Not much is typically expected of sixth-round picks when it comes to the modern era of the NFL Draft, though the Pittsburgh Steelers have their fair share of exceptions.
Vince Williams last season, for example, came on and helped stabilize the defense after losing Larry Foote, playing competently to help the Steelers finish on a 6-2 run. They, in fact, were 8-5 after he entered the lineup.
The most obvious, though, is of course Antonio Brown, who in just four years has become an All-Pro-caliber wide receiver. He was the second of two receivers drafted in his draft year, the other coming in the third round, so he seemed an afterthought at first—until he returned the opening kickoff of the season opener 89 yards for a touchdown.
Justin Brown is the latest sixth-round wide receiver, but unlike Brown, he spent his rookie season on the practice squad despite showing glimpses of potential early in his first summer as a professional football player. The problem is that he quite simply trailed off over the course of the offseason. As Bob Labriola explains:
The thing that happened to Justin Brown last year was he looked good early, went to training camp and showed some things early as well, but what happens often with rookies in those situations is they hit a plateau, and that’s what happened to Justin Brown. He hit a plateau, did not continue to improve through the second part of the preseason, and just didn’t have enough to stick on the final 53-man roster.
Brown is off to another good start this offseason. I wrote recently about many Steelers scribes such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell giving him his due as potentially the fifth wide receiver. Mike Prisuta recently said that “you realize what the Steelers think they may have in him, or what kind of potential upside he may have”.
As he enters his second training camp and preseason, he cannot afford to level off again, which is what happened to him a year ago.
He got off to a fine start during his last preseason, where he caught four passes—including two difficult grabs—for 32 yards, but he struggled as the preseason progressed, especially after the Steelers headed back to the South Side.
In the final two preseason games, he was targeted three times and caught one pass for seven yards. He also slipped on a route that resulted in an interception. In all, he caught six passes on 13 targets for 44 yards, or just 7.3 yards per reception.
He also committed a special teams penalty in the first game and was removed from special teams duty for the remainder of the preseason. Special teams will be critical for him this season, so he must make sure to be on the details and stay on the field this time around.
Most of all, however, he must work to stay focused once the Steelers break from training camp, and to continue to be a player on the rise from that point on. That is the point at which he started to plateau last season, as Labriola put it, and it cost him a roster spot as Derek Moye took advantage of his evident loss of focus. Brown intends to reverse those roles this year.