Pittsburgh Steelers: Can 2011 Rookies Match the Success of the 2010 Draft Class?
A Pro Bowl center. Two special teams demons. A pair of speedy receivers. Not a bad set of contributions from last year’s rookies.
Highlighted by Maurkice Pouncey’s Pro Bowl season, the 2010 draft class was an integral part to Pittsburgh’s AFC Championship season.
Pouncey started all 16 regular season games at center and looked like a veteran. Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester both flashed their potential but mainly excelled on special teams.
It is not unusual for young linebackers to do well on special teams, but the impact made by receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown was particularly beneficial, especially in the playoffs where they combined for 12 receptions for 181 yards.
Brown made the two biggest receptions of his career in the playoffs when he caught a 58-yard bomb on a third-and-long against Baltimore to set up the game-winning score and then made a 14 yard reception against New York to seal the AFC Championship.
Pittsburgh does not need its rookies to start but rather serve in a reserve role and contribute when called upon.
Can the 2011 draft class match the success that the 2010 class had, particularly without offseason workouts? While they have a lot to prove, chances are that there should be several standout rookies this season.
Pouncey gave the coaching staff no choice but to give him the starting role at center. He looked the part from day one and it paid off as he solidified the center of the Steelers’ line on the way to the Pro Bowl.
Cameron Heyward will not have that same success at defensive end with veteran Brett Keisel ahead of him.
Look for Heyward to follow the Ziggy Hood plan.
Hood was a reserve as a rookie and did not start a game but did see limited action in the defense and played special teams.
While Heyward will be in a similar position, he is also better suited for a 3-4 coming out of college than what Hood was. Even so, defensive end coach John Mitchell likes to strip his players of everything they know and teach them his methods.
Though he will not start a game, Heyward should see more playing time as the season progresses allowing Keisel to remain fresh.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Less. A Pro Bowl with 16 starts is not in store for Heyward. Pouncey was a special player.
Worilds did not start a game last year but how could he playing behind James Harrison?
Though he suffered through some injuries, Worilds quickly established himself as one of the best special teams players. He also got a few snaps in the base defense and flashed his pass rushing skills, picking up two sacks.
Marcus Gilbert will have a tough time getting on the field this year. The coaches are unsure if he will play guard or tackle and without offseason workouts, he will have a tough time competing against the veterans.
Gilbert’s best chance to start would be to blow the coaches away in the competition at right guard or may be thrust into the right tackle spot if Pittsburgh releases Flozell Adams.
With top tackle backups Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex both free agents, Gilbert does have an opportunity to earn the top backup role at tackle or even work as the “swingman.”
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Less. Gilbert will either really have to stand out or have no veterans return to earn a starting role and may not see the field at all.
Sanders would catch 28 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season and add another seven receptions in the postseason as he overtook Antwaan Randle El for the third receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart.
A strong route runner with excellent hands, it was difficult for Pittsburgh to keep Sanders off the field for too long as he would play in 13 games, including one start.
Curtis Brown is one rookie that the Steelers really need to step up.
Their cornerback play leaves a lot to be desired and Brown has the talent to start one day. At the very least he should compete for the nickel spot.
Two of Pittsburgh’s top three cornerbacks are both free agents, with Ike Taylor and William Gay. One or both may not be retained which would open the door for Brown.
Brown will have to compete with a group of relative unknowns at the position and on paper he has the best pedigree of the bunch.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Equal or greater. Sanders had a nice rookie season but the Steelers had Hines Ward and Mike Wallace ahead of him in addition to other offensive weapons that were more important.
Even in a nickel role, Brown has a chance to provide significant improvements in Pittsburgh’s secondary. Expect him to see the field sooner rather than later.
Thaddeus Gibson was rookie who had a ton of potential that will never be realized with the Steelers. He did not participate in a game for Pittsburgh before being released.
Cortez Allen is an intriguing prospect at cornerback with good size and speed but rates as a project at this point.
Allen could contribute on special teams but is not expected to play in the base defense.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Greater. If he dresses one game he will have more of an impact, then again, if he lasts more than half the season on the roster he will have a greater impact.
Chris Scott earned a lot of praise from fans despite spending all of camp on the physically unable to perform list and did not play last season.
Crezdon Butler is a player who many are high on as he flashed some talent in the preseason. He did not get much of an opportunity during the season though, playing in four games.
Stevenson Sylvester was the last of three fifth round selections and had the best rookie year.
After an outstanding preseason, Sylvester made his impact where most Steelers rookie linebackers do, on special teams, leading the team in special teams tackles.
Chris Carter could be one of the late round steals of the 2011 draft.
At 6’1” he is low to the ground which is a positive to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers defense.
Carter is quick and has good speed and could probably be looked at in a very limited pass rushing role if absolutely needed. Given the talent ahead of him, though, Carter will likely only see the field on special teams.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Equal. Carter could match the success that Sylvester had as a rookie. If he does the Steelers will be in good shape.
Jonathan Dwyer was thought to be a draft day steal but struggled with injuries during training camp. After a decent showing in the third and fourth preseason games, Dwyer did not play a game until the final week of the season.
Against Cleveland, Dwyer carried the ball nine times for 28 yards.
Antonio Brown was a very productive receiver and special teams player in college.
Brown had a kick return for a touchdown during the season and worked his way into the lineup by December.
Over the final five weeks of the season, Brown made 14 of season total of 16 receptions and made two key receptions in the Divisional and Championship round of the playoffs.
Keith Williams will have a difficult time matching Dwyer’s production let alone Brown’s.
As mentioned with Gilbert, Williams will have a tough time getting on the field as an offensive lineman.
There is already plenty of competition at guard with the addition of Chris Scott to the mix. Williams may have a tough time making the roster let alone playing.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Less. Offensive linemen do not rotate in and out and Williams is unlikely to dress if he makes the roster.
Dough Worthington was released from the Steelers practice squad early in the season.
Baron Batch is an intriguing prospect who could be an ideal fit as a third down back if Mewelde Moore is not re-signed and if he demonstrates that he can block at the NFL level.
He is quick and has good hands and could plug a potential hole in Pittsburgh’s offense.
Projected Impact Compared to 2010: Greater. If he makes the roster, Batch should see playing time on special teams or as a third down back.
On paper it does not appear that the 2011 rookie class will have the same impact that the 2010 had. That is not because of the lack of talent but instead lack of opportunity.
Pittsburgh needed an upgrade at center and Pouncey took that job. Sanders eventually beat out Randle El, who has slowed down over the years, and Brown stepped up as well. But the team can also put five receivers on the field at a time.
Linebackers with potential are always a good bet to succeed on special teams.
The 2011 class has an established set of veterans in place ahead of them, with the exception of Brown, who could play a significant role in the defensive backfield. This is not bad as they can slowly develop and only see situational play.
Starts do not matter for most rookies and limited playing time will allow them to acclimate themselves to the NFL.
The bottom line with these past two draft classes is that both are talented and if they develop as their potential suggests, Pittsburgh should be in great shape in the future.
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