Steelers have no time to wait on yesterday's future
September 8, 2013 12:00 PM
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
If running back Le'Veon Bell weren't injured, he'd likely be starting today for the Steelers, who need some rookies to be impact players.
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Old-time football men love nothing more than to talk about the learning curve in the National Football League, how it takes young players several years to learn how the game is played at that level and what those players have to do to adapt the talents they displayed in college.
Dick LeBeau, who has spent 55 years in the NFL as a Hall of Fame player and an assistant coach/defensive coordinator of great renown, would qualify as one of those men. But even he is starting to have a change of heart.
In 1999, LeBeau was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati when the Bengals drafted quarterback Akili Smith of Oregon with the third overall pick. The teams in front of the Bengals -- the Cleveland Browns (Tim Couch) and Philadelphia Eagles (Donovan McNabb) -- also drafted quarterbacks. So did two other teams in the top 12 spots -- Minnesota Vikings (Daunte Culpepper) and Chicago Bears (Cade McNown).
Of those five quarterbacks, not one started for their respective team when the 1999 season began.
That was 14 years ago.
Flash forward to 2011 when two rookie quarterbacks -- Cam Newton and Andy Dalton -- opened the season as starters for the Carolina Panthers and Bengals, respectively. Since 2002, Newton and Dalton were among just 10 rookie quarterbacks to start the season opener in that 10-year period. Even Ben Roethlisberger didn't begin his rookie season in 2004 as the starter.
One year later, a record five rookie quarterbacks were starters for the 2012 season opener -- Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Robert Griffin III (Washington), Russell Wilson (Seattle), Ryan Tannehill (Miami) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland).
So much for the assertion of former Green Bay Packers coach Steve Mariucci that the best place to play a rookie quarterback is "clipboard."
"Only a few years ago, with a young quarterback, there was a general thinking that he needs two or three years to develop before he's ready to step in," said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard who started his first game as a rookie with the Houston Oilers. "Now, because of what's gone on the last couple of years and even at the quarterback position, people expect rookies to come in and make a huge impact at the quarterback position. Some guys can do that. Other positions are the same way."
Rookie expectations have changed dramatically over the past couple years, and it's not just at the quarterback position. Players such as A.J. Green, Von Miller, Doug Martin, Patrick Peterson, Matt Kalil and Maurkice Pouncey have come into the league and become instant sensations in their first season.
According to league coaches and general managers, the learning curve has diminished for rookies because the wide-open college game with spread formations and option draws has made them more ready for what they will see in the NFL. Couple that with teams less reluctant to keep veterans because of salary-cap issues, and the need for rookies to play sooner has increased greatly, especially for No. 1 picks.
"The system forces you to play replacements sometimes, and those replacements are first- and second-round picks you're drafting," said former Washington Redskins general manager Charlie Casserly, now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports. "And that first-round pick has to come in and play because of the players you lost. That's something you have to live with."
The Steelers are no different.
Their top three draft choices -- outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Markus Wheaton -- are each expected to be significant factors and make huge contributions this season. Their fourth-round pick, safety Shamarko Thomas, is a starter-in-waiting, biding his time for one season behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
Of course, that's what can happen with an 8-8 team that loses seven starters from the previous season.
"It used to be a sit-around-and-learn-from-the-vet type of league, but these days you're expecting at least picks one through three to contribute, and contribute heavily, at their positions," Clark said. "It's part necessity, but it's also part people have proven it can work. You throw a first-rounder out there, and he does great and he goes to pro bowl, now it's become the expectation. The exception has now become the expectation."
In the case of Bell, their No. 2 pick, he was drafted with the sole intention of being their feature back after the loss of Rashard Mendenhall. Were it not for a ligament tear in his foot suffered in the second preseason game, he would be the starting running back for today's 1 p.m. season opener against the Titans at Heinz Field.
The Steelers haven't had a defensive rookie start a season opener since linebacker Kendrell Bell in 2001, and this year is no different. But there are many associated with the Steelers who think Jones, their No. 1 pick, will be a starter at right outside linebacker sometime soon. Even LeBeau said he is NFL-ready.
"It's because of the offenses they're playing against in college," LeBeau said. "They don't huddle and very rarely do they have two backs in the backfield; in fact, they very rarely have one. They're developing more pass-ready-to-play defenders.
"That's always been the biggest jumping spot for college kids coming into NFL -- they just hadn't played against those kinds of offenses. The younger players are much more at home playing against these wide-open offenses."
Wheaton, a third-round pick from Oregon State, will begin the season as the fourth receiver, but he is so advanced with his route running and understanding of the offense that the Steelers will find ways to get him on the field. They will use even more four-wide receiver sets this season, something that was a rarity last season with Todd Haley.
"I think with the media and social media the way it is, there's more pressure all the way around [to play rookies] because more things are seen and discussed and talked about ... 24/7 in this day and age," Haley said. "I think you see specific guys come into the league and produce right away and other guys don't do it right away but end up being great players. So I think there's a little different path for everyone involved."
The Titans, who haven't made the playoffs since 2008, are in the same boat. They drafted Alabama guard Chance Warmack in the first round with the intention of rebuilding their offensive line around him. He will start today against the Steelers.
A year ago, the Steelers drafted guard David DeCastro in the first round and made him a starter in training camp. But a gruesome knee injury prevented him from starting the season opener and playing in the first 12 games.
"We felt when we drafted him, he's the kind of guy you can plug in and he'd be ready to play," Munchak said. "That's how we feel about him. He'll have some growing pains, no doubt, but whenever you draft a guy of that caliber or that high in the draft other than a quarterback, those are guys you are assuming can step right in and help your team win. I think there's such a need to win and improve and everyone wants success and no one wants to hear the word rebuilding."
The Steelers have had a number of draft classes where the top four picks have become the foundation of their franchise, sometimes instantly.
Their 1974 draft class ranks among the greatest in NFL history, producing four Hall of Fame players among the top five picks -- Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. But there have been other classes that have had a profound effect, too, even if they didn't measure to the stratospheric standard of 1974.
In 1992, they drafted three players who would become starters -- tackle Leon Searcy, linebacker Levon Kirkland and nose tackle Joel Steed -- in the first three rounds. A year later, they drafted cornerback Deon Figures, linebacker Chad Brown, receiver Andre Hastings and defensive end Kevin Henry in the first four rounds. In 1994, they found four eventual starters in the first four rounds: receiver Charles Johnson, defensive end Brentson Buckner, outside linebacker Jason Gildon and running back Bam Morris.
More recently, they drafted two of their starting linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, in the first two rounds in 2007; they drafted three eventual starters in the first three rounds in 2009 -- defensive end Ziggy Hood, receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Keenan Lewis.
But, with the rapid development of this year's top four rookies, and the expectation that has been heaped on them, the 2013 draft class has a chance to be an immediate smash hit for the Steelers.
"When Keenan [Lewis] and Mike Wallace were here, for sure, you knew you had two players right there who came in, stepped in and helped us right away," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "Now we got the possibility of four guys who can come in and help. That's a big plus. You have four possible guys to come in and contribute right away, that's a huge plus for our team."