Arguably the most underrated aspect of player development is the peer-to-peer learning that takes place within the locker room, with veteran players passing on their wisdom to rookies and others in the early stages of their careers. While you might not necessarily keep around an older player for that explicit purpose, it’s something of a hidden value that is of great importance.
One such example in recent years for the Pittsburgh Steelers is William Gay, whom fifth-year cornerback Cameron Sutton recently talked about as a valuable influence in the early stages of his career when he was drafted in the third round in 2017, Gay’s last season.
“I came in and played with Will Gay, and I learned so much from him, without even an opportunity to step on the field as much as I wanted to with him,” he said during a SiriusXM interview earlier this offseason. “Just watching how he moves, how he carries himself in the building, and out of the building.”
“That was uplifting to continue to see that on a daily basis and be around that older sense of guys,” he added. “I just really appreciated that from him, whether he really knows that himself. Just all the talks, whether it’s small or big, it’s always fine points that you can take from things that can change your life. That’s what he was able to be for me.”
A fifth-round draft pick in 2007, Gay went on to play for 11 years, 10 of which came with the Steelers. He started 86 of the 160 games that he played for Pittsburgh, never missing a single game. He registered 11 interceptions with five touchdowns with the Steelers, along with 81 passes defensed, and 10 forced fumbles.
During his final season with the Steelers, he was out of the starting lineup, functioning as a dime defender behind the recently-signed Joe Haden, Artie Burns, and the young Mike Hilton in his first season with the team, displacing Gay as the slot defender. He still managed an interception and two forced fumbles.
As for Sutton, he spent most of his rookie season on the Reserve/Injured List. Pittsburgh only activated him later in the year because the Steelers had some injuries. Sutton ended up playing in five games, even starting one in place of Haden due to injury. He played 113 defensive snaps, registering five tackles and one pass defensed.
His playing time steadily increased over the course of the past four years, finally peaking with 548 snaps with six regular season starts in 2020, starting for Hilton for four games and then one each for Haden and Nelson due to injuries. He registered 30 tackles, an interception, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a sack.