There are not a lot of meaningful conclusions that you can reach about a player after the end of his first season, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from talking about it. You can find just about any variety of analysis that you would care to read if you just look for it, complete with bold letter grades.
I’m not going to do that. But I am going to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2016 NFL Draft class, both collectively, in this article, as well as individually, in succeeding articles.
The Steelers entered the draft process this past year with seven draft picks, including their natural draft picks sans their fifth, which they gave up in a trade for Brandon Boykin, plus an extra seventh-round pick in exchange for Brad Wing.
In contrast to recent history, the Steelers received significant playing time on defense from three rookies, while also getting some minor contributions from some late-round picks to boot. In terms of rookie seasons, it was the most successful class in recent memory.
The draft kicked off with the addition of cornerback Artie Burns, who was by the team’s own admission not their first choice. The pick was fairly heavily criticized and called a reach, but the subsequent handling of the position on the draft board showed a long layover before the next cornerback was drafted.
The Steelers followed up the next day with safety Sean Davis, a prospect whom they liked for his versatility. He started at cornerback in his final season and played some there the year before as well. A high-producing and highly-conditioned player, he seemed pegged for playing time with no clear starter at safety.
Javon Hargrave seemed to tick all the boxes for the front office in regards to an interior rush-capable defensive lineman to replace their nose tackle, and it wasn’t before long that he ascended to the top of the depth chart.
After three straight defensive picks, the Steelers bolstered their offensive line depth with Jerald Hawkins. Before the rookie landed on injured reserve, he showed some encouraging signs during the preseason.
The team used their sixth-round pick on outside linebacker Travis Feeney, who in hindsight may have ended up closer to a nickelbacker role given his relatively thin frame. Injuries kept him from making a bigger impact in camp. He ended up on the practice squad and was signed by the Saints.
Demarcus Ayers was drafted as a punt return candidate but he eventually was called up to the 53-man roster to play wide receiver and contributed some in the late stages of the season. Inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich is not the model of the modern inside linebacker, but he makes tackles, and he did so on special teams.
Davis opened the season in the slot and Burns found some time in the dime before advancing to the nickel role himself, while Hargrave received sparse playing time at nose tackle. In the second half of the season, however, Burns became a starter at corner, and Davis soon after began rotating and then starting at safety. Injuries along the defensive line also resulted in Hargrave playing a more prominent role.