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Don’t hold it against the Steelers’ rookies who were forced to start in 2021

After several of the team’s draft picks were thrown into starting roles early, expecting them to already be great was a lot to ask.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The 2020 NFL season was unprecedented in many ways. With teams playing in empty stadiums and games being moved around and taking place on Wednesday afternoons, it was a situation in which any reasonable person would not want to return.

But the 2020 season also led to an unprecedented 2021 in the NFL. Due to the lack of revenue, the salary cap took a huge dive for the first time and left a number of teams scrambling to come up with a solution. While the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to make things work, they were also forced to do some unconventional maneuvers.

Having nine selections in the 2021 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw six of those draft picks start games for them during the rookie season. This number does not include punter Pressley Harvin III, who was the Steelers’ starting punter for 15 games his rookie year, simply because a punter does not technically start in any game. The only other two players to not get starts for the Steelers was Quincy Roche, who did have three starts for the New York Giants who claimed him off waivers when he did not make the Steelers 53-man roster, and Buddy Johnson, who only appeared in four games for the Steelers as he dealt with injury during his first season.

In another unprecedented move, the Steelers saw four of their draft picks start more than half the games of their rookie season. While it wasn’t surprising to see first-round draft pick Najee Harris thrown into the starting running back role, what came as more of a surprise was third-round draft pick Kendrick Green and fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. being starters the first week of the season on the offensive line.

Even second-round draft pick Pat Freiermuth had the luxury of easing into his NFL career over the first few weeks of the season. It wasn’t until Week 6 of 2021 when Freiermuth saw more than 33 snaps in a game. But as for Dan Moore and Kendrick Green, they were thrust into things very early in their careers.

Dan Moore Jr. was the first rookie to start for the season at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers in more than 60 years. Having the second-most offensive snaps on the team only behind Trai Turner, there were questions leading up to training camp as to whether or not Moore would even be receiving a helmet on game day. But with Zach Banner suffering a setback in returning from his knee injury, Moore was called upon much sooner than anticipated.

While Dan Moore Junior was called on due to an injury as much as anything, Kendrick Green seemed to be more of a ‘starter by default’ his rookie season. Whether it was due to salary cap constraints or simply an oversight by the front office, Kendrick Green was forced to be ‘the guy’ at center whether he was ready to play or not.

When it comes to the Steelers 2021 rookies, particularly Green and Moore, Steelers’ Nation should not hold it against these players that they were forced into action so early in their careers. As Steelers fans have seen time and time again, the organization does not want to rush its rookies into action and inhibit their development if it can be avoided. Unfortunately, in 2021 it was necessary.

Yes, Najee Harris was called on in a big way as a rookie. But the nature of his position, and the fact he was a first-round draft pick, it was expected. Pat Freiermuth was ready to go and still was eased into the amount of snaps he was asked to log early in 2021. But for Green and Moore, they were thrown to the fire partially because they play a position where snaps come more on an ‘all or nothing’ basis.

While many Steelers’ fans understand the growth that is needed for these two young offensive lineman, too many are quick to rush to judgment and have already pegged their careers and successes or failures. In what universe would the Pittsburgh Steelers cut a third-round draft pick after their rookie season, one in which they started 15 games? Yet this is what some fans want before these players have even taken one snap in pads for the 2022 season.

First, let’s look at Kendrick Green’s situation and what could have been in a typical rookie season. What if the Steelers would have been able to bring in a ‘bridge’ center and allow their third-round draft pick to develop in the way they typically do? There would have been a good chance that Kendrick Green would not have been called into action until about 10 weeks into the season when Kevin Dotson went down. Perhaps at that time he would have got a chance to play some guard as the Steelers shuffled a number of players into the position for the remainder of the season. But getting at least half the season under his belt before having to take any meaningful snaps might have fans encouraged about the future. For all we know, the Steelers may have not even felt the need to sign Mason Cole in the offseason. Or, based on his play to finish the year, the Steelers would have realized that they did need to make the move. Either way, fans may have been a lot more encouraged about what Green could offer down the road rather than writing him off at some insist on doing.

Now let’s look at Dan Moore. If things would have gone as planned for the Steelers at the tackle position when they headed to training camp, Moore likely would have been inactive on game days throughout the season. Whether or not the Steelers would have been satisfied with their tackle play and called on Moore at some point to see if he could get the job done is a question no one would be able to answer. But knowing that they could have done it at the time of their choosing rather than Moore being the unquestionable starter in Week 1 could have changed things either for the positive or the negative.

While forcing these players into action sooner than expected did give them valuable experience and playing time, it also exposed them to unnecessary scrutiny by a fan base who has some members who jump to unnecessary conclusions.

The story for both of these players is just getting started. These players may not have even completed the first chapter of the novel that is their NFL career. Remember this when already placing judgment and trying to get them out of the starting lineup or even off the team before they head to training camp. And even though the Steelers added more players to the position group, and possibly still could add even more, is not an indictment to their skill. If anything, it’s an indictment on how little the Steelers could do last offseason when it came to shaping their roster. But if nothing else, fans should be excited about the potential growth of these players.

Let’s try to give these players a chance to grow in 2022, something they weren’t afforded in their rookie seasons.