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Neal, lots of talk about who the Steelers will take with the 15th pick. Last year, David DeCastro played almost like he was a rookie himself, because he barely played the previous season. The impact of the 2013 draft class can still be felt in 2014. Who do you think will stand out from that group this year, now that they've had some experience?
That's really a critical question for this season. While I wouldn't say DeCastro "barely" played, he did get three starts in at the end of the year, two of them being more or less of playoff intensity. He did not have a long streak of games under him until 2014, and emerged as one of the better interior offensive linemen in the NFL.
Are we going to see the same kind of leap of improvement from the Class of 2014?
The obvious one is second round pick Le'Veon Bell. He had a great year, there's no doubt about that. But he had a great year for a rookie. He grew quite a bit as a runner, and he'll continue to grow. He's the easy answer on which one will be the most productive. He will be, hands down.
Jarvis Jones is an easy answer as well. Without much of an arsenal of pass rush moves, and a lanky frame, Jones was consumed by most tackles he went against as a rookie. More was asked of him than any other rookie outside linebacker taken in the 3-4 era of the Steelers' franchise, and rightly so; he was the only one taken in the first round. However, more will be asked of him this season, especially considering some kind of move with LaMarr Woodley is still expected, and that move seems more likely Jones will have to play every base package snap.
But the real answer here is Markus Wheaton. The main reason I say that is no one dealt with as much adversity as he did from the start. NFL rules prohibit players from practicing with their full teams until their colleges let out for the summer. That put Wheaton behind the 8-ball right away. Broken fingers on separate incidents reduced his playing time, and generally, he barely had more than two weeks of consistent work when he was healthy at any one stretch of time last year.
Add in the fact wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is all but gone, and Wheaton has a huge opportunity to lock down the team's split end position (one that's resulted in huge production for multiple receivers during Ben Roethlisberger's career), especially with a (knock on wood) healthy tight end group helping to solidify the offensive line. Wheaton's known work ethic will begin to pay dividends, provided his fingers aren't broken and the NFL doesn't restrict him from his professional job - which is somehow legally allowable.