 82.4% of their snaps from last season, good for the fifth highest number in the league. This means they had very little roster turnover so most of the players are already accustomed to playing in Pittsburgh. Though players fighting for a spot on the roster, and those learning the playbook, will be put at a disadvantage due to the shortened preseason, it could ultimately be an advantage for the team as a whole. Where teams like the Browns and Ravens spent big money and draft picks to buff up their starting lineups, the Steelers kept most of their 2019 roster together, and it could pay off big time come September.
How much of an impact do you think the shortened preseason will have on this year's rookies? And on the league as a whole? Let us know in the comments.