With first pick Ziggy Hood revamping his game, and second pick Kraig Urbik buried on the O-line depth chart somewhere behind Trai Essex and Jeremy Parquet, the rookies to watch this spring in Pittsburgh are third-round picks and childhood friends Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.
The two play on opposite sides of the ball, giving each side of the passing game a big, strong and fast rookie in these OTAs.
Natives of New Orleans' West Bank, the two have been best of friends since their Pop Warner days. But something happened at minicamp.
"We ain't friends no more, man," Lewis said three weeks ago.
"You know what happened," Wallace said from two locker stalls down.
"He got me for a big play," said Lewis. "He's going to bring it home, so I'm going to be waiting for what he has to say."
"Bringing it home" is the theme for these two players. After Lewis the cornerback was drafted 12 picks behind Wallace the receiver, he honked his horn all the way around the block to Wallace's house in New Orleans. The Steelers were aware the two had been close friends, but Coach Mike Tomlin insisted the Steelers remained true to their board on draft day.
"Maybe it will be comforting off the field," Tomlin said. "But in terms of making the plays required to be a part of this thing, and to do what's required, it's every man for himself."
Wallace and Lewis, with their amped rivalry, obviously get it. But Wallace didn't do too much bragging back home about his minicamp touchdown and the two were pals again when the Steelers' spring drills resumed last week.
"He was mad at me for a couple of days," Wallace said. "I think we're back to being friends now - for a few days anyway. When I score another one on him I guess he won't be my friend. But if he catches it, he won't be my friend."
It's a friendly rivalry between blue-chip athletes. Wallace is a blazer. He ran a 4.31 40 at the combine. He also stands 3/8 of an inch above 6 feet, and at 200 pounds fits the classic description of the big and fast deep threat. At least that's how he finished college. Wallace caught a 41-yard touchdown pass in the Cotton Bowl for victorious Ole Miss. It capped his career as a three-year starter with 101 catches, 15 touchdowns and a 19-yard per catch average. In four of his final five regular-season games, Wallace had 99 yards receiving or better, with catches of 88 and 72 yards. The TD in the Cotton Bowl was his seventh down the six-game stretch, then he made a difficult catch in the corner of the end zone for a 39-yard touchdown in the Senior Bowl that dished the MVP trophy to QB Pat White.
Wallace's size and speed and strong finish brought up a draft-day question: If similarly sized burner Darrius Heyward-Bey was the No. 7 pick overall, why was Wallace No. 84?
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians just shrugged a happy shrug.
"Pure speed," Arians said of Wallace on draft day. "He can take the top end off the coverage."
So, is Wallace some kind of bad actor?
"Great kid," Arians said. "He's overcome a lot of things already in life. I really like his work ethic. ... He's not had the easiest of times, and to get where he is today tells you about the qualities he has inside."
Those qualities emanate from Wallace, who's not only one to watch on the field, but his smile and unique, wide-to-thin mohawk haircut make him one to watch off the field as well.
"Our house didn't come down," he nonchalantly explained about Hurricane Katrina. "Our roof caved in. We had to get new furniture and everything, but we still had the foundation for our house, so we were good."
Still had the foundation, huh? Lucky break.
"Yeah, a lot of people lost everything. Their whole houses came down. We still had a lot of boards and stuff up."
The Wallace family, like the Lewis family, retreated to Texas for five months as their houses were fixed. Wallace was already at Ole Miss and Lewis was at Oregon State and they missed the brunt of the recovery.
The high school teammates signed to play at Oregon State together, but one of the coaches at O.P. Walker High took a job at Ole Miss, and Wallace followed him. The two friends became teammates again on draft day, and right now Wallace is receiving more of the workload.
Wallace works with the four-wide set on the No. 1 offense, and on those occasions he gets attention. Santonio Holmes crowed about Wallace's speed after William Gay jumped out of press coverage and backpedaled some 12-15 yards before a snap Tuesday. Ryan Clark loudly chided Wallace from the sideline for not coming down with a Ben Roethlisberger bomb after running past Anthony Madison. Most of Wallace's time, though, is spent running short, over-the-middle routes, something he didn't do much in college.
"I can't just be a one-trick pony who only runs deep routes," he said.
Wallace also works with the No. 1 punt coverage team as a gunner and will no doubt be viewed as the top kickoff-return project. Does Wallace get the impression the coaching staff expects much from him as a rookie?
"Yes, sir, I do," he said with his unmistakable New Orleans manners. "My coaches are putting a lot of time in on me. My coach stays on me, Coach Tomlin, the offensive coordinator, everybody. I believe they like me and want me to play. I'm just doing everything I can to get ready."
Lewis is another exquisite athlete, one who slipped all the way to pick No. 96. Lewis measures 6-0 7/8, 208 pounds and runs a 4.51 40. He's a physical corner in the Steelers' tradition.
"You have to be physical in this game," said Steelers DB coach Ray Horton. "You can be a cover corner if you want to be a cover corner, but you better pick the ball off. There are not a lot of guys who do that because quarterbacks are so good. It's hard to say 'that's all I'm going to do is intercept the ball.' You have to stop the run to make them throw the ball and he is a big, physical corner, a la Ike Taylor, and I expect him to pick the ball off and shut down the run game."
Lewis did that against Pitt in the Sun Bowl. In the 3-0 Oregon State win, Lewis had an interception - the ninth of his career - and helped hold LeSean McCoy under 100 yards rushing.
Lewis was a four-time All-Pac 10 All-Academic selection as well, so he has the size, speed, strength and intelligence to play free safety as well.
"He's a potential swing guy," Horton said. "But right now I want this kid to bump and run and knock guys out."
Lewis can do that as a punt gunner, too. He has the temperament and is working there this spring behind Wallace, who has the edge because he's expected to be active on game day to return kickoffs.
Lewis is the third-team left CB opposite Joe Burnett, the fifth-round pick.
"Just to play would be a big experience to me," Lewis said. "To compete for a starting job would be even nicer."
"He's going to be real good," said Wallace. "We both sit down and talk about the things we want to do. If he don't get on the field, and I don't get on the field, people back at home won't go for that. So we're both trying to work hard and get on the field any way we can."
Copyright Associated Press 2009