A couple of days ago during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pre-draft press conference, General Manager Kevin Colbert talked about the team’s desire to keep their rookie first-round picks off the field for as long as they could. “The people we draft, the longer we can keep them off the field the better for them historically”, he said, specifically, though he was generally talking about first-rounders.
This seemed to rankle some feathers, with a few even saying that if you can’t draft a first-rounder who plays right away then you did something wrong. Within the present context, that might be true. But Colbert wasn’t necessarily talking about the present. After all, he specifically said historically.
But his point is sound. Generally speaking, players who don’t play their first-round picks for reasons other than injury or the fact that that player is simply a bust tend to be better off. Why? Because that first-round pick is not getting on the field because the team is stacked with talent.
While there was some veteran favoritism within the coaching staff in the past, generally, rookies did not play right away for the Steelers simply because there wasn’t room for them to contribute meaningfully right away. Think of Lawrence Timmons when they had Larry Foote during his first stint, or Ziggy Hood and, two years later, Cameron Heyward while Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were still in the picture. Rashard Mendenhall was injured, but he also had Willie Parker in front of him.
What about pretty much every other first-round pick since 2010 aside from Heyward, however? They all played, and played a lot, barring injury, starting with Maurkice Pouncey, the center, in 2010, going so far as to be named to the All-Pro team that year.
Two years later, they used a first-round pick on David DeCastro and he was quickly installed into the starting lineup. He would have opened the season at right guard had he not suffered a torn MCL. He still came back to start the last three games.
Then there was Jarvis Jones in 2013, who started much of that season and would have even started the opener had he not been injured. Ryan Shazier was installed into the starting lineup from his first practice, but multiple injuries limited his playing time down the stretch. Bud Dupree was rotated heavily as a rookie in 2015 before taking over the starting spot outright late that year.
The same story for 2016, 2017, and 2018, with Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, and Terrell Edmunds being or becoming full-time starters fairly quickly. Burns took the longest, about half a season, but was already playing in the dime in the season opener. The others were pretty much wall-to-wall starters.
In most of these cases, was this necessarily good for the team? I wouldn’t say so. If they had another player there whom they were comfortable playing, as they did in front of Timmons, Mendenhall, and Hood, they likely don’t get rushed onto the field. And perhaps the team, and those first-rounders, are better for it long-term.
So what Colbert said on that topic was, to me, far from crazy. The only problem is that his Steelers don’t have the sort of roster right now where there aren’t obvious opportunities for a talented rookie to contribute immediately.