By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
As the summer rolls along, the Steelers are primed and hopeful for another playoff run in an attempt to bring home the team’s 7th Lombardi Trophy. Over the last few seasons, the Steelers have infused the team with young talent that will help take the team into the next era of Steelers football. Every year, new players break out into the spotlight and become household commodities. Which Steelers have the potential to breakout this year and make a name for themselves?
OLB Bud Dupree
Bud Dupree fell to the Steelers unexpectedly in the 1st-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His fall was the Steelers gain. After succeeding early on during his rookie year where he put together 4 sacks in 8 games, Dupree hit a wall during the second half of the season. This wall wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the former Kentucky standout was a highly raw player as a pass-rusher. During his second season, Dupree was never truly healthy and mostly relied on his God-given talent to make sacks, most of which were on extended plays where his hustle put him in a position to make the tackle. Nonetheless, Dupree still showed some improvement to his game from his rookie season.
However, this offseason acclaimed pass-rushing coach/guru Chuck Smith worked with Dupree to help refine his skills as a pass-rusher. Smith has coached players like Von Miller and Aaron Donald, two players that are two of the best defensive players in the league. Smith boldly stated that he believes that Dupree is going to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, which is extremely high praise to the type of potential Smith sees in the young outside linebacker.
The Steelers don’t need Dupree to be the Defensive Player of the Year by any means. But they desperately need a player to reach double digit sacks to be the franchise sack artist that they have lacked since James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both put up those numbers in 2010. If the end of last season and his work this offseason has been any indication, the arrow is pointing towards Dupree having a huge breakout year in 2017.
S Sean Davis
Just like many rookie defensive backs, Sean Davis had plenty of growing pains during his rookie campaign in 2016. However, by the end of the season, the safety out of Maryland had put together an extremely productive rookie year, finishing with 70 total tackles (which was 4th on the team), 1.5 sacks, and 1 interception. What’s the interesting part of that? He did it all with a torn labrum that he suffered during the third game of the regular season.
After undergoing surgery this offseason, Sean Davis is poised to make large strides in his second season as the Steelers starting strong safety opposite of Mike Mitchell. As the season progressed, Davis began looked extremely comfortable with the defensive playbook and looked stronger in coverage and playing in the box. If his rookie season ultimately ends up being his “worst” season as a pro, Davis has a long and successful career ahead of him roaming the Steelers’ secondary.
DT Javon Hargrave
Of the three rookie defenders in 2016, Javon Hargrave had the earliest success. After standing out in training camp and the preseason, Hargrave went on to start 13 of the 15 games he appeared in at nose tackle. While this was good on paper (and he definitely saw plenty of time), his role as a nose tackle was underused during 2016. Throughout the first half of the season, Hargrave would routinely come off of the field when the defense went into their nickel packages. However, whenever Cam Heyward went down with a season-ending injury, Hargrave instantly stepped up and became a three-down lineman along the defensive line. This increased playing time saw him get his first two career sacks in back-to-back games.
Fast-forward to 2017, and it appears that Hargrave is poised to receive even more snaps than he did in his rookie season. Hargrave’s unique skillset allows him to not only be stout against the run, but also serve as an effective interior pass-rusher, similar to Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, two players Hargrave has received comparisons to. The Steelers have been high on the young tackle and that will likely continue into the season.
CB Artie Burns
Artie Burns was no doubt thrown to the wolves during his rookie season. As a 1st-round pick at the Steelers biggest position of need for quite a few years, it was no surprise that Burns saw plenty of playing time as a raw cornerback. By season’s end, Burns had logged 810 defensive snaps, which was the fifth-most on the team. As the season progressed, Burns allowed some big plays, which is to be expected by a rookie cornerback. But what stood out was his ability to hold his own against #1 receivers by putting in some quality pass breakups (13) and breaking the Steelers’ interception mark by a rookie (3).
Burns possesses the size and skills to be the shutdown corner that the Steelers have been looking for since Ike Taylor was in his prime years ago. With the Steelers looking to utilize more man-coverage in 2017, Burns will see himself getting even more one-on-one action than he did as a rookie. Luckily for the Steelers, Burns has the opportunity to practice against the NFL’s best in Antonio Brown each day to hone his skills. While the growing pains were present in 2016 and can be expected at times in 2017, the promise is there for Burns to begin playing like a true #1 shutdown corner.
ILB Vince Williams
For the first time in a decade, the Steelers defense will be without long-time starter Lawrence Timmons. After departing in free agency to join the Dolphins, Timmons will be replaced by Vince Williams, one of the Steelers two 6th-round draft picks in 2013. The Steelers showed interest in signing some high-profile free agent inside linebackers during the offseason, bringing in players like Patriots’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower. However, after not signing any players and neglecting to select an inside linebacker during the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers made clear of one thing: Williams is their guy.
After starting 13 games as a rookie, Williams spent most of his time over the past few seasons as a depth player and spot starter for the oft-injured Ryan Shazier. Williams’ playing style is that of a thumper due to his stocky, solid frame. There have been questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker as he lacks the desired athleticism that you look for in the position. But Williams’ work ethic and hard-nosed playing style will be more than welcome on the Steelers’ defense and he will grab this opportunity and run with it. Expect great things from the 5th-year pro.
WR Martavis Bryant
I know what you’re thinking… Martavis Bryant has already proven himself as an NFL receiver by putting up huge stats each time he has been on the field. But when you look closer at his stats, Bryant has never had a 1,000-yard season, one of the typical markers of a “breakout” season by a receiver (although it isn’t solely the deciding factor in that judgement). And truth be told, Bryant’s 21 career NFL games is not exactly a great sample size to dictate how successful a career has been, especially after missing the entire 2016 season due to a suspension.
That changes this season.
Bryant clearly spent his suspension and offseason working to reignite his passion for football and completely transform his physique. His new muscular frame will allow him to be even more of a physical threat without sacrificing any of his elite speed that made him a threat anytime he had the ball in his hands in 2014 and 2015. Think about the possibilities now that Bryant is back. With Brown, Bryant, Le’Veon Bell, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jesse James all as potential targets, defenses will have to respect each dimension of the offense, which only means good things for Bryant. Bryant has averaged 17.3 yards per catch during his career and has displayed his deep-play ability consistently when on the field. While there are only so many yards to go around for the Steelers, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to imagine Bryant breaking the 1,000-yard mark this season alongside Brown.
Even if he doesn’t break that threshold, Bryant is sure to put together some exciting plays for the Steelers this season.
Join the discussion at steelernation.com!