Pittsburgh Steelers: How Will the 2012 Draft Class Compare to the 2011 Class?
The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2011 draft class did not have a lot of early returns, but they appear to be a solid group moving forward.
Pittsburgh did not get a lot of production from their rookies last season with only one starter in the group, but others did find a role as situational or special teams players.
The star of the group was Marcus Gilbert, who started 13 games for the Steelers at right tackle and helped solidify that side of the line.
Cameron Heyward and the rest of the rookie class were eased into the lineup, as the Steelers usually do with their young players.
Heyward played on special teams and only saw limited snaps with the defense, but did flash some potential. Cortez Allen had a surprising season getting time with the defense as well, while Curtis Brown struggled through injuries.
These players and the others of the 2011 draft class will be expected to start this season or at least contribute in their back-up roles, as they have a full year in the system.
As a team much in need of depth, the 2012 draft class can make an even bigger impact. Will there be any standout rookies in 2012?
Cameron Heyward had a solid rookie campaign, but was limited due to the lack of playing time to only 11 tackles and a sack, as well as a pass defended and a forced fumble.
With Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and, for a short amount of time, Aaron Smith ahead of you, it is understandable why Heyward did not get on the field much.
The same cannot be said for David DeCastro. He should be a starter soon into camp as the Steelers are in a much-needed upgrade at guard.
DeCastro is the highest-rated guard to enter the draft in years and has the potential to be a player similar to Steve Hutchinson or Alan Faneca.
Steelers coaches and fans can only hope that he can play like Faneca, as DeCastro will be wearing No. 66.
Expect DeCastro to take the Maurkice Pouncey route to the starting lineup.
Pouncey did nothing but impress as a rookie, and the coaching staff had no choice but to put him into the starting lineup.
DeCastro is an even better looking prospect, and he should not sit behind Ramon Foster at right guard for very long. Not only should he be a 16-game starter this season, he could challenge for a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Greater. DeCastro will start from the opening week and will be a huge help in upgrading the Steelers offensive line.
For the second straight year, the Steelers took a tackle in the second round.
Marcus Gilbert stepped in at right tackle and did not look back, starting 13 games and playing in 14 last season. He is expected to start at left tackle this year.
Mike Adams can only hope to have the same type of impact. His draft stock fell due to a failed drug test, and that benefited the Steelers, who got a potential franchise left tackle in the second round.
Early, Adams will work exclusively at left tackle (via Tribune Review), though he will need to learn both tackle positions if he is to dress on game days.
Adams has some work to do, especially against speed rushers, but he has the talent necessary to play the left side in the NFL and has an excellent coach in Sean Kugler to help him adjust to the professional game.
It will take same time, but eventually, Adams should find his way into the starting lineup. His quickest way, and it is something that no one wants to see, would be another injury to Willie Colon.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Less. Unless there is an injury or he absolutely shines, it is unlikely that Adams will start 13 games this season, though I am very tempted to start two rookies on the line and try Colon at guard.
The Steelers drafted two talented cornerbacks last season, with the first being Curtis Brown.
Brown had an injury setback in training camp, which put him behind Cortez Allen, but he still make his impact on special teams, playing in 12 games and leading the team in special teams tackles before ending his season on injury reserve with a knee injury.
Sean Spence comes as a slightly undersized linebacker, but is tremendously athletic and has a nose for the football.
Spence will not be expected to replace James Farrior this year, as Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester will compete for that job.
Instead, the Steelers will depend on Spence to make an impact on special teams as he learns the complex Steelers defense.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Equal. Spence may play more games than Brown did, but like Brown, his impact will come on special teams, and Spence has the chance to be the team's top special teams player this season.
Cortez Allen was the second cornerback taken by the Steelers last season, and he made the most of his first training camp, impressing the coaching staff enough to earn a spot playing in passing situations.
Alameda Ta'amu will hope to have a similar type of impact as a rookie.
With Casey Hampton recovering from an ACL injury, Ta'amu may have to share time with Steve McLendon at nose tackle early in the season.
Pittsburgh likes to rotate their defensive linemen, and Ta'amu would not start, but instead be used to give the other defenders a break when needed.
However, like most defensive linemen on the Steelers roster, Ta'amu will need time to develop as defensive line coach John Mitchell strips him down of everything that he knows and builds him back up.
As a result, Ta'amu may not see the field much this year.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Equal. The learning curve will limit Ta'amu's impact, but Hampton's injury should mean more playing time than most defensive line rookies get.
Chris Carter was billed as one of the late-round steals of last year's draft. We did not get to see if he was or not, as he suffered through a hamstring injury for much of the year.
Carter only played in eight games and had three tackles while playing on special teams.
Chris Rainey is thought of as another potential steal late in the draft, and the Steelers hope they have a better outcome with him.
Rainey will be a versatile player who shows a potential shift in the offense with Todd Haley as offensive coordinator.
There were few players as fast as Rainey, who is a running back with solid hands, so the Steelers could use him in a number of ways, including splitting him out as a receiver.
Rainey has the ability to break a huge play every time he touches the ball and can make an impact in the return game as well, or line up to block punts, an area where he was outstanding in college.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Greater. Rainey is very versatile, and as long as he stays healthy, he should see more action than Carter did last season, as he can make an impact on special teams or as a situational player on offense.
Last year, Keith Williams was the only draft choice to not make the team.
This season, the Steelers used their sixth-round choice to move up to move up to secure Ta'amu in the fourth round.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Equal, but advantage to 2011. Williams didn't make the team, and since this pick was used to draft the future replacement for Casey Hampton, the advantage goes to this year's selection that wasn't.
Baron Batch was a training camp sensation with one outstanding block on James Harrison, but he never got to showcase his skills during the season due to a torn ACL.
Pittsburgh has four seventh-round choices this season.
Toney Clemons is a big, speedy receiver who is the favorite to make the team as the fifth receiver, but he will have to demonstrate that he can play special teams.
David Paulson is an H-back who will battle David Johnson for a starting job. Johnson has not been particularly impressive, and Paulson offers more in the passing game. If he can show that he can block, Paulson will be a favorite to make the final roster.
Terrence Frederick is a cornerback who could sneak onto the roster as the Steelers need at least one more on their depth chart after losing William Gay in free agency.
Kelvin Beachum will have to demonstrate position flexibility to have a shot. However, with an influx of young talent on the offensive line, it is time for the Steelers to go with an all-out youth movement.
Projected Impact Compared to 2011: Greater. If one of the four players plays one snap, they will have a greater impact than last season. Pittsburgh should get at least two quality depth players and special teamers from this group.
For the third straight year, the Steelers appeared to have a very good draft from top to bottom that will fill the team with starters and depth.
Pittsburgh needed to strike it big with an aging roster, and they did just that. They completely revamped their offensive line and found the replacement for Hampton.
The Steelers also added an athletic linebacker who will need time to develop, but fits in as a player who can run with the fast tight ends and running backs.
Only DeCastro is a sure bet to start, but Adams could eventually enter the starting lineup, and they should get valuable special teams contributions from Spence and Rainey.
Ta'amu will need time to develop, but could see some snaps with the injury to Hampton.
There are a number of players in the seventh round who could stick on the roster and slowly be groomed into their roles.
Pittsburgh is a veteran team that is ready to win now, and this draft enhanced their chances.
Follow me on Twitter @ChrisG_FC