Lockout will hurt rookies' progress
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Rookie Cameron Heyward need not worry about a sanctimonious NFL policy that he must wait to join the Steelers until Ohio State's classes end in June. Heyward has earned his degree, so he has the blessing of the league to pursue his new profession immediately.
Except, he can't. No one can, not the Steelers under contract and not the rookies they just drafted.
A federal appeals court in St. Louis expects to rule this week on whether the owners can continue to lock out their players or whether to reinstall the stay ordered by a federal judge last week. If the lockout is upheld, there likely will be no spring workouts until the full court can rule on the case later in the summer.
If that happens, even if ultimately the labor situation works itself out and the NFL plays the 2011 season as scheduled, the opportunities both in jobs and in playing time will be scant for the just drafted rookies.
It was hard to see the excitement the Steelers' coaches expressed to their draft class because of the elephant in the room -- the lockout. Coach Mike Tomlin shrugged it off as being the same animal for all 32 NFL teams, but the frustration was evident from some of his coaches.
Keith Butler coaches the linebackers and he knows how frustrating it was not to have fourth-round pick Thaddeus Gibson available last spring. Gibson, like Heyward, played at Ohio State. Unlike Heyward, he did not earn his degree when the Steelers drafted him a year ago. Other than a three-day minicamp, he could not participate in the Steelers preseason work because Ohio State's spring session did not end until June. In essence, Gibson was locked out and it caught up with him.
Gibson made the team but he was so far behind because of what he missed in the spring that when Aaron Smith was injured in October and the Steelers needed to add a defensive end to their roster, they waived Gibson to make room. Gibson now plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
Like Gibson and many other college defensive ends they have drafted, the Steelers want to convert Chris Carter to an outside linebacker for their 3-4 defense. They drafted him Saturday in the fifth round from Fresno State. Butler worried the lockout will hinder Carter, just as Gibson was held back.
"We had time with him in the minicamp, but other than that we had no time with him," Butler said of Gibson. "We got a little bit of time with him in the summer, but very little time. Then, he came into camp far behind.
"So I hope this thing gets done so we can get to work with these guys and teach them. Usually, we have three shots at them before they play a preseason game -- in the minicamp, in the OTAs and then in training camp. We give them a whole bunch of stuff early, then we kind of spread it out in OTAs and then in training camp it's spread out a little more."
Butler was speaking politically incorrect as far as the NFL is concerned; after all, it's the owners pushing the lockout that is preventing the rookies from joining their teams.
"That kind of takes out a couple of big steps for us," Butler continued, "especially if we don't get to have the minicamp and especially if we don't get to have the OTAs."
The Steelers drafted several rookies who might help them in the 2011 season if given the opportunity.
Immediate help could come from Heyward, who would be used the way the Steelers did Ziggy Hood his rookie season in 2009, filling in for a series or play here and there -- unless an injury or his play demands otherwise.
Tackle Marcus Gilbert and guard Keith Williams could provide help in an offensive line that needs it. The secondary thirsts for more talented cornerbacks and the Steelers drafted two of them, Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen; there is certainly opportunity for each. It's the same for running back Baron Batch, their seventh-round pick. He could provide help immediately on third downs.
But if they don't know what they're doing, the 2011 season for all of their rookies could be a wash, particularly if the lockout ends just before the season and there virtually is no training camp.
"It hurts the young players," Butler said of the lockout. "We've got a team of veterans, so it's really to our advantage a little bit in terms of the CBA because our guys know what we're doing defensively and offensively. The young guys, it's going to be a struggle for them and a struggle for me too trying to get them caught up."
The struggle continues this week in a federal courtroom in St. Louis.
First Published May 2, 2011 12:00 am