How the Steelers rookies (and not just Kenny Pickett) cleared a path to the team’s future

PITTSBURGH — As soon as Najee Harris saw the Miami Dolphins pull ahead of the New York Jets in the final minute of Sunday’s game, effectively ending the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season, he walked up to quarterback Kenny Pickett and shook his hand.

The second-year running back told the rookie he had a great year, appreciating the effort and improvement Pickett showed after taking over the starting job in Week 4.

The Steelers finished short of their postseason goals, but led by their first-round pick at quarterback, the rookie class laid building blocks for the future with significant contributions throughout the 2022 season.

“We can just see how our future is,” Harris said Sunday. “We’re young, but we’re also really talented, and I think that for us to come together through all that adversity that we had early on in the year, for us to finish out the season the way we did, man, that should be motivation for us. We should be hungry for next year.”

All but two of the Steelers’ seven 2022 draft picks played in the regular season. Quarterback Chris Oladokun, the Steelers’ final selection, was cut during training camp before landing on the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad, while fourth-round wide receiver Calvin Austin III spent the year on injured reserve after a training camp foot injury.

“We’ve got some quality play from some young guys, which is exciting, but boy, there’s a lot of meat on the bone, and we’re excited about being a part of their process, too,” coach Mike Tomlin said Monday . “That’s another component of our business model that we don’t run away from, we run to — the development of players. To be a component of their growth and development is significant for us and for them.”

Led by Pickett’s 804 snaps, the Steelers finished the season ranked third in offensive snaps by rookies with 2,103, behind only the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Though Pickett finished the season with nine interceptions to just seven touchdowns, the rookie showed significant improvement after the bye week, throwing five touchdowns to just one pick.

“I felt like the offense started to become my own the more I was playing in it, taking real ownership of it instead of just kind of playing catch-up when I got thrown in there a little bit earlier and I was just worried about executing the plays,” Pickett said Sunday. “Now I felt like I had everything at my disposal when I was coming to the line of scrimmage. I felt like I made a good jump there in the learning curve, and I want to make that leap into Year 2 now.”

In his rookie season, Pickett appeared in 13 games, starting 12, and threw for 2,404 yards and completed 63% of his passes. By comparison, former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 2,621 yards and completed 66.4% of his attempts in 14 appearances with 13 starts as a rookie, but he had 17 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions.

Pickett was especially effective targeting other members of his draft class. Pickett had four passing touchdowns and no interceptions targeting second-round wide receiver George Pickens, and no passing touchdowns to six interceptions when targeting all other wide receivers (not including running backs and tight ends), per ESPN Stats & Information. He also completed 9 of 13 passes for 89 yards with a touchdown and an interception when targeting sixth-round fullback/tight end hybrid Connor Heyward, and he was 22 of 26 for 180 yards when he threw to rookie UDFA running back Jaylen Warren.

Pickett also had a 97.6 QBR when targeting Pickens, the best QBR by any quarterback targeting any receiver this season with a minimum of 50 attempts, per ESPN Stats & Information. “Our rookies have been great,” center Mason Cole said recently. “They haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been great, and they come to work every day. They’re really coachable which is important. … It’s been cool to watch them grow. If you would’ve asked me maybe Week 3 or 4, maybe I would’ve said that, but as the season’s gone on, they’ve kept their nose in the grindstone and just gone to work.”

And it’s not just the offensive rookies who’ve had an impact this season. After returning from injured reserve in December following a knee injury, third-round defensive end DeMarvin Leal steadily earned more snaps. He started in the second game against the Ravens and played 52% of defensive snaps, recording three combined tackles. And inside linebacker Mark Robinson, a seventh-round selection, played 50% of defensive snaps in that Ravens game, often over former top-10 pick Devin Bush.

“I’m excited for guys like Mark Robinson, who hasn’t really had a chance to show what he can do,” defensive end Chris Wormley said Monday. “And then that Ravens game, he had a pretty good game. I think seven tackles helped stop the run, which is the reason why he got elevated that week and started and played a bunch. I’m also excited for guys like Leal. He’s a knucklehead rookie, but most rookies are. You could see his transformation over the 17 weeks, especially in camp. He was doing a lot of, like, college rookie stuff, as far as his technique. He stuck with it and learned from the older guys. And I’m excited to see his progress over the next three or four years.”

But for as many contributions as the rookie class made in its first year, veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward cautioned them to not rest on this year’s accomplishments, echoing his head coach.

“You’re not defined by one season,” Heyward said. “We had a lot of great plays from all of those guys, but man, there’s a lot of meat on that bone as Coach likes to say. They’re off to a good start. But I challenge all of them: ‘Don’ t let this just be it for you. Don’t let this be the ceiling. You guys got a lot of big business to do, and I’m looking forward to watching it.'”

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