Steelers will see which rookies step up and earn their place on the team
"We're not going to anoint anyone or hand jobs to anyone. They've got to earn it. Part of them doing that is having an opportunity."
Ziggy Hood paid his first visit to Pittsburgh yesterday, and the question for him and the rest of the Steelers' 2009 draft class is where do they fit in?
Not all nine draft picks will fit, of course. Some will wind up on the Steelers' practice squad and some will find themselves on other squads or none at all in '09.
The experience of past drafts shows few rookies make their mark. For example, two of the seven 2008 draft picks did not make the team, three others hardly played and the top two picks contributed little.
"Really, it's just more of a function that we have a pretty good football team," Mike Tomlin explained of the lack of playing time for rookies in his first two seasons as coach. "We're not going to anoint anyone or hand jobs to anyone. They've got to earn it. Part of them doing that is having an opportunity."
The Steelers lost just one starter from their Super Bowl championship team, so there would seem to be few jobs available to their rookies. Yet many of the nine draft choices will have their opportunities to contribute to the 2009 season, and the rest will be up to them.
Hood won't start unless someone is hurt, but he can provide help immediately as a backup end. The Steelers like to give their starting defensive linemen breaks and the backups usually see a lot of playing time. Also, Tomlin mentioned that Hood might play inside when the Steelers use two inside linemen and two linebackers as their front four in their nickel and dime defenses.
Kraig Urbik will get a chance to compete for Darnell Stapleton's starting job at right guard. If he does not start, Urbik should become the top backup guard and dress for games along with Trai Essex as the two backup linemen on Sundays.
Mike Wallace should have no problem becoming at least the No. 4 receiver and prime kickoff return man. He could push Limas Sweed for the No. 3 job at wide receiver as well, although Sweed would seem to have the advantage there.
Keenan Lewis, their third choice in the third round, will get his chance to challenge William Gay as their starting left corner but Gay is apt to keep that job. Lewis then would become their third or fourth corner with the expectation he will also help on special teams.
Joe Burnett, a 5-foot-9 cornerback drafted in the fifth round, will have to show he can return punts or beat out Wallace to return kickoffs in order to dress for games or to even make the 53-man roster.
"We realize that's a potential weakness in our football team," Tomlin said of the return game. "Maybe these young men are the answer to that."
Running back Frank "The Tank" Summers, drafted in the fifth round, actually will benefit from having Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore at the same position. Summers is not a featured back, he's a plow horse and the Steelers have needed one of those since Jerome "The Bus" Bettis retired after the 2005 season. He has short-yardage and goal-line written all over him and could provide some scoring punch.
Defensive tackle Sonny Harris, drafted in the sixth round, and tight end David Johnson, drafted in the seventh, likely do not fit in the 53-man roster, barring injuries, unless they have standout summers.
Center A.Q. Shipley, drafted in the seventh round, is a different case. Justin Hartwig is the only center the Steelers have other than Stapleton. Shipley will get a chance to convince them he is worth keeping around, although he's unlikely to play much even if he does, barring injuries.
Besides opportunities presenting themselves, a rookie can always force himself on the team, the way Parker did as an undrafted player in 2004.
"Because of what happened here in recent years is no indication of what's going to happen with these young men," Tomlin said. "Maybe some men in this group are not enamored by the transition, are quick studies and are competitive and able to produce. And maybe they'll be on the field for us because of it."