Getting an NFL start varies in importance based on a player’s position. Starting a game as a quarterback puts their statistics in a completely different category. Starting a game as an offensive lineman generally means you’re poised to play 100% of the snaps on that side of the ball. On defense, outside cornerback and safety often fall into the category of the starter playing the entire game.
To be considered a starter for the game in the NFL, a player simply has to be on the field for either the first offensive or defensive snap of the game. If it is their only snap, they are still deemed the starter. If a player misses the first snap and then comes on for every snap the rest of the game, they aren’t considered the starter. It’s simply how the classification works.
Because of this, there are several positions where a player might be a “starter” but not qualify to get the start for the game. Examples on offense are wide receiver, running back, fullback, and tight end which are positions where players could be on or off the field based on formation. On defense, positions such as nose tackle, slot corner, or even one of the linebackers could possibly be on the sideline based on the defensive call because of how the opponents offense takes the field. Specialists such as place kickers and punters don’t ever get credited with starts throughout their entire NFL careers.
Keeping these things in mind, I recently searched for players from the Pittsburgh Steelers who were drafted in the third round that started games the first week of their rookie season and remained the starter throughout most of the season.
After doing this breakdown, I was asked if I could expand into other rounds of draft picks and see how much players took the field. Without having to dig into each individual player, I simply looked for players who started every regular-season game during their rookie season. I only looked at official starts which kept certain players off the list.
To give an idea of some recent rookies who didn’t qualify as starting every game, seeing how things played out for those who just missed the cut might give a better idea of the actual information. For example, Devin Bush did not qualify for the list because he was not on the field for the first defensive snap of Week 2 of his rookie season. Instead, it was Vince Williams and Mark Barron. Because of this, Bush only started the other 15 games in 2019.
Another similar player is Terrell Edmunds in 2018 when he also did not start in Week 2 of the season. The Steelers inserted Morgan Burnett at the strong safety position after coming off of injury, but it was very short-lived as Edmunds was put back into the lineup for the remainder of the season.
Others recent “close calls” include T.J. Watt who missed Week 3 of his rookie season due to injury. A bit farther down the list was Javon Hargrave who only had 13 starts his rookie season but was the “starter” at nose tackle on the depth chart. With Hargrave it was simply a matter of the Steelers not opening the game with a nose tackle on the field.
To go back slightly farther, in 2005 Heath Miller started 15 games for the Steelers but was not the starter in Week 4 as Jerame Tuman was on the field at tight end in a run-heavy formation. Despite missing a regular-season start, Miller holds the franchise record for starts by a rookie with 19 since the Steelers had four postseason games in 2005.
Now that the explanation of the criteria has been thoroughly explained, how many Steelers started every game of their rookie season? I went back all the way to 1970, which includes eight seasons of only 14 games, and the answer was quite surprising...
There have been seven players on the Pittsburgh Steelers since the NFL merger who started every game as a rookie. Here they are in reverse chronological order:
2010 Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey came in as the 18th overall draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010 and was lined up to eventually take over the center position. After an outstanding training camp and preseason, Pouncey was the obvious best option for the Steelers at center from Week 1 onward his rookie year. Unfortunately, Pouncey started 18 total games as a rookie but missed his 19th, Super Bowl XLV, due to injury.
2001 Kendrell Bell
The Steelers second-round draft pick in 2001 went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Despite being on the field for the first snap of every game his rookie year, it was injury issues several seasons into his time in Pittsburgh which kept Bell from having an even better NFL career.
1992 Darren Perry
The lowest draft pick on this list as an eighth-round selection, safety Darren Perry started all 16 games as a rookie. It had been 14 years since a rookie had gone the distance for the Steelers.
1978 Ron Johnson
The Steelers first-round pick in 1978, cornerback Ron Johnson started every game as J.T. Thomas missed the season due to injury after starting every game for the Steelers the previous four years. Johnson played well as a rookie and was a part of two Super Bowl teams while Thomas made the move to free safety upon his return from injury.
1974 Jack Lambert
Despite being the most legendary draft class in both Steelers and NFL history, it was only second-round draft pick Jack Lambert who started every game for the Steelers as a rookie. In fact, the next closest rookie in starts in 1974 was John Stallworth with three as Lynn Swann only started two games and both Mike Webster and Donnie Shell started merely one game.
1971 Dwight White
Despite seven rookies getting at least one start for the Steelers in 1971, it was fourth-round pick Dwight White as the only player to start every game. Jack Ham started 13 of 14 games while safety Mike Wagner started 12.
1970 Ron Shanklin
Even though the Steelers had the first overall draft pick in 1970, it was the second-round pick of wide receiver Ron Shanklin who started all 14 games his first year with the Steelers. Terry Bradshaw started eight as a rookie while third round pick Mel Blount started 10 games.
So there are the seven players who are credited with starting every game the rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers going back to the 1970 NFL merger. Are there some surprises of players who did not qualify? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.