2011 NFL Predictions: Which Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies Have a Chance to Start?
The Pittsburgh Steelers came away from the 2011 NFL Draft with seven great players who could all contribute to the team's future success. Rookies don't usually get a chance to start on this team, as both their offensive and defensive systems preclude rookies from being ready.
Still, there is always the chance that a rookie will play his way into the starting lineup, the way Maurkice Pouncey did last season.
Here's a look at each rookie and the chances that they will be able to earn starts for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011.
Cameron Heyward, DE
Heyward was drafted with the future in mind. The Steelers are pretty well set at defensive end with Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. They also have former first-round pick Ziggy Hood, who was very impressive stepping in for Smith for most of last season. Hood seems to have earned at least a platoon spot with Smith this season.
Still, injuries happen. Heyward is expected to be the primary backup at defensive end, along with Hood. Last year, both Smith and Keisel missed stretches of the season with injuries. If that happens again, and it could, considering the age of both starters, Heyward and Hood would likely become the starters.
Heyward has had a very impressive camp so far, so he might end up getting at least some platoon time as the season presses on.
Marcus Gilbert, OT/G
Rookies have a much easier time getting playing time on offense. Bruce Arians has made good use of rookies, both along the offensive line and at wide receiver, in recent seasons. He could do so again with Gilbert.
The Steelers have a glaring need at left tackle, and also could use new guards. Gilbert can play both spots, and could find himself with a starting job somewhere on the line on day one if he can impress in camp and during the preseason.
So far, Gilbert has not been greatly impressive, so he's behind in his efforts to make an impact early. That could change starting Friday, when the Steelers face the Washington Redskins in their first preseason game.
Curtis Brown, CB
Brown was brought in with the hope that he will eventually become one of the starters at corner for the Steelers. He was the last rookie to sign, but he's looked good so far at camp.
The Pittsburgh defense is particularly hard for defensive backs to learn, so there should be no expectation that Brown will contribute right away. He also sits behind at least Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden, both of whom will be starters this season.
Brown has been less impressive than fellow draft pick Cortez Allen, so he has some work to do to catch up, but he should be able to make some impact on special teams this season. It's highly unlikely he will start.
Cortez Allen, CB
Allen was thought to be the second-best corner in the team's draft class, but he's quickly become a hit at camp. He's looked fast and instinctive, making good plays and maintaining coverage even with the team's best players.
Allen, like Brown, will have to endure the obligatory growing pains that come from digesting Dick LeBeau's defensive playbook, but he will also have a chance to contribute on special teams and work his way into the dime if possible.
Like Brown, Allen has almost no chance to start, unless the team suffers some serious injuries in the secondary. If they do, it will be interesting to see which rookie ends up getting the nod first.
Chris Carter, LB
Linebackers have been able to work their way into the defense as rookies, but never as starters. Last season, Stevenson Sylvester seemed to position himself as a future star. Jason Worilds also made some nice contributions.
Like any other rookie, Carter will have to first make an impact on special teams, but he could work his way up as the season goes on if he picks up the playbook quickly like last year's rookies did.
It's unlikely Carter will crack the lineup anytime soon, but he does have the skills to start eventually.
Keith Williams, OG
Williams, like Marcus Gilbert, has a chance to play a major role this year. He's been playing a lot of guard so far in camp, and has been mostly impressive in his stints. Williams could parlay a good preseason into a starting guard spot.
There's a ton of competition on the line, but Williams is a big player, and he's great at getting off the line quickly and holding his ground against big defenders. That's important in the AFC North, with its oversized defensive linemen.
Williams and Gilbert are probably the most likely to start this season at some point, although its unclear if either will be able to start from Week 1 like Maurkice Pouncey did in 2010.
Baron Batch, RB
Batch had been impressive early in camp, and he looked like a player who was set to make the roster and be a contributor as a versatile running back and receiver combination. He had even been good in goal line drills, despite his smaller size.
Unfortunately for everyone, Batch will have to wait a long time before making an impact. He was likely lost for the season the other day with an Achilles tendon injury.
Batch wouldn't have been a starter anyway, as the Steelers already have quite a stable of backs, but he could have been a solid piece of the offense with his vast skills. Hopefully, he will return healthy in 2012 and be able to contribute to the team then.