Under-the-Radar Pittsburgh Steelers Ready to Break out in 2012

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IAugust 1, 2012

Under-the-Radar Pittsburgh Steelers Ready to Break out in 2012

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long list of players who, in only one offseason, went from under-the-radar prospects to key cogs in the team’s plans. That list includes guys like Willie Parker, who was an afterthought before a breakout start to the 2005 season made him a star.

    Here’s a look at several players on the current Pittsburgh roster who might be primed for a big season in 2012.

Baron Batch, RB

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    Batch’s rookie season was cut short in the first moments of camp when he suffered an ACL injury that forced him to miss the entire season. In a way, that might have been lucky for the Steelers because Batch wasn’t in such a good position to make the roster then.

    Now he’s almost a lock if he’s healthy. He seems likely to fill the role vacated by former Steeler Mewelde Moore. That includes duties on third down and as a receiver out of the backfield. Batch could also get some carries in the middle of the field when the team wants to use his speed.

    Batch isn’t a player most people are familiar with right now outside of Steeler Nation, but it is a name that might make ESPN more than once in 2012. With all of the uncertainty around the running back position, this could be a big year for the Baron of the Backfield.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR

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    The first task for Sanders in 2012 is to prove that he’s healthy enough to play regularly. If he is able to do that, he could wind up starting for the Steelers opposite Antonio Brown. Mike Wallace is showing no signs of ending his holdout. If Wallace does come in, Sanders will likely work as the primary slot receiver.

    Regardless of where he plays, a healthy season from Sanders is almost assuredly going to help him be a breakout player. He had a surprising rookie season in which many thought he had laid the groundwork for a starting job. Injuries robbed him of that, but now he’s getting a second lease on life.

    I think this will be a big year from Sanders regardless of where he plays. He’s an electrifying playmaker just like Brown and he has the intelligence and versatility to play anywhere on the field.

Steve McLendon, NT

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    When the Steelers drafted Alameda Ta’amu this year, most assumed that McLendon was getting lost in the shuffle. That may not be the case. Ta’amu isn’t going to be thrown out there as a starter before McLendon unless there’s a massive reversal of what’s been going on.

    McLendon may not be the team’s future at the position. That seems to belong to Ta’amu. But McLendon has a chance to breakout this season as Casey Hampton recovers from an ACL injury and as he continues to slow down with age.

    The team seems to be very high on McLendon, especially position coach John Mitchell. That is a good sign. McLendon could be the next unknown player to make a name for himself in Pittsburgh.

Isaac Redman, RB

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    This might seem like a bit of cheating since Redman is already a relatively well-known quantity, but he has never been a full-time starter. That changes this year with Rashard Mendenhall on the shelf for awhile. Redman might just keep the job too.

    Redman has shown all the tools of a successful running back. He’s bullish and can make his own holes and gain tough yards in between the tackles. He can also get outside and gain some yards around the edge. He breaks tackles well and doesn’t give in to contact. He can also catch the ball effectively.

    This is a big year for Redman and will likely determine his future in the league. If he can break out and prove himself, he’ll be paid like a star running back going forward. If he doesn’t, he’ll continue to be a spare part and secondary back. I think he’s going to be a star.

Weslye Saunders, TE

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    Todd Haley loves to utilize tight ends in the passing game. I would say his offense will use tight ends in a similar way to what the New England Patriots have done with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. I’m not saying the Steelers have that kind of power tandem, but they are pretty well stocked.

    Saunders will have to serve a four-game suspension to open the season because of his off-field issues, but he has a chance to come back strong. Last year, he showed a great ability to catch the ball and use his size and quickness (not to be confused with speed) to turn a catch into a big play. That will serve him well in this offensive system.

    Saunders will have an uphill battle to make the roster in camp and then he’ll have to prove himself on the field to get more looks. Ben Roethlisberger seemed comfortable with him last season. That will help. If he can come back from his suspension strong, he can be a key piece of this team’s success.

Sean Spence, LB

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    I don’t usually consider rookies as being under-the-radar, but Spence isn’t the typical rookie. He isn’t likely to earn a starting job or anything like that, but he’s coming to a team that can uniquely utilize his talents.

    Spence is a good playmaker. He has a similar skill set in that regard to what we’ve seen out of Troy Polamalu since 2004. The Steelers know how to nurture and use that. Spence will be a demon on special teams and he could even get a lot of looks defensively.

    Dick LeBeau has designed special packages for Polamalu. He may do the same if Spence shows he can handle the defensive work early on. This could be the start of a special career and it may be a very early breakout season for a player many people aren’t convinced on just yet.