On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I was asked to compare the number of starts by the Steelers 2021 rookies versus other years. With the reduced salary cap for the 2021 season due to so many empty stadiums in 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers were put in a difficult situation where they could not fill all their holes in free agency prior to the NFL draft. For that reason, the Steelers utilized a lot of rookies last season. But exactly how much they were called on compared to prior years was quite shocking.
Before diving into the numbers, it should be noted that the years I looked at went back to 2007, so it would be considered the Mike Tomlin era. Additionally, the specific question I was asked was dealing with drafted players, so undrafted rookies were not included. While it would have been possible to do a study in this way, it also would have been much more difficult as a player’s rookie season is determined when they play a game which could be three years after they came into the NFL if they land on a practice squad. For this reason, players were classified in the year in which they were drafted.
The Steelers selected nine players in the NFL draft in 2021 with eight players made the roster and appeared in a regular season game at some point throughout the season. This number was more than any other season under Mike Tomlin when it came to the total number of drafted players seeing the field their rookie season. While there were other seasons that were close with seven players, such as 2019 and 2010, 2021 was just ahead. As for games played by those players, the Steelers total of 115 games in 2021 was, by far, the most. In fact, it was 39 more games than any team under Mike Tomlin. Yes, the Steelers had more players to get those games, but the average of 14.4 games per player was the most compared to the next highest of 13.0 games for players in both 2016 and 2011.
Of course, it has to be pointed out that 2021 did see an increase of games for the regular season from 16 to 17. Even if one game is taken away from the average of 2021, a 13.4 average would still be the highest in the Mike Tomlin era.
When it comes to starting games as rookies, the Steelers had an unprecedented six players drafted in 2021 start a game in the same season. What should also be noted is that punter Pressley Harvin III was not one of those players. Being a punter, even though Harvin held the starting job for 15 games in the regular season, it does not qualify as starting the game in the NFL.
So where does the six players getting a start in at least one game fall in recent years? The only other season which came close is where five drafted rookies started at least one game in 2013. There were several other seasons in which the Steelers had four drafted rookies start games with those years being 2018, 2016, 2014, and 2012.
But the biggest number of them all was the number of games started by the Steelers drafted rookies in 2021. With 62 starts coming from six rookies in 2021, the rookies started an average of 10.3 games per player who managed to crack the starting lineup. Additionally, looking at 2021 having 17 games, if the number of starts was adjusted by a 5.88% decrease to project a 16-game season, it’s still would have had these players starting approximately 58 games.
Over the last 15 seasons, the next most total starts by drafted rookies came in 2013 with 35. Even the 2020 draft class which saw every draft pick make the team and appear in a game the rookie season for the first time in franchise history, it was only 15 total starts between the six players. To really put the 62 game started by 2021 in perspective, there were four seasons in which the drafted rookies started single-digit total games their first year. In 2015 the Steelers only had seven starts from two rookies while in 2009 it was eight starts from three players. The two years with the lowest numbers were in 2008, which saw one start from one player, and 2007 with five starts from one player.
As for the number of rookies who started double-digit games, the Steelers had three in Najee Harris (17), Dan Moore Jr. (16), and Kendrick Green (15). Pat Freiermuth just missed the cutoff with nine starts, but that still means he started more than half the games his rookie season. So to put that number into perspective, the Steelers had as many draftees start at least half the games their rookie season than 13 of the 14 seasons under Mike Tomlin had drafted rookies starting any games. Additionally, Pat Freiermuth, the drafted rookie with the fourth-most starts for the Steelers in 2022, had more starts than the combined rookie class in four of the previous 14 seasons.
Although the data I compiled only went back through the Mike Tomlin era due to time constraints, it went to show that the Steelers did do something unusual during this time. Having to call on the rookies more than ever, and the fact the Steelers still made it to the postseason, hopefully the experience gained will only help the team moving forward.
For a complete breakdown of the numbers and more, check out the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: