Rookie impact is a series previewing each Pittsburgh Steelers draftee and their potential impact for 2020 and beyond. To recap, we have already previewed the following rookies: Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, Anthony McFarland and Kevin Dotson. Today we preview Maryland safety Antoine Brooks Jr.
Player: Antoine Brooks Jr.
Drafted: Round 6, Pick 198
When it comes to the secondary, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have all areas covered. At corner, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson have formed as one of the more formidable tandems in the league. On the back end, the arrival of Minkah Fitzpatrick and the expected growth in Terrell Edmunds leads to scary sights for opposing quarterbacks.
However, the depth at the safety position has been a topic heavily debated through the 2020 offseason. Should either starter go down, names such as Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield were the only options Pittsburgh could call upon.
Enter Antoine Brooks Jr., a hard-hitting safety out of Maryland.
As the Steelers ready another physical secondary player to their depth chart, let's evaluate the immediate and future impact Brooks could have in Pittsburgh:
Brooks' best chance of making an impression (as noted with nearly every rookie drafted by Mike Tomlin) will be through superb special teams play. Ideally, Brooks will see minimal action on the field should Edmunds/Fitzpatrick remain healthy.
For better or worse, Brooks has no true position at the professional level. Scouts couldn't agree on labeling a position on him, aside from the classic "dimebacker" role. Brooks' coverage skills in college didn't exactly jump off the page, as he mostly excelled playing near the line of scrimmage and blitzing out of the slot.
While some see Ulysees Gilbert III as a candidate to replace Mark Barron's snaps, Brooks excelled in the very role Barron played in Pittsburgh last season: A linebacker capable of playing the rush and dropping into pass coverage. With Fitzpatrick and Edmunds playing a combined average of 90% of snaps last season, Brooks' golden ticket on the field in 2020 appears to be as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Steelers assistant defensive and secondary coach Teryl Austin appears to be open to the idea of either Brooks or Edmunds playing that hybrid linebacker role:
"We’ll get them in our jar, shake 'em up and see where they fit best" said Austin via Joe Rutter of TribLive.
It's hard to project Brooks' future impact simply due to his lack of true position and role, as his build and skill-set don't mold him into a solidified safety nor linebacker.
Should Brooks improve on his coverage skills, he could potentially develop into a plug-and-play starter thanks to his instincts and ability to jar ball-carriers with physicality. Yet with his current physical build and skill-set, it's more realistic to view Brooks as a box safety playing close to the line of scrimmage. While the Steelers don't necessarily need help in the slot, Brooks' abilities can also be found there as well.
It is worth noting that the Steelers will have to make a decision after 2020 on the fifth-year option of Edmunds, a player that shares a similar skill-set as Brooks. While it's unlikely the Steelers (at this point) decline an extra year of Edmunds, the presence and presumed growth of Brooks would at minimum give the Steelers a second option to value when assessing that situation.
Brooks will likely be a staple on special teams for the foreseeable future while Tomlin and company identify a comfortable role for the Maryland project. With potential departures at strong safety, slot corner and inside linebacker in the future, Brooks has various avenues for playing time down the road. Whether Brooks emerges as a full-time starter in any of the above positions remains to be seen, as his impact will likely be determined by the coaching staff's ability to find a niche for Brooks.
With the league starting to valuing the "positionless" defensive player as the game evolves, a player such as Brooks has the capability to be used in multiple facets. Should defensive coordinator Keith Butler amplify Brooks' strengths (versatile cover man, physical, can play at line of scrimmage, quick instincts), Brooks should find a way to contribute to the Steelers defense sooner rather than later.