Realistic expectations for the Steelers 2022 draft class

With the 2022 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, it’s now time to look to the road ahead as the Pittsburgh Steelers get underway with rookie minicamp and continue to workout through the Summer.

Fans have obsessed over draft picks going back to the Steelers needs pre-draft, to silly grades on how “they did” following it. The truth is, while all of this year’s draft selections have an opportunity to make the final 53-man roster, I would be surprised to see even half of them participate full-time on game days.

That includes both quarterbacks. (Sorry not sorry.)

With everyone talking every pick up to the moon, it’s time to lower the bar a bit and realistically look at how each of Pittsburgh’s 2022 draft picks contributes during their rookie season: and beyond.

Note: usually my thoughts do not reflect how an individual career may play out, rather, the immediate impact (or lack thereof) of each player based on a variety of factors. However, this year’s draft has some impact players who may not jump on the field instantly. See more of my thoughts below and don’t forget to comment back on how you feel.

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Kenny Pickett

Expectation: Eventual Starter (But not this year!)

There’s a shiny new toy in the South Side facility’s garage.

Okay, it’s not a toy, and he’s just moving from one garage over to the one next to it, but Kenny Pickett is the first Steelers first-round draft pick used on a quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger was selected in the 2004 NFL Draft. In fact, he’s only one of a near handful of first-round picks used in the modern era, going back to Terry Bradshaw in 1970 and Mark Malone in 1980.

That may generate excitement amongst fans, but it doesn’t mean that the organization will rush Pickett onto the field in 2022. Make no mistake about it: they didn’t use a first rounder on Pickett for him to not be the future of the team. However, he may take a similar route to become the starter as others have, including Patrick Mahomes recently, by sitting out a full season.

(The Steelers attempted that with Ben Roethlisberger too, but Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch both got injured during Big Ben’s rookie season – and the rest is history!)

The fan excitement and fervor will be similar to when fellow Pitt alumnus James Conner was drafted by the Steelers. Conner had one of the hottest selling jerseys his rookie season, but he rarely saw the field with Le’Veon Bell playing ahead of him.

Since quarterbacks aren’t known to take a breather mid-game like Bell did, the opportunities for Pickett may be slimmer. I also view Mason Rudolph‘s rookie season as a blueprint, where he was inactive for all of the Steelers games that season, sitting behind backup Joshua Dobbs as the QB3.

Unless there’s overwhelming evidence as to why the coaches should should leapfrog Pickett over both Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, and potentially ruin him as a first-year player, I’d pump the brakes on any excitement at this time. (Save it for next season when Rudolph’s contract expires and Trubisky could be released for salary cap reasons!)

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George Pickens

Expectation: Big Play Receiver (In due time)

An absolute monster pick for Pittsburgh, Pickens has all of the first-round intangibles you’d want in a wide receiver and then some.

It’s hard to say what his year one in the NFL might look like, because the Steelers still have a WR1 in Diontae Johnson and a big-framed playmaker with Chase Claypool as their WR2.

The Pickens draft pick reminds me a lot of when Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates got into a Twitter spat with one another about JuJu Smith-Schuster’s selection “replacing” one of them: turns out JuJu replace both of them in due time.

Bryant took about half of a season to land some serious playing time in his rookie year, and made an impact upon arrival. JuJu started out faster, and later, Claypool did similar.

Pickens may have to wait to see the field, but it won’t be the kind of wait discussed above with Pickett. About one month into the season should be all that’s needed to start seeing Pickens streak downfield: but it may take another season for him to truly find his stride, pending the now crowded receiver room.

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DeMarvin Leal

Expectation: Special Teams Depth/Rotational-Situational Depth

Leal’s 2022 impact all depends on the status of two veteran defensive linemen: 35-year-old Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt.

As we all know Tuitt sat out the 2021 season after reaching double-digit sacks for the first time in his career. Alualu missed all but the first game of the year, and three plays into the second one, and will be recovering from his injury as he reaches his mid-thirties.

If both veterans play – and play well – Leal will be stashed into a rotational role at best, giving Cameron Heyward or Tuitt a breather, alongside with Chris Wormley and Isaiahh Loudermilk.

Pittsburgh also brought Montravious Adams back as well, which means Leal is in a crowded depth chart situation, but should see a handful of snaps here or there.

His paychecks in 2022 will mostly be earned by playing special teams, unless one of the aforementioned names goes absent: which was the intention of the team drafting him, perhaps even as an eventual heir to Heyward in the coming years.

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Calvin Austin III

Expectation: Few snaps in 2022 but Diontae Johnson’s heir

Austin presents an interesting challenge in making a prediction.

As a fourth round pick, he certainly has a chance to impress and get on the field: perhaps even before Pickens, due to his versatility and the ability to play out of the slot.

He fell to the fourth round, however, due to his diminutive size. At 5-9, 162 lbs. there’s concern how his body may hold up at the pro level and as to whether his speed is enough to ward off defenders.

Mid round receivers seem to be the Steelers forte and most forget that Antonio Brown was only 5-10, 185 lbs. (at his peak) and Emmanuel Sanders checked in at 5-11, 180 lbs. Diontae Johnson, who is in a contract year, measures 5-10, 183 lbs. and could be the player who Austin was drafted to replace – should a new deal not be reached for 2023 and beyond with Johnson.

There’s plenty of time for Austin to add a little more to his frame, as necessary. Also, as demonstrated, the Steelers will find a way to sneak the smaller receivers other teams look past onto the field.

With Johnson, Claypool, and Pickens potentially ahead of Austin on the depth chart, that may hinder his ability to see a lot of playing time in 2022. That’s especially true when you consider all of what was said with Pickens, and that Pickens went to a larger program too.

However, I do expect Austin to climb into combat at some point during the upcoming season. Expectations should be tempered until that time comes, which could be around the bye week depending on how things shake out with Pickens’ development and if other veteran receivers such as Miles Boykin or Anthony Miller crack the lineup.

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Connor Heyward

Expectation: Special Teams maniac, Potential jumbo package addition

The younger brother of the previously mentioned Cameron Heyward, Connor arrives in Pittsburgh having played fullback at Michigan State and is officially listed on the Steelers roster as a hybrid FB/TE.

Which position he keys in on is less important, as I’m sure the coaching brass saw Connor as a special teams style player, much like Derek Watt. That’s likely his role, if he sticks to the roster in 2022.

The Steelers have been known to roster a fullback and an h-back in the past at the same time, so the jury isn’t out on Heyward making the team. Position flexibility is also crucial with offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s schemes. Heyward might see his few offensive rookie snaps in goal line situations where the Steelers beef up at the line of scrimmage.

Otherwise, look for “83” (not Heath Miller) on kick and punt coverage teams.

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Mark Robinson

Expectation: Inactive on Game Days, Eventual Special Teamer

The further down the list we go, the closer we get to players who may have gone undrafted.

Usually, there’s some traits that teams feel they may be able to further pry out of the athlete and make them a “find” in the NFL Draft.

That’s where Robinson fits with the Steelers: a one-year linebacker with Ole Miss, who has an opportunity to make it because the team keeps anywhere from 8-10 linebackers on their 53-man roster each season.

That also means Robinson might not make it either… but should he stick, I don’t expect to see him play much on game days and he likely won’t have a helmet. (Much like Buddy Johnson last season or Ulysses Gilbert before that.)

He’s a developmental project at the moment who needs to impress or get lucky to find his way on the field in 2022.

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Chris Oladokun

Expectation: Practice Squad, Scout Team QB

I greatly angered some folks on the SCU Podcast by mentioning Oladokun as a project player.

No, I’m totally wrong: just look at Tom Brady.

Yes, Brady… who was a sixth round pick. We get it.

Unfortunately, he’s a one-in-a-million exception to the rule at the toughest position in the game. Most sixth (and seventh) round picks last a season or two, then fade into obscurity.

I know this sounds extremely critical of Oladokun, but his primary role is going to be at practices, where he is set to emulate half of the quarterbacks the Steelers will face this season: Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, and more.

Does he have a shot to make the roster?

That all depends. Fans have been quick to think just because the Steelers added a second quarterback in the draft, that it spells the end of Mason Rudolph. Those critics themselves are overcritical of Rudolph and don’t see the value in keeping him – in fact, Rudolph is the best backup the Steelers have had not named Charlie Batch. (And Rudolph’s numbers are better too.)

It’s unlikely Oladokun pushes Mitchell Trubisky off of the team, and we know Kenny Pickett is going nowhere fast either.

That’s why I have Oladokun firmly pegged as a fun FCS QB – just like Devlin Hodges – who people are going to fall in love with during camp and the preseason.

Just be aware to set yourselves up for disappointment, because being drafted twenty selections shy of Mr. Irrelevant doesn’t guarantee he’ll make the final roster.

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