by J.T. Toth
Photo courtesy of Steelers Nation.
The Pittsburgh Steelers go into their bye week with a record of 3-2, placing them atop the AFC North Division. While this sounds great in a vacuum, it’s hard to believe with their inconsistent play the team has a winning record, let alone is in first place.
The 2023 rookie class has for the most part started slow, with limited time as they got acclimated to the speed of play and the league, but several are ready to start taking on larger roles as the campaign progresses.
Draft 412 is ready to grade each rookie’s performance to date and offers a bit of what may yet to come:
1- Broderick Jones - Tackle
Broderick Jones served in a reserve tackle role for the first 4 weeks, taking practice snaps on the left and right ends of the line. He was pressed into duty as a starter in week five, however, as a result of an injury to starter Dan Moore Jr.
He played in 66 snaps against the Ravens and was only credited with giving up one quarterback pressure. His run blocking seems to be ahead of his pass blocking at this point, but one game is only one game and a greater sample size is needed to understand where he is in his progression. According to Pro Football Focus’ subjective grading system, Jones ranked as the no. 13 tackle out of 60 that played at least 20% of his team's snaps.
Draft 412 believes the Steelers may stick with Jones as a starter, even when Moore returns to action.
Grade - B (trending up)
2- Joey Porter Jr.- Cornerback
Rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. has seen his playing time slowly increase and has now played 86 defensive snaps and has made his presence known in his brief stints. Last week after the Steelers Gunner Olszewski fumbled a punt that seemed to put Baltimore in position to lock up the game, Joey Porter pulled in a huge interception in the endzone to stave off what may have been the kill shot. He has 6 tackles and 2 pass deflections to go along with the interception and seems to be gaining the trust of the defensive coaches by playing late in each of the past 2 weeks.
Grade - B+ (Trending up)
3. Keeanu Benton - Defensive Lineman
Keeanu Benton may have played the biggest role of any Steelers rookie so far in 2023. With the loss of long time defensive lineman Cameron Heyward to injury, Benton was thrust into the starting lineup and has not let the Steelers down. He has played the most snaps of any Steelers rookie and has looked good doing so, netting 13 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble so far this season.
Benton is fast off the snap, doesn't give interior linemen a chance to set up and appears to be developing into a dominant force in the middle of the Steelers' defensive line.
If a vote were cast today, Draft 412 thinks Benton would be the Steelers' rookie of the year.
Grade - A
4. Darnell Washington - Tight End
The big 6’7” tight end has only been targeted 3 times this season and has 1 catch for 10 yards. He played a lot more last week against the Ravens but was used mostly as a run blocker and not a pass catcher. He did an adequate job blocking but it seems that the Steelers, who were without starter Pat Freiermuth, entrusted most of the passing targets to TE/H-Back Connor Heyward instead of Washington.
If Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada can figure out how to use the 6’7” tight end with good hands and above average speed with more regularity, then perhaps Washington will reveal why he was such a coveted pick.
With Freiermuth coming back from injury, however, Washington may once again be relegated to more blocking assignments than routes run.
Grade - C (Draft 412 wanted to give an Incomplete, but he has played sparingly.)
5. Nick Herbig - Linebacker
Herbig was the star of the preseason for the Steelers' defense, putting up 3.5 sacks and 6 quarterback pressures in 3 games. He has a bright future for the Steelers, but as long as T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are healthy, he may have a tough time finding appreciable playing time.
Thus far, he has collected 5 tackles in his limited on field action but did have a memorable encounter with Cleveland Browns' DeShaun Watson in week two, forcing a flag on the play by the frustrated signal caller.
Grade - C+ (Arrow is again pointing up)
Cory Trice - Cornerback and OL - Spencer Anderson
Cory Trice was the talk of camp and the Steelers brass were excited to see him get some meaningful snaps in the nickel and dime packages for Pittsburgh, but a season ending injury put that on hold.
Spencer Anderson has not played yet and is basically a depth piece on the offensive line if injuries start to accumulate.
Grades - Incomplete for both