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Grading the Steelers’ Rookies After the First Quarter of the Season

A quarter of the 2016 season is in the books. How have the rookies looked so far? Zach grades each draft pick based on their performance.

By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer

Amazingly, the first four weeks of the NFL season are in the books already. Some of the Steelers’ young players have been given the opportunity to make an impact on the field. How have they tolled thus far?

CB Artie Burns

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The main theme for Artie Burns since being drafted has been simple: he is a raw prospect. To start off his time as a Steelers, Burns was thrown into the fire, consistently going up against All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Brown got the best of the young cornerback early and often throughout the offseason, which was to be expected going against the best receiver in football. Unfortunately, Burns would go on to miss most of training camp and preseason action due to injury, preventing him from ironing out some rookie issues during action against other teams. However, since his return to action, Burns has shown he can be the cornerback the Steelers have been looking for for quite some time now. Due to injuries, the 1st-round pick from Miami has been thrown into action as the outside corner for the team opposite of Ross Cockrell. Burns’ biggest issues have been with his tackling, as he has a tendency to tackle too high and whiff on the hit. This is a common issue many rookie cornerbacks come into the league with. However, Burns appears to be a very natural cover corner due to his superior athleticism and coverage skills, where he does a good job of reading the receiver on routes in addition to when the ball is in the air. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has clearly indicated that the young defensive backs will get every opportunity to play, and this starts with Burns. 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.

Preseason Grade: D+
Grade Through Week 4: B-

S Sean Davis

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Of all the rookies this season, no one has had a greater opportunity to show what they are capable of doing more so than 2nd-round pick Sean Davis. Whenever 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). Unfortunately, it has not all been easy going for the 2nd-round pick from Maryland. Davis has logged 176 snaps so far this season, but suffered an injury against the Eagles, which has sidelined him ever since. While Davis has seen extensive snaps at cornerback and some at safety, he has shown struggles with tackling, just as his 1st-round counterpart has. Through the 1st four weeks of the season, Davis leads the Steelers with 9 missed tackles (just ahead of Burns’ 6 missed tackles). However, Davis has had plenty of solid tackles that have saved the Steelers from giving up a big play. He has also been decent in coverage, especially when playing from the slot in nickel packages. His versatility has been extremely utilized by the Steelers, giving them options with many different schemes. His physicality to come up and defend against the run has been noted and when he returns from injury will likely see himself back on the field often. Mistakes are bound to happen to rookies so there is really no reason for concern right now. Just like with Burns, the potential is there for great things. There is no doubt that Davis and Burns are the future of the Steelers secondary. The arrow is pointing up for Davis.

Preseason Grade: A-
Grade Through Week 4: B

DT Javon Hargrave

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Entering the draft, Javon Hargrave was one of the best defensive tackle prospects in college football. He brings an amazing first step off the ball and possesses tremendous athleticism for a defensive lineman, regardless of size. Throughout training camp, Hargrave routinely manhandled offensive lineman both by brute force and by simply showing technique far beyond his rookie status. Each week as a Steeler, Hargrave has shown progress as a player through improving his already solid technique, his execution, and by showing great effort on every play. On many occasions, Hargrave has been able to make his way into the backfield by using his first step to beat the offensive lineman to the point. While Hargrave has shown the ability to make an impact on the field, his snaps have been widely limited, as he has been primarily getting his reps as the nose tackle in the underused 3-man fronts. Hargrave’s season high for snaps came against the Chiefs, when he was on the field for 26 snaps. While the total snap count is not great, Hargrave has noticeably outperformed Daniel McCullers with the snaps that each have been given. As his development continues, the Steelers will find ways to get Hargrave onto the field. The effort and talent is there, the snaps will surely be coming soon.

Preseason Grade: A-
Grade Through Week 4: C+

(Note: Hargrave’s grade is a reflection of his lack of time and big impact opportunities, not his playing ability.)

OT Jerald Hawkins

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images


After putting together a solid training camp full of a lot of potential, Jerald Hawkins was put on IR after injuring his shoulder. Unfortunately, the Steelers have been ravaged by injuries through the 1st four weeks of the season, especially on the offensive line. The Steelers could really use Hawkins right now but his chance will have to wait until next season. The future is bright, though, and it will be exciting to see what Hawkins can do next season.

Preseason Grade: B
Grade Through Week 4: N/A

OLB Travis Feeney

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Travis Feeney is an uber athletic player with a lot of excitement as an edge rusher. After missing a large portion of training camp due to injury, Feeney was able to put together a decent training camp and shows promise as a pass-rusher and on special teams. Due to the solid play of some other Steelers players, Feeney was cut after the preseason and instantly signed to the practice squad, where he will likely remain for the rest of the season. Feeney built the foundation in 2016 and look for him to continue in 2017.

Preseason Grade: C
Grade Through Week 4: N/A

WR Demarcus Ayers

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The Steelers selected Demarcus Ayers to compete as a punt returner and potentially help out as a slot receiver. Unfortunately for Ayers, he lost that job to Eli Rogers, who also beat him out as the 1st-team slot receiver. Ayers put together an inconsistent preseason but showed some shiftiness as a player in the open field, both as a return specialist and as a receiver. However, with the emergence of Rogers, the development of Sammie Coates, the veteran capabilities of Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton, next year’s return of Martavis Bryant, and some guy named Antonio Brown, there is little room for Ayers, barring injury, as the receiving group is extremely crowded. The Steelers clearly liked Ayers enough, as they signed him to their practice squad after the preseason.

Preseason Grade: C-
Grade Through Week 4: N/A

ILB Tyler Matakevich

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Probably the biggest surprise to Steelers fans that really shouldn’t be a surprise is the solid play by 7th-round pick Tyler Matakevich. During the preseason, Matakevich has showed 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. While these aspects of his game are great, arguably the most impressive part of Matakevich’s skill-set is his ability to drop back into coverage and cover effectively. Once the dust settle after training camp, Matakevich sealed his spot on the 53-man roster and has taken the route to the field that most 7th-rounders take: strong special team’s play. Through the 1st four weeks of the season, Matakevich has been a solid presence on special team’s, making plays himself and setting up his teammates to also make plays. If this type of play continues from the 7th-rounder, he could wind up being more than just a special teams ace; he could end up being a true relief linebacker beside Vince Williams and L.J. Fort. However, he is currently behind Fort on the depth chart and this will likely remain this way for the time being. Either way, Matakevich’s strong performance thus far 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.

Preseason Grade: B+
Grade Through Week 4: B-

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