2011 rookie Steelers CB Cortez Allen will be competing for a starting spot this summer
However, we can look back to their 2011 draft class, see who made the most of their opportunities and where each of the seven players taken last year should improve in their sophomore seasons.
DE Cameron Heyward
For two of their last three seasons, the Steelers sought to get younger on the defensive line, taking Ziggy Hood in 2009 and then Cameron Heyward in the first round in 2011.
Heyward got ample time in the defensive rotation last season, notching 11 total tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one blocked kick in his rookie year.
Now that both Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke have retired, look for Heyward to be a starting defensive end, primarily charged with stopping the run. He'll likely split time with Hood, who should still see his fair share of time on the field. With the Cleveland Browns drafting Trent Richardson and the rival Baltimore Ravens relying heavily on Ray Rice, Heyward will have his work cut out for him just in the AFC North.
OT Marcus Gilbert
The Steelers likely hoped they wouldn't have to put tackle Marcus Gilbert into too many games, allowing him to develop his skills over time. But the Steelers' offensive line was yet again plagued by injuries, and Gilbert was inserted into the rotation at both guard and tackle, ultimately starting in 13 games in 2011.
It turns out that hands-on learning likely helped Gilbert's development and may earn him the full-time starting spot at right tackle in his second season. Gilbert impressed far more than other, more experienced linemen last year (Chris Kemoeatu, Jonathan Scott), and he likely has a solid career ahead of him on the Steelers' line.
CB Curtis Brown
Curtis Brown took the field in 12 games for the Steelers in his rookie season and also contributed on special teams while he learned the team's rather complicated secondary system. He managed 14 tackles and two forced fumbles and has shown enough promise to warrant more playing time this season.
While Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis are considered the front-runners to take over the starting cornerback spot that remains empty since William Gay's free-agency departure, Brown is certainly in the mix and will compete with those two for the job. He may not get it, but he could easily end up a starter in a few years' time.
CB Cortez Allen
Though Cortez Allen was drafted a round after Brown, he showed the most overall progress of the two in his rookie season, which earned him time on both special teams and in the nickel corner position.
Allen had 15 total tackles last year and didn't force any turnovers, but he's athletic, fast and has the size to win out the starting job he'll be battling for with Lewis and Brown.
For the Steelers, cornerback development is very much a work-in-progress affair that lasts at least two seasons. Allen was a quick study, which bodes well for his chances to start in 2012.
DE/LB Chris Carter
Chris Carter was drafted as a developmental project, and that's still an ongoing process. He did see some playing time last year, primarily on special teams, though later in the season he was worked into the defensive rotation, notching three tackles.
Carter will likely take the field as a linebacker for the Steelers someday, but expect him to remain a special teams coverage player for 2012 though his rotational time should increase some. He'll be more of an asset in coming years.
OG Keith Williams
Keith Williams was the Steelers' sixth-round pick last season and was cut in training camp. He's now on the Buffalo Bills' practice squad.
RB Baron Batch
Baron Batch looked impressive during training camp—prompting incessant questions from the assembled media which head coach Mike Tomlin generally responded to by reminding them Batch was a rookie. However, Batch didn't get a chance to see if that preseason spark could carry over into the regular season, as he tore his ACL in August.
Batch spent the 2011 season rehabbing his knee and learning the Steelers' playbook, which gives him a chance to pick up where he left off last summer.
As long as he doesn't have any lingering effects from the injury, he has a very good chance of making the Steelers' final roster this year and being an active member of their rotation of backs. He'd get work on third downs, primarily.