Although I am not sure if many community members noticed the adjustment, but I changed my Rookie Review articles from a weekly to a quarterly release. The main reason for the schedule change was the projected usage for this year's rookie class.
In 2021, it quickly became apparent that the Steelers would have to rely heavily on their rookie class, due to the reduced salary cap and some surprising retirements and absences.
This offseason the Steelers utilized an abundance of available cap space to fill many of their glaring needs through free agency. The 2022 Steelers rookie class appears loaded with potential at first glance, with 6 of their 7 total selections making the final roster. However, few, if any, were projected into starting roles to begin the season.
The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers have four rookies either starting, or at least playing meaningful minutes. The Steelers have a couple of high profile draft picks out injured, and one late round pleasant surprise who made the roster but has hardly seen the field.
Here's some midseason observations, complete with first half grades for each player.
Kenny Pickett (1st Round)
Nobody really knows what Kenny Pickett can and will become, because his journey is just getting started, but his potential is impossible to miss. The athleticism, arm talent, intelligence, and anticipation are evident, but so is the charisma, swagger, and natural leadership qualities. Steelers Nation needs to brace for the roller coaster ride of emotions that comes with a rookie quarterback.
This is an excerpt pertaining to Kenny Pickett from my first quarter Rookie Review article. At that point of the season, he had only played the second half of the game against the New York Jets in relief of struggling starter Mitch Trubisky. The Steelers lost the game, but Pickett definitely delivered a much needed spark to the Steelers offense. As you can tell from my comment above, I was convinced that it was as good a time as any to make Pickett the starter, even though I fully realized the murders row of defenses he would be going up against during the next four games.
Character is often most clearly revealed in times of crisis and struggle. Hopefully Pickett's expected struggles against some of the top contending teams in the league only strengthened his resolve. He hasn't flinched when confronted by the media, or attempted to deflect blame for his numerous turnovers and mistakes. Pickett has missed numerous throws, or failed to see open reads altogether, in recent weeks. That tends to happen for rookie quarterbacks who lack any semblance of a running game, all while running for their life before throwing the rock over 40 times per game.
I have little doubt that better days are on the horizon for the young man, especially if he can find common ground with Matt Canada, and gain chemistry with a more focused skill position group.
First Half Grade: C+
George Pickens (2nd Round)
I noted in the last Rookie Review article that I expected Pickens to emerge with Pickett as the starting quarterback. That has happened, to a degree. It's obvious that Pickett and Pickens have started to develop a connection, but that connection has been stifled by extenuating circumstances.
The Steelers offensive focus in the first half of the season revolved around Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. They were considered the Steelers best offensive weapons going into the 2022 season. Their usage in Canada's offense has reflected that, with plenty of opportunities, but their efficiency has been extremely low. None came close to meeting expectations.
With Claypool no longer part of the equation, Pickens moves up a spot in the pecking order. Hopefully this proves improved clarity for the Steelers offense, and allows them to reassess and refocus their offensive attack more effectively around the talent at hand.
It's going to be up to Pickens to make the most of his increase in opportunities. The Pickett to Pickens connection is crucial for the Steelers offense this season, and beyond.
First Half Grade: B+
DeMarvin Leal (3rd Round)
I was very intrigued by Leal's performance during the first quarter of the season. He gave the Steelers meaningful minutes at both defensive end and on the edge when called upon. He seemed to be improving by the week, but then Leal suffered a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery, landing him on the injured reserve list prior to Week 6.
Leal's early season performance confirmed his intriguing tweener potential. He possesses solid athleticism and mobility, and admirable instincts and situational awareness for a rookie, evidenced by his multiple pass deflections in limited action. Leal competed well against NFL caliber offensive linemen, stoutly defending the run, and generating consistent pass rush pressure. He had entrenched himself in the defensive line rotation prior to the injury.
Recovery time for his injury is usually 4-8 weeks, which means Leal should be able to return to the field for the Steelers at some point in the next few weeks, where he should have ample opportunity to build on an impressive start to his professional career.
First Half Grade: B
Calvin Austin lll (4th Round)
In the first quarter Review, I was eagerly anticipating Austin being activated off the injured list and added to the roster. His elite level speed and elusiveness potentially could have helped open up the entire field for the Steelers offense. Obviously that scenario never materialized. He was lost for the season after undergoing Lisfranc surgery, never seeing the field of play, either in the preseason or regular season. Truly disappointing.
First Half Grade: N/A
Connor Heyward (6th Round)
Connor Heyward is slowly but surely starting to make his presence felt on the field for the Steelers, especially on special teams. A truly versatile performance, he would be even more effective if the Steelers offense had any semblance of an offensive identity, which they must certainly lack at the moment. He already displays Heyward level intensity.
First Half Grade: C
Mark Robinson (7th Round)
A talented prospect like Robinson should at least be cutting his teeth on kick coverage, with the occasional defensive snap thrown in. The opportunity might just reveal a diamond in the rough. Maybe he misses a coverage assignment or two over the middle. Like that's not already happening. Give the kid a chance, or continue with the status quo, and remain stagnant.
This is another short snippet from the first quarter Review article, and it is even more accurate and relevant today. Myles Jack is dealing with a knee injury, and maybe forced to miss the New Orleans Saints game this Sunday. That would leave Devin Bush and Robert Spillane as the starters, and Mark Robinson and Marcus Allen as the only depth at the position on the roster. This scenario is less than ideal. Allen is a converted safety, who's primary contributions are on special teams. Robinson has yet to see the field on defense.
This is the perfect example of why I keep stressing that the Steelers focus more of their energy on developing and utilizing all the young talent at their disposal. Let a youngster like Robinson get his first taste of NFL action during a handful of snaps in relief as part of the inside linebacker rotation. The Steelers have regrettably been blown out on a couple of occasions, which would have been the perfect opportunity to give your rookie depth some experience. That's the type of situation that a quality coaching staff for a rebuilding franchise takes full advantage of. Sadly, the Steelers failed to do so.
I will be excited for Robinson if he gets his first opportunity to contribute on defense for the Steelers this Sunday. I just wish for his sake that he would have already had some previous experience from which to build. The Steelers really do need to do better in this regard.
First Half Grade: N/A
Jaylen Warren (UDFA)
It feels like all of Steelers Nation desperately wants to see the explosive Warren get more opportunities, and it's easy to see why. Warren aggressively and immediately attacks north and south whenever he touches the football. His extremely decisive running style could work wonders for an offensive line struggling mightily to generate push and sustain blocks needed to create an effective running game. Warren is a stone cold killer in pass protection, and an accomplished receiver. The distribution of snaps for the Steelers running backs moving forward should have little to do with salary or draft pedigree, and everything to do with performance. That mentality is applicable for the whole Steelers rebuilding roster.
First Half Grade: A