Steelers: Projecting Rookies Who Will Start Week One

Oct 24, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive back Artie Burns (1) looks on during the second half against the Clemson Tigers at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 24, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive back Artie Burns (1) looks on during the second half against the Clemson Tigers at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers used the 2016 NFL Draft to address needs in the secondary and trenches, in addition to adding depth at linebacker and wide receiver. Which rookies will win starting jobs by week one of the regular season?

Head coach Mike Tomlin has already stated that the Steelers will not shy away from starting their 2016 draft picks in the regular season – if they show enough potential to start, that is. The Steelers’ rookie class is filled with boundless potential, but it’s likely that only a few get starting reps at any point this season, let alone by week one. With that said, here are the players who have a realistic shot to start Monday, September 12 at Washington.

Sean Davis – strong safety

The release of Will Allen has left the Steelers with more questions than answers at strong safety. Shamarko Thomas, once touted as the future following Troy Polamalu’s retirement, has been absolutely invisible over the past two seasons. In 2015, Thomas recorded just one tackle; in his three years with the Steelers, Thomas has totaled 38 tackles and a single forced fumble. He’s started only two games in that span. You can connect the dots here.

Davis’ only other competition is Robert Golden, a special teams captain who started to receive defensive snaps toward the end of last season. Golden was typically used as an extra body in pass coverage, as he is a free safety by trade. Davis played cornerback in his final year at Maryland, and it became clear that his knack for the ball and physicality are better suited for safety.

A great tackler with the size to match up against opposing tight ends, Davis has the tools to excel in zone coverage and in run support. Davis should be in prime position to lock down the strong safety position by September, and possibly for years to come.

Javon Hargrave – nose tackle

Like strong safety, nose tackle is a grey area for Pittsburgh. Steve McLendon’s departure in free agency leaves Dan McCullers as the only nose tackle who has taken in-game snaps with the Steelers defense. The Steelers did acquire former Charger Ricardo Mathews earlier this offseason, but his role will likely be limited to that of a rotational relief player. No matter how you slice it, defensive tackle is currently a weak point for the Steelers defense.

Hargrave, coming off a 13.5 sack season coupled with All-American honors, has extensive experience at the position. He served as South Carolina State’s defensive tackle throughout all four years of college, notching double-sack games and national awards left and right. The biggest complaint against Hargrave is that he dominated the small-school MEAC, and that NFL-level competition will be too much to adapt to. Given his pedigree and breakout performance at the East-West Shrine Game, though, Hargrave could be anchoring the middle of the Steelers defense by fall.

More from Still Curtain

Artie Burns – cornerback

In many cases, the primary goal for a team’s first round pick is to be starting by week one. When it comes to Steelers first rounder Artie Burns, that goal may have to be put on hold.

Burns’ role in the cornerback rotation is going to be decided by two factors: 1) how well Burns himself progresses this offseason, and 2) how the rest of the Steelers corners pan out. William Gay and Ross Cockrell are currently slated to be the top two cover men, and barring injury, this is unlikely to change.

Burns will probably battle Senquez Golson, 2015’s second round pick, for the position of nickel corner. Golson missed the entirety of last season with a shoulder injury, so he enters training camp just as big a mystery as Burns. Still, given Golson’s superior coverage mechanics, he could get the early nod for #3 cornerback. It’s better for the Steelers to give Burns the time needed to polish his skills rather than throwing him into the lineup too early.

Demarcus Ayers – kick/punt returner

Even with the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers still own one of the strongest receiving corps in the NFL. Although Demarcus Ayers may not see the field on offense, he could cement himself as a dangerous threat on special teams.

At the University of Houston, Ayers made a name for himself as both a kickoff and punt return man. In 33 total punting situations, Ayers averaged 9.7 yards per return; in 71 kickoff returns, he averaged nearly 23 yards per touch. Ayers notched one touchdown in each return category, per the Washington Post.

Kickoffs are quickly becoming obsolete in the NFL, but the Steelers’ return game needs a shot in the arm nonetheless. Markus Wheaton has no business returning kickoffs. Antonio Brown is an elite punt returner, but the Steelers are rightfully becoming wary of the potential injury risks that come with the job.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via Pro Football Reference.