2022 will go down as Kevin Colbert’s final draft class. One year in, it looks pretty impressive. NFL.com’s Nick Shook ranked the AFC North rookie classes and gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a B+, tied for the divisions’ best grade.
This was a class that revolved around skill positions at the top, starting with QB Kenny Pickett in the first round, the only quarterback to be taken in the first two rounds of last year’s draft. Shook’s evaluation was fair, noting his progression throughout the year.
“The Steelers selected the local hero, Pickett, then allowed him to learn behind Mitch Trubisky until it became clear Pickett was likely their best option at quarterback. Down the stretch, Pickett sorted out the turnover issues we saw early in the season, impressing onlookers with his decisiveness and composure and leading many to believe he could become the long-term answer at the position. His knack for clutch play sent the Steelers into the offseason with plenty of optimism.”
Pickett took over for Trubisky exiting halftime of the team’s Week 4 game against the New York Jets. His first start the following week was a bumpy ride, a blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills, and the Steelers’ offense was doing nothing heading into the bye. But they used that off week as a reset and exited it with a focused gameplan, committing to the run game with more success. Pickett had less on his plate but shined when called upon, leading back-to-back game-winning drives in Week 16 and Week 17.
Though the number isn’t the end-all, Pickett’s QB rating before the bye was just 66.8. After the bye, it spiked to 84.0. Across the board, his numbers improved, including his yards per attempt, increasing from 5.83 to 6.44. Above all, he took care of the football, throwing only one interception since Week 10. Of quarterbacks with 150+ pass attempts from then to the end of the season, only Detroit’s Jared Goff threw fewer. Important and positive signs heading into his second year and the first as the team’s clear-cut starter.
Pickens looks like another Day Two hit at receiver, a big-play machine that caught the league’s attention, including Shook’s.
“He’s a game-changing, playmaking artist who is destined to become Pittsburgh’s No. 1 receiver. He’s not yet a household name, but give it time.”
Relatively raw coming out of Georgia, Pickens improved as a route runner throughout the season and saw more consistent opportunities. With a full offseason upcoming, he should be in a strong place for the summer and his production shouldn’t be so hit-or-miss.
Shook also noted DeMarvin Leal’s impact on the defense, an unexpected role that formed once T.J. Watt went down in Week One. Leal wore plenty of hats as a big EDGE while sprinkling in snaps at defensive tackle on passing downs. Still, Leal’s production was lacking, held without a sack and according to our charting, recorded just two pressures all season.
Moving to Day Three, Shook praised sixth-round pick Connor Heyward and his late-season contributions.
“When the Steelers needed him to play the latter position late in the season, he shined. The kid can ball — Pittsburgh just needs to find the best way to use him.”
Heyward averaged 15.7 snaps per game after the bye, improved as a blocker (the Steelers also got smarter, having him cut block more often instead of staying on his feet) and made key catches late in games down the seam. Pittsburgh’s final pick was LB Mark Robinson, who flashed in the summer and was used in specific run-heavy packages late in the year and could enter 2023 with a serious chance for consistent defensive snaps.
Finally, Shook offered a nod to UDFA running back Jaylen Warren, one of the team’s biggest surprises of the season.
“The powerful, physical spell back rushed 77 times for 379 yards and one touchdown, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry. He’s a second option to help take some of the load off Najee Harris — a necessity, if the team is to maximize Harris’ potential in the years ahead.”
Warren was a camp darling able to sustain the buzz, increasing his role throughout the year and ending his rookie season as the team’s third down back who cut into Najee Harris’ early-down work. A thrilling bowling ball with legs, Warren made the most of his opportunity and is Harris’ obvious backup entering next season.
Pittsburgh’s class wasn’t perfect. Fourth round wide receiver Calvin Austin III missed the entire year with a foot injury while seventh round quarterback Chris Oladokun never got an opportunity to play. Still, it has the makings of a strong rookie class that will be defined by Pickett’s success or failure.
The Steelers’ B+ grade tied with the Baltimore Ravens for top mark in the AFC North, Baltimore benefitting from a pair of first round picks. The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns tied for the bottom with C+ evaluations. Again, click here to check out the whole list.