Excitement is high in Steelers’ Nation coming off of the 2023 NFL draft. With the Steelers having four picks in the first three rounds and seemingly getting great value in their selections, there has been a buzz around the 2023 rookie class over the last week.
But is calling on these rookies early in their careers a good sign for the Steelers success?
I hate to be the buzzkill about the subject, but the Steelers having rookies start more than half the games in their rookie season has brought great results. Although it is something that is more common in recent years, especially in the salary cap and free agency era, the Steelers most successful seasons have been when they weren’t calling on their rookies to be season-long starters.
First, to define what it is for a player to be a starter in the rookie season, I’m simply using the standard of starting half the games. Going back to 1970, the standard sets at seven games from 1970 through 1977. From 1978 through 2020, the standard is eight games because of the 16 game schedule. As for the last two seasons, although I still think of eight games as being a decent standard, every player that landed on the list started at least nine games as rookies in 2021 and 2022. Additionally, for a player to be considered a rookie it needed to be their first year in which they were in the NFL even if they did not appear in any games.
If the name of the game is Super Bowls, then let’s start with that standard when looking at rookie contributions. The Pittsburgh Steelers have brought home the Lombardi trophy six times. In those six seasons in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl, they have had three rookies start the majority of the games during the regular season.
No, that’s not per season— that is the total.
In the Pittsburgh Steelers first Super Bowl season of 1974, which coincides with the greatest single draft in NFL history, the Pittsburgh Steelers only had one rookie start more than half the games. That rookie was Jack Lambert who won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Despite having drafted four Hall of Fame players and signing another one as an undrafted free agent in 1974, these players did not start many games their first year. John Stallworth had the second-most starts as a rookie in 1974 with three. Lynn Swann only had two starts during the regular season his rookie year while Jimmy Allen, Donnie Shell, and Mike Webster each had one start. That was it for the entire rookie class of 1974.
In 1975 where the Steelers won the Super Bowl again, they had no rookies start at least half the games. Three seasons later in 1978, the only rookie that started for the season was Ron Johnson. In 1979, the Steelers once again had no rookies start for the season.
In looking at the two Modern-era Super Bowls for the Steelers, Heath Miller started for the season in 2005 but there were no rookies who started for the year in 2008.
So why are the rookies not starting for more than half the season on the Super Bowl teams? It’s simply because the team was good enough they didn’t have to call them. But what about when the Steelers have called on multiple rookies to start for the season? How have those seasons turned out?
In order to not look at too many years, I set the standard of years where three rookies or greater started more than half the games going back to 1970. It was that 1970 season that saw the most rookies starting seven games or more as six players fit the criteria. During that season, the Steelers finished 5–9. The following year in 1971, three rookies started more than half the games and the Steelers saw a slight improvement of their record to 6–8.
It wasn’t until the 80s where three or more rookies started for the season for the Steelers again. In 1984 there were three rookies who were season starters and the Steelers went 9–7 in the regular season and 1–1 in the playoffs. In 1987 the Steelers once again had three rookies start for the season and the team went 8–7 as one game was missed due to the strike. A third team from the 80s started a large number of rookies as there were four in 1989 for a team that went 9–7 in the regular season and 1–1 in the postseason.
The Steelers went 24 seasons until they had more than two rookie start for the year which includes the entire Bill Cowher era. It wasn’t until 2013 when three rookies started at least half the games for the Steelers on the team that went 8–8. In 2016 the Steelers once again had three rookies starting for the year but they were 11–5 in the regular season and 2–1 in the postseason. In 2021, the Steelers had four rookie start nine games or more as the team went 9–7–1 during the season and 0–1 in the playoffs.
So out of all the seasons the Steelers have started three or more rookies for the year going back to 1970, only once did they win double-digit games in the regular season. The 2016 season is the single outlier both for Steelers regular-season victories and the fact they won two playoff games before being eliminated in the conference championship. What should also be noted from those three rookies is that two of them did not make the cut off by much as Artie Burns and Sean Davis each started nine games while Javon Hargrave was the starter for 13 games.
So why is there such an issue with rookies starting for the season? Is it really a problem? In all honesty, it probably says less about the rookies themselves and more about the rest of the Steelers team. If the first year players have the opportunity to develop without having to start games, the Steelers are likely to have a stronger lineup.
So what does this mean for the 2023 draft class? Hopefully it means that all of them will not have to be called on early on in the season. Is this a reason for the Steelers to hold the players out of the lineup? Absolutely not. But hopefully the Steelers 2023 roster is solid enough that the rookies don’t have to step into a huge role right away out of necessity.