The 2014 season will be different for the Pittsburgh Steelers, suggested Bob Labriola, writing in an article on the team’s website.
It will be different because of the incoming rookie class; not because they are an overtly special group, but because, as Labriola writes in the article, “there just aren’t as many impediments to their paths to immediate playing time”.
Even though the Steelers started three rookies last season, there is certainly a different feel about this year’s potential of rookie starters, as though their playing time this year will be more meaningful, or perhaps purposeful.
After all, of the three rookie starters, only running back Le’Veon Bell was necessarily projected to be the starter at his position, and that was following the jettisoning of Rashard Mendenhall, who was the primary ball carrier since 2009.
Vince Williams certainly wasn’t in the plans to start as a rookie, and, as a matter of fact, he was the third player that the Steelers turned to in order to fill the buck linebacker position.
Larry Foote’s injury in the season opener threw the group into a tailspin, but it was Kion Wilson given the opportunity to start for the next two games.
Then there was Jarvis Jones, the team’s first-round pick from a year ago. He, in fact, did not start the season opener, but he was placed in the starting lineup by Week Two. His case was not quite the same, as he was benched after a few games.
Jason Worilds resumed starting at right outside linebacker, where he’d begun the season, and Jones only returned to the starting lineup once LaMarr Woodley began dealing with further calf injuries that ultimately ended his season.
This year is different. At this point in time, in May, we could perhaps reasonably say that the team’s first two draft picks are the front-runners to start at their respective positions.
First-rounder Ryan Shazier finds himself in competition for the same job that Williams fell backwards into a season ago as a rookie. Now as a second-year player who has a reputation of being a two-down linebacker, it would seem just a matter of time before Shazier comes in to fill the role on every down.
Meanwhile, second-round defensive end Stephon Tuitt finds himself opening a defensive line cupboard that has been stripped bare, having seen the departure of three of their top four defensive ends.
While Cam Thomas, or even Brian Arnfelt, may fill as a stop-gap, it would seem that Tuitt will be lining up at Aaron Smith’s old position, wearing Aaron Smith’s old jersey number, sooner rather than later.
In addition, their third-round pick, Dri Archer, is likely to be asked to field the vast bulk of special teams returns, both kickoffs and punts.
We can even extend this observation to the fourth round with receiver Martavis Bryant, for whom one can argue that there is an opportunity to secure a starting job. His primary competition will be last year’s third-round pick, Markus Wheaton, who caught six passes on 12 targets as a rookie.
Wheaton, meanwhile, had to bide his time behind Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, both of whom had departed in free agency. As with Shazier, Tuitt, and Archer, Bryant finds himself staring at an opportunity that Steelers rookies have rarely seen of late: a clear path to immediate playing time.