Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Players on the Cusp of Stardom

Marky Billson@@MarkyBillsonContributor IJuly 20, 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Players on the Cusp of Stardom

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    When a pro football team has had only one losing season in this century, the old adage of not rebuilding but reloading comes to mind. Who are the next Pittsburgh Steelers who could become stars the way Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have?

    Here are five players that figure to be pretty good ammo in future campaigns.

Issac Redman

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    There is a school of thought that Issac Redman should have been starting ahead of Rashard Mendenhall last season. In two starts, he wound up with as many games of 90 or more rushing yards as Mendenhall did all season. 

    He’s also carried the ball better in goal line situations, averaged more yards per carry (4.4 to 4.1) and caught 18 passes in limited duty  compared to Mendenhall's 25. 

    Normally, a 27-year-old free agent from Bowie State would not be looking at dethroning a first-round draft choice from Illinois. But a torn knee will likely start Mendenhall on the Physically Unable to Perform list and give Redman a chance to play.

    We think Redman could explode like no Steelers back since Willie Parker emerged.

Emmanuel Sanders

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    Sanders seemed to have something of a breakout season before getting hurt last year, catching 22 passes in 11 games for two touchdowns.

    With Hines Ward retired, Sanders figures to move up the depth chart and towards a 50-catch campaign.

    While not the physical player Ward was, Sanders figures to add some explosiveness as a No. 3 receiver and could wind up being a go-to guy for Ben Roethlisberger if Mike Wallace continues his holdout into the regular season. 

Cameron Heyward

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    The problem with Heyward is where he will play. Ziggy Hood is like Heyward, a former first-round draft choice at right defensive end. Casey Hampton didn’t return to Pittsburgh for another season to sit on the bench, so while Heyward might be the Steelers nose tackle of the future, he likely won’t be manning the position this season.

    And while some have theorized Heyward could unseat Brett Keisel this season, Keisel showed no signs of slowing down with 15 more tackles in 2011 than in 2010

    Eventually, though, Heyward will be in the lineup. And when he does, watch out.

Keenan Lewis

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    Cornerback opposite Ike Taylor has been called something of a weak link in the Steelers secondary, if one could say the NFL’s top-ranked defense in 2011 had a weak link.

    The thought here is that Pittsburgh’s front office would not have allowed William Gay to go to Arizona if they didn’t think Lewis was going to be a suitable replacement.

    But a star? Maybe the Pro Bowl isn’t on the horizon, but there are two similarities Lewis has to former Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend.

    Townsend was known for making dramatic interceptions. His pick of Tony Romo in 2008 and subsequent touchdown return with less than two minutes remaining not only provided Pittsburgh with a 20-13 victory against the Dallas Cowboys, but the springboard for the Steelers’ last World Championship season.

    Lewis’ first NFL interception didn’t springboard Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl, but it did come with fewer than 30 seconds left deep in Steelers territory to preserve a 13-9 victory against Kansas City last year.

    In doing so, it could be argued Lewis paved the way for then-Chiefs head coach Todd Haley to become the Steelers’ current offensive coordinator 

    Lewis also comes into the starting lineup after sitting on the bench for three years. It wasn’t until Townsend’s sixth NFL campaign that he became a full-time starter.

    True, it would be unfair to label Lewis as the next Townsend. But it is logical that similar journeys could produce similar results. 

Chris Rainey

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    Stars generally aren’t drafted in the fifth round. Oh there are exceptions, Barry Foster, for instance; but even he was selected that low primarily because he elected to leave Arkansas early (such actions were frowned upon at the time).

    But the thought here is the selection of Rainey was a wise one. He averaged better than 6.2 yards per carry at the University of Florida and won two national championships.

    Additionally, he was an All-American in track while in Gainesville, and even grew up in the same household as center Maurkice Pouncey in Lakeland, Florida. Thus, his arrival in Pittsburgh figures to be a comfortable one.

    The hidden statistic about Rainey is that he blocked a Gators-record four kicks while in college. We’re not sure what kind of contributions he will make to the Steelers’ offense this year; if he gets any playing time it would figure to be as a third-down pass catcher.

    But there’s reason to believe he could be an ace on special teams. And that always begets stardom.