How impressive was Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Ryan Shazier in his pro debut Saturday night?
Well, he might have increased the Steelers’ chances of making the playoffs.
How can that be? How can a rookie boost the Steelers’ playoff stock by playing 37 snaps in a preseason game?
Because it seems that the more a Steelers’ first-round draft pick contributes as a rookie, the better the Steelers do that season.
Shazier made nine tackles in the Steelers’ 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field. That’s five more than anyone else in the game, according to NFL.com. He also intercepted a pass.
The rookie inside linebacker is likely to start in Week 1. He’d be the first Steelers rookie to start an opener since Maurkice Pouncey in 2010. That’s also the last time the Steelers reached a Super Bowl.
The Steelers’ first-round picks in 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined for 11 starts as rookies. The Steelers were one-and-done in the playoffs in 2011 and missed the playoffs in 2012 and 2013.
A first-round pick is just one cog in the machine. A team’s success rides on a lot more than one player. However, every time the Steelers’ top pick has started at least 10 games since 2001, the Steelers have won at least one playoff game.
If Shazier continues to play the way he did Saturday, that bodes well for the Steelers’ 2014 season.
So let’s test this theory by taking a look at all the Steelers’ first-round draft picks since the turn of the century as well as how the Steelers did the year they were drafted. This will cover all of Kevin Colbert’s drafts, since he became the team’s director of football operations in 2000.
2013: Jarvis Jones, OLB
How Jones did: Jones started eight games, but had just one sack.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers began the season 0-4, their worst start since 1968. They recovered from their awful September to finish 8-8 and Jones helped them finish the year at .500 with his best game in the season finale. But the Steelers couldn’t get the help they needed that day to make the playoffs.
2012: David DeCastro, OG
How DeCastro did: DeCastro hurt his knee in the preseason and returned for the last four games, starting the final three. While he showed promise, he was dominated in Week 16 against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), DeCastro was responsible for two sacks and three quarterback hurries as the Bengals defeated the Steelers 13-10.
How the Steelers did: That loss to Cincinnati extinguished their playoff hopes as they lost three of the last four. It was the first of two straight 8-8 seasons for the Steelers.
2011: Cameron Heyward, DE
How Heyward did: Fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, the Steelers didn’t need Heyward to make an immediate impact. Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood were in front of him on the defensive line. Heyward appeared in all 16 games but started none.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers finished 12-4, but it proved to be a hollow 12-4 when Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos ended their season in an AFC wild-card game.
2010: Maurkice Pouncey, C
How Pouncey did: Not only did Pouncey start right away, he started all 16 games and is the Steelers’ only first-round pick since 2000 to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
How the Steelers did: They finished the regular season 12-4 and lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
2009: Ziggy Hood, DE
How Hood did: Like Cameron Heyward two years later, Hood wasn’t expected to start right away. Like Heyward, he played in all 16 games with no starts.
How the Steelers did: Without a contributing first-round pick, the Steelers stumbled to 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
2008: Rashard Mendenhall, RB
How Mendenhall did: Mendenhall’s rookie season ended when he broke his shoulder in Week 4 against the Ravens.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers’ defense allowed 223 points and 3,795 yards in the regular season. No defense has been that stingy in either category since then. So the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII without needing much help from a rookie running back.
2007: Lawrence Timmons, ILB
How Timmons did: Here’s an interesting parallel. The last two times the Steelers have had the No. 15 pick in the first round, they’ve drafted inside linebackers. Timmons was the 15th player off the board in 2007 and Shazier was the 15th selection this year. Statistically, Timmons wasn’t as productive as Jones in his rookie season. He made 13 tackles and had no sacks while Jones had 30 tackles, a sack and four passes defended. Timmons didn’t start a game. His playing time was limited by the presence of Larry Foote and James Farrior. On the other hand, LaMarr Woodley’s health issues and Jason Worilds’ inconsistency early in the season forced Jones into the lineup before he was ready.
How the Steelers did: Unlike Jones last season, Timmons had the luxury of watching and learning as the Steelers finished 10-6. However, their wild-card ousting at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars left a sense of unfinished business.
2006: Santonio Holmes, WR
How Holmes did: Holmes started just four games, but he had at least one catch in every game and finished with 49 receptions and two touchdowns.
How the Steelers did: It would have been difficult for any rookie to be a regular starter on a defending Super Bowl champion. Just like they did seven years later, the Steelers finished 8-8 after starting the season 2-6.
2005: Heath Miller, TE
How Miller did: Miller started 15 games and had 39 catches and six touchdowns. He added seven catches and a touchdown in the playoffs.
How the Steelers did: With Miller filling a glaring need at tight end, the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XL.
2004: Ben Roethlisberger, QB
How Roethlisberger did: You know how this goes. Roethlisberger replaced an injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2, and there hasn’t been a quarterback controversy in Pittsburgh ever since.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers went 15-1 and lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.
2003: Troy Polamalu, S
How Polamalu did: Believe it or not, Polamalu and Jarvis Jones had similar rookie seasons. The big difference is that Polamalu didn’t start a game. He made 38 tackles, had two sacks, four passes defended and a forced fumble before breaking out in 2004.
How the Steelers did: They went 6-10, their last losing season.
2002: Kendall Simmons, OG
How Simmons did: Simmons started 14 games on an offensive line that paved the way for the NFL’s No. 8 offense in terms of points scored. The Steelers haven’t ranked that high since.
How the Steelers did: After a 10-5-1 regular season, the Steelers defeated the Browns in a wild-card game and lost in overtime at Tennessee in the divisional round.
2001: Casey Hampton, NT
How Hampton did: Hampton made his first start in Week 7, and from there the job was his. He made 11 starts for the NFL’s top-ranked defense in yards allowed.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers finished 13-3 and reached the AFC championship game before falling at home to the New England Patriots.
2000: Plaxico Burress, WR
How Burress did: Burress made nine starts and caught 22 passes before making his big leap the following season.
How the Steelers did: The Steelers finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs, but won four of their last five and carried that momentum into 2001.
While Shazier is expected to start this season, a lot could happen the the last two preseason games and during the regular season. He already missed one preseason game with a bruised knee, so he has to prove that he can stay healthy. If he does, it’s a sign of good things to come.
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