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Steelers would be .500 team without T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster

With the Steelers’ bye week falling so conveniently at the midpoint of their season, it would be a good time to hand out midseason awards for 2017.

Instead, let’s take a look at one category where we’d have an interesting debate: Rookie of the Year.

It’s hard to decide between T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Here’s what we do know. The Steelers are 6-2 for the first time since 2011, but without Watt and Smith-Schuster, they’d probably be 4-4.

The Steelers don’t beat the Lions in Week 8 without Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown. Even that might not have been enough without the rookie receiver’s game-clinching, third-down reception on a shovel pass with a minute and a half remaining.

In Week 1, the Steelers might not have escaped Cleveland with a 21-18 win if it weren’t for Watt’s two sacks and one interception.

One of those sacks came with the Steelers leading 14-7 and the Browns at the Pittsburgh 9-yard line. The Browns had to settle for a field goal. Watt again came to the rescue in Steelers territory late in the third quarter, intercepting DeShone Kizer at the 17.

Sean Davis won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award as the Steelers’ rookie of the year last season, and that was before he broke up what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion in the Steelers’ divisional playoff win over the Chiefs.

Artie Burns likely received some votes for the award. The first-round pick shared the team lead with three interceptions. The second one of those picks was an underrated turning point of the Steelers’ 2016 season.

The Steelers had lost four straight games when they went to Cleveland in Week 11. The Browns moved to the Steelers’ 45 on the game’s opening drive. Cody Kessler attempted a deep pass to Corey Coleman that Burns intercepted. Had that pass been completed, the Browns would have had at least a first-and-goal. The Steelers won the game 24-9 and didn’t lose again until the AFC championship. But considering the Steelers’ lack of momentum heading into Cleveland, who knows how differently the game would have turned out if the Browns had scored first?

Contributions from multiple rookies over the last few seasons illustrates the fact that the Steelers’ drafts have improved. There were some years when the Steelers didn’t get much help from their rookies and the Greene award was pretty much won by default. Mike Adams won the award in 2012, for crying out loud. David DeCastro was the first-round pick that year but played just four games because he was injured in the preseason.

Le’Veon Bell had little competition in winning the Steelers’ 2013 rookie honor. Like DeCastro the year before, his season got off to a late start because of an injury. He didn’t debut until Week 4. By then, the Steelers already were 0-3. They probably don’t start the 2013 season 0-4 if they had Bell for the first three games.

It also might have helped if their first-round pick that year, Jarvis Jones, had more than one sack in his rookie season. Jones is Kevin Colbert’s only first-round bust, although the 2013 draft has proven to be fruitful with Bell and Vince Williams.

The 2012 draft yielded DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum, a two-year starter at left tackle. However, the Steelers didn’t get much of an immediate boost from their 2012 or 2013 drafts. That might have something to do with their back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

In 2014, the unveiling of Martavis Bryant coincided with a three-game winning streak that sparked a run to the Steelers’ first playoff berth in three years.

In 2015, Bud Dupree had four sacks in the first half of his rookie season. He wasn’t a huge reason the Steelers went 10-6 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs, but their top two picks the previous season, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, combined for 10 sacks in 2015.

The last Steelers rookie to make the Pro Bowl was Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, and that was the last year the Steelers reached the Super Bowl.

No, that doesn’t mean that the Steelers are guaranteed to reach the Super Bowl if Watt or Smith-Schuster earn Pro Bowl honors. But it shows that first-year dividends from the draft are almost a requirement to succeed in the NFL.

That said, Watt and Smith-Schuster have a better chance of making the Pro Bowl than any Steelers rookie since Pouncey, and since Pouncey’s rookie year this is also the Steelers’ best shot at the Super Bowl.

That’s not a coincidence.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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