The Steelers 2022 NFL Draft class has been working for months to prepare for their first NFL season, from rookie minicamp, through organized team activities to training camp. While they have been putting in a lot of work, Steeler fans have only had the chance to see them in individual drills and team practice sessions. But on Saturday, August 13th the new class of Steelers will get their first chance to play in game action against an actual opponent. In this first game of the pre-season, what do we, as fans, need to see and what should we look for from the Steeler rookies?
Kenny Pickett - Executing the offense in rhythm.
The Steelers first round pick brings a lot of hype and attention as he is the first quarterback to be drafted in the first round since the Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger in the first round in 2004. But while his position in the draft and on the field bring big expectations, what I need to see from Kenny Pickett in his first preseason action is his ability to stay cool and execute the offense in spite of the attention he will be receiving. While I’d love to see Pickett light the field on fire with some big plays, what I need to see is that he can read the defense and run the offense. Pickett needs to get a feel for the game, let it come to him and don’t force things.
George Pickens - Make a big play or two.
Pickens has been making flashy plays in camp almost every day, and that’s what I want to see in the preseason, too. The Steelers don’t need George Pickens to be their #1 receiver; they don’t need him to be a guy who gets open reliably and runs the full route tree. The Steelers passing game has lacked big plays, and that’s why Pickens was drafted. I don’t need to see him looking like Randy Moss, but if he is able to create big-play threat it will benefit the rest of the offense, just like Mike Wallace benefited the entire offense in 2009 and Martavis Bryant similarly in 2014. Getting downfield and making a play on the ball is going to be far more important than his ability to run all the routes.
DeMarvin Leal - Be a disruptor.
The Steelers added to their defensive line depth this offseason, and despite being a third-round pick, there isn’t a need for Leal to play a lot of snaps. The ideal role early on for Leal would be a rotational lineman in clear passing situations. That’s why I want to see Leal beating lineman and disrupting the offense when he gets in. I don’t need to see him be an every-down lineman that reads the play and can handle all the different run defense responsibilities right away. I want to see a player that can cause some havoc.
Calvin Austin III - Show you can be an NFL wide receiver.
Calvin Austin III is ridiculously quick with top-tier speed. But the big question with Austin III is his size. What I want to see from Austin III is his ability to deal with physical coverage. I want to see him get off the line of scrimmage when they try to jam him and more than that, I want to see him establish his route against physical defense. If he can handle the physical coverage of the NFL and still run his route he’s going to be an impactful player. If he can’t, then the Steelers will need to manufacture opportunities for him, and that isn’t nearly as impactful for the offense.
Connor Heyward - Where and when will he play?
A big thing to watch for with the younger Heyward brother is when he gets on the field, and in what roles he plays. Heyward could be a largely special teams player in 2022 who sees the field only as a third tight end, or he could earn a larger role as a sneaky weapon for Matt Canada. If we see Canada trying out Heyward in the slot, at fullback, running back, and H-back roles he could very well win a bigger role in the offense. We’ll have to see what the Steelers see in him right now, and Saturday is the first chance to see it.
Mark Robinson - How fast can he develop?
As a seventh-round pick that is relatively new to the linebacker position, Mark Robinson is not likely to see many snaps early in the game. When he does get in, I want to see some of the instincts and play making he flashed in college. His potential as a run stopper and blitzer is intriguing, and I want to see him show it in a game. The other thing to watch for is his ability in coverage. In college Robinson didn’t look like he really understood what he was doing in coverage, but the word out of training camp is he has been good in coverage. If he can show competence covering running backs and tight ends, it greatly increases his chance of making the 53-man roster.
Chris Oladokun - How good does he look on the bench?
I’m kidding, but just a little bit. Oladokun is fourth on the depth chart at quarterback, and it is unknown how much time, if any, he will get to play in a three-game preseason. If/when he does get a chance to play, I want to see him operate inside of the offense and not turn the game into a one-man show. He hasn’t received much opportunity at all in camp, so whatever chance he does get I want to see him operate the offense as intended and not just try and out-athlete the defense.
This will be the Steelers first year under the new preseason plans with only three games. Last year they had the Hall of Fame game, so they still had four games. While we don’t know how they will handle the distribution of playing time, it is usually a safe bet that most of the rookies will play in the first preseason game. We don’t need to see players ready to be polished NFL starters this weekend, but if the Steelers 2022 NFL Draft class is going to be an impactful part of the season, we need them to show they have the tools to make the team and earn playtime.