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Biggest Improvements Needed by Steelers Second-Year Players

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 draft picks have some steps to take this season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers received healthy contributions from their 2022 NFL Draft Class. Several players established themselves as starters while others continue to work towards carving out consistent roles. With their rookie seasons now in the books, it’s time to look forward and see where each player can stand to improve the most heading into year two. 

Here are what each player needs to work on the most if they want to continue on towards an upward trajectory that Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff will be wishing for.

Kenny Pickett - Pocket Management

The rookie from Pitt finished the season on a high note. He flashed some of the scrambling ability that we saw in college and helped lead late drives to secure victories in the final month of the season. One of the things that he struggled with throughout his rookie season was pocket management, with his first instinct being to bail out of the pocket prematurely instead of hitching up and progressing through his reads. There were times when he would make life hard on himself, opting for difficult off-platform throws instead of staying on schedule.

Pickett threw the fifth-most passes out of the pocket in the NFL last season despite low volume numbers overall, according to Sports Info Solutions. He’s a scrambler by nature, and you don’t want to hamstring his game by eliminating his creativity. Still, if he’s going to evolve into a more efficient passer, he has to be a bit more willing to play in between the tackles, opting for anticipation over creation. 

A more structurally sound quarterback in year two would make for a better passing offense that will hopefully be able to keep pace with some of the conference's best.

George Pickens - Expanded Route Running Ability

You probably noticed that George Pickens did a lot of running in a straight line during his rookie season. The numbers back that up as Pickens ran 113 go/fly routes last season, first among all wide NFL receivers, according to Sports Info Solutions. With that exposure came great success on contested catches down the sideline, but now the Steelers must figure out if there’s more potential to unlock. Some of Pickens's limited route tree can surely be attributed to his role within the scheme, but the Steelers also didn’t seem to trust him much beyond getting vertical.

After averaging a healthy 9.4 yards per target as a rookie, Pittsburgh will likely be looking for more ways to get him the rock in 2023. If he’s to see an increased target share, he’ll need to prove to the organization that he’s grown as a route runner. You’ll see some flashes of nuanced route running, head fakes, and working blind spots on film, but it’s not consistent enough just yet. Pickens has the big play ability to separate and win above the rim deep. Now it’s time to see if he can consistently get open in the underneath and intermediate areas of the field.

DeMarvin Leal - Pass Rush Plan Rediscovery

DeMarvin Leal’s rookie season was eventful. He logged snaps at both defensive end and edge while also missing time with a meniscus injury midway through the season. 2022 was also pretty quiet, with Leal being a pretty puzzling player to figure out. Coming out of Texas A&M, Leal boasted quite a vast pass-rushing toolkit, with several moves at his disposal. Those moves looked like they would translate after he flashed during the preseason. Then the regular season came, and everything disappeared.

In 94 pass-rushing snaps, he registered just three hurries and zero quarterback hits, according to PFF. Far too often, Leal would come off the ball without a plan and easily be taken out of the play by an opposing lineman. Leal needed to put on weight to play as a 3T in the Steelers scheme, but he’s not a power rusher, instead needing to rely on more finesse, and it’s important that he remembers that to become effective. 

It’s not uncommon for rookie pass rushers to start off slow, but you’d feel less uneasy about his long-term outlook if there were at least occasional flashes.

Calvin Austin III - Durability

For Calvin Austin III, there’s not much that can be taken away from his rookie season that was robbed by a preseason foot injury. Still, at 5-8, 170 pounds, there will be some questions lingering about whether or not his body will hold up at the professional level. Last summer, Austin dazzled in training camp, but translating that into live action is the next step for him. His blazing speed and burst in the open field could potentially give the Steelers' offense a jolt they need in order to create more explosive plays. But he has to get on the field first in order to prove that.

Connor Heyward - Run Blocking Effectiveness

Connor Heyward proved he had more to his game than simply being Cam Heyward's younger brother. But similar to Calvin Austin, Heyward is historically small for his position, which means he has to get creative in ways to compensate for his frame. 

One of the ways he did that last season was by utilizing cut blocks where applicable in order to take on bigger defenders that have the capability to overwhelm him with size. Heyward's role could potentially change this upcoming season, moving around the formation even more. Regardless of where he lines up, whether at tight end, full back, or in the slot, it's important for Heyward to find more imaginative ways to be effective in this regard. 

Mark Robinson - Tackling Technique

If you're looking for a throwback type of linebacker on the Steelers roster, Mark Robinson fits the ball in that regard. He plays a million miles per hour at a violent rate and loves coming downhill to fit the run. While that skill set still has ample value in the league, Robinson must clean up his tackling if he wants to accrue more playing time. Between limited reps in the preseason and regular season, Robinson missed seven tackles, according to PFF. Several of those were the result of him being out of control with sloppy technique, allowing ball carriers to bounce right off of him. It's a fine line that the Steelers must walk- allowing Robinson's physical play style to shine through but also reigning in some of the mistakes at the same time.

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