Following an 8-8 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will need to make some changes if they are going to compete for a playoff spot in 2013. But how many changes do the Steelers really need to make?
When they were healthy and the offense finally began to click in the middle of the season, the Steelers appeared to be one of the strongest teams in the AFC. Then the injury bug struck.
Coaches will say, "We have to play with what we have and guys are supposed to step in." You can't say that you're trying to build up a young guy in his first or second year and get him to be able to play; you can't say that if you get your first-line guy hurt that you're going to put one of these guys in here and they'll play the same.
Rooney is exactly right.
Tomlin can say that “the standard is the standard,” but there are some guys in the lineup that just cannot be replaced by a young player.
There are some players who are just so much better than their replacements that the team cannot overcome the injuries. But injuries are not the only opportunity for a young player to step in and contribute. There are a number of starters who could be challenged by a rookie for a starting job.
In less than a month the Steelers will be adding—barring trades—at least eight draft picks to their roster. The hope will be that at least one or two of these players will be able to compete for and overtake a veteran for a starting job.
Here are four starters who could be in danger of losing a starting job to a rookie.
Few players flashed the potential that Steve McLendon did last preseason. At times, he was flat out dominant.
But once the regular season started, Casey Hampton had settled into his usual starting role and McLendon became an afterthought, playing in only 14 percent of the defensive stats (via Football Outsiders).
McLendon made the most of these snaps when he was in there, demonstrating the ability to be an effective run defender, but also the ability to get to the quarterback.
He is one of the better defensive linemen at rushing the passer on the Steelers and will now have to prove that he can handle the job as a full-time starter.
But considering that McLendon isn’t a prototypical nose tackle, the Steelers could decide to find an upgrade in the first two rounds of the draft.
Nose tackle is one defensive position that the Steelers have actually started a first-round rookie in recent memory. That came in 2001 when Hampton started 11 games.
There are several options that the Steelers could consider in the first or second round that could potentially challenge McLendon for a starting job.
Johnathan Hankins, Jonathan Jenkins and Jesse Williams are three potential rookies that are in the mold of traditional 3-4 nose tackles who could compete for a starting role this year.
The 2001 rookie class was a good one for finding starting defenders. Not only did Hampton earn a starting job, but so did Kendrell Bell.
Bell started all 16 games at inside linebacker and the Steelers could potentially find another player who could earn a starting role as well.
Any rookie inside linebacker will have to overtake the veteran Larry Foote.
Foote is a savvy veteran who is limited athletically, but he is a smart defender who knows the defense very well. With Dick LeBeau trusting his veterans, it may be difficult for a rookie to overtake him.
Beyond the coaching staff wanting to stick with the veteran linebacker, there are few elite rookies at the position who could immediately take over the starting role.
Kevin Minter and Alec Olgetree are two first-round prospects who could compete against Foote, but they will have to be particularly disciplined playing next to Lawrence Timmons.
Ogletree is undersized but athletic and a bit of a long shot for the Steelers with his character issues. Minter is a more likely option in the first, but he would be a reach for the Steelers at 17.
Other options include Arthur Brown, Manti Te’o and Khaseem Greene, all who could be drafted in the first or second round. But would any of these players be capable of beating out Foote?
The Steelers need to upgrade the position, but the question is the sense of urgency that they feel and if they can trust a rookie over a veteran.
Emmanuel Sanders may or may not be with the team in 2013, but assuming that he is, Sanders will start opposite Antonio Brown.
While Sanders is a talented receiver, he has yet to fully put everything together and is still best suited playing the slot.
Being undersized but quick, Sanders is an ideal slot receiver to go over the middle of the field where he figures to be a more important part of the offense until Heath Miller returns.
What the Steelers do need is a big, physical receiver to contrast their small, quick options. In this draft, there will be plenty of options.
Cordarrelle Patterson, DeAndre Hopkins and Justin Hunter all have good size, speed and talent, but all would likely be role players early on.
Instead, the Steelers could look at Keenan Allen and Robert Woods who not only are big and fast, but are more refined players and are better suited to start as rookies.
Starting as a rookie receiver is not an easy task, but either of these players would be given every opportunity.
The Steelers need a big playmaker on the outside and a rookie receiver will have a real chance at starting as a rookie as they would bring something different to the table than what Sanders does.
There is no position on offense that the Steelers need to upgrade more than at running back. Pittsburgh has a lot of talent elsewhere on the field, but there is little proven skill at running back.
Jonathan Dwyer will be the starter entering training camp, but a rookie back will be given every opportunity to unseat the Steelers’ 2012 rushing leader.
The thing with the running back position is that the Steelers could find a potential starter at any point during the draft or even after the draft. And with quality options like Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Montee Ball, Joseph Randle, Johnathan Franklin, Andre Ellington, Mike Gillislee, Stepfan Taylor and Christine Michael, the Steelers will certainly find a rookie that can compete for the starting job.
With a revamped offensive line, the odds of success will be even greater for a rookie, especially if he is versatile.
The Steelers will be looking for a back that cannot only carry the load, but also offer the ability to contribute in the passing game. That back should also be a willing blocker.
Dwyer is a talented running back but has his limitations—the lack of speed and endurance will hold him back.
If any starter gets replaced by a rookie, it will most likely be Dwyer as the Steelers look to reinvigorate their ground game.