Article

Best And Worst Case Scenarios Of The Steelers 2022 Draft Class

We’re back again to map out the best – and worst – case scenarios of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ seven selections that made up the 2022 NFL Draft. I apologize for this one being especially late but it takes some time and energy to delve into. If you’re new to this exercise, this is a fun, creative, and not-serious story of how each selection could look at their (reasonable) best and (reasonable) worst. Of course, anyone’s ceiling could be the next great gem and future Hall of Famer and anyone’s floor could be a total bust or entirely forgettable career. But I like to paint at least a little between the lines of what is a 90% best view and 90% worst view.

If you’d like to check out last year’s edition, you can click the link here. Let’s jump into the 2022 class.

Round 1 – Kenny Pickett

Best Case: Like Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth last summer, Kenny Pickett is as-advertised. Pro ready means pro ready. Not pro “sit him on the bench for 12 weeks.” That’s evident early on in camp not just with Pickett’s play but with his presence. In fact, the first “wow” moment with him as a Steeler has nothing to do with a throw. Running as the third-string quarterback during the first day of practice, the other ten on offense botches two straight reps. A bad shotgun snap from center John Leglue flings itself to the right and past Pickett, killing the play. The next snap goes off without a hitch by WR Tyler Vaughns misses a hot off a nickel blitz by Arthur Maulet, not converting to a slant and staying upfield. Pickett’s pass is intercepted by ILB Mark Robinson, who houses it.

With authority, Pickett– unprompted – huddles up the other ten men with a firm, clear, and for the fans, loud, critique of their play. He breaks down the huddle, gets the next playcall from Matt Canada, and delivers a 55-yard strike downfield off play action to Vaughns, beating reserve CB Linden Stephens for the biggest play of the day. A great moment of leadership and highlight of the day, a moment that tells everyone what they need to know. Mike Tomlin’s asked about it after practice and with a sly grin behind his trademark aviators, he quips, “That’s why we liked Kenny.” 

In the interest of keeping up appearances, the Steelers’ quarterbacks rotate reps. But Pickett’s not a true “#3” and chances are split fairly evenly. In fact, Pickett receives reps in the biggest situational moments. On the fifth day of practice, he finishes out the last three plays of Seven Shots, going 3/3 with touchdown tosses to Zach Gentry, Anthony Miller, and hitting Mataeo Durant out of the backfield, who makes a nice one-handed snap over Buddy Johnson in the back left corner of the end zone.

The next day, Pickett commands a two-minute drill. With 1:41 on the clock and zero timeouts, all the other quarterbacks to this point were given one, he leads a seven-play, 62-yard drive with downfield strikes to Calvin Austin III and Jace Sternberger, effectively using the sidelines to preserve clock. With time running out, Pickett finds Gunner Olszewski over the middle but he’s touched up short at the two-yard line. The seconds tick away, seven, six, five, and the obvious move is to spike the ball. As Pickett rushes everyone up, including some out-of-breath linemen praying for a spike and chance to rest, Pickett gives a covert look to George Pickens, aligned right side. On the snap, Pickett fakes the spike, pretending to slam the ball into the ground with a forceful motion, drops back, and hits Pickens right side, beating the unsuspecting James Pierre, Pickens leaping over him for the touchdown. A fake spike touchdown, just as Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger did. Here’s Pickett, a rookie, doing the same. After practice, Pickett joked he did it because he knew no one could hit him if it failed. Perks of being the practice quarterback.

His practice work translates to the field. Pickett enjoys a solid preseason. Things are a little bumpier inside stadiums with other new and moving parts, but he throws four touchdowns to just one interception, the latter a failed cross-body throw picked off by Detroit’s Kerby Joseph. That stuff won’t fly as often in the NFL. But it’s a blip on the radar over an encouraging summer.

Mitch Trubisky suffers a strained PCL in that Lions’ game, causing him to miss the rest of summer. But it makes an easy decision easier, and Pickett is anointed the Week 1 starter for the Bengals game. Trubisky is healthy enough to be the backup while Mason Rudolph is shipped to New York as Daniel Jones’ backup, netting a sixth-round selection.

The season opener. Joe Burrow versus Kenny Pickett. The Bengals are six-point favorites and rightfully so, but Pickett is up for the challenge. It’s an exciting back-and-forth contest with the two trading touchdowns late in the game. Cincinnati gets off to a hot start, going up 14-0 after the first quarter but Pittsburgh buckles down on both sides of the ball. After Alex Highsmith forces a turnover against RB Joe Mixon, Pickett needs just four plays to go 27 yards, throwing his first touchdown, a seven-yard boot to the right to a wide open Pat Freiermuth. Pickett answers the call the next drive, marching the offense downfield on a 71-yard play drive, capped by a Najee Harris 11-yard score. Tie game. The Steelers would ultimately go on to lose in a heartbreaker, 31-28 on a last-second field goal by Evan McPherson but Pickett proved his meddle.

He goes on to enjoy a quality rookie year. Sure, there are some down moments, like a back-breaking fourth quarter interception against Tampa Bay in Week 6 and the fumbles are one (or two) too many but Pickett is the real deal. By the bye week, he’s up to 2,031 yards, 15 touchdowns to five interceptions and the Steelers are sitting pretty at 5-3. Pickett may lack the super-elite high-end talent of the best quarterbacks in the game but there’s nothing in his game that limits him in a serious way. He’s a solid quarterback out of the box with leadership beyond his years. Staying in Pittsburgh certainly doesn’t hurt the comfort factor.

The AFC North proves to be too tough for the Steelers to win the division, but they capture the sixth seed with a 10-7 record. Najee Harris misses the final three weeks, but Pickett pulls off two wins, putting the team on his back Greg Jennings style, ending his rookie year with 31 touchdowns. A solid group around him helps, Chase Claypool bouncing back, the rookie wideouts looking like the real deal, and an offensive line that takes a leap, not a step, forward.

Most importantly, Pickett does something that hasn’t happened in Pittsburgh in years. A playoff win. He breaks a six-year drought by beating Matt Ryan’s Colts on the road, 21-17. Pickett throws only one score, a slant to Claypool from four yards out, but he doesn’t make any mistakes as the Steelers secure victory. It all goes a bit wrong the next week, running into the buzzsaw that are the Kansas City Chiefs, a 34-11 loss, but in all, it’s a strong year. Pickett is named the Offensive Rookie of the Year and though the top five draft picks this season were defensive players, the honor’s still well-deserved.

2023 is a step forward though after a solid rookie year, there is no massive next step. Pickett is the leader as the offense continues to shift into form, including retaining WR Diontae Johnson via the franchise tag (Johnson skips spring workouts but reports on Day One of training camp). Pickett isn’t the best QB in his division but can go toe-to-toe with the others. The Steelers improve to 11-6 and grab the top Wild Card spot as Pickett throws 35 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, completing 67.3% of his passes. He’s a solid fit in Matt Canada’s offense, one that has plenty of defined structure coupled with Pickett’s ability to improvise when things break down. The Steelers win another playoff game before being thwarted again in the Divisional Round.

And that is the one issue. Pickett is a good quarterback, better than that really, and it’s hard to be unhappy with him. He’s the Steelers’ starter and there is no long, thorny bridge like there was between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. But he isn’t quite the elite of the elite, getting the Steelers far but not far enough. That’s not always on him but he’s never a top-five quarterback in the league, meaning everything else has to go right, and go wrong for other team’s, in order for Pittsburgh to have a chance. There is this feeling of being “stuck.” Pickett is like asking for new socks for Christmas and then getting them. You asked for it, you knew what was coming, but you’re left with a twinge of disappointment that comes with the known, the expected, the anticipated.

Now, Pickett and the Steelers have their moments. In 2025 and 2027 (Pickett signs a massive six-year, $256.5 million deal prior to the 2025 season) Pittsburgh reaches the AFC Title Game. Both times, they are turned away by a better quarterback. Burrow in ’25, Josh Allen in ’27. In 2029, they make it to the Super Bowl, only to fall short to Dak Prescott’s Cowboys. Again, Pickett is good. Really good. It just isn’t quite good enough and there’s usually *something* that trips the team up, even if that thing isn’t directly Pickett’s fault.

But Pickett is Pittsburgh’s guy. He’s their leader, their ambassador, their face, and firmly plants that flag when Mike Tomlin semi-surprisingly retires after the 2028 season, replaced by outside-hire Kenny Dillingham who leaves his OC job with the Seattle Seahawks. He’s consistently good, making three Pro Bowls and is regarded an inside-the-top ten quarterback throughout his career. Comparable to Derek Carr in style, production, and hardware – neither ever win a Super Bowl. First round QBs are supposed to be synonymous with Lombardi trophies. It just doesn’t happen. Tom Brady may be gone for most of his career (though he plays through the 2025 season) but there’s still all the other great QBs to compete with. Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, and Trevor Lawrence finds his groove, it helps the Jags draft Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who goes on to become a top-three receiver in football, as Lawrence becomes a three-time All-Pro and turns Jacksonville around.

Pickett isn’t a home run or a strike out. He’s a solidly hit double to the wall. His Steelers’ career ends after the 2032 season. In total, he puts up a career line of: 4339/6567 (66.1%) for 51,548 yards, 321 touchdowns and 112 interceptions while rushing for 17 scores. He’s easily the team’s third-best quarterback in franchise history though firmly behind Ben Roethlisberger and Terry Bradshaw. Pickett’s career ends in the Steelers’ Hall of Honor but not in the Hall of Fame.

Worst Case: That baseball analogy about Pickett being a double? Not so here. He’s a slow dribbler to the shortstop. An infield single at best but really, he’s the runner always beaten out by a step. Pickett enters camp as the #3 quarterback and there’s a reason for that. Pittsburgh needs him to prove he’s the guy. But there’s no summer magic here. Pickett isn’t awful but it’s nothing that gets you out of your seat, hopping up and down that the Steelers stole him with the 20th pick and first quarterback taken.

He’s just…average. You ever have a day where nothing happens? You wake up, go to work, come home, run to the store, make dinner, watch some random NBA game on TV, Pistons versus Hawks, doom-scroll through Twitter, climb into bed, and call it a night. The day was fine. Nothing great nor nothing terrible happened. Just sorta going through the motions. That’s Pickett.

Pickett certainly has his rookie moments. His first practice is bumpy, fumbling two under-center exchanges and throwing an ugly interception on his lone deep ball of the day, picked off by veteran Karl Joseph over the middle of the field. He’s given chances but doesn’t make the most of them. He fails to lead the offense into the red zone in any two-minute drill during practice, going an ugly 1/4 on his second attempt midway through camp, short-arming a fourth down sideline throw for Anthony Miller.

But the worst moment comes during practice eight. There’s always at least one of those days during camp. A downpour rolls through at 2:05 and Pittsburgh plays through it – this is a great test for these guys. Pickett struggles, throwing three interceptions on the day and botching two plays, dropping a shotgun snap and missing the mesh point on a handoff to Anthony McFarland, a fumble recovered by Tuzar Skipper coming off the edge. Pickett’s wearing his gloves and the elements aren’t new to him but he’s not playing well and that’s all that matters. His preseason action is roughly the same. There’s a couple of flashes of him making plays on the move, including a 25-yard strike to Zach Gentry in the preseason finale against Detroit but it’s not enough to go off of.

Elsewhere, Mitch Trubisky is white hot. He has a great first summer with the team, moving the offense with ease, showing poise and leadership, and really coming out of his shell. A year in Buffalo coupled with the stability and confidence Pittsburgh gives him really pays off. He’s flawless during preseason action, six touchdowns to zero interceptions. Any whispers at the start of camp are gone by the end of it, Trubisky is the clear starter Week 1.

Given Pickett’s struggles, the Steelers choose to hold onto Mason Rudolph despite multiple reports noting the Chicago Bears were offering a fifth rounder for him after losing Trevor Siemien to a broken foot and having nothing behind Justin Fields. The Steelers decline the deal, the first sign of their concern over Pickett being ready to assume the role, the opening notes of the Jaws music —dun dundun dun – before the attack.

Trubisky isn’t nearly as successful during the regular season but it’s enough to keep the Steelers above .500 and his head above water. Pittsburgh’s in the thick of the playoff race wire-to-wire, all the way to Week 18, before being eliminated in the finale by the Cleveland Browns, a bitter 23-20 defeat. It’s the worst of both worlds. The Steelers are sent packing but there was never consideration to playing Pickett. The focus was always on the playoffs. The group stays healthy, Trubisky misses the second half against the Dolphins Week 7, suffering a shoulder sprain in his non-throwing arm, but Mason Rudolph finishes it out and Trubisky returns the next week. Pickett plays a whopping zero snaps as a rookie.

He enters the 2023 season in a better place as rookies-turned-sophomore naturally do. The competition is far more legitimate this year, too. But it’s not all good news for his stock. Diontae Johnson is no longer a Steeler. No long-term deal was reached in the summer of 2022 and surprisingly wasn’t franchise tagged after publicly threatening that he wouldn’t sign if the team tagged him. The Steelers let him walk instead, leaving them down their best receiver to begin the new year.

With the pressure of a first-round pick and a close-enough battle, Pickett’s better than a summer ago, Trubisky a little worse, and Pickett nets the Week 1 nod. He opens up the year on the road (Pittsburgh doesn’t play a season home opener until 2026) against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers get blown out 28-7 with Pickett suffering a Grade Two MCL sprain late in the third quarter, limping off the field and exiting the game. But he’s tough and determined and knows he has to make this time count so he’s back on the field in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens. But he’s playing hurt, and his play overall just isn’t cutting it. There’s nothing unique or special in his game. The arm strength, the mobility, the pocket presence. Injuries can be an explanation but they’re not an adequate excuse.

There are other problems too. Like ball security. Hand size isn’t the issue – it’s his carriage of the football. He drops the ball down when moving around the pocket or scrambling and it doesn’t matter if you have eight inch or ten-inch hands. A 300-pound lineman is going to knock it away. In Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, Pickett fumbles three times, losing two because of the ball swinging down and away at his hip. It’s a bad habit, one that dates back to his Pitt days and when he’s in trouble or on the move, those old habits die hard.

Pittsburgh begins the season 0-3 and Pickett is benched for his and the team’s sake. Trubisky replaces him and fares better though it’s not enough to salvage the season. Pittsburgh’s eliminated from playoff contention after Week 15 with their 5-9 record. Now healthy, Pickett is inserted back into the lineup. He’s a little better, playing on two good MCLs will do that to a man, but it’s still not franchise-quarterback caliber worthy. The physical tools are average and while he’s decent above-the-neck, it’s not enough to compete in an AFC North that features Jackson, Burrow, and Watson, not to mention the rest of the AFC’s bigwigs. The Steelers finish 2023 6-11 with Pickett completing 60.5% of his throws with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Trubisky’s deal is up after two years and he moves on, signing a four-year, $58.7 million deal to quarterback the Washington Commanders. Pickett enters 2024 as the starter. This time, health isn’t an issue but his general play is. It’s simply not good enough. It’s not terrible, his floor has always been high, and there’s the occasional solid moment, like leading a 63-play drive in 45 seconds to beat the New England Patriots in Week 10 that year, and Pickett serves as the starter the entire year. But Pittsburgh again falls short of the playoffs, finishing the year 8-9. It’s now been three years since the Steelers have sniffed the playoffs and eight since they won a playoff game.

After declining Pickett’s fifth-year option, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan know they need to make a move and aggressively trade up in the 2025 NFL Draft, moving from #15 to #4, drafting Penn State’s Drew Allar, an Ohio product just like Ben Roethlisberger. Allar shines in the summer and wins the starting job with Pickett sitting on the bench as the #2. He spot-starts two games, one where Allar misses due to a concussion and another in Week 18, when the finally playoff-bound Steelers have locked up the #2 seed and rest their starters. Pittsburgh finishes the year 12-5 with Allar taking the league by storm, beating the Miami Dolphins on Wild Card weekend before losing to Los Angeles in the Divisional Game.

Pickett hits free agency in the offseason, signing with the Chargers as Justin Herbert’s backup. The #2 role is better suited for Pickett, able to come off the bench and give quality play at a moment’s notice, a sort of new-age Charlie Batch. He spends three years there before his final season in San Francisco before retiring and getting into coaching with the Pitt Panthers.

His Steelers’ career ends with just 23 starts and a 9-14 record, going 421/674 (62.5%) with 30 touchdowns and 18 interceptions with marginal numbers at his next two NFL stops, going 2-2 with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Worse yet, Desmond Ridder goes on to be the star of the class, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro for the Atlanta Falcons and winning the 2026 Super Bowl, adding salt into the wound that was the Steelers’ decision to pick Pickett.

Round Two – WR George Pickens

Best Case: Pickens isn’t Ja’Marr Chase. But he’s pretty close. Missing nearly all of the 2021 season doesn’t slow him done. Now fully healthy, he’s a first round talent, really first receiver off the board quality who fell into the Steelers’ laps at #52. Very similar to Stephon Tuitt.

Pickens may be a little rough around the edges but everything in the middle is high quality. He can do it all. He’s got straight-line speed, change of direction ability, and can go up and get the ball. His first training camp is littered with those examples. During a WR/DB stalk drill, he flashed his physicality, taking and driving CB Levi Wallace into the sideline, sending Wallace’s DB teammates scurrying out of the way. A hyped-up moment with a fan taking video of the rep from the stands and it exploding on Twitter, racking up more than 6,500 likes.

Pickens is ready right away and though there’s a little difficulty finding his fit, his talent puts him all over the field. Working primarily as the Z receiver with Chase Claypool pushing to the slot. Pickens doesn’t need a warmup. In Week 1 against the Bengals, he makes his presence loud and clear by skying over Chidobe Awuzie for a nine-yard, second quarter touchdown. There’s springs in his legs and strength in his hands and he turns 50/50 balls into 70/30 chances in his favor. Given the structure of the offense, the volume isn’t there but the big plays sure are.

Through the first seven weeks, he’s caught 26 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns, a Martavis Bryant-like line but without all the waiting. When he’s not making plays downfield, he’s making an impact in the run game. In Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints, he crack-blocks Tyrann Mathieu, sweeping him off his feet as Najee Harris runs off Pickens’ hip for a 47-yard gain down to the three.

Strong play begets more playing time. Claypool misses three weeks with a torn meniscus and Pickens works as the full-time Z receiver, putting up a 14/201/2 line over that span. But his best moment comes late in the year, coming up clutch. In a win-or-go-home game against Cleveland in the regular season finale, Deshaun Watson and the Browns take a 21-17 lead with 90 seconds left. Pickens puts on a show on the ensuing drive. Rookie Kenny Pickett hits him early and often. Starting on their own 25, Pickett catches a first down curl out of bounds for eight. On 3rd and 2, Pickett, in the slot on this rep, grabs a slant over the middle and dusts Grant Delpit for 25 yards. After a quick Y-stick to Pat Freiermuth for four, Pickens runs a post over the middle of the field with Pickett perfectly putting the ball right on him, plopping into Pickens’ paws for a 38-yard score, a stellar performance. Pittsburgh goes on to win 24-21 and gets into the playoffs.

His rookie regular season is capped off with him totaling 51 receptions for 763 yards and six touchdowns. With such a strong first year, Diontae Johnson isn’t retained in the offseason; heck, he isn’t even franchise-tagged. Holding control over the player is one thing but it’s a lot of money tied up in one player at a position of strength when that money could better be spent elsewhere. Instead, Pittsburgh signs Orlando Brown Jr. over from Kansas City to be their next left tackle on a four-year, $94 million deal (Dan Moore shifts to RT and Chukwuma Okorafor is cut). Brown is a stud and helps take the Steelers’ line to new heights, giving them a balanced and potent offensive attack.

Pickens enters 2023 as the team’s #1, playing the X but with the talent and skillset to move all around the formation. Now with a full year under his belt and a little bit older and wiser, he rockets off. He’s no longer just the big-play guy. He’s the *the* guy and proves it with a nine-catch, 110-yard, one-score performance in the ’23 opener against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s more of the same the rest of the way as Pickens ascends into one of the top ten receivers in football and his game overall is a little Justin Jefferson-like.

His biggest performance comes in Week 11, a loss to the Miami Dolphins. His numbers are a bit inflated by fourth quarter catch-up time but he ends the day with 12 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns, making at least his fantasy owners happy. He sophomore season is a massive success, 94 receptions for 1,297 yards and nine scores. Pittsburgh ekes into the playoffs as the #7 seed but Pickens goes off in the Wild Card Game, a 7/110/1 performance to beat the New York Jets, who caught fire with QB Zach Wilson. But Pittsburgh knocks them off 27-20, though the Steelers’ season ends the following week to the Buffalo Bills, 34-18.

Pickens can do it all and does do it all in the Steelers’ offense. Entering the league at 21 and hardly playing his final season at Georgia, he’s got plenty of tread on his tires. His next three seasons are excellent, aided by the success of Kenny Pickett who picks up where Ben Roethlisberger left off. Here’s his stat lines over that span.

2024: 96 receptions, 1,337 yards, 10 touchdowns
2025: 104 receptions, 1,401 yards, 11 touchdowns
2026: 91 receptions, 1,182 yards, 10 touchdowns

He makes two Pro Bowls out of that grouping, only missing in 2026, while making the All-Pro Team in 2025 – competition at the position is fierce. Pittsburgh makes the playoffs in 2024 and 2026, going to the Super Bowl in ’24. Facing the Philadelphia Eagles in a Keystone State showdown, Pickens comes away with a seven-catch, 94-yard, two-touchdown performance, including a 14-yard snag right before the half, though the Steelers don’t come away with a trophy, falling 28-23.

One of the 2022 NFL Draft’s biggest steals, Pickens outproduces the entire wide receiver class. Drake London, Jameson Williams, all of them. He ends his ten-year career with the team putting up 859 receptions for 11,888 yards and 84 touchdowns. All second-most in team history, just barely behind Hines Ward. Pickens also makes six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro Teams. Unable to reach a contract extension with the team, he hits free agency following the 2031 season, playing three more years, two with Minnesota and one in Tampa Bay. That adds a couple hundred more catches and couple thousand more yards to his resume. With even more of a logjam at receiver, it takes him a several years but he’s inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his fourth ballot appearance, inducted as part of the Class of 2042, best known for his time with the black and gold.

Worst Case: On paper, Pickens has plenty of talent. But he wouldn’t be the first one with all the potential to never fully realize it. The reality is entering the NFL, he’s 21 years old who missed nearly all of last season recovering from a torn ACL. He shows his rust and the steep NFL jump out of the gate. Running as the second-team X receiver behind Diontae Johnson, Pickens struggles during his first camp. He’s not a slow player but he’s playing slow. It’s all part of the adjustment. There isn’t one thing that sticks out so obviously poorly in his game. It’s just all a bit below-the-line. His preseason totals reflect that, catching just five passes for 57 yards and no touchdowns.

More established players turn heads instead. Miles Boykin has a big summer and Gunner Olszewski carves out a role in Matt Canada’s offense, not to mention Calvin Austin adjusting well in the slot as the more experienced college player, sending Pickens down the depth chart. The biggest wide receiver news of camp is Diontae Johnson agreeing to a four-year, $90.3 million deal (he gets a healthy average but only his first-year is fully guaranteed) three days before the regular season opener. He’s here to stay.

Pittsburgh dresses only five receivers for their Week 1 tilt against the Bengals. Pickens isn’t one of them. He’s an inactive and stays that way for the first four weeks of the year until Boykin rolls an ankle. Though now with a helmet, Pickens doesn’t exactly start seeing tons of snaps offensively. He plays 11 snaps against the Buffalo Bills, catching his first pass for three yards on a quick screen and eight snaps against Tampa Bay, targeted once but the pass off-line and incomplete. Boykin returns healthy and Pickens lands back in street clothes. He returns after the bye after Diontae Johnson suffers a concussion in Week 1, opening the door for serious playing time. But Pickens return coincides with Kenny Pickett’s debut, replacing Mitch Trubisky as the Steelers begin the year 3-5. Pickett may have a bright future but not a bright Day One and the Bengals throttle the Steelers 31-10. Pickett struggles and Pickens doesn’t help, missing a sight adjustment on an early 3rd and 4, running vertically when Pickett wanted the backshoulder throw. On seven targets, Pickens ends the day catching three passes for 25 yards.

That’s the theme of Pickens’ quiet rookie season. Much more James Washington than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Pickens struggles to find a hat and a role in the offense, splitting time between different spots, X, Z, and slot but not having the reps to really get comfortable at any one spot. His rookie year ends with a whimper, not a bang putting up 19 receptions for 217 yards and one touchdown, a garbage-time score in a Week 17 loss to Baltimore.

Quarterbacks and receivers are tied at the hip and Pickens isn’t the only rookie who struggled. So did Kenny Pickett, who started six games, going 1-5 and throwing just seven touchdowns to seven interceptions and barely completing more than 60% of his passes. But Pickett is the team’s starter heading into 2023. Pickens is still fighting for a role but is in a better place as a 22-year old sophomore. He’s part of the Steelers’ rotation but still isn’t living up to his talent. Neither is Pickett as the Steelers get off to a 1-4 start with Pickett just trying to keep his head above water. When anyone makes a play, it’s Johnson, still the #1 weapon in this offense. With plenty of frustration to go around, Pickens lets the anger that occasionally consumed him in college get the best of him in Week 6 against Cleveland, tussling with CB Greg Newsome at the end of a Najee Harris run. Both are ejected from the game.

Afforded more snaps, Pickens numbers are better than his rookie year, finishing with 37 receptions for 449 yards and two touchdowns. But it’s just not clicking. It’s a combination of Pickens being a little too wiry, not uber-athletic, stuck behind other names on the depth chart, and the struggles at quarterback.

After the Steelers finish the 2023 season a bitter 6-11 with the 28th-ranked scoring offense, OC Matt Canada is fired and Mike McCoy is hired as OC. At the same time, WRs Coach Frisman Jackson goes back to college, hired as the OC at LSU. Two people in Pickens’ camp are no longer in his corner, a point reinforced when the Steelers – after letting Chase Claypool hit free agency – draft Alabama WR Ja’Corey Brooks seventh overall in the 2024 draft. Pickens is stuck third-fiddle and really fourth on the depth chart with Austin III emerging as an explosive, dynamic slot receiver. Pickett falls out of favor in a largely new crowd, still stuck as the #4 receiver. His 2024 numbers aren’t any more promising, 33 catches for 413 yards and a pair of touchdowns, a nice 22-yard grab against the Denver Broncos but that’s about it for the highlights.

He enters 2024 on the bubble and ends the summer outside of it, beaten out and cut as the Steelers trimmed their roster to 53. His Steelers’ career ends with 89 receptions for 1,079 yards and 5 five touchdowns. He signs a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins with modest production, 38 catches for 500 yards and three touchdowns in 2024 thanks to a better scheme fit at QB. But he goes down as one of many college receivers who looked good on draft night but simply never panned out due to a variety of reasons.

Round Three – DL DeMarvin Leal

Best Case: Leal may have had question marks about weight and scheme fit coming out of Texas A&M but he always had potential, viewed as a potential first-round pick prior to the 2021 season. He flashes it before the games even get going. In an early OL/DL drill during camp, dusting newly signed RG James Daniel on two straight reps, one with a rip and one with an inside swim. It’s no slight against Daniels, whose enjoying a fine camp, but a “woah” moment in Leal’s favor. Despite telling reporters he’s tipping the scales at 299 pounds, he still shows the quickness he had at 280 with A&M. Leal has a disruptive preseason, picking up 2.5 sacks, including a forced fumble on Lions’ QB David Blough in the preseason finale. Cam Heyward can’t help but be impressed, praising him to reporters throughout the summer.

Pittsburgh enters camp with seven defensive linemen, making for a crowded room. But Chris Wormley sprains his knee in the second preseason game and he starts the year on injured-reserve. Leal’s strong play is enough to net him a helmet, beating out Isaiahh Loudermilk in the regular season opener against Cincinnati. Leal’s still fighting for rotational work as the #5 defensive lineman, not a role that lends itself to a ton of snaps, but it’s a good start and a pragmatic way for a rookie to dip his toe into the water. Leal averages 10-15 snaps per game but makes those moments count. He picks up his first half-sack in the home opener, Week 2 against New England, and a critical 3rd and 2 stop the following week against Cleveland under primetime lights, busting through and stuffing Nick Chubb as the Steelers hold on to a 14-10 win.

Leal plays well and shows progression the rest of the way and because his snap count was low, doesn’t hit the rookie wall. He first season ends playing 221 snaps, picking up 19 tackles, three for a loss, with 1.5 sacks. Doors open in the offseason with Larry Ogunjobi, who didn’t play as well as the team hoped, hits free agency, Tyson Alualu retires, and Chris Wormley moves on, inking a two-year deal with the Lions. Leal goes from #5 to sub-package starter, still not an ideal base end but a new-age penetrating defensive tackle.

He makes the classic second-year leap, not quite Stephon Tuitt but a strong pairing next to Cam Heyward in his final years. Leal racks up two sacks in the first three weeks and has 5.5 by mid-season. Regression kicks in a bit down the stretch, as does him playing on a sprained ankle but he still finishes the year with 8.5, tying Heyward’s mark. Leal wins with quickness and burst, hand use, and effort to the football. He’s not a traditional run stuffer but isn’t a one-trick pony as a pure pass rusher.

Pittsburgh makes a playoff run and in the 2023 Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Leal makes a critical play in the upset victory, sacking Patrick Mahomes on 3rd and 6 on the Steelers’ 24 with 1:01 left and Pittsburgh leading by four, 27-23. Mahomes’ fourth down pass into the end zone for Skyy Moore falls incomplete and the Steelers secure victory, though they fall in the AFC Title game to Miami.

It’s more of the same in 2024 with Leal picking up eight sacks, netting him a long-term deal in the summer of ’25, a four-year deal worth $58.6 million. Leal is never a top-end rusher, not reaching a Cameron Heyward level of dominance but he’s a more-than-solid starter, a Javon Hargrave-caliber of player. Leal’s always flirting with double-digit sacks, hitting exactly that mark in the 2025 regular season finale against Cincinnati and he’s a Pro Bowl alternate for his troubles. A broken foot seven weeks into 2027 slows him down and he’s never quite the same, losing that quickness and burst as the game and injuries catch up to him, finishing the year with just four sacks. But as the Steelers tend to do, he plays out his contract, putting up 3.5 sacks in a lesser role in 2028 before hitting free agency. He bounces around a couple of camps and appears in three games for the Carolina Panthers, registering a half-sack, before falling out of the league.

In all, a very good NFL career, especially for a third rounder where the miss rate sits over 50%. He ends his Steelers’ career with 43 sacks across seven seasons. It’s not an absolute home run but not every pick needs to be. It’s still a good one and tremendous ROI.

Worst Case: Leal was always a curious pick. Talent and pedigree, sure, but no real home, especially not in Pittsburgh. For a defense looking to become stout again against the run, selecting a then-280 pound one-gapper without great length doesn’t make sense. Schemes and systems have blurred but Leal is a D-line nomad. No home, no place to go. That’s evident right away with Leal struggling in team drills to anchor and hold his own against the run. Big John Leglue pushes him around like a toy car in camp, washing him down during a full-contact drill and allowing Mataeo Durant to bust a 23-yard middle off right side. Things aren’t better in the preseason with Leal off his feet time and time again against Dan Campbell’s kneecap-biting offensive line as Detroit puts up 201 yards rushing in the preseason finale.

Worse yet, Leal’s lost his pass rush juice with the added weight. He comes into camp 305 and looking…not great, so quick and desperate to pack on the pounds over just a couple of months. He’s not eating Baconators but all the extra calories have him feeling heavy and slow. Couple that with being a rookie where you’re naturally a tick behind and Leal just looks lost out of the gate.

Pittsburgh preaches patience, they knew there’d be a transition and adjustment and they’re not in a hurry to play him but Leal is far from ready. He makes the team as the 7th defensive lineman, the team keeping all their guys, but is an easy inactive. Even when injuries crop up, Montravius Adams pulls a hamstring in Week 3, Leal isn’t the next-man-up. Leal hardly sees playing time as a rookie save for the final two weeks of the season with Pittsburgh eliminated from the playoffs. He picks up 21 snaps against Baltimore and 32 against Cleveland, recording three tackles and one hurry against Lamar Jackson on a scramble drill/broken play.

Tyson Alualu does retire after the season, but Chris Wormley and Larry Ogunjobi come back. Wormley cheaper but still occupying a spot while Ogunjobi enjoys a good year and decides to call Pittsburgh home. He doesn’t mind the cold and wants to keep playing with Alex Highsmith. Leal returns to a still-crowded room in 2023 but more importantly, his play hasn’t picked up. He’s dropped weight to get back to what he’s used to, coming to Latrobe at 285. He’s quicker but it doesn’t help his run defense and that still comes first. Leal’s simply a fish out of water and everyone knows it. He doesn’t make the Week 1 roster, cut as Pittsburgh trims down to 53. He’s claimed off waivers by the Seattle Seahawks, offering a better system and scheme fit.

He sees marginally more success there, picking up 2.5 sacks that year and two more in 2024. But off scholarship and without the investment of a third-round pick like he was in Pittsburgh, he’s released in the 2025 offseason after Pete Carroll retires and the Seahawks bring in a new regime.

Leal’s time in Pittsburgh is brief and forgettable, playing in just those two games and picking up three tackles. His career arc is disappointing but not uncommon, similar to Bruce Davis, Kraig Urbik, or Orien Harris. And really, the pick was Pittsburgh’s fault for their misevaluation.

Round Four – WR Calvin Austin III

Best Case: Austin may not look like much. But when the ball is snapped, he takes off like a Tesla, immediate acceleration in the blink of an eye. He provides the one thing the Steelers’ offense lacks. Speed. It’s evident right away. Though it comes in shorts and shells, Austin catches a 63-yard seam pass down the right side from Kenny Pickett on the second day of practice, dusting past veteran Arthur Maulet. Austin can flat out fly and shows from the moment he steps inside a stadium. He goes off in the preseason opener against Seattle, catching two touchdowns from 33 and 41 yards out, torching an overmatched Seahawks’ secondary. He ends the preseason with nine receptions for 141 yards and three touchdowns, the third being a goal line slant against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Austin may be *just* a fourth-round rookie but he’s Day One ready. His college experience and reps helping him mentally transition to the slot role, and Pittsburgh has a big void there. A late Anthony Miller preseason injury helps prop that door open, but Austin’s ascension is earned, not given. George Pickens rotates on the outside while Austin mans the middle, picking up 44 snaps out of the gate against the Bengals, a 24-17 loss but a game in which Austin catches four passes for 49 yards, including a late-half third down conversion that sets up a Najee Harris three-yard score.

A strong fit for Matt Canada’s system, Austin is the king of catching screens, RPOs, and working the flat in the boot game for big run-after chances. The damage he does post-catch is impressive, able to ramp up to full speed quicker than most of the DBs covering him. What separates him from others is his ability to also win over the top and he becomes a real middle of the field presence, another aspect this offense is missing. Pat Freiermuth does the work short middle, Austin does it intermediate and deep middle. He may be small but displays his toughness, like holding on despite a hard shot by Bengals’ SS Vonn Bell in Week 11, a primetime performance where the Steelers enact their revenge, winning 20-16.

Austin is far from the most dominant weapon on this Steelers’ offense but when he hits, he hits big. There are occasional duds, his role is a bit circumstantial and uneven with Chase Claypool and Pickens rotating, and he’s not the #1 progression, but he ends his rookie year with 35 receptions for 429 yards and two touchdowns while also carrying the ball 11 times for 96 yards thanks to Canada’s sweeps and jets. Gunner Olszewski misses two weeks with a MCL sprain and Austin is granted punt return duty (Anthony McFarland returns kicks) averaging a healthy 11.3 yards on four tries.

Unhappy with his role, Claypool asks for a trade during the 2023 offseason. Wanting volunteers, not hostages, the Steelers ship him out to Chicago to catch passes from Justin Fields, getting fifth- and seventh-round picks in return. Diontae Johnson is playing on the franchise tag but Pickens becomes the full-time Z, keeping Austin in pole position in the slot without the semi-rotation he went through as a rookie. His numbers are elevated as second-year QB Kenny Pickett finds his stroke and Austin’s second year finishes up with 51 grabs for 647 yards and three scores.

He’s not a touchdown machine with Harris, Pickens, and Freiermuth getting all the glory, but Austin helps put the Steelers in prime position. In the Wild Card game against Denver, Austin takes a jet sweep 57 yards to the house off left side, putting the Steelers up 14-0 in a game they’d win easily, 31-15.

2024 is more of the same, a similar but slightly better stat line of 56 grabs for 708 yards and four trips to the end zone. Austin also becomes the team’s starting punt returner the entire year, though his production is average at 7.7 yards per return with a long of 21. Pittsburgh gets hot and goes on a run, making it to the Super Bowl under Pickett, facing off against the Trey-Lance led San Francisco 49ers. It’s a tight game, back and forth, through the first three quarters with the 49ers holding onto a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. With 11:47 left, the 49ers punt and Austin fields it as his own 23. He darts up the middle, slips a tackle, bounces to the right and flies down the right sideline, beating punter Mitch Wisnowsky’s flailing attempt. It’s a 77-yard score and breaks the game open. Lance is picked off by Minkah Fitzpatrick on the next drive, setting up a George Pickens 11-yard score. Over the span of two minutes, the Steelers go from being down three to leading 28-17, going on to capture their seventh Lombardi Trophy. Austin is snubbed of MVP, Pickett wins it with two passing touchdowns but he’s the game-changer every Steelers’ fan talks about.

Austin signs a two-year extension prior to the start of the 2025 season. His production remains about the same, capped by being the team’s slot receiver. But he continues to work as the team’s explosive return man and he reminds the league of his speed every few weeks, including catching a 98-yard touchdown in 2026 against the Texans. Houston brings a goal line blitz, leaving their corners 1v1 and Austin outraces the field into the end zone.

Looking for a greater opportunity later in his career, he signs a two-year deal worth $21.3 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2027 season, playing out his contract there with slightly bumped up production. In Pittsburgh, his time ends after six seasons, catching 280 passes for 3,544 yards and 15 touchdowns with an 8.3 punt return average and one touchdown. A very good career even if the numbers were never overwhelming and gaudy, Austin served his role well. And there’s always that Super Bowl.

Worst Case: To compare Austin to Dri Archer or Chris Rainey would be unfair. But…if he’s not producing, it’s hard to push back on those comps. Where Austin is similar to those other guys is that he’s small. Really small. That’s a problem in the NFL and it’s clear off the top. Sure, Austin can dazzle in space and in 1v1 drills but when the pads come on, when the NFL comes knocking on your door, Austin can’t answer the call. He gets knocked around too easy at this level and while he has speed, he’s hitting all the bumps along the way. A Ferrari doesn’t show its wheels in a parking lot.

Austin’s first camp is a tough one. On top of that is him basically learning a new position. He was an outside receiver at Memphis -now in Pittsburgh, he’s lining up in the slot. It’s a different pre-snap picture and bigger adjustment than people think. But even if he was the Albert Einstein of football, he’s about as big as him too. Guys his size have made it before, but plenty more have failed. Gunner Olszewski has locked down return duties, leaving Austin without a role. Anthony Miller steps up in the preseason showing great rapport with Mitch Trubisky from their Chicago days while George Pickens is as advertised as Pittsburgh’s second round pick. Miles Boykin is a solid gunner and jammer, leaving Austin odd-man out to start the year.

In bad luck for Austin, good luck for the team, the group stays healthy and performs well. There’s no injuries the first five weeks. Boykin sprains his knee and misses Week 6, giving Austin a helmet, but he’s not working Boykin’s role. He’s not holding back any gunners. He logs three snaps against Tampa Bay, two passes, one run, and zero targets. Boykin returns the following week. As does Austin’s street clothes. Austin appears in only two other games that year, Week 14 and Week 17, logging 31 total snaps and catching two passes for nine yards, both designed quick-game concepts in Matt Canada’s offense. Pittsburgh has enough mouths to feed, and Austin can’t get on the train before it leaves the station. Pickens and Miller split slot reps, both putting up solid seasons.

The room’s still just as crowded entering 2023. Johnson is on the franchise tag while Pickens, Miller, nor Chase Claypool have gone anywhere. The only subtraction is Miles Boykin, landing a two-year deal in Green Bay, but Austin’s path is still tough. Pittsburgh tries to get him involved in the return game. But in the preseason opener versus New Orleans, he fumbles twice, one muff and one while trying to fight through a tackle instead of just going down. The Saints recover and score three plays later. Austin’s role is narrow but with no other real receiver threats on the roster, Pittsburgh did little to bring in competition, Austin remains on the roster as a #5/#6, rotating between active and inactive with veteran FA Keelan Cole.

Austin’s first good moment comes in Week 3. After Pickens is taken out of the game to be evaluated for a concussion, Austin steps up and catches a 24-yard pass down the middle of the field. He ends the day with two catches for 43 yards. But Pickens returns the next week and Austin again spends most of his time watching on the bench. His sophomore year is hardly more exciting, 11 catches for 94 yards on 15 targets, mostly doing his damage underneath. He misses two games with a groin injury, compounding his troubles all the more. The 2023 offseason does bring change in the form of Johnson and Miller leaving (Trubisky is out the door too) though Claypool is re-signed to a three-year, $73.5 million contract three days before free agency kicks off. But Pittsburgh signs Michael Pittman in free agency and drafts Ohio State’s Emeka Egbuka in the second round, closing any crack in the door that was opening for Austin.

He’s brought to camp but’s more of the same. Quiet. He’s a predictable and easy cut with a career that isn’t Archer or Rainey but more accurately compared to Willie Reid. Austin bounces around the next three seasons with the Jets, Cowboys, and Chiefs, catching 18 passes for 200 yards but never finding the end zone.

Round Six – H-Back Connor Heyward

Best Case: Call him what you want. Fullback. Tight end. H-Back. Special teamer. Here’s what matters. Connor Heyward’s a Pittsburgh Steeler. No handout, no charity case, no “you’re here because of your last name.” And Heyward earns his spot. Not just onto the 90-man but onto the 53.

Heyward is the offensive Swiss Army Knife and clearly separates himself from Derek Watt over the summer. Better athlete, better hands, better offensive threat. He’s a fun chess piece not because he’s the focal point but because he opens up so many options as a #3 tight end err…whatever you want to call him. His preseason is excellent doing a bit of everything and he’s arguably the second-best runner on the team. He catches the ball ten times for 101 yards and one touchdown, carries it 12 times for 61 yards and another score while racking up five special teams tackles, tied for the most on the team. He easily earns his spot on the team as does Watt but it’s clear who the more valuable player is. Heyward can block too, you know. Like Roosevelt Nix against Will Johnson, Heyward slowly creeps into playing time in a Matt Canada-led offense that wants to feature some big guys on the field.

In the Week 1 opener, Watt plays four offensive snaps to Heyward’s two. In Week 3, they tie at four snaps each. By Week 7, Heyward is up to eight snaps while Watt plays just one, a victory formation no less, and after the bye, Heyward is active while Watt fails to dress. Heyward can do everything Watt can but better. In Week 12 against the Colts, a Monday night game, Heyward crushes Darius Leonard to lead the way for a Najee Harris three-year score. Late in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh up big, Heyward catches a Mitch Trubisky boot for a five-yard score, the first of his career. He chips in a pair of special teams tackles to boot. It’s a great showing.

He ends his rookie year with a colorful stat line. 17 receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown, eight carries for 40 yards, and six combined tackles on special teams while playing 66.3% of those third-phase snaps. By Year Two, he’s named special teams captain, fully replacing Watt who is allowed to hit free agency.

Heyward’s role in the offense still isn’t huge, he’s a H-Back in a passing world, but he’s a fun player who comes up large in big moments. Take 2023, Week 12, Sunday night against Baltimore. The Steelers are down 20-16 with three minutes left. Facing 4th and 4 from the Ravens’ 14, Heyward releases down the middle of the field. He’s Pickett’s third option but the Ravens have split-safeties, leaving LB Patrick Queen trying to run with Heyward. Pickett throws it up, a pass slightly short with the fear of leading him out of the end zone, but Heyward reaches back and pulls the ball up and over Queen’s helmet, securing the ball all the way to the ground. Touchdown, Steelers. Victory, Steelers.

Heyward plays the role well the next two seasons, seeing additional carries in 2024 when Najee Harris misses three weeks with a broken hand, then plays the next two with it wrapped up.  Prior to the 2025 season, Cam Heyward announces it’ll be his last after suffering another torn bicep in 2024. They cherish the season together as the Steelers make one more run but fall short in the AFC Title Game against the Bills, a heartbreaker on a last second kick.

Older brother Cam does indeed retire after the year and with an expiring contract, younger Connor looks for a bigger role elsewhere. He heads out west to Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, replacing the also-retired Kyle Juszczyk. There, he finds a bigger share of the snaps, catching 31 passes in 2026 with three total scores (two receiving, one rushing). Pittsburgh couldn’t offer the best role for him but four years for a sixth-round pick is solid value. With the Steelers, he puts up 67 receptions for 515 yards and three receiving scores, 65 carries for 297 yards and two touchdowns with 21 special teams tackles.

Worst Case: You know what Connor Heyward is? He’s Vanderlay Industries. What does he do? He’s a fullback and a tight end. Yeah but what does he do? Fullback, tight end. Import. Export. No one can figure out what Heyward’s role on the team is supposed to be.

Pittsburgh’s best crack at it is that he’s a tight end. That’s what they called him since drafting him, it’s the room he’s in, it’s the position he plays. But the NFL answers back. No he ain’t. Stubborn as Pittsburgh can be, they try and try and try again. Lined as a true in-line, Y tight end in the preseason, he gets bullied in his first game against Seattle, pushed around by rookie Boye Mafe in the opener, leading to a Benny Snell four-yard loss off right side. Heyward is a decent-enough athlete but doesn’t excel in any one area, too small and too short for what the Steelers are asking him to do. His special teams play is fine but it’s not exciting, 1.5 tackles through three preseason games. Former third-round pick Jace Sternberger has a great camp, showing what got him drafted by Green Bay, and is too tough for the team to cut. Derek Watt is his usual solid self, putting Heyward on the practice squad to start his NFL career.

Without a defined role, he’s shuffled on and off the roster throughout the season, the corresponding move as the team juggles injuries and greater areas of need. He finishes the year with the team, brought back a final time in Week 14, but doesn’t spend a day on the 53-man roster. Though offered a futures deal in the offseason, Heyward gets a chance to sign with Detroit, tempted to draft him in 2022, and he becomes a Lion, a better fit for Dan Campbell’s old-school style than what the Steelers are asking him to do. The Lions use him like a fullback and Heyward plays in eight games in 2023, catching four passes for 26 yards while recording two tackles on special teams. He ends his Steelers’ career not logging a single snap for the team.

Round Seven – ILB Mark Robinson

Best Case: Mark Robinson may not exactly be sure what he’s doing, a RB for most his time in college, but when he sees the ball, he gets after it. An explosive, squatty thumper, Robinson has his highs and lows, but his highs are booming. Literally. Fourth day of practice, first day of pads, Robinson runs over fellow rookie Jaylen Warren and then fakes power and swims over the smaller Mataeo Durant to win back-to-back reps. In team drills, he dishes out a couple of blows, and even has to be told to turn the dial down in the non-contact situations after shoving Kevin Rader to the ground on an incomplete thrown down the seam later in the summer.

Robinson can be let loose when the Steelers get into stadiums. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Robinson is first man downfield and nails Seattle WR Dee Eskridge, forcing a fumble recovered by CB James Pierre. It’s plays like that which get the Steelers excited. It’s a crowded inside linebacker room but Robinson gets some help, not that he’d ever celebrate it, when Marcus Allen tears his ACL in the final preseason game. The reality is that clears a roster spot and Robinson edges out Ulysees Gilbert III for the final ILB spot.

His special teams ability gets him a hat on gameday. He shows a mean streak and attitude that endears itself to Danny Smith and by the bye, Robinson has three special teams tackles. He logs his first defensive snaps in Week 13 against Atlanta after in-game injuries to Myles Jack and Robert Spillane. Predictably, Robinson looks lost, and Kyle Pitts beats him down the seam for a 31-yard catch late in the third quarter. Robinson doesn’t play another defensive snap after that the rest of the year but remains strong on the kick/punt coverage unit, finishing the season with seven tackles.

He looks more composed his sophomore season. Devin Bush is gone and Robert Spillane signs elsewhere, but the Steelers make (another) aggressive move to fill the void, drafting Iowa’s Jack Campbell in the second round. Robinson is again relegated to special teams duty but has a Vince Williams vibe, putting up eight tackles on special teams in 2023, seeing just four snaps on defense, all coming late in a blowout win over Cleveland. A massive fan vote helps put him in the Pro Bowl.

And that’s his role. Nothing more, nothing less. He’s found his niche just as Tyler Matakevich did years before. Unlike Matakevich, he stays in Pittsburgh, signing a three-year, $10.4 million deal after his rookie contract expires ahead of the 2026 season. 2027 does see him get to start five games on defense as the #3 ILB elevated to the starting lineup when there’s injury ahead, and he does well against the run and is far more comfortable in coverage at this point, even if it isn’t a strength. Over that span, he records 28 tackles, four for a loss, and 1.5 QB sacks. After his contract expires, the Steelers let him go for younger and cheaper options.

His Steelers’ career ends with 91 tackles, six for a loss. It might not sound like a lot, but Robinson is a quality add and did his job well as a high-end special teamer.

Worst Case: Robinson can hit. That’s not a question. Everything else is. And in the NFL, that’s a problem; there aren’t many one-trick guys who make a living. Robinson is a ball of energy, eager to learn, even more anxious to hit, but the game is so much more than that. Bottom line, he’s a green linebacker who was playing RB at FCS schools just a couple years ago. This is the NFL – we’re not in Kansas anymore.

That’s evident pretty clearly. During the first padded practice, Robinson gets off to a hot start by blowing up rookie RB Jaylen Warren for a three-yard loss late in the session. After getting helmet slaps from teammates, Robinson is beat the next play, bodied and outmatched by Zach Gentry down the middle of the field, breaking out of Robinson’s trailing tackle attempt and picking up 33 yards before being cut down by Donovan Stiner.

Though occasionally flashing, he shows his rookie status during most practices and simply isn’t NFL ready. Handling checks and adjustments, pattern matching in zone, finding the ball in the air, it’s just above his head. Hard to blame him but no one gets a pass. With a crowded ILB room, he and Ulysees Gilbert III land on the practice squad. UG3 gets the first call-up when Robert Spillane pulls a hamstring and Robinson spends the entire year on the practice squad, simply not ready.

Robinson returns in 2023, a room now without Devin Bush, who didn’t play well enough and signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the New York Giants. But Pittsburgh replaces him with Tremaine Edmunds, a high-pedigree player Pittsburgh’s kept their eye on and is, of course, the brother of Terrell and Trey Edmunds. It’s a monster deal, five-years, $87.5 million, and Omar Khan’s first splash into free agency is a tidal wave. That doesn’t exclude from Robinson making the roster, it’s not like he was going to start, but it doesn’t make things any easier. Nor does Robert Spillane re-signing on a two-year, $6.25 million pact while Buddy Johnson ascends forward as a solid defender.

Robinson looks better his second camp, that’s to be expected, but he’s starting from such a distant place, it’s too much ground to try and catch up. It’s not like he has great size or innate physical traits that help accelerate that curve or give Pittsburgh a light at the end of the tunnel worth chasing. Robinson is released at final cutdowns and bounces around the league, finally released by the Jacksonville Jaguars following 2024 rookie minicamps.

With a hard-hitting skillset, Robinson tries his hand at something new. Rugby. He signs a deal with Major League Rugby’s San Diego Legion and is an instant success. One hit in a game against Seattle Seawolves Reid Watkins goes viral, making SportsCenter’s Top Ten, a massive body blow that pops the ball out. He spends three years with San Diego and enjoys a good career, putting his traits to good use, even if it’s not in the NFL. But his football career ends without a defensive snap.

Round Seven – QB Chris Oladokun

Best Case: Oladokun gets it. He understands the mountain he has to climb. That doesn’t make the physical journey any easier. But half the battle of getting to the top is believing you can. Mentally, Oladokun is ready to go. He’s been to two high schools, three colleges, seen and done and lived it all. Reps are hard to come by as the #4 QB but Oladokun takes all the mental reps, never standing too far from the action and always in the coach’s ear. He gets close with assistant QB coach David Corley and the two are always working before and after practice.

With all the quarterbacks healthy, reps are hard to come by. But Kenny Pickett twists his ankle scrambling on the sixth day of practice, shelving him for two weeks, the Steelers being extra careful with their first-round pick who wasn’t going to start anyway. That bumps Oladokun to the #3 in the pecking order. Reps still aren’t plentiful but they’re better than before. His play impresses with a combination of good arm strength and athleticism. That helps out in preseason action, just as it did for Josh Dobbs. In the second game against Detroit, Oladokun plays the entire fourth quarter, going 5/7 for 56 yards but rushing for 60 more, including a 20-yard touchdown complete with a dive inside the left pylon. It bruised his shoulder, but the hard landing was worth the touchdown.

Despite the impressive showing, Oladokun is still waived at final cutdowns with Trubisky, Pickett, and Rudolph kept. But two weeks later, Rudolph is dealt to the Miami Dolphins for a 2024 fourth-round pick when they lose Tua Tagovailoa goes down with an injury, leaving Teddy Bridgewater as the only viable starter on the roster. Oladokun remains on the practice squad but is the #3 QB on the depth chart, allowing him to run scout team during practice. His work mimicking Lamar Jackson as Pittsburgh prepares for is critical in the Steelers’ 27-13 victory and Mike Tomlin shouts Oladokun out after the game. Oladokun doesn’t see the field as a rookie, the group remains healthy and he stays on the practice squad, but it’s good production and development behind the scenes.

With Pittsburgh posting a middling 9-8 record in 2022, Mitch Trubisky is shipped off to the Arizona Cardinals for a sixth-round pick. The Steelers sign Geno Smith as veteran depth and competition with Oladokun. Smith is the presumed favorite but Oladokun shines in his second preseason and beats Smith out for the #2 job, as confirmed by him getting the helmet in the Week One opener against Baltimore. Oladokun doesn’t see a lot of playing time with Pickett staying relatively healthy, but he does see his first NFL action in mop-up duty at the end of a 30-7 win over the New York Jets in Week 5. He goes 2/3 for 11 yards and a five-yard rush.

His most meaningful action comes in Week 12 against Cincinnati. Pickett suffers a concussion late in the first half, pushing Oladokun into action to finish the game out. The Steelers were down 21-10 when Oladokun come in, putting him in a tough spot, and the Steelers can’t rally in a 34-17 loss. But Oladokun’s play is ok, going 13/20 for 104 yards and a late passing score to Diontae Johnson from seven yards out. He ends his second season appearing in three games, going 17/25 for 126 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 24 yards.

He stays second in command for his third year and evolves into the trusted, heady backup, who can create with his legs. It’s a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and he’s a cheap rookie, especially with Kenny Pickett playing well and his big payday looming near. Oladokun sees more action in 2025 when Pickett misses the start of the season with a foot sprain. In Week 1 against Cleveland, Oladokun leads Pittsburgh to a narrow victory but win all the same, 23-21, throwing one touchdown and rushing for another as Pittsburgh rallies from eleven points at the half. Week 2 is a loss to the Indianapolis Colts and Pickett is back in the lineup for Week 3. Oladokun ends the year appearing in four games with a 1-1 record as Steelers’ starter.

With his rookie deal expiring, he explores other options with no path to start behind the established Pickett. He signs a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings though fails to become the starter there. It puts him on a journeymen circuit spending the next three years with four teams, appearing in just three games and attempting six passes. He falls out of the league after that.

His Steelers and NFL career ends with him appearing in 12 games with a 1-1 record, going 57/88 for 533 yards with three touchdowns, three interceptions to go along with 44 yards rushing and one rushing score. It doesn’t sound like much but from 2000 to 2022, Oladokun becomes just the tenth QB drafted in the seventh round to complete at least 50 career passes. Considering the miss rate for the round and position, it’s good value.

Worst Case: If three’s a crowd, what does that make four? It makes for one lonely quarterback. This camp, there are no veteran off days. Every QB ahead of Chris Oladokun needs reps, needs evaluation, is in the mix to be the Steelers’ starter. Oladokun is odd man out and reps reflect that. Through 18 training camp practices, with everyone staying healthy (Mason Rudolph does miss one day with a bone bruise) Oladokun receives a grand total of…91 reps. Just about five a day and on some days, that number is squarely zero. It’s hardly even fair to give him in-stadium action based off that. He logs just nine snaps in the first two preseason games before being given the fourth quarter of the finale against Detroit, going 5/11 for 43 yards and one interception.

Pittsburgh decides to hold onto Mason Rudolph, making Oladokun an easy cut. He’s re-signed to the practice squad but gets released in Week 4, what’s supposed to be a procedural move for roster shuffling. But the Los Angeles Chargers, who were very interested in signing him as an UDFA if he made it there, swoop in and claim him. Oladkoun spends the year as the team’s #3, is carried over into the next summer, but released at final cutdowns after battling knee swelling that sapped his mobility. He receives tryouts with three NFL teams but no one offers a contract. Instead, he joins the XFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks, starting the season and playing well, though the NFL never comes calling again. Years later, he opens up Oladokun’s Gym in his home state of Florida.

To Top
error: Alert: Content is protected !!