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.
Player: Jerald Hawkins
Draft Status: 4th round (123rd overall)
Fourth-round draft pick Jerald Hawkins’ starts and snap count figures are more in line with what we have come to expect from rookies in Pittsburgh over the years, but that easily could have gone differently had he not spent the entirety of his rookie season on the injured reserve list after suffering a shoulder injury in the opening preseason game.
After the Steelers used their first three draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft on defensive players—all of whom worked themselves into the starting lineup—they turned back to the offensive side of the ball to add depth to the tackle position after losing Kelvin Beachum in free agency and turning to Alejandro Villanueva as an as-yet-unproven commodity.
Hawkins, an underclassman out of LSU, declared early despite widespread belief that he could greatly improve his draft stock by returning for his final season. But like the team’s first-round pick, Artie Burns, who was also an underclassman, the young lineman had other motivations for entering the draft early.
While he didn’t get the opportunity to work with Mike Munchak on the field over the course of the season, what we did see out of the young tackle during training camp and in the first preseason game was enough to be encouraged.
Last season, Marcus Gilbert missed three games due to injury, and subsequently the Steelers made liberal use of the tackle-eligible. One wonders if that role couldn’t have gone to Hawkins had he stayed healthy. Perhaps that is the role that he will occupy in his second season.
With the retirement of Ryan Harris, the swing tackle position is his for the taking, provided that he simply plays up to the level that he should be capable of playing. Of course, the ideal would be that he never has to make a start (except as a tackle-eligible), unless he just beats out Villanueva or Gilbert for a job.