We will have plenty of time to fully dissect the 2016 play of every Pittsburgh Steelers player over the coming months. With that said, today I wanted to broad-brush several younger Steelers players who I believe made great strides in their individual developments during the 2016 season. I purposefully have left rookies off this list as I wanted to highlight the players who had already been with the team a season.
Eli Rogers – After sitting out his rookie season with a foot injury, Rogers quickly showed in 2016 that he can play the slot position in the NFL. His route running ability was more than sufficient as was his yards after the catch average of 4.5. Rogers showed a few times during the 2016 season that he can make big plays in big moments and that his catch radius might be larger than initially anticipated. He caught nearly 73% of all passes thrown his direction and that’s also a positive sign. Rogers 56.3 deep pass completion percentage during the 2016 season is yet another reason to be excited about his future in Pittsburgh in addition to his willingness to block. Had he not missed a few games due to injury and snaps due to disciplinary reasons, Rogers likely would have caught 60 passes in 2016. He definitely showed that he can work the middle of the field in 2016 both short and deep.
B.J. Finney – Finney, the Steelers former undrafted interior lineman, wound up making three starts during the 2016 regular season and he played nearly 300 offensive snaps in total. In his starts at left guard in place of an injured Ramon Foster, Finney played extremely well and especially out in space when asked to pull to his right. As for Finney’s playing time at center during the 2016 regular season, he’ll need to improve at that position moving forward. Finney appeared to have a few snap-timing issues in his first action at center against the Baltimore Ravens after taking over early in that game for an injured Maurkice Pouncey. Additionally, Finney had his hands full with Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams in that game. In his start at center in the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, Finney once again had his hands full with bigger-bodied defensive tackles. Despite those problems, Finney represented himself well when on the field. Finney will undoubtedly sign an exclusive rights tender in the coming days or weeks and thus should be able to be counted on to be the Steelers top interior swing-man in 2017 and hopefully he’ll get a little stronger during the offseason.
L.T. Walton – Walton was forced to play quite a few snaps during the 2016 season as a result of starting defensive end Cameron Heyward going down injured. In total, he played 254 regular season defensive snaps and in the process showed quite a bit of growth from his rookie season. Walton really played well against the run in 2016 and especially when it came to defending against the outside zone. He showed a better ability to stay on his feet more in 2016 and could always be seen chasing after the football. Walton used his arms and hands well to gain separation and was generally fine overall when it came to gap integrity and knowing his assignments. If Walton needs to work on one thing heading into 2017, it’s his pass rush ability and defensive coordinator Keith Butler said as much a few weeks ago. As we sit here in late January, there’s no reason to think that Walton won’t continue to progress and ultimately become the Steelers top base defensive end backup in 2017.
Jesse James – While James will never likely turn into a premier all-around tight end, he made strides in several areas of his game during his second season. As a pass catcher and route runner, James has learned to find the soft areas of the field in addition to opening himself up as a big target for the quarterback. He does a great job of fighting for yardage after the catch and has fairly reliable hands. As a blocker, while he’ll never likely be as accomplished in that area of his game as former Steelers tight Matt Spaeth was, he did make some noticeable improvement in that phase during the 2016 season. James, in my opinion, has solidified his place on the Steelers roster for the next few seasons as a very serviceable No. 2 tight end and spot starter. If his blocking continues to develop, he should really be a great asset next season.