NFL DRAFT 2014

Rookies traditionally don't crack the opening-day lineup, but this crop could

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The theme of the 2014 draft could well be, "Welcome to the Steelers; yes you can start for us this season."

Long held down by veteran talent in front of them, the new rookie class which will gather on the South Side for their first camp this weekend will have chances few others have had in this century in Pittsburgh.

Even coaches who were reluctant to speculate on the immediate prospects of rookies past were more than willing to project their new draft picks as possible starters in 2014. That's how it was with their first two picks, and again Saturday with the first one they drafted.

Martavis Bryant, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver with speed and the "other" receiver next to Sammy Watkins at Clemson, has the ability to line up with Antonio Brown this year, his new coach said.

"I'm not going to say that he is going to start, but potentially he could," said wide receivers coach Richard Mann.

"We feel like we got a guy to put opposite of Antonio Brown."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has pined for a tall receiver since the day Plaxico Burress walked out the door in 2005 as a free agent, was said to be thrilled that they drafted Bryant. So were they. They thought when they passed on him in the third round, they weren't going to get him.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Mann said. "He lasted. We were delighted we were able to get him. Felt like a second-, third-round guy."

The Steelers added six more selections on the third and final day of the draft to go with the three on the first two days.

They tried to fill another need when they drafted cornerback Shaquille Richardson of Arizona with their first pick in the fifth round. With their compensatory pick in the fifth, they selected versatile offensive lineman Wesley Johnson of Vanderbilt.

They chose their second inside linebacker of the draft, UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt, with their first of two picks in the sixth round, making what had been a thin position a little crowded. Vince Williams, a sixth-rounder a year ago, wound up starting 11 games there as a rookie after a season-ending injury to Larry Foote. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was their first-round pick Thursday night from Ohio State.

Their compensatory pick in the sixth round delivered 6-7, 352-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers of Tennessee, now the biggest man on their roster. He weighed 420 pounds at one time in high school. They went from Big Snack in Casey Hampton to possibly Big Mac at nose tackle.

"He's a big guy," defensive line coach John Mitchell acknowledged. "Those types of guys are hard to find. I'd rather work with a guy who's too big than a guy you can't see when he gets down in his stance."

"He's an obstruction," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "The size is intriguing."

As Colbert noted, the Steelers got the fastest man in the draft in Kent State halfback Dri Archer, their third-rounder who ran a 4.26 in the 40-yard dash, and the biggest in McCullers.

With their seventh-round pick, they chose Massachusetts tight end Rob Blanchflower, who has the ability to catch and block.

Among the wide open jobs available for rookies to start would be inside linebacker and defensive end -- coincidentally the team's first two picks with Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt -- and wide receiver.

"I'm open to it," coach Mike Tomlin said of rookies moving into starting jobs this year. "Obviously it's not something that will be given to them. I do believe within this group there are guys capable of doing just that."

For a long time, the Steelers defense was chock full of talented veterans that even first-round choices could not move aside for several years, as was the case with end Cameron Heyward. He finally became a starter in 2013 in his third season.

"There have been some years when we had an extra strong unit, which was a tough nut to crack," Tomlin said.

Their offense has become more solidified but the Steelers did lose two of their top three wide receivers as free agents, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. They signed veteran slot receiver Lance Moore as a free agent, added another in Darrius Heyward-Bey and believe that Markus Wheaton, their third-round pick a year ago, will make strides after twice injuring his hand as a rookie.

Byrant can give them a different dimension, provided he overcomes a rap for a low work ethic and poor hands.

"He is a big receiver that we were kind of hunting," Mann said. "We needed a guy different from what we have. We are delighted to get him."

Since Burress left, the Steelers have tried to provide Roethlisberger (6-5) with a receiver whom he could see eye-to-eye. In 2005, they drafted 6-4 Fred Gibson in the fourth round and cut him before his rookie season. In 2008, it was the star-crossed Limas Sweed (6-4). They since hit it big with some smaller receivers such as Brown, Sanders and Mike Wallace, but none approaching a tall one.

Until Saturday. But why a tall receiver?

"A lot of times, you get cheap touchdowns in the red zone," Mann reasoned. "A lot of times people know where the ball is going to go and there is nothing they can do about it. ... Also, the fact is that a lot of times balls are caught when you have big receivers like that just because of their length and they can cover the DBs up."

Naturally, the Steelers say they loved their nine draft picks.

"We're very happy with the results," Colbert said. "We got five defensive players, four on offense, somebody for every position group except the quarterbacks."

And the quarterback finally got his tall receiver.

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.


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