Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Candidates for Breakout Season in 2017

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVApril 13, 2017

Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Candidates for Breakout Season in 2017

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    Which Steelers players could veer into household-name territory in 2017?
    Which Steelers players could veer into household-name territory in 2017?Elsa/Getty Images

    The Pittsburgh Steelers were an 11-win team in 2016, were tops in the AFC North and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. While "team" is the operative word—it takes all 11 players on the field at the same time to contribute to a winning effort—breakout stars also helped carry the load while having great individual years.

    It's hard to predict who these breakout stars will be in a given year, especially with the 2017 NFL draft still looming. But let's try. Here are Pittsburgh's breakout candidates for the upcoming season and why this year, in particular, should be so good to them.

CB Artie Burns

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    Artie Burns was the Steelers' first-round draft pick a year ago, selected with the 25th overall pick. The cornerback appeared in all 16 games, starting a majority of them, and his one year of experience has nonetheless established him as one of the team's full-time starters moving forward.

    Burns was Pittsburgh's fifth-leading tackler, with 51 combined. He also tied for the most interceptions on the team, with three, and was second in passes defensed, with 13. The performance led to him being tied at 39 among the cornerbacks ranked by Pro Football Focus for the 2016 season.

    Long gone are the days where rookies and young players can no longer crack Pittsburgh's starting defense, something that works in Burns' favor in 2017. Even if the Steelers use a draft pick—including a first-rounder—on the cornerback position this spring, it should not affect Burns' standing much. 

    Based on Burns' rookie year, he seems to have a strong career ahead of him. And now that he's experienced a full NFL season and everything that entails, Burns appears poised to have a strong sophomore showing.

    If Burns can help the Steelers decrease the amount of passing yardage allowed (last year it was 16th-ranked with 3,882), maintain the low number of passing scores allowed and continue to find himself in position to make plays on the football, he could be a defensive standout this season.

WR Justin Hunter

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    The Steelers signed free-agent receiver Justin Hunter to a one-year deal in March, presumably to serve as insurance should the team not get back the suspended Martavis Bryant for 2017 as well as to add experience to the receiving corps that could very well see a rookie added to the mix this year.

    Though the position group is deep and though Hunter's contract is brief, the Steelers aren't a very active free-agency team. There is something they saw in Hunter that should allow him to stick on the 53-man roster when it gets trimmed down before Week 1.

    Hunter, the 34th overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Tennessee Titans, has never been a force on the field in any consistent way. In his 48 games played, spanning three teams, he's caught 78 of the 164 passes thrown his way, for 1,305 yards and 12 scores. But a touchdown rate such as Hunter's combined with his ability to convert third downs into first downs can be a boon to Pittsburgh's offense this season.

    Hunter has never had a quarterback as relatively reliable as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, nor been a part of an overall well-oiled offense such as Pittsburgh's. This could present Hunter with opportunities he never had with the Titans, Buffalo Bills or (briefly) the Miami Dolphins. The upcoming season could prove a career renaissance for Hunter.

S Sean Davis

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    Safety Sean Davis didn't become a starter for the Steelers until midway through the 2016 season, unseating Robert Golden and joining Mike Mitchell with the first team. But his year was impressive, with 54 tackles, five passes defensed, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. While only Pro Football Focus' 68th-ranked safety on the season, a full season starting in 2017 could increase his production significantly.

    Davis began the year at cornerback before being moved to safety full time and, presumably, permanently. That move was great for him and great for the Steelers; Davis was named the team's Rookie of the Year for 2016 and has shown particular prowess for reading and stuffing screen plays. The latter is of particular note considering how many teams had been regularly shredding the Steelers defense using those short throws and after-the-catch yards.

    Davis went from a greenhorn to a proven commodity for the Steelers in a few short months. His 2017 season could turn him into a cornerstone of Pittsburgh's defense, especially if that screen-stopping can also translate to more blitzing in his second year.

LT Alejandro Villanueva

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    Alejandro Villanueva came to the Steelers in 2015 after being a marginal member of the Philadelphia Eagles for one season. The undrafted Army veteran was first tapped by the Eagles to play defensive line, but the Steelers saw something else: potential to turn him into an offensive lineman. Villanueva was promoted to left tackle in 2015, starting 10 games. Though his rawness was evident, so was his his ability to learn, grow and improve.

    In 2015, Pro Football Focus gave him a frankly poor overall grade of 47.9. But something clicked for him in 2016; Villanueva remained Pittsburgh's starting left tackle and ended the year with a Pro Football Focus grade of 82.2, ranking him 24th among all offensive tackles. He went from allowing 7.5 sacks in 2015 to just 4.5 in 2016 and was a part of a line that Football Outsiders ranked fourth in pass protection.

    As Ben Roethlisberger's first line of defense, the 6'9" Villanueva kept him cleaner than usual—he was sacked only 17 times on the year and Pittsburgh's quarterbacks took only 21 combined. And based on his growth over just two years, he seems well on his way to be included among the NFL's top left tackles.

    If that happens, it will be very good for Villanueva, who will be a restricted free agent after 2017 and in line for a long-term and lucrative contract. The NFL was never a given for him but now, he may have a lengthy and productive career.

LB Bud Dupree

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    Linebacker Bud Dupree, the Steelers' Round 1 draft choice in 2015, was limited to only seven games (with four starts) in 2016, having missed the first nine games while being placed on injured reserve with an abdominal injury. Still, he had 19 combined tackles and his 4.5 sacks were second on a defense that had 38 as a whole.

    His 2017 should be even better. Fellow outside linebacker Jarvis Jones moved on in free agency, allowing even more snaps to open up for Dupree, while James Harrison and Arthur Moats could both be off the Steelers roster in a year's time. To prepare for that moment, Dupree should get more work in 2017, allowing him to show off the pass-rushing skills that the Steelers so coveted two years ago.

    The Steelers pride themselves on their defense's ability to disrupt opposing quarterbacks, and that is something Dupree has already proven he can do in 23 games. Increased playing time in 2017 could turn him into the latest defensive menace wearing Black and Gold.

TE Ladarius Green

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    Injuries marred what could have been a breakout year for tight end Ladarius Green in 2016. Signed as a free agent by the Steelers to a four-year, $20 million deal last March, his early season was spent on the bench with an ankle injury and the end of it sidelined with a concussion. But his contributions in between belie just how successful he can be in Pittsburgh when at full health.

    Green appeared in six games and caught 18 passes on 34 targets for 304 yards and one touchdown. He amassed 264 of those yards in four late-season games (including six catches on 11 targets for 110 yards and a score in Week 12 against the New York Giants). He's proved to be a deep threat who can rack up the yards, averaging just under 17 yards per catch.

    The Steelers are one of the teams likely to target a pass-catching tight end in this year's draft, which makes sense given the depth of the position in the class and Green's health history. But if Green has no lingering effects of past injuries, it might be a struggle for the hypothetical rookie to get enough snaps. When Green is on the field and playing well, it's proved he makes an impact.