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Several of Steelers' 2017 draft picks coping with loss of valuable reps because of injuries

Chris Adamski
| Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, 5:24 p.m.
Steelers trainer John Norwig examines rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during practice Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers trainer John Norwig examines rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during practice Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster makes a catch during practice Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster makes a catch during practice Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Steelers running back James Conner gets past Mike Hilton (40)during practice Saturday, July 29, 2017 at Latrobe High School.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running back James Conner gets past Mike Hilton (40)during practice Saturday, July 29, 2017 at Latrobe High School.

A rookie draft class, by definition, almost always is symbolic of an NFL team's most optimistic hopes. Otherwise-dull preseason games carry intrigue for fans, coaches and media in watching a team's draft picks in game conditions for the first time.

For a significant portion of the Steelers' 2017 draft class, though, that optimism and intrigue has been — in part — replaced by frustration and unfulfillment.

Half of the Steelers' eight draft picks have missed significant time during training camp because of injuries.

“It's hard at times,” second-round wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “I wish I could be out there with the boys.”

Discounting first-rounder T.J. Watt, who has been durable and consistently running with the first-team at outside linebacker, the Steelers' next three highest picks suffered a combined six injuries that caused them to miss significant practice time.

Smith-Schuster (sprained ankle, concussion, knee bone bruise) had three in three weeks. The Steelers' first third-round pick, Cameron Sutton, hasn't practiced fully since suffering a hamstring injury just days into camp. Their second third-round pick, James Conner, was limited during organized team activities and minicamp because of a hamstring injury, then he suffered a shoulder injury during the Steelers' first padded practice of camp July 30.

Seventh-round pick Keion Adams likewise suffered an injury that day, but, unlike Conner, he hasn't returned.

Other than the seven snaps Smith-Schuster played before suffering a concussion in the preseason opener, he, Sutton, Conner and Adams combined for one preseason game played: Conner's workmanlike rushing performance Sunday against Atlanta.

Only Watt, fourth-round quarterback Joshua Dobbs, fifth-round cornerback Brian Allen and sixth-round long snapper Colin Holba have made it through training camp unscathed among rookie draft picks.

The other four missed at least half of their practice time, with Conner being the only one in that group to be nearly back to full health.

“It's not frustrating,” said Sutton, a cornerback. “I'm still around, still at meetings, still at practice. Still getting the reps and the mental reps, still just coming everyday to work.

“And then when I get my opportunity to get back out on the field, I'll just be ready to compete and ready to go.”

For Sutton, he's hoping that is this week. The Steelers have full practices scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday and host the Indianapolis Colts in a preseason game Saturday.

“I definitely will do more this week and see how it goes,” said Sutton, who recently has been doing individual drills at practice.

Sutton started all 38 games over his first three seasons at Tennessee before a broken ankle caused him to miss six games last season. Conner's history is well-documented: He missed virtually all of 2015 because of a knee injury, then overcame Hodgkin's lymphoma over the following calendar year. Smith-Schuster suffered a broken hand during his sophomore season at USC and a back injury last year.

Of the four, only Adams, who played in all 40 of Western Michigan's games the past three seasons, didn't deal with some recent injury in college.

As coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, injuries are as much a part of football as blocking and tackling, and the Steelers' rookies recognize that.

“I don't get down. I just keep working and doing whatever it is I can do,” Conner said.

The injury woes have affected Adams the most. His ailment appears to be the most serious, and, as a seventh-round pick, the outside linebacker needed a good camp to prove his worth.

Smith-Schuster, Sutton and Conner came in with a pedigree that all but assured they would make the team. Still, perhaps never are preseason practice reps and live game snaps more vital than during a player's rookie year. Even if incrementally, each one lost can adversely affect his regular-season experience.

A rookie draft class, though, tends to bond. And Sutton said this group is close. It has been something of a support group during times when its members are prevented from being on the field.

“This probably is the hardest camp I have been a part of,” said Smith-Schuster, who is awaiting medical clearance to practice but isn't ruling out playing Saturday. “If you go through camp injury-free, God bless you. But at the same time, full pads every day, we go hard every day. So, yeah, this is the most injuries I have ever had, back-to-back-to-back.

“But ... I stay positive. It's God's plan, and you've just got to keep pushing.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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