Many expected that the complications imposed upon NFL teams due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the necessary steps taken in protocols to ensure the health and safety of those involved would make it very difficult for rookies to make an impact this season, particularly early on.
While the pandemic prevented teams from taking the field at all during the Spring, from rookie minicamp through OTAs and down to mandatory minicamp, the real blow came when it was announced that there would be no preseason games played, which the NFLPA strongly pushed for.
At least if you examine the rookie contributions from the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, it certainly cannot be argued that it was a devastating loss. In fact, for the first time in team history, they have had every single rookie draft pick play in at least one game, although they cannot technically say that sixth-round safety Antoine Brooks made the team, because he is actually on the practice squad. He has dressed for two games as a standard elevation, and played on Sunday, so if he is to play another snap this year, he will have to be promoted to the 53-man roster.
His contributions, of course, have been the least significant. They’ve gotten seven touchdowns out of Chase Claypool, a couple of splash plays from Alex Highsmith, two starts from Kevin Dotson. Anthony McFarland has an explosive run and Carlos Davis a tackle for loss as they just begin to get their feet under them. Plus, college free agent James Pierre has become a fixture on special teams, logging five tackles on 91 snaps.
“I think drafting goes a long way, and I tip my cap to the general manager and the coaches, but I think for these players, it’s a lot to be coachable and listen”, defensive captain Cameron Heyward said of the rookie class. “Those are two skills that go a long way in this league, and I feel if you’re able to be coached out here and really take criticism and improve your game day in and day out, you’re gonna be ready for those moments”.
“To right now, we’ve had a lot of guys step up when we’ve needed them, whether it’s Chase, Alex, Carlos”, he added. “We need those guys, just because of injuries, but they’re becoming part of our team, where, it’s not just an injury, we’ve got to get them on the field as well”.
It’s fair to say already that we can no longer conceive of this offense without Claypool being a core component of it. He has been averaging about 75 percent of the snaps since week three and leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Highsmith has received elevated playing time in the past two weeks in a new 3-5-3 sub-package, in which he recorded his first interception, and has already established himself as the third edge rusher, and the likely heir apparent after Bud Dupree leaves in free agency.
Add in Dotson’s quality play filling in at right guard across nearly 200 snaps in the incremental contributions of McFarland, Brooks, Davis, and Pierre, and you have a very successful, and arguably surprising, rookie class.