One of the things that the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to be best known for by more recent fans is an apparent reluctance, a hesitance, to play rookies. This felt true for a long time, but really, it came primarily on defense, and primarily under the watch of Dick LeBeau. Just before Lebeau, Kendrell Bell was defensive rookie of the year. Post-LeBeau, plenty of rookies have started on the defense. Including three in 2016.
Of course, it wasn’t all LeBeau. It’s something of an old school attitude. There was once an adage that you can subtract two wins from a team for every rookie that they have starting. I’m sure this has become less and less true as teams have become more and more reliant upon ‘cheap’ labor with the rookie wage scale.
In recent years, we have seen plenty of rookies play big roles, most recently Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson, but also Terrell Edmunds, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Martavis Bryant, Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell, and Vince Williams, going back to 2013.
General manager Kevin Colbert was on The Fan on Wednesday with Colin Dunlap and Chris Mack to talk about the state of the team as they enter the regular season. At one point during the interview, he was asked about how head coach Mike Tomlin’s philosophy on rookies has evolved over the years.
“This year, we knew it would be different. We knew it would be unique”, he started out saying. “Coach and I share the same philosophy. We really don’t want to use a young guy until he pushes his way through those barriers of being ready to do it. Sometimes when young players play too early or they’re forced into situations they’re not prepared for physically, emotionally, intellectually, they may fail”.
“Some people like Ben as a young player, they thrive”, he went on, “and that’s why he’s obviously the unique player that he is. But a lot of players that get pushed into having to play too early, when they don’t succeed, it affects them. It affects them not only in the short term, but sometimes, it’s a long-term sentence as well, because they never get over it”.
Basically their philosophy about playing young players as an organization hasn’t necessarily changed. What has changed is the circumstances, both in the game itself and how it has evolved, in their own team dynamics, and also in the pro-readiness of rookies coming from the college level as the style of play has caught up with the trends of the schools.
This year, we could see some meaningful year-one contributions from the likes of Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, and Anthony McFarland, though the good thing for the Steelers is that they will not be dependent upon their making an impact. At least, that’s where they stand entering the year, but the story changes as it’s unfolding. Like with Johnson last year, or JuJu in 2017.