For all of the criticism given to Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert during the NFL Draft, he definitely deserves his fair share of credit as well. For every pick that fails, there appears to be a "find" somewhere in each round that sticks with the team.
Last season, the Steelers obtained three full-time defensive starters from the draft: Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave. With only eleven starting spots on each side of the ball, that's a tall order and speaks volumes to the talent evaluated and how they've performed.
The 2017 draft class has also produced some major contributors so far. While running back James Conner was the overwhelming favorite heading into the preseason, the regular season has given us two standouts, one on offense and one on defense.
Those two players, T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster, could come down to the wire during the second half of the season to determine which is considered the Steelers Rookie of the Year. To date, I would argue it has been a one-horse race: with four sacks, four pass deflections and an interception in seven games, T.J. Watt has been nothing but spectacular in his Pittsburgh debut.
To put Watt's stats into perspective, the Steelers sack leaders in 2016 were James Harrison (5.0), Bud Dupree (4.5), and Stephon Tuitt (4.0). Watt has already matched and could surpass those leaders with his next sack. Granted, Harrison and Dupree were not full-time starters for a variety of reasons last season, but even going back to 2014 and 2015, Pittsburgh has only had five players generate more than five sacks. Cameron Heyward did it twice (7.5 and 7.0). James Harrison added 5.5 along with Jason Worilds' 7.5 in 2014, and Stephon Tuitt got to opposing quarterbacks 6.5 times in 2015.
For a franchise known for its defensive history, no Steelers have had double-digit sacks since Harrison and LaMarr Woodley back in 2010. Worilds' 8.0 sacks in 2013 are the most since that incredible 2010 season by Harrison and Woodley, which could not only make Watt an obvious choice for a team rookie candidate, it could also push his name higher for league honors too (at least on the defensive side of the ball).
While Watt could very well have the best rookie season of any Steelers defender in recent memory, an uber-popular twenty-something wide receiver could push him for team rookie honors. JuJu Smith-Schuster has become something of a pop culture celebrity in Pittsburgh. From riding his bike around town to his colorful and energetic touchdown celebrations, the second-round pick has become a fan favorite.
His popularity has also coincided with his emergence on the Steelers offense, where each week he continues to receive more playing time, and in the wake of disciplinary action against veteran Martavis Bryant, possibly bolstered his popularity further. With Bryant on the bench against the Detroit Lions in Week 8, Smith-Schuster had a coming out party with seven receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown. So far in 2017, JuJu has four touchdowns on 24 catches and 424 receiving yards.
Sunday's game was his first where he had more than four receptions in his career, so while his popularity is soaring, putting him in the conversation of being the team's, or even the NFL's, favored rookie candidate, is a hot discussion which needs to cool off until we can see repeat performances.
That's not to say that Smith-Schuster couldn't literally run with the ball over the second half of the season. Another player who started slowly in his rookie season, only to go on to win the league's award is New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Following an eight catch, 156-yard "breakout" game in 2014, Beckham went on to catch 73 more passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns over his last eight games.
Beckham entered the season four weeks late, and over the course of his first four games, only caught 18 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
JuJu had 17 receptions for 231 yards and three touchdowns prior to his big game in the Motor City.
The parallels are there for a tight rookie race, one in which would benefit the team on both sides of the ball. As for now, however, I would give the team's "mid-season" rookie award to T.J. Watt.
And that's the way we'd like to keep it.
But another dark horse who may have lost his chance to instantly emerge as a contender is third-round pick Cameron Sutton, who was placed on IR to start the season and began practicing this week. How Sutton fits into the Steelers scheme, be it on defense or special teams, could add yet another wrinkle to what should be a contested rookie race come the end of the season.