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Calvin Austin and Nick Herbig are doing little to quell the hype associated with 4th Round picks

I’m not going to lie, it’s fun to mock Steelers fans for their over-the-top excitement about lower-round draft picks and undrafted free agents.

What are the odds of any of them becoming noteworthy contributors, let alone superstars? Heck, just the odds of them making the team are pretty darn low. But the NFL wants us talking about its league 24/7/365, and even the down-the-liners look nice and shiny when presented to us with black-and-gold graphics on social media.

“Who will be this year’s camp surprise?”

However, it’s a little different when it comes to fourth-round draft picks. A player selected there isn’t necessarily expected to be a star, but he is expected to be something for his football team. He’s supposed to contribute, if not as a starter, then certainly as a reliable backup.

And special teams are a must.

But it’s easy to look at a fourth-round selection and see star potential. After all, a fourth-round pick is often in the discussion to be a second or third-round pick leading up to the draft. These guys are even sometimes mocked in the first round of an upcoming draft. When you research the top-10 prospects at any position, a fourth-round selection is often someone who was on that list or at least on the cusp of it.

You have to be careful, though, because a fourth-round pick will frequently disappoint you. This isn’t to say he won’t do what players of that draft pedigree are usually capable of, it’s just that we often get tricked into thinking he could do more.

Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft, is a great example of that. Dotson went from being the most exciting prospect on the Steelers’ rebuilding offensive line to a player with a questionable work ethic to a begrudged starter at left guard, and, finally, to a backup–perhaps what he should have been all along.

That brings me to Pittsburgh’s two most recent fourth-round picks. I’m talking about Calvin Austin III, a little receiver out of Memphis who was selected in the 2022 NFL Draft; and Nick Herbig, an outside linebacker out of Wisconsin who was taken in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Austin missed all of 2022 with an injury–including the preseason–but all that time away did was increase the expectations of what he and his 4.3 speed could do in the Steelers’ splash-play-starved offense. It didn’t matter that Austin was 5’9″ and 162 pounds. It didn’t matter that he was simply a fourth-round pick and that those guys often turn into Benny Snell–a decent enough backup whose main job was as a special teams contributor. Austin came into his second Steelers training camp with the expectation that he would not only make the 53-man roster but that he would be a major part of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps.

As for Herbig, his college resume was so impressive–21 career sacks (including a combined 20 over his final two years as a Badger) and 36 tackles for loss (including a combined 30 over his final two seasons)–one had to wonder why a player who was First-Team All-Big Ten in 2022 would last until the 132nd pick. It had to be a mistake, right? Was there much of a difference between Herbig and T.J. Watt, a fellow Badger and someone who became a bit of a mentor to Herbig when he was still cutting his teeth at the collegiate level?

Then again, it was probably just over-inflated hype. Actually, hype doesn’t need to be inflated. It’s hype. The word stands on its own.

Anyway, the hype for both Austin and Herbig was very real and very palpable as the two players began their preseason careers at Tampa Bay on August 11.

You might say these two youngsters were being set up for the dramatic fall that is often the reality for fourth-round picks.

Then these guys started playing.

Austin did nothing in his first game but blow past a Buccaneers defender and reel in a Mason Rudolph bomb for a 67-yard touchdown.

All Herbig did was register four tackles, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.

Beginner’s luck, right?

What would these two guys do in front of the home folks at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday night?

All Austin did was return a punt 54 yards to set up Pittsburgh’s second touchdown of the first quarter.

As for Herbig, he tallied three tackles and a strip-sack that led to a fumble recovery.

Needless to say, Austin and Herbig have done nothing to silence the hype often associated with fourth-round picks. I’m not suggesting that one or both of these guys are for real. No, they still might come back down to Earth.

But they haven’t landed, yet.

The potential still looks very real.

The possibilities still seem endless.

Maybe Austin will be the next Tyreek Hill.

Maybe Herbig will make Watt and his huge contract expendable in the not-so-distant future.

Crazy hyperbole, right?

Maybe, but it’s not my fault.

The fans drew first blood with their crazy expectations. Austin and Herbig have drawn even more blood by being splash-play capable during the 2023 preseason.

Will either guy even play against the Falcons in the final preseason game on Thursday night? I don’t think head coach Mike Tomlin should risk injury.

Protect your assets, Coach.

Yikes, I might already be too far gone with my expectations of both Calvin Austin III and Nick Herbig.

Heaven help them as they officially begin their NFL careers on September 10.

And Heaven help the next player picked in the fourth round by your Pittsburgh Steelers.

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