The jump in the NFL from Year 1 to Year 2 is supposed to be big. However, there is a reason why some players are labeled as experiencing the “sophomore slump”. It doesn’t always go as planned.
Nonetheless, for the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class from the 2022 NFL Draft, there are high hopes for these players going into their second professional season. When you consider the players who had a significant role on the team in 2022, the list is long:
- QB Kenny Pickett
- WR George Pickens
- RB Jaylen Warren
- DL DeMarvin Leal
- TE/FB Connor Heyward
That doesn’t include other players like LB Mark Robinson who also contributed to the roster, but wasn’t a regular on game days. Or a player like Calvin Austin III who injured his foot before the preseason and never saw any game action.
Nonetheless, one of the Steelers rookies, Leal, sees big things for his rookie class in 2023.
“At different portions of the season most of us have been thrown into the fire,” Leal told the Steelers official website. “For a rookie class to be thrown into the fire that brings confidence. Looking back at year one, looking at the film, we know what we can do. We know we can do better. Going into year two it feels like it’s going to be scary.”
For Leal himself, he sees progress, but plenty of room for improvement heading into the offseason.
“I just want to improve everything,” said Leal. “All phases of the game. Make sure I am a better me. All phases. I need to work on all phases. It’s never going to stop.”
Leal isn’t the only rookie who is talking about the potential which resides in the group as a whole. Quarterback Kenny Pickett, the obvious face of the rookie class, knows how exciting it is for this group to stay together and show what they can do next season.
“It’s really exciting.” Pickett said after the regular season finale vs. the Cleveland Browns. “You have those conversations, it’s almost like when you’re a freshman in college, and you get to a new place, and you talk about how good you think you can be. I think we had those conversations when we were here, we got here early, and we think we can be something. That all sounds good, we’ve got to put it together, but I think if we continue to work together, the future’s bright for us. I’m excited for what it holds. But I think a lot of guys are really contributing in a big way this season. We’re going to continue to do that this last week and see what happens.”
When it comes to excitement, there might not be anyone who is more excited than wide receiver Calvin Austin III. The rookie speedster didn’t get a chance to show what he can do, but he was around the class the entire season and knows the potential which resides in the group.
“We’ve all got that mindset that we know we just dipped our toe in the water this season and will continue to take steps to improve and get ready for next year.”
There isn’t an opinion on this class which matters more than the man in charge, and that would be head coach Mike Tomlin. After the season was over, in his end-of-season press conference, Tomlin had this to say about the rookie class and how they were able to prove a lot, and grow, during the 2022 season.
“A lot of guys had an opportunity to have roles and increasingly significant roles, and I’m thankful for their contributions, but I’m just beginning the process of going through it with a fine-tooth comb and assessing it in that way in terms of building their challenges individually for year two for them.” Tomlin said. “But I will acknowledge, man, 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. 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.”
On paper, the Steelers have a bright future thanks to the contributions of this rookie class, but the game isn’t played on paper. The Steelers fan base is more than familiar with draft classes which have played well in Year 1, only to fade in Year 2 when the opposition was more prepared to face them on a week-in and week-out basis. Let’s hope this group experiences the “sophomore jump” and not the “sophomore slump”.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the offseason of NFL free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft.