It has been an increasingly common occurrence on the Pittsburgh Steelers that their second-year players play a vital role to their team’s success. More often than not, the key second-year players will have already entered into a starting job by the end of their rookie season, but the expectations continue to mount a year later.
On the opening of training camp earlier today, Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about what he was expecting to see out of this year’s group of second-year players, which includes T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who were already starters, but also James Conner, Cameron Sutton, Brian Allen, and Keion Adams.
“I’m always really consistent about what I expect from a second-year player. I expect a significant jump”, Tomlin said, even of his rookie starters. “And it’s reasonable to expect that. They’ve been through this process in totality. They understand the culture that we’ve built here, what’s expected from them and how they potentially fit in it”.
Watt, their first-round draft pick, was a day-one starter at right outside linebacker and led all rookies with seven sacks in 2017. He recorded 54 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception, seven passes defensed, and a blocked kick.
Smith-Schuster began the season rotating in the slot before taking over that job, ultimately emerging as a starter by the end of the year. He finished the season with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, the yardage figure being a team record.
“All that knowledge should add to fluid play and contributions, and increasingly so”, Tomlin continued in speaking of his expectations for last year’s draft class heading into training camp for 2018. “So we expect all those guys to evolve as football players within our group”.
Every player from that class who remains with the team has the opportunity to expand their roles in year two. Sutton, who missed the majority of his rookie season due to injury, should find at least a semi-regular role in a secondary-heavy sub-package, while Allen can position himself for a backup role.
As for Conner, he is hoping to share a larger portion of the workload at the running back position in year two, and he has put in the work, transforming his body over the course of the offseason. He appears to have no ill effects from last year’s MCL tear. He had just 32 touches last season, and I’m sure would like to at least triple that.
Adams is one of the more intriguing names since he spent his rookie year on injured reserve. There should be a roster spot available for him at the outside linebacker position, but can he show enough to actually get any time on the field?
It’s also worth noting that this is the first or second full camp with the Steelers for other players, such as Mike Hilton, Joe Haden, and Vance McDonald. The latter two are veterans who were brought in just before the regular season began. Hilton spent all of 2017 with the team as a first-year player.