Breaking Down the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rookie Class After the Preseason
September is finally here. Not only does it mean the Steelers finally have meaningful football to play, it also means kids everywhere are going back to school.
The Steelers will bring their own "kids" to Denver for Sunday's 2012 season opener. They'll likely have eight rookies on the 53-man roster, two on the practice squad and two on injured reserve.
For the Steelers to make the AFC playoffs and advance further than they did last season, they'll need contributions from their young blood.
David DeCastro, OG
David DeCastro was in line to start at right guard for the Steelers until a knee injury derailed his rookie season, or at least the first half of his rookie season.
The Steelers' first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft tore his medial collateral ligament in a preseason game at Buffalo. DeCastro had surgery last week and went on injured reserve, although his injury wasn't as severe as it looked when he was carted off the field, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Steelers could use a new rule that allows them to bring back DeCastro after eight weeks without having to carry him on their 53-man roster, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
If DeCastro is ready to play after Week 8, he'd be a welcome addition if the Steelers experience any more injuries on the offensive line (remember, left guard Willie Colon has played in just one game over the past two seasons).
If DeCastro returns and there's no starting job for him, he'll provide valuable depth until he's ready to assume the starting duties.
As long as there are no setbacks in his recovery, DeCastro will eventually be a starter on the Steelers offensive line—even if it's not until next season.
Mike Adams, OT
Mike Adams is getting off to a slow start.
The Steelers' 2012 second-round draft pick deserves credit for coming back so quickly after spraining his medial collateral ligament in the preseason opener at Philadelphia.
However, Adams can't beat out Max Starks, a mediocre 30-year-old seven months removed from ACL surgery, for the starting job at left tackle.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Starks the 29th-best left tackle in the NFL in 2011.
If Starks doesn't improve and Ben Roethlisberger keeps running for his life, Adams better be ready to start.
Right now, he's not ready.
Sean Spence, ILB
Sean Spence, the Steelers' third-round choice in the 2012 draft, was coming along nicely before he injured his knee in the final preseason game.
Spence tore up ligaments in his left knee, according to Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and went on injured reserve. Unlike DeCastro, there's no chance he'll be back this season.
Spence led the Steelers in the preseason with 16 combined tackles, according to NFL.com. He tied with safety Ryan Mundy for second on the team with 10 total tackles.
Before hurting his knee in the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field, Spence made five tackles—one for a loss—on defense and one tackle on special teams.
Spence was the Steelers' top defensive draft pick. Whatever his role was, he could have added a dash of youth to an aging defense.
Fortunately, he'll still be young next year.
Alameda Ta'amu, NT
Alameda Ta'amu, the Steelers' fourth-round draft pick, had a quiet preseason with one full tackle and one assisted tackle, according to NFL.com.
Heading into the final preseason game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac wasn't sure if Ta'amu was even guaranteed a roster spot.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they don't need Ta'amu to make an immediate impact.
Steve McLendon is capable of starting at nose tackle after the preseason he had. He'll split time with Casey Hampton, who is back from his ACL surgery, to start the season.
Ta'amu better get used to wearing sweats on the sidelines.
Chris Rainey, RB
Because two players the Steelers drafted before Chris Rainey are injured and two others are struggling, the fifth-round pick has to carry the torch of the 2012 draft class for the time being.
He's doing a good job of it so far.
Rainey is like a Swiss Army knife for the Steelers offense. He can run, catch passes and return kicks.
The Florida product was the Steelers' second-leading receiver in August with seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, according to NFL.com.
Rainey officially has returned seven punts for an 8.7-yard average. However, he had two touchdowns on punt returns of 78 and 90 yards that were called back because of penalties in the preseason finale.
Those penalties might have taken points off the scoreboard, but they don't mean that Rainey is any less dangerous returning punts.
If the 5'9", 180-pound Rainey can take the pounding, look for him to spice up the Steelers offense in 2012.
David Paulson, TE
David Paulson was the first of the Steelers' three compensatory picks in the seventh round of the draft.
Paulson caught four passes for 20 yards in the preseason, according to NFL.com. He also blocked well.
He and Leonard Pope can co-exist as backups to Heath Miller until Weslye Saunders returns from his four-week suspension. Then someone will have to go, and it figures to be Paulson or Pope.
Paulson might have the edge as a blocker, although Pope isn't a terrible blocker. Pope caught five passes for 16 yards in the preseason, so they might be a wash there.
Pope is a seven-year veteran, though. So Paulson might have to make a splash to keep his job when Paulson comes back.
Of course, this is the NFL and players get injured, so Week 4 is way down the road.
Kelvin Beachum, OL
After all the hoopla surrounding David DeCastro and Mike Adams, it might be the Steelers' last draft pick who represents the youth movement on the offensive line for now.
Kelvin Beachum was chosen 248th overall with the Steelers' third and final compensatory pick of the seventh round. He is the Steelers' most surprising survivor of their cutdown to 53 players.
Beachum stuck out like a sore thumb in his first two preseason games, but improved enough to beat out eighth-year veteran Trai Essex for a roster spot.
During organized team activities, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Beachum has the potential to play guard, tackle and eventually center, according to Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Essex filled in at guard and tackle for the Steelers and had 28 career starts.
Perhaps the Steelers saw the same versatility in the younger Beachum and figured he has more upside.
Adrian Robinson, OLB
Adrian Robinson might have made the team just because he's a healthy body.
Outside linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds are working their way back from injuries. It's unclear how much they'll play in the season opener.
The Steelers otherwise were going to have a hard time finding room for the undrafted rookie from Temple.
Despite his ability to pressure the quarterback, Robinson hasn't actually sacked a quarterback and had just two total tackles and one assist on a tackle during the preseason, according to NFL.com.
Robinson also might have benefited from Sean Spence's misfortune. Even though Spence is an inside linebacker, he would have been the ninth linebacker to make the team.
Expect Robinson to get plenty of snaps in Denver when Harrison and Worilds need a breather.
Unless Worilds takes a big step forward in his third season, he can be overtaken on the depth chart if Robinson develops more of an all-around game.
Robert Golden, S
Robert Golden, an undrafted rookie from Arizona, highlighted his preseason with a 47-yard interception return in the Steelers' 38-7 win at Buffalo.
Golden also had four total tackles and four assisted tackles during the preseason, according to NFL.com, and contributed on special teams. He also has the ability to play cornerback.
Golden joins fellow Steelers safeties Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen. He's probably already ahead of Allen in the pecking order on defense since Allen plays primarily on special teams.
Golden will be needed in Denver with Clark sitting out and Mundy getting occasional rests in the mile-high air.
Safety is an aging unit for the Steelers with Polamalu 31 and Clark going on 33, and there's a big talent drop-off from there.
A reasonable goal for Golden in his rookie season is to match Mundy's ability level.
Drew Butler, P
Drew Butler's claim to fame is being the son of former Bears kicker Kevin Butler.
His punting hasn't earned him any further notoriety so far.
The undrafted rookie is the Steelers' punter by default. Jeremy Kapinos, who finished last season as the Steelers' punter, couldn't recover from back surgery in time to give Butler any competition.
Butler was 18th in the NFL during the preseason with an average of 45.9 yards per punt and 26th with a 38.4-yard net average, according to NFL.com.
After failing to get any punts inside the 20-yard line in the first two games of the preseason, Butler pinned the Bills and Panthers inside the 20 three times each in the last two weeks of the preseason.
Four of the five fair catches on his punts came in the final two preseason games.
So Butler seems to be improving even if he's not exactly punting the ball over the moon.
With former punter Daniel Sepulveda only able to play two full seasons in his five years in Pittsburgh, Butler can at the very least bring some stability to the position.
Will Johnson, FB
Technically, Will Johnson isn't a rookie.
However, he drew no income from the NFL in 2011. He wasn't drafted and he wasn't invited to any team's camp.
So in 2012 he worked out at West Virginia's pro day for the second year in a row. Looking for a fullback for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's scheme, the Steelers signed him.
The 6'2", 238-pounder has H-back potential. He can block and he caught a 27-yard pass from Charlie Batch in the Steelers' final preseason game.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote "I was told by some that he was the find of the year."
Johnson might need to play a key role if the Steelers are going to run the ball more efficiently.
Toney Clemons, WR (Practice Squad)
Toney Clemons probably had more hype heaped on him than a seventh-round draft pick deserves because he's a local kid, graduating from Valley High School in New Kensington, Pa.
Clemons caught just one pass in the preseason. The performance of Clemons and his fellow No. 5 receiver candidates prompted the Steelers to go with just four receivers.
If the Steelers have to tap the practice squad for another wide receiver, Clemons might not even be the one to get the call. David Gilreath, who caught five passes in the preseason, might be the first in line.
Ryan Lee, OT (Practice Squad)
Ryan Lee, an undrafted rookie from Furman, looked good in the second half of the Steelers' preseason opener, according to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider.
He hasn't been on the radar since then, but the Steelers saw enough to put him on the practice squad.
Lee is listed as a guard-center. With Trai Essex gone, Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky are the only Steelers with significant experience at center.
So Lee is a good guy to have on the practice squad just in case.