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Déjà Vu

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Led by Cameron Heyward and Marcus Gilbert, the current Steelers rookie class appears ready to follow in the footsteps of the 2010 class and make a strong contribution to the team right away.

When Maurkice Pouncey broke into the starting lineup last season, he also broke through a tradition of keeping rookies out of the line of fire in their inaugural seasons.

Sure, guys like Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall, and Santonio Holmes all made some sort of contribution in their first professional seasons, but they were hardly players a team could count on game-in and game-out.

Pouncey played his way into a starting job, quickly becoming the team’s best lineman in the process, while other members of the 2010 draft class showed up in big ways.

Stevenson Sylvester appeared in every game as a rookie, leading the charge for a revamped special teams unit. Wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown both exploded in the latter half of the season, pulling in big catches down the stretch in the regular season and duplicating that in the playoffs.

Altogether, the rookie class was a big reason why Pittsburgh went from a disappointing 2009 campaign to the brink of a seventh ring in Super Bowl XLV.

Going into the offseason, though, that 2010 group looked like an aberration – a perfect storm of players simply taking the next step before they were expected to. Surely, the tradition of holding rookies aside would return in 2011, with such players behind the eight-ball without the benefit of OTAs or minicamps.

Early on, it’s looking like that tradition will be bucked for the second straight year.

Like Pouncey before him, second-round selection Marcus Gilbert has claimed one of the five starting offensive line spots.

Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh SteelersYes, his insertion into the lineup was a result of an injury to starter Willie Colon, but it speaks volumes that the Steelers thought enough of the rookie to let him take over, rather than pluck former-starter Flozell Adams out of free agency to replace Colon as he did last season.

Gilbert may not have the experience of a Flozell Adams, but he has already grasped the “next man up” mentality of the Pittsburgh Steelers under Mike Tomlin.

“It’s sad that we lost a really good offensive tackle, but some guy has to pick up the rifle and take it with them,” said Gilbert, prior to the first start of his career in Week 2.

Gilbert isn’t the only rookie to force his way onto the active roster this season; he’s just the one with the best opportunity.

First-round pick Cameron Heyward is also receiving some early work, pairing with 2009 first-rounder Ziggy Hood as the primary backups to 30-something veterans Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel in a heavily-rotated defensive line.

“Well, anybody that makes our football team on the defensive line is going to be in the game in the early season and in the hot games,” said LeBeau of Heyward’s early presence.

“We thought enough of him to make him our first round draft choice; we haven’t seen anything to dissuade us from our confidence there. He’s a young player; he’s got a lot to learn. I really like his attitude and his work ethic. I do believe if he continues on the road that he’s going down now with his willingness to take coaching and apply his god-given talent to this scheme, I think he’s going to end up being a real good football player.”

That attitude also includes an element of humility, a trait that led the defensive end to call his performance in a preseason game “terrible.”

He’s a little less harsh on himself these days, though he does acknowledge that he has a long way to go.

“I just think it’s an ongoing process,” said Heyward. “I know I’m not satisfied with how I’ve played, but I’m just working on getting better.”

Heyward likely won’t break into a serious role unless Smith continues with his unfortunate trend of season-ending injuries, but he is in position to contribute early in his career, while at the same time improving himself to one day earn the job with his play.

Those two aren’t the only players who could pay dividends in their rookie season, though.

Fourth-round cornerback Cortez Allen is the lead dog in the “two dogs, one bone” mentality that coach Tomlin used with Sanders and Brown last season. The rookie has pushed his way into soPhoto by Chuck LeClaireme reps over fellow-corner Curtis Brown, who was drafted one round earlier.

The hope is that the competition between the two evolves like the Sanders-Brown competition last season and leads the rookies to take the next step in their development ahead of schedule. Even if one of them makes that leap, Pittsburgh will benefit.

And don’t forget about fifth-rounder Chris Carter, who had flashes of brilliance in training camp. With the depth at linebacker, Carter will be brought along much like Sylvester last season: as a special teamer first and an heir-apparent later.

While the 2011 class may not end up with the same level of impact as its predecessor last season, any immediate contributions would be a welcome sight for a team needing an injection of youth.

Of course, the Steelers will certainly welcome a repeat of last year if they can have it.

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