By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to The Point of Pittsburgh
With tonight being the Steelers first game against the Lions, many of the young players have been given the opportunity to make an impact on the field. How have they tolled thus far? I will be breaking down each of the seven draft picks performances thus far and giving an updated look at their expectations as the preseason rolls along.
CB Artie Burns
This should come as a surprise to no one: Artie Burns is a raw prospect. Throughout the first week and a half of training camp, Burns has been matched up against Antonio Brown on virtually every play. To say that he has been tossed around and embarrassed by the all-world receiver would be an understatement. But let’s be honest with ourselves; how many cornerbacks are truly successful against Antonio Brown? There are only about 2 cornerbacks in the NFL that have the ability to defend the out of this world receiver. And Artie Burns is not one of those cornerbacks. At least not right now. Burns has some technical issues that he is working on throughout camp, but you can clearly see that the potential is there. When Burns goes against other receivers on the team like Markus Wheaton, Eli Rogers, and Demarcus Ayers, he plays with solid coverage skills and has made multiple big plays. Burns is also in the right mindset at this point as well, which is strongly indicated by his drive and desire to consistently matchup against Brown every play and his very clear disgust when he gets skipped over for the opportunity. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has clearly indicated that the young defensive backs will get every opportunity to play, especially now that Senquez Golson is likely out for the season. While the early indications might not seem promising, don’t be fooled. It is only a matter of time until it all clicks for the 1st-rounder from Miami and he makes an impact.
Progress Report Grade: C-
S Sean Davis
Of all the rookies this season, no one has a greater opportunity to show what they are capable of doing more so than 2nd-round pick Sean Davis. When apparent starting nickel cornerback Senquez Golson went down with an injury, Davis was instantly the player that the Steelers put in. Throughout the spring, the Steelers started implementing 3 safety nickel sets on defense (typically 3 safeties are on the field for dime packages, not nickel packages; this allows for the defense to keep all of their linebackers on the field and essentially add another safety to play in the box out of the slot). Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has had a lot of praise for the huge, athletic Davis recently, stating “he is kind of like a Ryan Shazier coming off that edge instead of a corner coming off the edge in the slot.” Talk about high praise. If Davis can be even half of the defender that Shazier is turning into, the Steelers will have absolutely stolen Davis in the 2nd round. Now this is not to say that Davis is a polished product; he simply is not quite there yet. But his trajectory is definitely pointing in the right direction. At this point, the biggest issue for Davis will be in regards to where he will see time first; will it be safety or cornerback? As of now, Robert Golden is taking the reps as the 1st-team safety but with the way Davis is quickly progressing, it is only a matter of time until he is playing opposite of Mike Mitchell. At that point, the Steelers will have to find someone to play in the slot at cornerback, which could be William Gay if Artie Burns starts getting things sooner than later. Regardless, expect to see Davis on the field early and often.
Progress Report Grade: A
DT Javon Hargrave
Entering the draft, Javon Hargrave was one of the best defensive tackle prospects in college football. His biggest knock wasn’t his playing ability. It was his small school pedigree. Not many people know anything about South Carolina State, but that won’t matter much when Hargrave takes the field as a Steeler. Hargrave is currently the smallest defensive lineman on the Steelers roster, but he has the potential to make one of the biggest impacts of anyone in this rookie class. He brings an amazing first step off the ball and possesses tremendous athleticism for a defensive lineman, regardless of size. So far through training camp, Hargrave has been manhandling offensive lineman both by brute force and by simply showing technique far beyond his rookie status. On many occasions, Hargrave is able to make his way into the backfield by using his first step to beat the offensive lineman to the point. As it stands right now, it is still unlikely that Hargrave will be an every-down player at the beginning of his career. But that does not mean that his impact won’t be felt as a situational player in the Steelers various sub-packages. Throughout training camp, Hargrave has been getting reps as the nose tackle in the 3-man fronts and has been with the 1st-team during the 4-man fronts the team has been more frequently employing. It seems that the sky can be the limit for the “no-name” prospect out of South Carolina State.
Progress Report Grade: B+
OT Jerald Hawkins
The Steelers offensive line is practically set in stone at this point, with the starters being Alejandro Villanueva (LT), Ramon Foster (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), David DeCastro (RG), and Marcus Gilbert (RT). After the departure of Kelvin Beachum during the offseason, the Steelers desperately needed to add depth to the tackle position. Even with the addition of veteran Ryan Harris, the team needed to infuse the roster with young talent. Enter Jerald Hawkins, a tackle who started 37 games at both left and right tackle during his time at LSU. The extremely long and athletic offensive tackle has added some weight to his frame without losing any athleticism. So far, Hawkins has seen most of his time at right tackle with the 2nd-team offense but has seen quite a bit of time at left tackle as well. While he has been beaten at times, he has shown a bit of a mean streak by putting defenders into the ground on multiple occasions. He has received some high praise from some of the Steelers best recently. Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review recently reported:
“I think of him almost as a taller Beachum,” said Cam Heyward, who as the Steelers’ starting left defensive end has matched up often against Hawkins during training camp. “Just the way he’s got long arms. That’s not to say you’re ‘Beach,’ because that’s a helluva statement. I’m not saying he’s there yet. But he’s got tools where he could learn to be like that.”
In case you forgot, Kelvin Beachum was the 7th-round draft pick that went on to become one of the most promising left tackles in the league before he signed a 5-year/$45M deal with the Jaguars. With Harris already holding down the fort as the Steelers swing tackle, Hawkins won’t be pressed into play unless there is an injury. But with his experience playing in a pro-style offense at LSU and against elite SEC competition, there is no doubt that Hawkins will be ready. He still has a lot of work left to improve his overall game. But at this rate, he could turn into a very valuable piece for the Steelers moving down the road.
Progress Report Grade: B
OLB Travis Feeney
Travis Feeney was an über athletic prospect coming out of Washington with a lot of excitement as an edge rusher. However, it has been difficult to see any of this due to his missed time on the field to date during training camp because of injury. Over the past few days since the pads have been on, Feeney has been seen on the sidelines with a wrap on his left thigh. There is no word on how long he will be off the field at this point but the longer he is on the sidelines, the less opportunity he will have to show why the Steelers wanted to trade up to select him in the 5th-round instead of waiting until the 6th. At this point, things aren’t looking so hot for the former Huskie, especially with the strong play by Anthony Chickillo. Stay tuned for more details as camp goes along.
Progress Report Grade: F
WR Demarcus Ayers
The Steelers selected Demarcus Ayers to compete as a punt returner and potentially help out as a slot receiver. However, it seems that his diminutive counterpart Eli Rogers has received most of the praise throughout training camp, as Rogers has been the primary punt returner and has even been getting reps as the 1st-team slot receiver. That is not to say that Ayers has shown nothing so far in camp. Ayers has gotten time as both a punt returner and a kick returner and has shown sure hands on offense when given the opportunity. With the emergence of Rogers and Sammie Coates, it appears that the receiving group is getting crowded so the only way Ayers is going to have a chance of making the 53-man roster is because of an injury to another receiver or to crack it as a punt returner for the Steelers. I personally like Ayers’ skillset but am currently not holding my breath. It will be hard to gauge just how valuable Ayers is to the Steelers when the preseason games get underway.
Progress Report Grade: D
ILB Tyler Matakevich
Probably the biggest surprise to Steelers fans that really shouldn’t be a surprise is the solid play by 7th-round pick Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich has shown surprising athleticism while rushing the quarterback (which is surprising due to his lack of athleticism, as demonstrated during his career at Temple) and has been an exceptional run-stopper. During Backs-on-Backers on Thursday, Matakevich had 7 matchups and won each of them. But while all of these aspects are great, arguably the most impressive part of Matakevich’s training camp so far has been his ability to drop back into coverage and even make some plays (he has already recorded a camp interception). Seventh round prospects like Matakevich typically make their initial impact on special teams as rookies and early reports indicate that Matakevich is doing just that, showing up in all phases of special teams with the 1st-team. He is also beginning to establish himself as a rotational players like Vince Williams, routinely showing up with the 2nd-team defense next to the 4th-year player over veteran Steven Johnson. If this type of play continues from the 7th-rounder, he could wind up being more than just a camp body or special teams ace; he could end up being a true relief linebacker beside Vince Williams. This is even more important when you consider the fact that Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, and Steven Johnson are all on the last year of their deals. Matakevich’s time could come sooner than many people believed.
Progress Report Grade: B+