I certainly hope you enjoyed the first part of my “potential breakout” players post. Today’s list will feature the same format as yesterday’s, only it will feature five Steelers on the Defensive side of the ball. Let’s get started shall we:
1. Cameron Heyward
While Cameron Heyward went through some growing pains at times while working his way into the 5-Technique rotation as a Rookie, he showed some really nice flashes of talent at stopping the run and getting after the passer when asked as the season progressed. Rookie status aside, Heyward improved quite a bit towards the end of the season, and appeared much further along development wise than Ziggy Hood was (who was a 4-3 DT in college) at the same point in his career.
Heyward will get numerous chances to strut his stuff in Training Camp, and he will be the top backup 5-Technique in the Steelers’ Defensive End rotation. If Heyward can log quality playing time and spell the aging yet still very effective Brett Keisel, it would be a perfect scenario for the Steelers. The soon to be 34 year old Keisel can stay fresh throughout the season, and Heyward can get a decent amount of work in his second season with the team. Be on the lookout for Heyward to vastly improve upon his stat line from 2011 which read: 11 Tackles, 1.0 Sack, 1 Pass Defended, and 1 Field Goal Block. The more reps Heyward can ultimately receive, the more he can make a difference.
2. Jason Worilds
Although Worilds will likely be a backup this season, it will not take away from his total contributions to the team and ability to make a bigger difference than he did last season. A pass-rushing Outside Linebacker, Worilds will be the top reserve behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and should see some extended playing time if the Coaching Staff elects to keep both veterans fresh (Harrison especially).
Adding to Worilds’ value is the fact that Harrison is 34 and a Public Enemy #2 (behind Jonathan Vilma now) of Roger Goodell and the N.F.L.’s crusade to wash their hands of future lawsuits. Deebo probably has another two solid seasons of production left, but if Worilds proves he can spell Deebo effectively, Harrison might be able to extend his career, and the Steelers would have themselves a viable candidate to replace Harrison when the time comes, or the N.F.L. decides to kick him out if they so choose. Plus it would not hurt if Worilds got in the game in some sub-package pass-rushing situations. Even a “Psycho” type package with Harrison, Woodley, and Worilds plus 2 Linemen and 6 Defensive Backs would be pretty sweet to see at some point. But hey, I can only dream of something so very awesome.
I have faith that Harrison and Woodley can both stay healthy over the 16+ game haul, and that disaster will likely not strike twice. Yet after last season, where both guys went down at the same time and missed extended periods, the Steelers lack of depth was exposed, and the value of a player like Worilds increased. While Worilds set career highs in Tackles (38) and Sacks (3.0), he must be ready to take his game to the next level this season if he indeed receives the chances.
3. Steve McLendon
Of all of Pittsburgh’s young players on the Defensive side of the ball which intrigue me, McLendon is the biggest enigma of them all in my opinion. Another one of Pittsburgh’s Undrafted and developed contributors, McLendon (6’4″ 280 lbs.) will be get his most extended chance to play during Training Camp and throughout the 2012 season as he battles for the backup Nose Tackle spot and playing time along the Defensive Line as well.
Because the Steelers are not the most keen franchise on starting Rookies (if they are not forced to do it), especially on the Defensive side of the ball. With that in mind, McLendon (hopefully he put on more weight to his frame) could leap-frog massive Rookie Alameda Ta’amu for the backup role behind “Big Snack” Hampton, in what will likely be Hampton’s final season. If for some reason “Snack’s” injured knee cannot hold up, McLendon will likely jump from top backup Nose Tackle to starter. McLendon could also see some time in pass-rush sub packages, and could even be asked to fill in for spells at Defensive End if injuries hit the “Top 3″ rotation. If McLendon’s weight hovers at closer to 280 lbs. than 300-310 lbs., the Steelers might be wise to give him some extra reps. there if “Snack” is healthy. Whatever the case may be, this will be a big season for McLendon, and Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell seems to have quite a bit of faith in him. Thus, I am pretty intrigued to see what he can do with some extra playing time.
4. Cortez Allen and/or Curtis Brown
Like Sanders and Cotchery, I combined Allen and Brown into one spot. This is because the winner of the competition between the two for 3rd Cornerback (or possibly even CB#2) role will likely see the most playing time, and thus have the most chances to prove themselves. Last season, both proved themselves as terrific contributors on Special Teams, and Allen even received some playing time in Dime situations. Both players have big frames (Allen: 6’1″ 196 lbs. and Brown: 6′ 185 lbs.) the Steelers like in their Corners, and each will likely be asked to shut down teams which try to dink and dunk the Steelers and pick them apart when they spread the field in sub packages this season.
With a full season and off-season to learn under Defensive Backs Coach Carnell Lake, Allen and Brown should be ready to step up their games and fill the void left by William Gay and Bryant McFadden who are now gone. Regardless of who lands ahead of who on the depth chart, both figure to be significant contributors this season. Plus, with Ike Taylor at 32 years of age, and Keenan Lewis an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season, Brown and Allen are sure to be contributing even more in the future.
5. Stevenson Sylvester
Like Worilds and Heyward, Sylvester could end up spending most if not all of the season as a backup. Nevertheless, Sylvester could chip in quite a bit this season and make significant strides as an Inside Linebacker and on the Defensive side of the ball. Because the Steelers drafted David DeCastro instead of Inside Linebacker Dont’a Hightower this April, and did not address the strongside Inside Linebacker position this offseason, the door is open for Sylvester to work his way up the depth chart and prove himself that he is a valid candidate to take over in the future.
At this point, the only thing standing in Stevenson Sylvester’s way and the starting “Buck” Inside Linebacker gig is Larry Foote, a 32 year old veteran. Linebackers Coach Keith Butler has Foote penciled in as the starter due to his veteran savvy and knowledge of the Defense, but said that Sylvester is “in the pipeline” to start at the “Buck” position down the road. Plus, being the only Inside Linebacker behind Lawrence Timmons and Foote with any sort of significant game experience works in Sylvester’s favor if he must play on a regular basis this season. Thus, 2012 will be a big season for Sylvester to solidify a roster spot for himself and putting himself in line for a future starting job with some solid play when he gets his chances.
Statistics Courtesy of Steelers Team Page on ESPN.com
Heights & Weights Courtesy of Team Roster on Steelers.com