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Steelers Could Start Three Rookies on Defense

The NFL draft is officially in the books for another year, and few teams drafted with as much emphasis on “need” as the Pittsburgh Steelers. Head coach Mike Tomlin echoed those sentiments, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette it was “realistic” to expect the team’s first three selections to all play significant roles in their first seasons.

“That’s why we chose them where we chose them,” Tomlin added. “But they have to earn it, and we’ll give them the opportunity to do that.” Not long ago, it would have been borderline blasphemous to assume rookies would even see the turf behind a dearth of talent spearheaded by defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau. But the unit has undergone a serious injection of youth since the promotion of Keith Butler, and with it comes a learning curve that can only be addressed with playing time.

It’s not unreasonable to assume each of the team’s first three picks would immediately improve the defense. First-round pick, cornerback Artie Burns, will join a secondary that leaked passing yards last year. With the relieving departures of Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen, only William Gay and Ross Cockrell remain as expected starters. Burns should get playing time on the outside, pending the health of last year’s second-round pick Senquez Golson, who missed all of 2015 with a shoulder injury.

Strong safety Sean Davis out of Maryland will likely engage in a training camp battle with Robert Golden for the starting role. Golden, still only 25 himself, was solid in relief of Will Allen last year. Despite a productive season, the 33-year-old Allen was cut, and with Shamarko Thomas not panning out the way the Steelers had hoped, it was only a matter of time until they addressed the position in the draft.

But perhaps the most intriguing selection is third-rounder Javon Hargrave. The stocky DT out of a small school turned heads when given the chance to play against similarly-skilled competition at the Senior Bowl. Explosive defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will be pleased to have a dynamic force playing between them in the trenches. The departure of Steve McLendon and up-in-the-air status of Dan McCullers makes Hargrave’s situation especially interesting on a team desperate to generate pressure without relying exclusively on blitzes.

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