The Pittsburgh Steelers close out rookie minicamp today, after which will follow OTAs, the first on-field practice period in which veterans are permitted to attend and participate (on a voluntary basis). The defensive line is represented by five players, including two tryouts, one member of last year’s practice squad, and rookie third-round draft pick DeMarvin Leal.
The Texas A&M alumnus will be expected to be a contributor this season for the defensive line, and he’s already hungry to mingle with the veterans and get in their heads, something he’s talked about at every stage since the draft. The Steelers have one of the most talented defensive lines in football, a great opportunity for a rookie coming in.
“It means a lot, especially having all these veterans that I can learn and get wisdom from, just being a sponge to all the feedback that they’re gonna give me”, Leal told reporters yesterday, via Noah Strackbein of AllSteelers. “I’m just waiting for them to come in so I can just start asking questions, start learning”.
There’s nobody better to learn from, at least among players, than perennial All-Pro Cameron Heyward, whom Leal said has already reached out to him. Last year, 2021 fifth-round draft pick Isaiahh Loudermilk persistently praised the veteran for really taking him under his wing and showing him the ropes, and you know Heyward will do the same for the latest rookie.
Of course, Heyward knows what it’s like. When he was drafted in 2011, the Steelers already had a veteran defensive line, albeit one on his last legs. He arrived just in time for Aaron Smith’s final season, and he had two years with Casey Hampton, but he spent the first four years of his career getting to learn from Brett Keisel before he became ‘the guy’.
Even as a first-round pick, though, Heyward didn’t come shot out of a cannon ready to go. While he probably could have contributed more and earlier, it wasn’t until the second quarter of his third season that he was inserted into the starting lineup in 2013.
And he really took his game to a whole other level beginning in 2017, since which time he has made the All-Pro List every year, including another first-team selection for his play in 2011. He recorded double-digit sacks for the second time in his career, only the second Steelers defensive lineman in team history to do that behind Keith Willis.
Is Leal going to be the next Heyward? Who knows? Those are lofty ambitions, but they’re not bad ones to have. In the meantime, he is going to take his time to learn what he can from the guys who have been doing it at a high level for years.