The Pittsburgh Steelers had, on paper, one of the best draft classes of 2012. That paper is now out the window and practices and games are telling the tale. There have been great performances and poor ones, improvements and setbacks and plenty of in between. Each rookie has earned a grade to this point even though final exams aren’t for a few more weeks.
Here’s a look at how these rookies have graded out after two preseason games and the completion of the Latrobe portion of training camp.
At the time of the draft, DeCastro was expected to be the team’s best offensive line addition since at least Maurkice Pouncey and best at guard since Alan Faneca. The comparisons and his status as a top ten talent that tumbled down the draft board created expectations that were immediately very high.
DeCastro struggled a little early on with physicality and just generally adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. He has since picked it up very well and he’s been solid in each of the team’s preseason contests. At this point, he looks like a lock to start at right guard.
What I’ve been most impressed with from DeCastro so far has been his ability to hold his blocks in the running game. The runners have had little trouble running up the middle and Maurkice Pouncey has seemed to have fewer responsibilities. The line is finally working as a full unit. A big part of that is DeCastro.
The third game against Buffalo will be a key contest. Not only will some of the better pass rushers in the AFC be facing off against DeCastro and his mates, but this is likely the longest appearance the starters will have during the preseason. It will be interesting to see him in extended action.
Starting things out, Adams was the camp warrior. He looked great in practices and was by far the most impressive rookie in Latrobe. The game action proved he still needed some work. He gave up two sacks in his first game against the Eagles. He also left that game injured, but made a very quick return and was on the field against the Colts on Sunday.
As with DeCastro, the third game of the preseason is going to be very telling. Adams didn’t get to start against the Colts, so I’m hesitant to evaluate his work in that game since it came mostly against third string players. Against Buffalo, he should be back in with the starters.
I’m on the fence about him starting the season at left tackle. Both Ramon Foster and Trai Essex have demonstrated capability at the position. Both also have extensive NFL experience. Adams is the better player overall, but risking the health of Ben Roethlisberger isn’t at the top of anyone’s priority list. It may be better to ease him into action.
By the middle of 2012, I do expect Adams to be solidly in place at left tackle. I’m just not certain that he’s ready to begin the season in the starting lineup. The Steelers aren’t rebuilding, so they can’t afford to lose games because the most important position along the line isn’t manned capably enough.
I did some head scratching when this pick came down during the draft. I didn’t have a lot of information on Spence and went off of the gut reaction that he wasn’t suited to his position at the NFL level for a few reasons. I’ve since been given a much better look at what Spence can do.
Spence is a potential star. He has the tools to be a successful inside linebacker in this system because he is adept at creating problems for quarterbacks and running backs with speed and an ability to penetrate the backfield. He plays aggressively but with intelligence.
So far, he’s been good as a backup during preseason action and he should earn his way into some defensive plays during the regular season. He has the ability to be similar to Troy Polamalu in the disruption he can cause. I would be surprised if Dick LeBeau isn’t designing some packages for him by the end of the year.
At this point, he’s solidly set up as the top backup on the inside and he could be starting by the end of the year or in 2013 if Larry Foote struggles in some way.
Ta’amu was drafted to be the future of the nose tackle position and to take the place of Casey Hampton. Through no fault of his own, Steve McLendon may have become that player by simply taking his own game to another level. Ta’amu came in a bit raw but with a lot of potential.
He’s still in that area. The potential has been obvious. The mistakes have also been obvious. There’s a lot to learn with this defensive scheme and it’s one of those things that usually takes a full year to grasp. That he has struggled is not very surprising in that context.
The improvements have been showing. The work against Indianapolis was much more consistent than against the Eagles. He has also looked better in practice. The development of McLendon will lend him more time to learn. At this point, I’d still place him ahead of Casey Hampton, who may never regain the form we saw before his injury and before age started to catch him.
Ta’amu will likely slot in as the top tackle backup this season and should see some time in relief of McLendon. He can be valuable immediately on rushing downs because he can use his size to block the gaps. In passing situations, McLendon is going to be better because he has the ability to penetrate the pocket.
Rainey has been, hands down, the best rookie so far. He’s been an electric runner and has done more than anyone expected coming into the season. Originally, it was thought that he could be a contributor in the return game and as a part-time receiver and runner.
Instead, Rainey has shown that he can shoulder a bigger load. He’s almost assured to be the returner for punts and kickoffs once the season opens. He’s been working there consistently all during the preseason and has improved steadily with both jobs.
The real question now is where he’ll fit in the running back rotation. Despite injuries, everyone has been impressive in some fashion. Rainey might be best suited as a change of pace back that plays the same role in Pittsburgh that Dexter McCluster plays in Kansas City (Todd Haley’s last coaching stop).
Regardless, the Steelers seem to have found something very special in the middle rounds of the draft, something that has become a trend for this franchise. Rainey should be a big part of the team’s success in 2012 and beyond.
Frederick hadn’t made much of an impact, good or bad, until the game against the Colts last Sunday. During that game, he showed just how raw he is and also showed why he is not ready to be on the field during defensive snaps.
If you missed the action, Frederick was victimized a couple of times by the Colts’ backup offense. He didn’t look comfortable in coverage and couldn’t leverage any positioning when he did have it. That led to him being kept out of position and unable to stop big pass plays.
I get the feeling that Frederick may make the roster solely as a special teams contributor, but he will need to show decently on defense to be considered a prospect worth keeping. The Steelers rarely will keep a player just for special teams purposes.
The big question going into Week 3 for him will be if he can take the experience from Week 2 and correct the mistakes. He doesn’t have to be perfect, he just has to keep showing improvement. Last week was a big step backwards.
The thing about seventh-round draft choices is that they don’t have to make the roster. Many don’t. Clemons was drafted with the idea that he might be a guy who could make the team. He isn’t quite there yet.
Part of the problem is that there are so many receivers in camp right now vying for what can only be one or two spots. One of those spots (or the only one if the team only keeps five) is likely to go to a player who is going to be able to play on special teams.
So far, David Gilreath has been markedly better and he had a huge game against the Colts to put an exclamation point on his preseason. Tyler Beiler is also impressive and has been more consistent than Clemons.
The inconsistency is what is holding Clemons back. He has been excellent in some spots, both during practice and game action. He has also had drops that shouldn’t have happened. At this point, I don’t feel like he’s been consistent enough to make the team.
If Clemons doesn’t find his way onto the final roster, he should end up with the practice squad. He still has time to make it, but he’ll have to ramp up his play. As the cuts begin to come down, he should get more opportunities to impress.
Of all of the players in camp this year, from veterans to rookies, the most disastrous has been Beachum. As a seventh round pick, again there isn’t as much expectation on him, but he hasn’t met even basic expectations of an offensive lineman so far.
In fact, I would put him on the first round of roster cuts simply because he’s brought nothing to the table in practice or in games.
The consistent reports on Beachum have been that there isn’t much physicality, the offensive blocking schemes haven’t been picked up well and that he’s just missing intensity as well. That’s showed in games, where Jerrod Johnson has been left to run for his life more often than not when Beachum is assigned to block.
This far into things, there has to be some sign of success for a player to be kept around when there’s no history. Right now, Beachum is behind a lot of talented and more experience linemen, especially at guard, who are performing at a capable level if not better. He’s very much on the bubble.
As a group, the tight ends have been very quiet in camp and the preseason. That’s likely to change once Todd Haley’s full system is implemented, but for now there’s a limited supply of plays to work with.
What I can tell you about Paulson is that he’s improved throughout camp and seems like a player who fits well into this offense. With David Johnson, the team’s hybrid fullback and tight end, on injured reserve, an extra spot may be open. It’s likely between Paulson and veteran Leonard Pope, but both could conceivably make the roster if the Steelers do not keep a true fullback.
I think Paulson came into this as a decent receiver. He’s proven that much so far in camp. His blocking has been the question and has also improved in both practice and in games. The question now is going to be whether or not it is up to par with the rest of the team.
Paulson will get ample opportunity to answer that in the next two games and hopefully will get some time with the second unit at some point so we can see him with a better surrounding cast.