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Searching for the Steelers last third-round draft pick to be a Week 1 starter their rookie season

If Kendrick Green can win the starting center job to begin the 2021 season, whose footsteps will he be following?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Minicamp Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

On the most recent Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I dove into the topic of trying to find the last Pittsburgh Steelers third-round draft pick to be a Week 1 starter their rookie season. The exact criteria I was looking for was for a player who won their starting job the very first week and continued starting for the majority or the entirety of their rookie year. While there are some positions where players may not have been starters based on formations to start the game, I also attempted to look at the snap accounts to see how much playing time a player received.

To better show what I was looking for, 2020 third-round draft pick Alex Highsmith did not start until Week 12 of his rookie year. In his first week, Highsmith played 10 snaps and had one tackle.

One of the Steelers 2019 third-round draft picks, Diontae Johnson, was close to being the answer to the question. Johnson did start 12 games his rookie season, but did not start until Week 3. Additionally, Johnson only played 24 and 26 snaps respectively the first two weeks before seeing a big jump in playing time.

The answer to the most recent player who started in Week 1 of their rookie year as a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers is Chukwuma Okorafor in 2018. Okorafor technically got the start in his first NFL game, but it was because the Steelers started in their jumbo package as Okorafor was playing tight end. Okorafor only played 17 snaps in the game on offense and didn’t start again until Week 8 which was once again as a jumbo tight end. Ultimately, Okorafor did start and play all the offensive snaps for the Steelers in Week 12 of his rookie year.

As the search continues, they were plenty of players who weren’t even active their first week of the rookie season who were third-round draft picks. Players such as Justin Layne and Mason Rudolph were examples of those who were inactive while Cameron Sutton was injured to start his rookie season.

Another player who came close to fitting the requirements as being a starter in Week 1 their rookie season as a third-round draft pick was Jayvon Hargrave. Unfortunately, Hargrave did not technically start in Week 1 as he started in Week 2. Depending on the defensive package in which the Steelers started the game was the ultimate determination if Hargrave started the game or not. So while he could be considered a starter right off the bat, Hargrave only played 13 defensive snaps in his first game and only had 11 in Week 2 even when he was the starter. In fact, it was Week 5 of his rookie year before Hargrave saw more than 50% of the snaps on defense. For this reason, Hargrave does not fit is the answer to the question.

As I continued to look back and also compare the number of snaps players had their first week in the NFL as third-round draft picks for the Steelers, the highest percentage of anyone going back to 2012 was Diontae Johnson with 36% of the offensive snaps. Unfortunately, 2012 is where the snap counts cut off for Pro Football Reference. Therefore I was left merely looking at games started.

The next closest candidate goes back to 2007 with third-round draft pick Matt Spaeth. Although he had a touchdown in Week 1 of his rookie season, Spaeth didn’t start until Week 2 and then was inactive for the next two games. In all, Spaeth started six games in his rookie year and only had five receptions with three of them being touchdowns.

Going back all the way through the Kevin Colbert era to the year 2000, no other third-round draft picks came anywhere close to being a starter. In fact, 11 of the 26 players drafted in the third round by the Steelers from 2000 to 2020 were not active in a Week 1 of their rookie year. Of the 26 players, 15 of them never started a game as a rookie.

Moving on to attempt to answer the question, 1978 provided a possible solution in punter Craig Colquitt who appeared in all 16 games for the Steelers. While you could say this is the answer, punters technically do not start games so Colquitt never started a game in his NFL career.

The next player who came extremely close was tight end John McMakin in 1972. McMakin did not start in Week 1, but started the remaining 13 games of his rookie season.

While there are some players who were extremely close to fitting the criteria exactly, the last third-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who started Week 1 and continued to start for their rookie season was in 1953. Linebacker Marv Matuszak started all 12 of the Steelers game that season and was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Although he was a third-round draft pick, it should be noted that Matuszak was only the 29th overall selection as they were only 13 selections in the first round and 12 in the second round in 1953.

So there’s the answer for the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a player in the third round of the NFL draft who started Week 1 and remained the starter the entire season. So if Kendrick Green can earn the starting job at center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and hold the position for the entire season, it will be the first time in 68 years a third-round draft pick of the Steelers has managed to do so.

To hear the entire Steelers Stat Geek podcast, you can listen to the show in the player below.