It happens in the offseason of every professional sport. A team that struggled the previous year and didn't seem to have the talent and chemistry to be a real winner suddenly becomes everyone's darlings and preseason favorites after a series of trades and free agent signings.
With the exception of the Miami Heat, who just won the NBA Finals two seasons after putting together the three-headed monster of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it's very rare that any team in any sport can go from pretenders to contenders (or even champions) simply after a few offseason acquisitions.
In the context of the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line, a lot of people's expectations and attitudes about the unit have changed considerably this offseason based on the team landing studs David DeCastro and Mike Adams in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.
In recent years, the Steelers offensive line has been a source of stress and anxiety for both the fans and the front office. With the number of times Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked, the unit has probably kept him up a night or two, whether he admits it or not. It is true that a lot of Big Ben's sacks can be attributed to his style of play, but risky style of play or not, when you have guys like Justin Hartwig, Jonathon Scott and Darnell Stapleton trying to protect a quarterback, he's going to be eating turf more often than most quarterbacks, even if he has the quickest release since the days of Dan Marino.
Fortunately, in recent drafts, the Steelers have infused the offensive line with high-end talent after spending many years trying to piece together a unit with lower-round draft picks, undrafted free agents and journeymen free agents.
In 2010, the Steelers selected center Maurkice Pouncey in the first round, and he quickly became one of the best young offensive linemen in football, making the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons.
The Steelers picked tackle Marcus Gilbert in the 2nd round in the 2011 draft, and even though he struggled at times, he started a number of games and showed flashes of promise during his rookie season.
And now with the drafting of DeCastro and Adams along with Willie Colon moving from right tackle to guard, suddenly, the Steelers offensive line has gone from a source of stress and anxiety to a source of pride and hope.
In the many conversations I've had with fellow Steelers fans since the draft, I hear nothing but loads of praise heaped upon a unit that is far from a finished product. I catch myself doing it, too.
I just assume that DeCastro will pull a Pouncey and be the "pick and plug" rookie guard that everyone has been calling him since the second he was drafted. However, I have to remind myself that everyone is human, even David DeCastro, and better rookies than him have had a difficult time transitioning from the college ranks to the pro level.
I just assume that the blue-chip talent that Adams has will automatically manifest itself during his rookie season, and that he'll soon emerge as one of the starting tackles. But I have to remind myself that Adams is in the same boat as Gilbert was last year. And even though Adams is certainly a first round talent, chances are he may only show the same occasional flashes of promise that Gilbert displayed during his rookie season in '10, and he may even have a hard time cracking the starting five.
I just assume that Gilbert will make the huge leap in understanding and awareness that most talented players make from their first to second season. But what if he doesn't jump that far and suffers a sophomore slump? What if he has to play left tackle during his second season and is now in charge of protecting Big Ben's blind side? Will he be able to go up against the other teams' top pass rushers week in and week out?
I just assume that Willie Colon will smoothly make the transition from tackle to guard. After all, he's mean and nasty and his personality and size are perfectly suited for the role of guard. But I have to remind myself that, not only has Colon missed the last two seasons due to injury, he's spent his entire professional career as a right tackle. They say it's hard to switch from left tackle to right and vice versa. Well, if it's that hard to switch positions that mirror themselves, imagine how hard it could be to switch to a position with a new set of responsibilities.
I just assume that Pouncey will continue to be one of the top centers in the NFL, and that he'll quickly emerge as the leader of this new, talented unit. However, I have to remind myself that even a really talented offensive line needs good chemistry in-order to mesh well together. What if Pouncey has trouble communicating with his new line mates? In football years, Pouncey is still a pup himself, and when you throw in a guy going from tackle to guard, a sophomore tackle and a couple of rookies, let's just say, things might get a little scary when Pouncey calls out the line signals right before the snap of the football.
Along those same lines, I have to keep reminding myself that there is a new offensive coordinator and all five of these guys are going to be learning new terminology. DeCastro and Adams are obviously rookies, so any terminology is going to be new to them. And Colon, Pouncey and Gilbert will also have to learn Todd Haley's system after playing under Bruce Arians their entire pro careers.
Yes, I can certainly point to a lot of reasons why the Steelers new "super-talented" offensive line will emerge as one of the best in the NFL. However, I can't assume it, at least not yet.