One of the most impressive things about the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers have sent eight players to the Pro Bowl this year after having 10 named the season before is the reality that three of those eight players are first-timers, which means that they have had 13 distinct Pro Bowlers over the course of the past two seasons.
That new blood is a group that is on the rise together, and in fact that came into the league together. Their three new Pro Bowlers all came from the 2017 NFL Draft class on the first two days of the draft. While running back James Conner was named to the Pro Bowl outright, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker T.J. Watt were both named as alternates.
As I have previously argued, however, both Smith-Schuster and Watt have the statistics that back up their candidacy for the Pro Bowl, and one can make a fair argument in fact that they were the most deserving of being named outright ahead of at least one other player who made it. Keenan Allen and Jadeveon Clowney respectively.
Said Watt of having all three here at the Pro Bowl, “it’s really cool. I don’t think it’s anything really that we talked about as our goals. I think we all had individual goals and team goals and everything, but it’s just really cool”.
“We’ve come a long way in such a short amount of time, but none of us are satisfied”, he added of the top half of that 2017 draft class. “I think we want to keep going. We would like all three of us to be here…hopefully we don’t even have to play in this game down the stretch here but it’s been a pretty cool atmosphere and also awesome to have those two guys with us here”.
Watt and Smith-Schuster were both starters during their rookie seasons, the former from the get-go and the latter gradually earning increasingly larger roles in the offense. Both showed great potential in year one but practically doubled their production in year two.
As for Conner, he was used very sparsely behind Le’Veon Bell as a rookie in 2017 before suffering a torn MCL late in the year. Bell was supposed to be year for 2018 but never showed up, and that thrust the second-year back into the starting role, in which he accumulated nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage with 13 touchdowns in only 13 games, missing three due to injury.
It’s safe to say that if Watt, Smith-Schuster, and Conner continue to do what they are already doing, and even take things a step further, then the Steelers are in safe hands with some young playmakers on both sides of the ball. 13 sacks with six forced fumbles, over 100 catches for plus-1400 yards, nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage with 13 scores. These are highly productive young players, but this needs to be the beginning of the ascent, not the peak.