The Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 offseason was more unusual than the team has been accustomed to in recent years. Although the Steelers are generally not a team who has a lot of salary cap space, the decrease in the cap last offseason made matters even worse. Struggling to fill holes in free agency, as they typically would do, the Steelers called on their 2021 NFL Draft class more than they have in previous years.
How much more?
The Pittsburgh Steelers had more players who they drafted in the same year start at least half of the games than they have had in any year under head coach Mike Tomlin. In fact, in Tomlin’s 15 seasons, seven of them saw none of the team’s draft picks start half of the games their rookie season. The Steelers simply try to ease their players in over time, but with the number of holes the Steelers ended up in 2021 they had four of their draft picks start more than half of the games this past season.
Before going any further, the Steelers had a historic rookie class in 2020. It was the first time in franchise history where every draft pick appeared in a game for the Steelers at any point in their career, and they all did so as rookies. Even though the Steelers 2020 draft class pulled off this feat, they didn’t have any players who started half the games in as rookies.
To my surprise, the NFL had fewer draft picks in 2021 start at least half the games during their rookie season than they had in the previous three seasons. With 54 players, 32 on offense and 22 defense, starting nine games or more last year, it was down four players from the previous year and eight from the season before. With the salary cap situation, it appears most teams did not have to take the same route as the Steelers did and call on the draft picks to such a degree.
For 2021, the Steelers four draft picks who started half the games was tied with the New York Jets. The previous season, there were two teams in the Minnesota Vikings in Carolina Panthers who had four rookies start at least half their games while the Miami Dolphins had five. Of all these teams, the Steelers were the only one with a winning record, don’t even talk about making the postseason. The last team to have four rookies start at least half their games and have a winning record was the 2019 San Francisco 49ers who had Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Justin Skule, and Dre Greenlaw all started at least eight games while going 13–3.
It should also be noted that rookie punter Pressley Harvin III did not qualify as one of the four players, as punters don’t get starts in the NFL. The four players for the Steelers were Najee Harris with 17 starts, Pat Freiermuth with nine starts, Kendrick Green with 15 starts, and Dan Moore Jr. with 16 starts. The Steelers did have two other 2021 draft picks start games as rookies with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Tre Norwood.
Under Steelers Mike Tomlin, there have been two other seasons where the Steelers had three draft picks start at least half the games as rookies. In Tomlin‘s first six seasons with the Steelers, the only draft picks who started the majority of the games were Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and Marcus Gilbert in 2011. In 2013, the Steelers had three draft picks start half the games in Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell, and sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams, who had to fill-in for the injured Larry Foote. The other season in which the Steelers had three draft picks start half the games was in 2016 with Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave. The only other time in the Tomlin era the Steelers had more than one draft pick start half the games as a rookie was in 2019 with Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson.
A question many Steelers fans are wondering is if they will be in the same boat yet again in 2022. With more salary cap space than they have ever had in recent years, the Steelers may be able to fill a lot of needs in free agency. But until both the free agency period and the 2022 NFL Draft are complete, it’s anyone’s guess as to how much the Steelers will be calling on their 2022 draftees. But with a lot of experience going to the 2021 Steelers draft class, hopefully they can help make a big difference this coming season.