Playing along the defensive line in the NFL isn't one of the league's easiest tasks. Playing at the speed necessary to make an impact is a challenge, considering the vast improvement from offensive lines and blocking schemes employed by all NFL teams. The fact rookie second round pick Stephon Tuitt has landed a starting role with the team, and is doing well with it, does not directly indicate he should have been on the field sooner.
It also is not evidence for increased snaps for sixth-round pick Dan McCullers, who, entering Week 17, has played 61 snaps, not including special teams.
The path for one is not the same for the other. We noted Tuitt's technique in college fit how Steelers' defensive linemen are trained under defensive line coach John Mitchell, and him taking over a starting job by the end of the season didn't surprise us. He showed he could work toward that end, but that isn't a guarantee.
A breakdown of Steelers DE Stephon Tuitt before the season.
Things can change. Just ask fellow 2014 draft classmate Ryan Shazier. At the start of the season, Shazier was given the keys to the kingdom. He started at inside linebacker opposite Lawrence Timmons from the get-go. He was given the chance to learn on the fly.
Injuries changed that, and Shazier, now healthy, is mixing in with Sean Spence and Vince Williams in a platoon of linebackers for this steadily improving Steelers' defense.
Tuitt shouldn't be used as evidence to suggest all rookies - including McCullers - should simply play just because. Shazier shouldn't be considered a bust because he played in a few games and was injured for a few others.
On the offensive side of the ball, Martavis Bryant's rookie season is extraordinary. Seven touchdown grabs and over 500 yards in nine games (21.1 yards per catch) is well above reasonable expectation for the project wide receiver. We noted all offseason his athletic ability is nearly unrivaled, but his technique in terms of route-running needed development.
He put the work in, and it's paying off. At the pace Bryant is at, stretching his stats over a full season, he'd have 44 catches for 938 yards and 12 touchdowns. That's not a bad year for anyone, and a full season with probably better numbers can be expected from Bryant next year.
Dri Archer, on the other hand, paints a starkly different picture. Somewhat like Shazier, he was given snaps early in the season, particularly on kick returns. Archer simply didn't pass the tests he took. Simply because a player like Bryant was given less playing time right away but had success when he got his opportunity doesn't mean both Bryant should have been playing all along and Archer never should have been.
We'll never know what may have been had Archer not been thrown into the fire. What we do know is not even the Steelers draft class of 2013 has fully been integrated yet. Shamarko Thomas still hasn't been given his shot to prove himself at the strong safety position. He played slot cornerback in the time he got on the field in 2013 while starter Troy Polamalu didn't take a play off. This year, Will Allen has replaced Polamalu in his missed time. But Thomas is among one of the most productive classes the Steelers have had in recent memory. Le'Veon Bell is an All Pro running back, Jarvis Jones continues to build himself into a starting caliber outside linebacker. Markus Wheaton will finish the year with statistics very similar to those of Emmanuel Sanders in Sanders' final season with the Steelers. Vince Williams can make a strong case for the team's most improved player in 2014.
The needle is pointed straight up for the 2014 class as well, and this is without talented linebacker Jordan Zumwalt having gotten on the field since training camp. But this class will bide its time like the ones before it, even if there are exceptions backing up the rule of "rookies need to develop in practice before seeing the field on Sunday."
Some just develop at different rates than others.