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On-the-job training

Posted Apr 14, 2018

Rookies relied upon rapidly in recent seasons.

Defensive end Cam Heyward, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick in 2011, didn’t start a game in his first two NFL seasons.

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick last season, has yet to play in an NFL game he hasn’t started.

Things have changed in terms of the time it takes to make the transition from draft day to significant playing time as a rookie. The trend for the Steelers of late has been much more towards plug and play than it has draft and develop when it comes to their top selections.

Watt was taken 30th overall out of Wisconsin last April and wound up starting at right outside linebacker from the opening practice of OTAs. He celebrated his regular-season debut by registering two sacks and intercepting a pass on Sept. 10 at Cleveland.

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster started seven fewer games than Watt as a rookie (15-7) but still managed to win the Joe Greene Great Performance Award as the Steelers’ rookie of the year. The Steelers’ No. 2 pick caught two passes for 11 yards in the opener against the Browns but wound up with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven receiving TDs in 2017. He finished third on the team in catches and second in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Smith-Schuster’s exclamation point was a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on Dec. 31 in the regular-season finale against Cleveland.

In 2016, the Steelers’ first three selections wound up making a combined 31 starts (nine by cornerback and No. 1 pick Artie Burns, nine by safety and No. 2 selection Sean Davis, and 13 by nose tackle and No. 3 choice Javon Hargrave).

Burns ended up tied for the team lead with three interceptions (with linebacker Ryan Shazier) and was second among Steelers with 13 passes defensed.

Davis was fourth on the team with 69 tackles and also showed up on the stat sheet in sacks (1.5), interceptions (one) and fumble recoveries (one).

Hargrave had 27 tackles and two sacks and even managed a touchdown as a rookie when he recovered a fumble in the end zone in Cleveland.

The 2011 draft class included offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (No. 2), cornerback Curtis Brown (No. 3), cornerback Cortez Allen (No. 4), linebacker Chris Carter (No. 5), guard Keith Williams (No. 6) and running back Baron Batch (No. 7), in addition to Heyward. Only Gilbert started as a rookie (13 times in 14 appearances).

In 2015, the Steelers got a combined seven starts out of their eight-man draft class (five by outside linebacker and No. 1 pick Bud Dupree and two from tight end and No. 5 selection Jesse James).

Given this year’s off-season roster attrition and the continued reliance upon multiple personnel packages on offense and defense, it’s easy to envision at least a couple of rookies making contributions sooner rather than later this season.