The Pittsburgh Steelers well underway with the offseason workouts at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the heart of the offseason, where hope springs eternal following a few months of pretty significant changes, in terms of both departures and arrivals.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Will any of the Steelers’ rookies earn a full-time starting job by his second season other than Devin Bush?
In a rare move, the Steelers put most of their eggs in one basket this past draft when they drafted up for Devin Bush, in doing so surrendering their second-round pick, though they had a high third-round pick as well.
They used that high third on wide receiver Diontae Johnson, and with their natural pick in the round added cornerback Justin Layne. Running back Benny Snell, tight end Zach Gentry, outside linebacker Sutton Smith, defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, and offensive lineman Derwin Gray followed.
Of the group beyond Bush, which if any of them is likely to earn a full-time starting job by the start of his second season in the league in 2020? Such conversations generally center on the higher draft picks, so I would be somewhat surprised if anybody suggested players other than Johnson and Layne.
Interestingly enough, both Johnson and Layne were players who were pretty popular within the draft community and believed that they should have been drafted higher than they were. Johnson is credited as a great separator in his routes, while Layne had strong coverage numbers in particular on deep passing targets.
Players like Snell and Buggs were drafted at positions in which immediate upward mobility would be pretty difficult. Running back James Conner, for example, was a Pro Bowler just last season and is under contract through 2020, so it’s hard to imagine Snell overtaking him by then.
The cornerback position is deep as well, but it really hinges on the team’s long-term aspirations for Mike Hilton in the slot, since Steven Nelson could also play there if Layne emerges. Or if they somehow decide to move on from Joe Haden, that’s another way Layne could crack the lineup by next season.