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Next Men Up

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While the NFL’s labor dispute might be solved in time for a full season of play, the shadow of the offseason lockout will undoubtedly linger over the crop of rookies making their entrances into the league. These young talents have been drafted and yet are unable to work out with their new team or meet with their new coaches. Many have yet to receive a playbook.

With all incoming rookies thrust into catch-up mode after the draft anyways, this year’s class will be hard-pressed to put themselves into position to make an impact in 2011. It will be especially unlikely that any rookie contributes immediately and significantly to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team notorious for keeping its new arrivals on the sidelines.

As such, Pittsburgh will need to look at some less-raw but still unproven talent to reinforce the team for another run at the Super Bowl. Here are second, third, and fourth year players who could help the Steelers in a number of ways if they can take the next step (or two):

Crezdon Butler, CB
Kevin Colbert brought in two mid-round corners on draft day, but neither is likely to help out immediately because of the shortened offseason. With Keenan Lewis buried six feet below Mike Tomlin’s doghouse, Butler is the only unproven non-rookie cornerback with a decent chance of making a move upwards. The second-year pro could earn a spot as a dime-back going into the preaseason with an outside shot at nickel-back if William Gay continues to struggle and/or Ike Taylor doesn’t return.

Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, RB
Mewelde Moore, the team’s third down back and default backup is likely on his way out of town once football business resumes. His departure would open up a spot behind Rashard Mendenhall for secondary carries, third-down duties, and a legitimate workload should the lead dog go down with an injury. Redman has a leg up in this race at the moment, having earned a gameday role in the redzone last season and showing off some skills in garbage time. Dwyer is at least a year behind Redman in terms of experience and suffered through some nagging injuries early last season. Both men should watch out though: if seventh-round rookie Baron Batch makes some noise in camp, the loser of this battle could be plying his trade on the practice squad.

Tony Hills and Chris Scott, OL
Outside of Maurkice Pouncey and maybe Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is full of question marks. Is it Colon or Flozell at right tackle? Will Max Starks’ neck and back be healthy enough for 16 games on the left side? Who in God’s name are they plugging in at right guard this week? Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of opportunity for some young talent to step up. Hills, who is heading into his fourth season, has yet to validate the belief that he was a steal in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. If he can put it all together, he could lock down a tackle spot if Starks’ issues return. Scott navigated a bit of a lost rookie season to earn a roster spot after spending six weeks on the team’s PUP list. The right guard position has been a revolving door and no one excelled in the spot last season. Second-round rookie Marcus Gilbert’s development will be slowed by the lockout troubles, meaning Scott will have a legitimate chance to impress in his second season and capitalize on one of the offense’s true open starting positions.

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