With so much focus and attention being placed on the Pittsburgh Steelers’s incoming class of rookies by all form of media—including ourselves, naturally—it’s easy to forget about the rest of the youth on the roster.
Which is somewhat counterintuitive, given that it is the tendency of organizations such as the Steelers to give players more responsibilities in their second and third years, frequent exceptions being positions such as offensive line and running back.
The Steelers received an inordinate amount of contributions from rookies last season, and that could continue again in 2014 with the potential for players like Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt to start sooner or later.
Le’Veon Bell is obviously primed for major contributions in his second season, given that he was the primary starter at running back last year as a rookie. Vince Williams also unexpectedly offered major contributions at the inside linebacker position.
But what about players like Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams at defensive end, or Antwon Blake, Isaiah Green, and Devin Smith at cornerback?
The young defensive ends in particular are of interest, given that the Steelers lost three of their top four players at the position last season. At least one of the two figure to be in the defensive line rotation this year.
Arnfelt showed quite well for himself during the preseason, and spent most of the season on the practice squad before being called up late in the year, despite playing just two snaps.
Williams is just now getting healthy from a knee subluxation that cut his rookie season short almost before it began. He may be raw, but the Steelers like his physical potential.
At cornerback, the top trio will invariably remain the same as last season, with Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, and William Gay representing the veterans of the group. Brice McCain, a free agent signing, appears likely to make the roster as well, though it’s no guarantee.
The Steelers drafted Shaquille Richardson late in the draft, but he will have to compete with Blake, Green, and Smith for a fifth and perhaps last spot at cornerback.
Because the Steelers have two safeties in Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas that can cover that they figure to keep on the roster, the team isn’t likely to keep more than five cornerbacks this season, as has been the norm the past few years.
Golden and Thomas, speaking of whom, are two more young players that can fight for bigger roles in 2014. Thomas in particular is likely to be a bigger part of the defense this year. He was a frequent contributor early in the season before he got injured. He should be the dime back, and occasionally nickel back, this season, especially if there are injuries.
Markus Wheaton should be expected to take the biggest jump this season, as he’s projected to enter the starting lineup after catching just six passes a year ago. The Steelers have been high on his potential for significant improvement for some time now. Of course, he had no shortage of obstacles during his rookie season.
Elsewhere, Jarvis Jones will be entering his first season as a proper starter, though he did start eight games last season, and played in 14, registering 40 tackles. He could potentially be joined by either Sean Spence or Williams as young players at the linebacker position. If it’s not one of them, then it will be the rookie Shazier. But either way, one or both will be in the rotation and receive playing time.