The Best Rookie Storylines at Steelers' OTAs
It has been some time since the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a situation where a rookie class has the chance to make the type of impact the 2014 class does. There was a time where any Steelers rookie understood they were relegated to depth and special teams in their first year in the league.
This year is very different. Of the Steelers’ nine draft picks, there is a case that three or four could be starting on opening weekend. In addition, two or three more could be essential backup and rotational players.
Over the course of the next few months, Pittsburgh will work to pare down its roster and set its depth chart. Here are five rookies whose position with this team could make a huge impact on the success of this franchise.
Daniel McCullers, Defensive Tackle
One key to a great 3-4 defense is the play of the defensive line. The goal of these behemoths is not to be flashy or light up the box scores. No, the goal of these three monsters is to overwhelm offensive linemen, force them to commit considerable resources to them and allow the players behind them to make plays.
To paraphrase Sgt. Hulka from Stripes, “the nose tackle is the big toe,” and we all understand that the big toe is the most important. Unfortunately, last season the nose tackle position was an area of weakness. Pittsburgh was forced to employ far more four-man fronts than normal, thus taking them out of their rhythm.
The Pittsburgh front office understood this and took a big step toward fixing that. And by big, I mean really big. Sixth-round pick Daniel McCullers out of Tennessee was the largest man drafted in 2014 and is the biggest player on the Steelers roster.
The Steelers are banking on McCuller’s 6’7”, 352-pound frame being able to clog the middle and give offensive tackles fits. As the offseason continues and training camp looms, where McCullers stands with this defense will be of the utmost importance.
Martavis Bryant, Wide Receiver
One of the Steelers goals during the draft was to add a big receiving target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh waited until the fourth round to draft one, but that doesn’t diminish his potential impact.
Clemson’s Martavis Bryant is a long, lean athlete at 6’4” and 211 pounds. Bryant has one of the best size/speed combos in the draft, even if he’s a little rough around the edges. The most interesting story regarding Bryant, as training camp approaches, concerns his role on offense.
Can Bryant jump over the other wide receivers already on the roster and to earn a start? His physical type and style of play would certainly complement those of Antonio Brown. Nevertheless, what does that say about Markus Wheaton? The Steelers spent a third-round pick on him only a season ago?
This is going to become a storyline to keep an eye on all the way up to the start of the season. Pittsburgh may just have to consider more three-wide receiver sets to accommodate the talent on this team.
Jordan Zumwalt, Linebacker
It is more or less a given that the starting inside linebacker spot next to Lawrence Timmons belongs to first-round pick Ryan Shazier. Shazier adds an athletic element to the defense that even Timmons might not be able to match.
So, assuming the starters on the inside are set, that leaves linebacker Vince Williams as the odd man out. Williams got 11 starts in 2013 but was not in a position to be very productive. He was forced off the field due to his lack of athleticism and necessitated the Shazier pick.
Moving forward, Williams now has to prove he can beat out rookie Jordan Zumwalt just to keep a roster spot. Zumwalt is a lot like Williams in terms of his skills and gives the defensive coaches a fresh face to look at. It’s hard to see the Steelers keeping both, so both guys will need to play for their jobs.
Dri Archer, Offensive Weapon
What will the Steelers do with Kent State running back Dri Archer? Pittsburgh has already designated Archer for a dual role of running back and wide receiver. This is a good thing in one sense. Archer is an explosive player who is about three steps away from a touchdown every time he touches the ball. It would behoove the Steelers to find as many creative ways to get him the ball as possible.
The more interesting thing is how Archer impacts the numbers game. If the Steelers designate him as a running back on the depth chart, it gives them one more spot to add a wide receiver, but it might mean Pittsburgh doesn’t carry a fullback.
Should the Steelers list him on the depth chart as a wide receiver, it gives them more flexibility at running back, but certainly tightens up the competition for the final few wide receiver spots. Keeping an eye on the reps that Archer gets at each respective position will be something to watch during camp.
Wesley Johnson, Offensive Tackle
To say that the depth at offensive line for this Steelers team is questionable would be an understatement. This starting unit jelled late in the season, but by the end of the season, Pittsburgh was doing everything but open tryouts for depth.
In drafting Vanderbilt offensive tackle Wesley Johnson, Pittsburgh might have found a real gem late in the draft. Johnson’s resume and skills are excellent. He has experience at all five offensive line spots, having honed his craft against the SEC. It's hard to argue that this kid can’t play.
The story to watch is where they play him. Other than right guard David DeCastro, no starting spot is locked in. If Johnson can work well at tackle, he could end up on the left side, allowing Kelvin Beachum to kick inside and replace Ramon Foster.
However, if offensive line coach Mike Munchak opts to work with Johnson at guard, he could be the one to replace Foster. It will be very interesting to see where the talented youngster gets the bulk of his training-camp reps.
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