In putting together the interview with Chris Rainey, which you should definitely check out, I came across this play from 2012 against the New York Giants. The highlight is Rainey’s 50 yard kick return, one of the few impact plays he made in his brief time as a Steeler, but my eyes were drawn to someone else.
Check out Cam Heyward putting in work as the wedge on this kick return. Helping to lead the way and then running with Rainey downfield before finally tumbling over the mess of bodies at the end of the play.
And that was in 2012, a year into Heyward’s NFL career. But still stuck behind a defensive line of Ziggy Hood (yeah, I know), Brett Keisel, and Casey Hampton, Heyward was far from being the All-Pro stud he is today.
It’s a reminder of how quickly the Steelers philosophy changed. From top draft picks who were special teams contributors well before they made a serious on-field impact, figuratively climbing the ladder and earning their keep, to today, where rookies are supposed to log serious time on Day One.
Put it this way. In 2012, Heyward played 207 special teams snaps. That’s more than Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday, or T.J. Watt did in 2017. Granted, not all of that was super labor-intensive, I believe Heyward served as one of the wings on the field goal team and even Watt ran down punts all of last year, but the point is still clear. Times, they are a changin’.
Fast forward to 2017 and you have Watt as a Day One starter while JuJu Smith-Schuster quickly worked his way into the lineup and became one of the key pieces of the Steelers’ offense. 2016 draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis saw over 700 snaps each, more than what most would’ve expected. And Bud Dupree logged nearly 600 snaps while only being a bit-piece on special teams, playing fewer than 100 of them, less than half of what Heyward did his second year in the league.
All of this is to say this trend is neither a good or bad thing. Maybe the situation will be a little different in Pittsburgh’s 2018 draft class with fewer obvious holes that exist on the Steelers’ roster. Even if that’s the case, whoever gets taken with their top two picks has an expectation to make some level of contribution to the roster right away. That’s the way the league is and Pittsburgh, for as against-the-grain as they are in certain aspects, are no exception.