Marquis Maze and 5 UFA Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies Who Will Contribute in 2012
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a great history of turning undrafted free agents into solid starters and contributors.
That is one of the reasons that they've been very successful in the last two decades: They can find talent and nurture it in ways other teams simply cannot replicate.
The Steelers signed a fresh crop of potential players after this year's draft. Here's a look at which ones have a chance to make some kind of impact in 2012.
Drew Butler, P
The Steelers already have a punter in Jeremy Kapinos, but signing one in any year wouldn't open many eyes.
There are a lot of extra players in camp whose jobs are to push veterans and take care of extra duties so regulars don't get taxed too much. They provide extra reps.
This year, however, there are no guarantees.
Kapinos has performed great as a relief punter in two straight seasons after Daniel Sepulveda was injured, but the Steelers have been reticent about keeping him on a full-time basis.
Enter Drew Butler, who is coming off an outstanding career at Georgia.
Butler has a very strong leg, but the real reason I think he will unseat Kapinos is that he can drop punts in key locations. Kapinos has been good at that too, but Butler is more consistent.
I'd say Butler will have the most field time of any undrafted rookie this year.
Rookies don't get a lot of opportunities with the Steelers—a veteran, steady team—so Butler will get the easiest path to the top.
Marquis Maze, WR
A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers had unquestionably the best depth at wide receiver in the NFL. They had veteran leadership, speed and a ton of skill.
This year, Hines Ward has moved into retirement, and Emmanuel Sanders is coming off an injury-filled campaign.
Jerricho Cotchery is back to play the possession role Ward held for so long, but there's going to be some competition on the back end.
Behind the top two starters (assuming Mike Wallace ends his ridiculous holdout and plays this season), there will be competition between Cotchery and Sanders for the third spot. I'd expect Sanders to win that, at least at first.
After that, the fifth spot and potentially the sixth spot are wide open.
One guy in the mix is Marquis Maze, who was a playmaker at Alabama and could develop into another Antonio Brown-type player with time.
While he probably isn't going to do that in 2012, Maze has a chance, if he makes the roster, to get into the mix with a team that will likely throw the ball a lot.
Brandon Lindsey, LB
The Steelers appear pretty set at linebacker, but you can never tell with this team.
They have a long history of keeping an extra player at the position as little more than a project who dresses infrequently and plays special teams while he learns the ropes.
Brandon Lindsey is the undrafted linebacker that I like for that kind of a role. Roster space seems a bit tight, but during a couple of tries at predicting the final setup, I found some room for an extra guy or two.
Lindsey is a speedy guy who can get after the quarterback. He is big enough to play outside as well, although I could see him playing inside if the team so chooses.
This season, his contributions could be on special teams. The Steelers have played starters on special teams frequently under Mike Tomlin, but that might change after the rash of injuries suffered last year.
If they do change that practice, look for a guy like Lindsey to play with the specialists.
Ryan Lee, C/G
The deeper you go in the pool of undrafted players, the more difficult it becomes to find impact players, especially in year one of their careers. Some players take a long time to develop.
But Ryan Lee has an interesting opportunity.
The Steelers have been rebuilding their offensive line in a big way this year. Intentionally or not, they now stand to have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Behind the starting five, however, there's a lot of competition.
The Steelers have a couple of guys who can play center, guard and tackle. Doug Legursky and Trai Essex are the best at those jobs; Ramon Foster can also play in each spot.
Pittsburgh has a couple guys who only play one spot, though.
A player like Lee, who can play both interior spots, could end up finding his way into the backup pool.
He may simply end up on the practice squad, but the Steelers value players who are versatile.
Andre Freeman, CB
Strictly for practice squad purposes, the Steelers might keep players at positions where the depth is a bit more thin.
While cornerback depth for the team could be better than people think if Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown take leaps in their second seasons, right now things in the Pittsburgh defensive backfield are a bit unsettled.
Andre Freeman was just added to the roster this week, so it remains to be seen if he'll have any shot at getting some playing time in the preseason.
There must be a reason he was added, however.
The Steelers have a history of small school players becoming pieces of the puzzle. Look at Isaac Redman and Nate Washington, who both developed into major parts of the team's offense during their tenures.
Freeman is from tiny Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.
He could be next.
While there's almost no chance that he cracks the final roster, there's no reason to believe he can't, with a good showing, find his way onto the team's practice squad.
Jake Stoller, DE
This is another move aimed strictly at the team's practice squad.
The Steelers have some good depth at defensive end with Cameron Heyward, but there isn't much else there that is likely to crack the active roster.
That means at least one or two defensive ends will make the practice squad.
Jake Stoller is a big guy with decent speed and rush skills who came from a small football school.
That shouldn't hurt him in Pittsburgh: One of the team's Hall of Fame linemen, Joe Greene, attended small North Texas.
He became a big star.
Stardom isn't necessarily in the cards for Stoller right now, but he does have some skills and could work his way up the ladder for a team that doesn't have a ton of obvious depth options at defensive end.
With the age in the middle of the Pittsburgh line, the team would be wise to keep some extra defensive linemen in reserve.
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