Few teams typically bring rookies along as slowly as the Pittsburgh Steelers, but in recent years that has begun to change.
Even last season, the team was planning on bringing fourth round pick Martavis Bryant along slowly, but a crying need for an outside threat to bookend Antonio Brown caused Pittsburgh to activate the rookie for the first time against the Houston Texans in late October. Bryant’s first career touchdown came that night, one of eight the rookie would snag during an exciting first season with the black and gold.
Don’t forget first rounder Ryan Shazier, given a starting spot almost from day one with the Steelers, or Daniel McCullers working his way into the defensive line rotation by year’s end, when many thought the big nose tackle would be a long-term project.
Given the fact that times are changing in Pittsburgh, and rookies are being asked to make more of an early impact, particularly on defense, what can expect from a talented group of 2015 draftees?
Watch Out For: CB Senquez Golson, WR Sammie Coates
Many thought that Golson could have been had a round later, but while his size may limit him in the NFL, the Ole Miss product’s physicality and instincts should keep him on the field throughout the 2015 season. Add to that the fact that Pittsburgh simply doesn’t have many options at cornerback, and you can see why the NFL-ready Golson will be a key piece in the Steelers defensive plans this season.
Coates has his issues for sure, but he’s already further along mentally than Bryant was when he came to Pittsburgh last year. Coates’ work ethic and undeniable physical skills will get him on the field sooner rather than later, but Steelers fans will have to learn to live with the technique issues and the drops. His rookie season might be a bit of a roller coaster, but I think he’ll get plenty of chances to make an impact.
Slowly But Surely: CB Doran Grant, OLB Bud Dupree
Both players have the ability to join the tier above, but I believe Jarvis Jones will be given every opportunity to prove himself to be a capable starter now that he is healthy. Dupree’s athleticism and natural gifts will work their way into the lineup eventually, but his instincts and awareness are still very raw and need work. He’ll likely be a situational player early on, until an injury or opportunity presents itself for Dupree to display his development.
Grant isn’t quite as instinctive or twitchy as Golson, but he’ll likely be a solid extra cornerback in time. His game has no glaring weaknesses, but no trump card strengths either. However if Cortez Allen struggles again, Grant could be called upon sooner than later.
Not Quite Yet: TE Jesse James, EDGE Anthony Chickillo, DT L.T. Walton, S Gerod Holliman
James looks like the heir apparent to Heath Miller, but the longtime veteran is unlikely to give up many snaps early on, and James isn’t developed enough as a blocker to push Matt Spaeth yet. Because of the host of pass catchers Pittsburgh boasts at the skill positions, James could have a hard time finding impact opportunities until Miller’s role begins to decline. In the meantime, the tight end can work on his physicality and separation techniques so that he is prepared when called upon.
Chickillo and Walton will have special teams opportunities, but that might be it early on. I almost moved Walton into the above tier because I think he could become a solid contributor in time, but he simply has too many technique issues to be effective at this point. Chickillo’s role is still a little bit up in the air, but there is already a healthy rotation ahead of him at OLB and along the defensive line.
Holliman could benefit from the Steelers lack of depth at safety, as aging veteran Will Allen and special teams ace Robert Golden sit behind the enigmatic Mike Mitchell and untested third-year player Shamarko Thomas. Holliman will have to answer a multitude of questions surrounding his physicality, tackling, and coverage discipline first however, making him a more likely candidate for the practice squad than the active roster.
It also wouldn’t surprise me to see B.J. Finney in the lineup at guard or center at some point, provided he makes the team as an UDFA of course.