The Steelers' 2013 draft class will soon discover something that few others have had in their rookie years with them: Opportunity.
Jobs are plentiful after an 8-8 season and because of many veteran defections either forced or voluntary since it ended.
For the first time in a long time, their top two or even three draft choices could become rookie starters. The previous rookie to do that was center Maurkice Pouncey in 2010, although David DeCastro was installed to take over at right guard in 2012 until his preseason injury delayed that move.
It's unusual for the Steelers to have so many openings, a reflection of their success for most of this century. For example, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, their best player on defense in 2012, did not start until his third season after the Steelers drafted him in the first round in 2007. Defensive end Cameron Heyward, their top pick in 2011, still hasn't won a starting job. Jason Worilds, their No. 2 pick in 2010, sat behind two Pro Bowlers his first three seasons.
It looked as though Worilds finally would get his chance to start when the Steelers released James Harrison, opening a position at right outside linebacker. Then along came their first-round draft choice, a ready-made outside linebacker in Georgia's Jarvis Jones.
"I think it's a daunting task for rookies to start in any system and play and perform well," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said while talking about the chances of Jones winning that job. "Obviously it is difficult when you have established veteran players like we have with a lot of continuity. We are not going to close the door on him or anyone else on earning an opportunity, and that is what this is about. This is about people taking advantage of opportunities so he'll be given that."
Worilds enters the final year of his contract, too, so all ties will go to Jones in their competition. Yet like a good linebackers coach, Keith Butler would not concede that.
"We have to be better at linebacker," Butler said. "Jason Worilds should be a lot better than he was last year. Everybody talks about Jarvis coming in and stuff like that and is Jarvis going to start his first year? We've never started a [rookie] linebacker since I've been here."
The Steelers, though, usually drafted undersized defensive ends to turn into outside linebackers and they never draft one in the first round, at least not since the failed Huey Richardson experiment in 1991.
Outside linebacker was Jones' position at Georgia.
"His first year, Jarvis Jones has a wealth of talent and I'm very fortunate to have him," Butler said. "He put up 28 sacks in the last two years in the toughest -- in my opinion, the best conference in the land. He's done it. He's been very productive.
"He's going to come in and compete, but he's not going to be given the position. Some of you think that way. I certainly don't think that way. My thing is Jason Worilds is here. He's the next guy up since James has left and I expect Jason to be better than he ever has been."
The Steelers may expect that of their halfbacks, too, but if second-round pick Le'Veon Bell of Michigan State does not take command and become a quick starter for them, then the Steelers may rue their choice there.
"Running back is a position, probably more so than most, that you have a chance to come in and make an impact," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said about Bell. "Obviously, there's a lot of work ahead of him. He's a young guy, but he's coming from a pro-style offense. A lot of the runs will be very similar to the runs that he was running. So I expect him to get into the mix and be a factor."
So, too, could wide receiver Markus Wheaton, their third-round pick. With Mike Wallace gone, there's a starting job available opposite Antonio Brown. Emmanuel Sanders was assumed to be the receiver to take it, but Wheaton at least has to be considered a candidate.
He was disappointed he did not run faster than a 4.45 at the combine, and said he runs in the 4.3 range. He is a versatile receiver who can play outside or in the slot.
"He plays fast," Haley said. "He's a fast player and quick. He will be an exciting guy to have around ... it's hard for anyone to run faster than Mike, but this guy does play fast."
The rest of their nine-man draft class won't have the kind of opportunities to start as the top three. They love 5-9 safety Shamarko Thomas, but unless there are injuries to Troy Polamalu or Ryan Clark, he will back them up until he can make his move in 2014.
Vince Williams, their compensatory pick in the sixth round, may have the clearest opportunity among the rest of them. There is little depth behind starters Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons inside after Stevenson Sylvester. It will be "miraculous," according to Butler, if injured Sean Spence can play football again, although Butler said the team will carry him through 2013 on a reserve list to see if he can recover by 2014. If Williams can play, he can back up this year and make a play to start in 2014.
"He can get to the ball and he can hit you when he gets to the ball," said Butler, but noted that Florida State replaced Williams with a defensive back on passing downs. "We'll see how in training camp if he has the ability to cover running backs and stuff like that."
Because they are a team in transition, there are more jobs available to Steelers rookies. The rest is up to them.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published April 29, 2013 4:00 AM