The Steelers’ 2016 draft class made significant contributions to the team last season. Rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Javon Hargrave (1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks respectively) all were given larger roles as the season progressed. Whether it was due to injury or lack of production by other players, these three rookies were big time players on the Steelers’ defense. In 2017, the sophomore seasons could make or break the defense.
Sophomore Seasons Crucial for Steelers Defense in 2017
Last year’s first round pick addressed a need that many have longed to see the Steelers use a first round pick on. After Cincinnati drafted William Jackson III one pick before the Steelers, a player who several people saw the Steelers drafting, the Steelers then selected Burns, who arguably had some of the most raw talent in his draft class at his position.
Burns didn’t get significant playing time until several weeks into the season, but ended up starting nine of sixteen games at cornerback. He recorded three interceptions and 64 total tackles throughout the year. The former Miami Hurricane emerged as the Steelers’ best coverage corner. However, he showed his youth and inexperience by getting burned a few times, but those type of things are expected from a rookie, especially one with as much raw talent as Burns.
If he continues to build off of last season’s success, he could become the shutdown corner the Steelers have needed since Rod Woodson.
Davis was the second round pick in 2016 and he was very attractive to the Steelers’ coaching staff and front office going into the draft. His athleticism and versatility between safety and cornerback were just a couple of reasons why.
Like Burns, Davis got more playing time as the season went along. Davis started eight of the games at strong safety Mike Mitchell, and became one of the more reliable tacklers on the defense. He had 69 total tackles, along with five passes defended and one interception, and also recorded 1.5 sacks from the safety position. The rookie played up near the line of scrimmage at times, giving Steelers’ fans reason to reminisce Troy Polamalu‘s playing days.
Sean Davis was named the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year by his teammates. His play showed maturity for someone so young and gave many reason to believe he could be a legitimate NFL safety.
Hargrave, 2016’s third round pick, played arguably the most crucial role of all of the rookies. When the team’s best defensive player, Cam Heyward, went down for the season, Hargrave stepped in and turned what had become the Steelers’ weakest part of the defense, and gave it new life.
Along with Stephon Tuitt, the duo gave attitude and a jolt of youth and energy to the defensive front. They weren’t pushed around nearly as often as earlier in the season. The defensive line’s play after Hargrave and Tuitt’s roles increased really became the catalyst for the defense getting significantly better in the second half of the season.
With Heyward back next season, this could be a trio that could wreak some havoc in the trenches.
Avoid the Sophomore Slump
In 2016, each of these three player’s role increased as the season went along. In 2017, they will all be given a bigger role. That comes with more responsibility and accountability. If all three guys continue to build off of last season and each improve different aspects of their game, the defense has a huge chance to be very good next year. However, if any or all of them take a step back, it could be detrimental to the defense’s growth.
A lot of what the Steelers do defensively will hinge on how well these three sophomores improve next season. 2016 was a nice season for all of them, but 2017 is sure to bring them new challenges. If they can answer the call, the whole defensive unit will reap the benefits. And for a franchise that has prided itself on great defense, these guys can help bring back greatness to that side of the ball.