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Steelers need strong rookie seasons from Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave

The Steelers confirmed in Friday night’s 27-14 preseason win at New Orleans that their offense is primed for the 2016 season.

The defense still could use a little work, but the good news is that the Steelers could be getting their biggest rookie contribution on that side of the ball in 15 years.

Third-round pick Javon Hargrave had a sack and a batted pass against the Saints and appears to be ahead of Daniel McCullers, who didn’t play, in the competition to start at nose tackle. The massive McCullers, who has shown little in two seasons, doesn’t have Hargraves’ playmaking ability.

Second-rounder Sean Davis was beaten for a touchdown Friday but still made an impression. Although safety is his natural position, he’s also been working at nickel cornerback. He’ll be needed there because the depth chart looks scary behind starters William Gay and Ross Cockrell.

Donald Washington, a 30-year-old who hasn’t played in the NFL since 2012, heads a motley crew of backup cornerbacks that also includes Montell Garner, Kevin White and Al-Hajj Shabazz.

Right now, Senquez Golson looks like a wasted draft pick. Last year’s second-round pick, Golson missed his rookie season with a shoulder injury and could miss his sophomore season with a foot injury. Artie Burns, this year’s first-round pick, has missed practice time because of a quadriceps injury and still hasn’t played in a preseason game.

The Steelers are so desperate that they took at look at Keenan Lewis, who played for them from 2009 to 2012 before signing with New Orleans. But the 30-year-old’s hip is so bad they decided he can’t help improve the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense.

That secondary could get worse if Davis doesn’t help out right away. His ability to learn two positions as a rookie is a feather in his cap. The Steelers need Davis to make some big hits, create turnovers and in their wildest dreams maybe even cover a tight end.

Hargrave’s job is to help the Steelers move on from Steve McLendon, who signed with the Jets as a free agent.

If Davis and Hargrave check all those boxes, they would combine to form the Steelers’ best defensive rookie class since 2001.

That year, first-round pick Casey Hampton took over at nose tackle in Week 7 and started the last 11 games. He made five Pro Bowls over the next 11 years. Second-round pick Kendrell Bell was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year with nine sacks. The Steelers went 13-3 that year and reached the AFC championship game.

The Steelers are hoping to go further this year. Their offense can get them to the Super Bowl. Their defense could be their undoing along the way, and it’s not all on Davis and Hargrave to prevent that from happening.

Cameron Heyward (assuming Friday’s ankle injury isn’t too serious), Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier all have the look of defensive cornerstones and need to keep that development going this year. Jarvis Jones and Dupree have to improve as pass rushers. Davis and Hargrave have to do more than just watch and learn, which is what defensive rookies mostly did when Dick LeBeau ran the Steelers defense.

Even though the Steelers assembled a defense that won two Super Bowls and got to another in the LeBeau Era, none of those players did much as rookies. Troy Polamalu didn’t start a game in 2003 and Ike Taylor, also drafted that year, saw more action as a kickoff returner than a cornerback.

In 2005, second-round pick Bryant McFadden had an interception, seven passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble in his rookie season. He also had a huge pass breakup in the playoffs at Indianapolis to help hold off the Colts in the Steelers’ epic 21-18 upset that ultimately led to their Super Bowl XL victory. But no one else from that draft was a factor on defense.

In 2007, Mike Tomlin hit it out of the park with his first two picks as Steelers coach. But as rookies Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley combined for a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries (both from Timmons) and four sacks (all from Woodley).

Over the next four years the Steelers drafted Lewis in 2009, Jason Worilds in 2010 and Heyward in 2011. Lewis and Worilds were late bloomers and because of entrenched veterans in front of him Heyward didn’t get a chance to start until his third season.

Jones, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2013, has only one more sack in three years than Dupree has in one year.

By 2014, LeBeau’s last year as defensive coordinator, rookies were playing more out of necessity.

Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2014, started five games but missed seven with injuries in his rookie season. Tuitt, picked in the second round, started the last four games in his rookie season and had a sack and a forced fumble in a win over the Chiefs that clinched a playoff berth.

Dupree had a sack in each of the first two games last year with Keith Butler taking over as defensive coordinator, but he finished the season with just four sacks. He was the only real contributor on defense from the 2015 draft.

Steelers defensive rookies showed potential in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, Davis and Hargrave already are showing more than that.

Hargrave could earn a starting job faster than Hampton did as a rookie and Davis could have a better rookie season than Polamalu. Does that mean that they’ll have better careers than their respective predecessors? That’s asking an awful lot, and bright futures aren’t the top priority in Pittsburgh these days. What matters is whether or not Davis and Hargrave can help the Steelers win the Super Bowl this year.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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