The Pittsburgh Steelers have yet to put on the pads in order to prepare for the 2023 season yet for some the expectations are already coming in strong. When it comes to first-round draft pick Broderick Jones, there are plenty of members in Steelers’ Nation who feel his contributions should already be making an impact through OTAs.
But should this be the expectation?
One line I’ve heard far too often in various places is, “The Steelers traded up for him in the first round, he better be starting right away!” But if how the Steelers have handled first-round draft picks is any indication, this is not true at all. If looking just at players the Steelers trade it up for in the first round, two out of the three started four games or less the rookie season.
Looking back over the Steelers first round draft picks, there is a wide variety of how much playing time they received their rookie season. If looking at snap counts, a statistic on Pro Football Reference which only goes back through the 2012 season, and there are a couple players that stand out but there is definitely a wide variety. Whether it be due to injury or simply being ready to get on the field, the Steelers only had one offensive player out of three, Najee Harris, who played more than 75% of the offensive snaps in his rookie season. As for defenders, there were four of the seven players in Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Artie Burns, and T.J. Watt. So sometimes they play a lot of snaps, and sometimes they don’t.
Looking at games started by first-round draft picks of the Steelers in their rookie season, there is a wide variety of results. In the Super Bowl era, the Steelers have only had four rookie first-round draft picks start every game their first season. Najee Harris did so in 2021 with the next player being Maurkice Pouncey in 2010. The other two players were Ron Johnson in 1978 and Joe Greene in 1969. Out of 56 first round picks, those are the only four to start every game their first season. As for those who started no games their rookie season, there are 17 players such as Rod Woodson, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, and Cam Heyward. Injuries often play a role in a player possibly coming up short of starting every game, but when a player starts no games while being available most of the season, this is an intentional decision.
In recent years the Steelers have had their first-round draft picks start much more in their rookie seasons. Since 2017, four of the five Steelers first-round draft picks started 15 games or more. T.J. Watt missed one game his rookie season due to injury, and Terrell Edmunds did not start Week 1 but was called into action early due to the injury of Morgan Burnett. Devin Bush did not start Week 2 of his rookie season, but it was more about the formation on the field as he played 79% of the snaps. Najee Harris started every game as a rookie, and Kenny Pickett had 12 starts taking over as the starter in Week 5 and missing one game due to injury throughout the rest of the season.
Looking back prior to 2017, from 2006 through 2016 the only player with double-digit starts as a rookie was Maurkice Pouncey. From 2001 through 2005 four of the five first-round draft picks started double digit games with the only exception being Troy Polamalu in 2003 who started no games.
Looking in more detail when the Steelers specifically tradeed up in the first round, it has happened three times prior to 2023 with varying amounts of playing time their first season. As mentioned before, Troy Polamalu did not start any games his rookie season while Santonio Holmes only started four. But in 2019, Devin Bush started Week 1 and only had the one game where he didn’t start as mentioned above. So even the trading up issue is clouded.
Seeming to be that there’s no precise method of determining how much playing time a Steelers first-round draft pick will see in their rookie season, maybe it’s more about the quality of player rather than the round they were selected. Looking at the 14 Steelers Hall of Fame players who began their career in the Super Bowl era, only two started every game their rookie season in Joe Greene and Jack Lambert. Jack Ham started all but one game as rookie season while players such as Alan Faneca, Franco Harris, and Mel Blount, started all but four games. But those are the only players who started double digit-games as rookies. Already mentioning Polamalu and Woodson not starting any games their first season, the two ends of the spectrum appear to be equal.
After going through the data, the picture is starting to become quite clear. When a player is drafted by the Steelers in the first round, even if the Steelers trade up to take them, there is no set circumstance to determine the player’s participation their rookie season. Each player is a unique circumstance, and the factor of injuries, both to the player themselves or the other players at the position, is also a big factor.
As for Broderick Jones in 2023, Steelers fans should keep in mind, especially since I’ve tried to remind those here several times, the biggest knock on him coming into the draft was inexperience. He has all the physical attributes to be an outstanding tackle in the NFL but is still quite raw and needs some fine-tuning. While some might like to see him “learn on the fly” as game action can be the best experience, having him more prepared before seeing the field could greatly decreased the learning curve once he steps in.
There is really no set way the Steelers have to handle Broderick Jones and his rookie year. He could get the Maurkice Pouncey treatment or the Troy Polamalu treatment. More than likely, it will be somewhere in between. But the most important thing is for Broderick Jones to be brought along in the way the best for Broderick Jones and not in a way that was predetermined by where he was selected in the draft. The Steelers have handled their first-round picks in a variety of ways over the years, so every option should be on the table and not be something out of the ordinary.