Steelers rookies prepare for first taste of game action
If you think you have been starved for professional football, imagine how the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 23 rookies must feel?
For most of them, their first taste of on-field NFL life was at rookie minicamp in May.
Then, the ante was upped considerably when veterans joined in for organized team activities. Next was a jump to mandatory minicamp, followed by another hurdle in the first practices of training camp at Saint Vincent.
Strapping on the pads for the first time last week was another milestone.
But now comes the most significant landmark yet for the rookies.
“Really excited about this next step in the preseason for us: playing in a preseason game, taking this group into a stadium,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday, two days before the Steelers open their preseason with a game at Philadelphia.
“There’s always a lot of excitement, always a lot of angst, because it is a first time for many of these guys in a professional setting. We will be thoughtful about what we want from them.”
Exhibitions might be a snooze for the established starters and multi-year veterans with roster spots secured. But for the rookies, some of them will get only four (or even fewer) opportunities in their life to put on an NFL uniform and play in a game — any game.
The higher-profile rookies — players such as first-rounder Terrell Edmunds, second-round pick James Washington and third-round quarterback Mason Rudolph — they might not have the job interview-style pressure associated with maintaining their livelihood just yet, but that doesn’t mean the first time performing in an NFL stadium won’t be memorable.
“I think everyone has a little nerves, being the first one back,” Rudolph said. “But just like in your debut in college, you get out there, you make a completion and it starts flowing just like football has always been.”
Many eyes will be on Rudolph. Tomlin said Ben Roethlisberger will not play against the Eagles.
Rudolph said he was told how much he will play but was instructed to keep that to himself.
With several veterans sitting out because of injury or because of Tomlin’s preference to avoid injuries, there’s no question most of the rookies will get significant reps.
Many could start, including Edmunds (strong safety), Chuks Okorafor (offensive tackle) and Washington.
Running back Jaylen Samuels, safety Marcus Allen and returner Quadree Henderson also figure to see plenty of playing time.
Linebacker Matthew Thomas, receiver Damoun Patterson and defensive linemen Joshua Frazier and Greg Gilmore are other rookies worth watching.
Some rookies might have shined at rookie camp but wilted once they started going against veterans. Others might have been stars of “football in shorts” but slipped after the pads went on. There will be some who have turned heads at Saint Vincent but disappoint once they get in the stadium.
Many, conversely, have gone the opposite direction: Their play has ratcheted up as the offseason/preseason stakes have grown.
Rudolph, for example, acknowledged he had some growing pains in spring ball but is “feeling a lot more comfortable” at camp.
“Obviously, you dream about playing in the NFL,” Rudolph said Tuesday, “but once you get here, you take it one day at time. It’s the way I approach practice, and it’s gone well.
“A lot of us are excited to play in our first NFL games, but we’ve got to take care of the next 48 hours to give ourselves the best chance for success.”
The rookie most familiar to Rudolph is Washington, the receiver with whom he broke records with the past three-plus years at Oklahoma State.
Washington has a chance to seize a top-three receiver role, and Thursday is his first chance to prove he’s worthy against other competition.
“Just ready to show my teammates what I’m capable of,” Washington said. “I’m eager to get out there.
“I just want to show I am capable of playing at this level. That’s the main thing, and show that everything we’ve worked on up to this point is a success.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.