It’s often said, and rightly, that one year is too early to judge a rookie class. Often enough, even two or three years is not enough. Players will develop at different paces. Just compare T.J. Watt to Bud Dupree. The former was a Pro Bowler by year two after a strong rookie season, while the latter finally broke out in year five.
Earlier today, I talked about how, by the start of the 2020 season, it looks as though seventh-round special teams ace linebacker Tyler Matakevich will be the only player remaining for Pittsburgh from the 2016 NFL Draft class. That was after Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave all emerged as rookie starters. Of the three, only Hargrave’s role has not since been replaced. All three figure to sign elsewhere, however, in free agency.
And so I bring that cautionary tale into the conversation. Even the 2017 class, who saw three of its top four players have Pro Bowl seasons in Year Two, is under some scrutiny after rough years from JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner.
Yet one can’t deny the success of the Steelers’ top two draft picks in 2019, Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson. Bush recorded over 100 tackles, recorded two interceptions and a forced fumble, and recovered four, returning one for a touchdown.
As for Johnson, he caught 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns, leading the team in the first and last categories and was second in yardage. He also had a punt return touchdown for 85 yards. Both functioned as starters for the majority of the year, and both figure to be starters in 2020 and beyond.
Both also made NFL.com’s list of the top 25 rookies in the NFL in 2019. That is better than they did with Pro Football Focus, who had Johnson ranked 29th and Bush not at all on a top-50 list.
As for the former, put together by Daniel Jeremiah, Bush ranked 10th, exactly where he was drafted. Jeremiah wrote of the first-round pick, “Bush was a steadying force in the middle of the Steelers’ defense and he should emerge as the NFL’s premier off-the-ball linebacker in the near future”. His ranking for Bush was six spots lower than where he had him three quarters into the season.
As for Johnson, Jeremiah ranked him 23rd, whereas he was previously not ranked. He is the sixth of seven wide receivers on the list, however. He wrote, “The Steelers know how to scout the WR position, with Johnson their latest find. He is quick at the top of routes and he can make people miss after the catch”.
One led the team in tackles, the other in scores. What will they achieve in year two, and how might join them? What sort of opportunities will exist for a Benny Snell or a Zach Gentry or an Isaiah Buggs on the horizon?