The concept of the “Welcome to the NFL” moment generally refers to something that a young player experiences that causes him to realize that the professional ranks are at a level above what he realized it would be in comparison to the college game. It generally involves a rookie getting his butt kicked in some way, shape, or form.
But it could also refer to the moment that a player realizes that he actually belongs, that he is capable of competing at this level. For 2022 undrafted running back Jaylen Warren, there is no hesitation in pinpointing the moment he realized that during his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year.
“Yeah, the second Ravens game, over there, at their place”, he told Steelers.com’s Missi Matthews in an exclusive interview published on the team’s website yesterday. “The rivalry is so much more intense. Y’all know each other more and it has more oomph in the game. When you feel yourself in that battle and you’re like, ‘Okay, I can withstand this’, and when you’re having fun doing it, it’s a good feeling”.
It’s a somewhat interesting answer because the second game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2022 came very late in the season, all the way in week 17. But it could be argued as having been his best individual performance of his rookie year.
Warren rushed for a career-high 76 yards on 12 carries, another career-high, against the Ravens during their 16-13 Sunday Night Football victory over their division rivals. He also caught three passes for another 22 yards, bringing him tantalizingly close to his first 100-yard game, coming up two yards short.
The rookie back broke off a 31-yard run on the Steelers’ opening drive, having just two plays earlier converted on 3rd and 2 with a 10-yard reception. It was one of two third downs that he converted as a receiver on the night, which featured a high success rate on his touches with only four unsuccessful plays on 15 touches.
He was not out there for the Steelers’ game-winning drive, which featured a Kenny Pickett touchdown pass to starting running back Najee Harris, who himself rushed for 111 yards that night on 22 carries with another 12 yards on two receptions and a score. But virtually any Steelers fan would argue that he’d proven he belonged well before that day.
Warren began to gain traction as a viable diamond in the rough early in training camp with an admirable performance in the backs-on-backers blocking drill. He just kept picking up steam as things moved along, safely making the 53-man roster and slowly adding to his responsibilities on offense.
By the second half of the season the coaching staff was actively talking about not just wanting to give Harris more of a break but of wanting to get Warren on the field more because of what he was showing he could do.
It does appear as he heads into his second season that it’s finally starting to sink in for him that, perhaps, he can actually breathe a little bit. That he’s shown that he belongs. All he has to do is keep being himself and doing what he does and stave off complacency.
If it took all the way until that Ravens game in week 17 to realize that, then so be it. I’ll never complain about a competitor not feeling like his job is secure and that he’s still got something to prove.