It's a rare occurrence, but three rookies had a major presence on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster last season. Those three players, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave, were all selected in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
A productive 2016 draft combined with a solid existing roster will make it difficult for the incoming draft class to carve out playing time. Last year, the Steelers had several gaping holes on their team, particularly on defense. NT Steve McLendon left via free agency. Everyone knew the team needed help in the secondary, and that was before CB Senquez Golson was injured in training camp.
The vacancies allowed Hargrave to become the first Steelers defensive lineman to start as a rookie in over 20 years, and for Artie Burns and Sean Davis to eventually secure starting roles as the season progressed.
Looking at this year's depth chart, however, 2017 draft picks could be hard-pressed to find playing time.
First round pick T.J. Watt may be in the best position to get on the field. The Steelers outside linebacker group is anchored on one side by third-year pro Bud Dupree but otherwise consists of 39-year-old James Harrison, veteran Arthur Moats, and Anthony Chickillo. Harrison was spared throughout the year by playing about half of the defensive plays.
The linebacker rotation returned in part to an injury which kept Bud Dupree off of the field until later in the year. When Dupree returned to football form in Week 13, Moats and Chickillo were held on the sideline. Jarvis Jones was a part of that rotation too but he also left as a free agent this offseason.
That vacancy and the need to keep the franchise's all-time sacks leader fresh throughout the season suggests Watt could be the rookie who sees the most amount of snaps, yet, the Steelers were reluctant to put Bud Dupree on the field save for small spurts in 2015. Watt could be held back, and in keeping with the spirit of the article, might not see the field as much as we're building him up to this season.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is not in a position of demand for the Steelers. Yes, the team needs someone to take the heat off of their primary target, Antonio Brown, but with a depth chart consisting of players who started in 2016 like Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Cobi Hamilton, and the newly reinstated Martavis Bryant, Smith-Schuster is in a very crowded pecking order for playing time as opposed to his draft peers.
My guess: Smith-Schuster makes a bigger impact but later in the season. A few things could make that happen. First, head coach Mike Tomlin hasn't been shy about making players earn their spots. We saw Artie Burns held out of the starting lineup until Week 6 of 2016. Martavis Bryant didn't show up in his rookie year until Week 7. Some of that is "earned" but a lot has to do with acclimating one's self to the NFL and Pittsburgh's playbook.
Coach Tomlin will not allow a rookie to be a liability if there's a veteran, even with less upside, who will not be a bigger risk stepping onto the field.
Another intangible which could get JuJu on the field faster is an injury to one of the other receivers. (Hopefully, that won't be a "thing" this season!) Therefore, expect Smith-Schuster to have similar production to Eli Rogers last season, with spurts of three-to-five reception games starting in October.
Cam Sutton is in a competitive field as well. The Steelers still need secondary help and depending on who wins some camp battles, he too could play ahead of others such as Senquez Golson or William Gay. Then again, he could sit behind Ross Cockrell (last year's starting outside corner) and Coty Sensabaugh (signed during free agency).
I'd suspect more of the latter than the former.
As for Pittsburgh's other third round selection, RB James Conner, we can view DeAngelo Williams' playing time as a hint to how Conner will be used.
Yes, that's a shot right to the hearts of the tried-and-true Pittsburgh fans who also follow the university of the same name, and would like to see Conner destroy opposing offenses in black and gold. But let's temper expectations for one moment. Williams was literally an offensive player of the week candidate several times over the last two seasons, who then sat once Bell returned from suspension.
What were DeAngelo's snap counts from Week 4 on?
17 (29%), 12 (16%), 7 (13%), 4 (6%) and 1... not including his start when Le'Veon was inactive in the final game of the regular season. With Williams being called the "1B" to Bell's "1A", I doubt Conner will crack any more PT than DeAngelo did.
Joshua Dobbs shouldn't see a single snap this season. Brian Allen is in the same, but worse situation than Sutton, as far as corners are concerned. Keion Adams is the low man on the outside linebacker totem pole too and will be fighting for a roster spot in general.
That honestly leaves Colin Holba as the man who could see the most snaps, should Greg Warren step aside and hand his long snapper job to the rookie.
Is that an eye opening thought? Sure is, but one that shows the Steelers roster is more talented and secure than it has been in many years.