Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr., the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top two draft picks in 2023, played a combined 11 snaps in their NFL debut on offense and defense, respectively. They just as easily could have sat on the bench for the entire game had circumstances gone differently.
How soon will that change? Well, Jones would have to start on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns if Chukwuma Okorafor doesn’t clear the concussion protocol. He was a full participant in Saturday’s practice, which is a very good sign, and had no game designation, but nothing is official yet. Porter’s playing time was predicated on the defense forcing long possession-down distances. So how about the second time around?
“They’re young guys, they’re doing well. We carve out football for them week in and week out, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that to continue as they gain their footing”, head coach Mike Tomlin said on the Mike Tomlin Show on Saturday. “We want them to gain experience. We want them to gain it as quickly as they can, as quickly as it’s digestible without taking any steps backwards”.
A vague enough declaration to provide him with whatever wiggle room comes to be necessary. How do you know if they can digest something without letting them taste it? Jones wouldn’t have played at all if Okorafor hadn’t exited the game with four snaps remaining.
If the Steelers want them to gain experience quickly, they are going to have to start lengthening the leash and letting them start to take a bite out of the NFL experience. Granted, that didn’t necessarily have to be provided in the season opener, but there are ways to give them more opportunities while mitigating risk factors.
As I wrote about leading up to the start of the regular season, I still anticipate the Steelers finding way to incorporate Jones as a sixth lineman, an extra blocker, until the time comes that he claims a starting job. A starting role does not appear to be imminent, but they have been working him at right tackle, expanding his positional vocabulary. The next step is just playing him on the end. He has the athleticism for it.
As for Porter, they can either move Patrick Peterson into the slot more often or rotate him in with either Peterson or Levi Wallace. Frankly, neither of them played so well in the season opener that I would feel compelled to leave them on the field. Similar things could be said for the other rookies, all of whom barring Spencer Anderson actually played more active roles.
“That’s just the overall, global agenda for the inclusion of those guys, whether it’s Broderick or Joey or [Keeanu Benton] or [Darnell] Washington or [Nick] Herbig for that matter”, Tomlin said. “We got a nice rookie class, all [of whom] have shown that they’re capable of being varsity and being a component of why we’re successful. Just at the early stages of this thing, we’re gonna be really intentional and thoughtful about the circumstances that we put him in so that we can control the rate of growth”.
But you don’t want to be too cautious. While it’s desirable to be able to control a player’s rate of growth, you’re just as likely to stunt that growth by not providing enough sustenance as you are too much.