A lot has been made in recent years over some first-year players in the NFL hitting the “rookie wall.” Whether or not you believe this to be true is completely up to you, but when a player enters the NFL, especially coming through the NFL draft, it’s a rigorous process that gives no real offseason for players as they come in their first year.
To get a better idea of why it could be so trying for a rookie coming intothe NFL, it starts with the number of games played. The college season does not have a preseason at all, let alone as many regular-season games as the NFL. Even the Georgia Bulldogs, who played as many games as a college team can play between the regular season, conference championship, and two rounds of the FBS playoffs, had a total of 15 games spread out over 19 weeks.
The other issue for rookies in the NFL is the busy schedule the year between college and the pros. For a player entering the NFL draft, they go straight from a possible bowl game into workouts in preparation for the NFL combine and pro days. Some players even skip their bowl games in order to have more preparation and to avoid injury. But this process takes them up to the NFL draft where players are either selected or signed is undrafted free agents if they are fortunate enough to be headed into the league. From there, it goes into rookie minicamp, OTAs, a slight break while players continue to work out with teammates in an unofficial capacity, and then training camp.
For a player going from college into the NFL, there is no offseason.
Because of this, sometimes NFL rookies wear down over the course of this process and have a falloff in production by the end of their first season. It doesn’t always happen, but if it does there is a reason ready to give an explanation: The rookie wall.
For the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers, it didn’t appear that any of their players hit a rookie wall as they seemed to be still on the rise when the Steelers regular season ended. Had the Steelers made the postseason, it didn’t appear that it would be a decline in production from the rookies that would inhibit them in the postseason. But because the Steelers came up just short, we’ll ultimately never know.
So what kept these players from hitting a rookie wall? Is it because no such thing exists? Is it because certain situations kept them from being on the field constantly? Did the Steelers do something intentionally with each player that preserved them for the end of the season?
Let’s take a look at each player individually...
Games played: 13
Games started: 12
Snaps played: 804 (offense)
Notes: By missing the Steelers first three games, Kenny Pickett had his maximum number of games he could have appeared in as 14. Coming in off the bench in Week 4 is where he didn’t get the start, but Pickett also missed the Steelers Week 15 matchup against the Panthers due to being in the NFL concussion protocol. Additionally, Week 14 saw Kenny Pickett only playing eight snaps before leaving the game against Baltimore. Unfortunately, that was not the only game Pickett missed time due to injury as he played roughly half the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6. For this reason, both through not being the starter at the beginning of the season and due to injury, Pickett played less than 70% of the offensive snaps at a position in which 100% of the snaps is not out of the question.
Whether it was intentional for the Steelers to have Kenny Pickett not start the season because of wanting to reduce his workload his rookie year is still speculatory at this time as it has not been stated one way or the other as to if that was the reason. Regardless, the 3.5 games missed at the beginning of the season as well as additional nearly 2.5 games missed throughout the year due to injury, Kenny Pickett was not put in a situation where he was overloaded with snaps his rookie season.
Games played: 17
Games started: 12
Snaps played: 882 (offense), 3 (special teams)
Notes: George Pickens is a little bit of a different story when it comes to the Steelers 2022 rookies. Playing the most snaps of the class, Pickens did so without missing any time due to injury. In all, he played 76% of the offensive snaps. While that seems like a good amount for a rookie, it was still 160 snaps behind fellow wide receiver Diontae Johnson despite being the second-most snaps of any wide receiver or tight end.
The one thing that makes George Pickens a little bit different here is that he was not worn down from an extensive on-the-field final year in college as he only appeared in the final games of 2021 as he missed the majority the season recovering from his torn ACL earlier that spring. So with Pickens not coming off of a full college season, despite having to rehab the majority of the season, the likelihood of hitting the rookie wall was likely reduced.
While George Pickens did play a fair number of snaps, he was targeted significantly less than Diontae Johnson (147 to 84) and even less than tight and Pat Freiermuth (98). Whether or not Pickens targets were lower due to simply not throwing him the ball or intentionally trying to keep the number down is, once again, merely speculation.
Games played: 11
Games started: 2
Snaps played: 175 (defense), 39 (special teams)
Notes: It is much more clear why did Marvin Leal missed the rookie wall simply because he missed six games of the season due to being placed on the Reserve/Injured List (IR) after having a procedure done on his knee. The bigger question is if the Steelers would have opted for a different player with the same injury to have the surgery in the middle of the season or if they specifically encouraged Leal based on it being his first season and he would have the opportunity to return.
Regardless, Leal was seeing an increase in his percent of snaps played for the two weeks leading up to being placed on IR and came back to the team easing his way in before maxing out his snaps in Week 17 against the Ravens.
Calvin Austin III
Games played: 0
Games started: 0
Snaps played: None
Notes: Play stole my heart prior to week one, Calvin Austin did get his 21 day window activated in the middle of the year only to suffer a setback where he had surgery on his foot and missed his entire rookie season.
Games played: 17
Games started: 0
Snaps played: 174 (offense), 284 (special teams)
Notes: Being a six round draft pick, there is generally not a lot to manage with a player and their playing time their rookie season as it’s more about if they could get on the field. But Connor Heyward did his part on special teams as only Derek Watt and Miles Killebrew had more snaps (290 each). But by only seeing 15% of the offensive snaps on the season, Heyward being overused was not a concern.
Games played: 4
Games started: 2
Snaps played: 44 (defense), 16 (special teams)
Notes: Inactive more games (12) than what he appeared in his rookie season (4, with one he was active but did not play), there was no reason to worry about overworking Mark Robinson as most Steelers fans wish they could have seen more from him his first season.
Games played: 16
Games started: 0
Snaps played: 342 (offense), 127 (special teams)
Notes: When it comes to undrafted rookies, I don’t think it’s in a team’s game plan to worry about them being overworked and hit the rookie wall. Jaylen Warren is a prime example as the Steelers used him as much and often as they needed and gave them a great one–two punch in the back field.
When it comes to hitting the rookie wall, it’s based more on the players who were taken at the top of the draft are definitely in the teams long-term plans. The main candidates for 2022 where Kenny Pickett‘s, George Pickens, and DeMarvin Leal. With Leal spending six weeks on IR, there was no concern there plus the fact he was a rotational player on the defense. They were plenty of times Steelers fans were wondering why George Pickens wasn’t in the game, and it very well could be the Steelers were limiting his snaps throughout the season. But coming in fresh after only four games in college the previous year, Pickens had no problem handling the workload he was given this season.
The big question comes down to Kenny Pickett. Did the Steelers keep him from being the starter in Week 1 simply because they were wanting to limit his action his rookie year? While that isn’t likely the entire reason, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a factor in the decision. The bottom line is Kenny Pickett didn’t get overworked as a rookie and was able to finish the season on a high note as he turned in some of his best performances of the year in the final games.
In 2021, rookie Najee Harris played almost 1,000 snaps and had more touches than any other player in the NFL. Seeing how much the Steelers were working, and likely overworking, the rookie, they made an effort to reduce his snaps significantly this season. But did that also make them reconsider how they were handling the amount of time played by the rookies for 2022? Maybe it did. But the workload of this year‘s rookie class was definitely lighter than what the Steelers implemented with Harris the previous year. And whether it was planned or not, the Steelers rookie class finished the season on the rise.
Do you think the Steelers intentionally limited some of the members of their 2022 rookie class, or do you think it was just the way things worked out this season? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.